Not Funny! - How Not Every Part of GTA5's Satire Works Quite So Flawlessly

Ian Miles Cheong takes GTA 5's attempts at "satire" to task.

by on 23rd Sep, 2013

Grand Theft Auto 5 is out. It’s hit the stores, and apropos to nothing, it’s earned itself over a billion dollars in revenue. As with the rest of the series, it’s lauded as one of the pinnacles in video game craftsmanship and a great work of satire. As it stands, it is one of the most (financially) successful parodies of modern life. A critique of contemporary American culture. But these are buzzwords—stuff that the marketing department at Rockstar wants you to see the game as. It’s hard to see how well the game holds up as an actual work of satire. Of course, there’s terror warnings, an analog for Fox News, a satirical take on the Church of Scientology, the FBI government agency, and other low-hanging fruit. 

However when it comes to this grand sweeping satire, not every single streak of it is actually successful as such. GTA 5 doesn't remove aspects of misogyny and other forms of bigotry. It amplifies them. As social commentary, the game falls flat on its face. Instead of telling a joke, it goes straight to the punchline. Much of it is controversial for the sake of controversy.

I'm not saying the game should gloss over these aspects or even refuse to parody them, but GTA 5 missteps by providing little in the way of balance. Some aspects are magnified (as satire ought to be)—but only to a point. Feminism, like the stuff practiced by Franklin's crazy aunt, is depicted as radical—she's pro-woman, not pro-equality. Such people exist in real life, but to satirize an already marginalized cause is to make fun of it and nothing more. An approach like this bears no redeeming qualities. 

Feminism in GTA 5, like the infamous torture scene, and violence in general, is portrayed in such a way that the people who play the game will tend to take it seriously. Due to the deadbeat portrayals in the game, those things barely register as satire to most player—that is unless they wish to defend some part of it on the internet’s foul mouthed comment sections. 

How effective a satire can GTA 5 be when half the population—e.g. women—are little more than window dressing to the male protagonists and their counterparts? The female characters in the game are nice to have around, to use, to interact with, like objects. They have no agency. They are never really characters—never really actors. 

While it would have certainly helped this cause had GTA 5 had a playable woman character among the three leads—the game is set in Rockstar’s alternate version of southern California, so it’s not too hard to imagine a Michelle Rodriguez-type character—this wasn’t even the greatest oversight on the developers’ side. For a start, it would have just been a good thing to populate the game’s story with able, competent—or competently failing, as so many of GTA’s catalog of characters—women. Alongside equally enabled men. 

Much of the game plays out like a sociopath's wet dream. By and large, it’s too close to the real world for comfort. Or rather, the portrayal of women in the game is too close to the un-ironical handling of women characters in way too many completely un-satirical media. From commercials to prime-time TV shows. By and large the handling of women reflects a how poorly the designers seem to think of a large part of their audience. What’s satirical about that?  

Seb Wuepper contributed to this piece.

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