It is a common criticism, and a deservedly fair one, that Grand Theft Auto's treatment and objectification of women is pretty poor in a time where women make up over 50 percent of gamers. Anita Sarkeesian is completely right in her appraisal of non-playable women as background decoration designed for titillation. But I'm looking at non-playable characters that aren't just placed as misogynistic power-up fodder. Whatever the encouragement, a game's permission for you to act on such things as exploitation, prostitution, objectification and violent dehumanisation isn't a free pass for you to do so. That's your prerogative as a player, or an arsehole.
For all of Grand Theft Auto V's lampooning of West Coast/American culture, its obvious pastiches and satirical swipes, there isn't an excuse offered as to why stronger and more realistic/feminist characters don't feature in its world besides all the piss taking. But what if I told you, while it's probably unintentional, that there is one in GTA V, namely Amanda De Santa, wife of Michael De Santa, one of the game's three playable protagonists.
On the face of it, Amanda has led quite a nice life, one of Californian opulence and sunshine with a seemingly endless supply of money to help enhance her wardrobe, furnishings and body. Yet the game's story tries to say that this isn't enough for her. Her husband's inability to stem his early retirement boredom with anything except infidelity, violence and alcohol has led to her own perceived infidelity with a vast array of Hollywood housewife clichés, and turning to shoplifting in order to get any excitement out of life.
Two of those words echo with me: cliché and housewife. And they draw me to a book called The Feminine Mystique. Even if you haven't heard of its author Betty Friedan, you're probably aware of the message of her work thanks to Mad Men character Betty Draper (a name possibly inspired by the writer). It was the very real subterfuge of reversing feminist psychology in the 1950s United States that led to a nation of baby booming housewives. More accurately, it attempted to return women to a domestic role post-World War II, and allow masculine dominance to reign over employment and discourse. An entire generation of well-educated women were successfully coerced in to submissive roles and many became disillusioned with life without being exactly sure why. Friedan called this "the problem that has no name".
Friedan properly realised this problem when she surveyed the women at her college reunion. All of them were educated, yet had abandoned any real drive or desire to forge their own destiny, instead deferring to the search, mostly successfully, for a promising man to have a family with and to live beside as a doting housewife. This reversal of attitude occurred some five years after World War II where women, still full of vigour from the social battles they'd already won, played a vital role in the war effort and became an essential and equal people in American workplaces.
Amanda and Michael argue about Trevor showing up, and then do some yoga.
But as the men returned from war and found their places in society threatened, a concerted effort was made to readdress this balance. The US media of the time glamorised the housewife lifestyle, with magazines systematically reducing all of their content to a "Happy Housewife Heroine" theme, turning "career woman" into a dirty phrase. In just ten years, the American media and commercialism had shifted a lot of women to purely domestic positions and, for the most part, they went along with it, falsely considering it their duty. This led to confusion, silent suffering and depression en masse in women, dismissed with medication and fruitless counselling.
Amanda De Santa, originally Amanda Townley, is quite similar to the women surveyed and studied for The Feminine Mystique: she is coerced in to marital and social solitude, sacrificing independence for security. Her husband's life of crime allowed her to move on from the low-paid adult dancer and sex worker that the game's narrative infers she was prior to Michael's bigger-money mischief. But then, she was suddenly uprooted from whatever life she had made for herself, whatever education or means that she had, and forced to live in witness protection thanks to her husband's FIB (the game's version of the FBI) dealings. So, much like her contemporaries of 50 years ago, she was given no choice but to live as a homemaker, raise the kids, and be happy that her family had all it needed to get by financially.
Of course, the reality is that Friedan's unnamed problem has affected her. She's found herself rather cognitively in a situation that she never envisioned and, thanks to several years of societal anarchy and marital woe (Michael's psychology sessions provide us insights into his infidelity and alcohol problems, as does Trevor's unreliable narration), she reacts in the only way she knows how, which leads to her and Michael's separation. She enters into affairs with various men who prey on her vulnerability, and goes looking for a shred of independence in the only way she supposedly could with shoplifting, medication and fruitless counselling. She is by no means the perfect housewife that the 1950s America tried to make everyone become – instead, she remains very human.
By now you might be wondering why am I comparing a present-day character to tropes and writings from half a century ago. Surely Grand Theft Auto has just taken a fairly old and tired cliché of a female character and ran balls first into it. This is all just a hackneyed stereotype that is out-dated, and the feminist commentators are right to criticise the game's makers, Rockstar, for it. Right? Of course they are, but there are further levels to this. Years of masculine dominance in the public and commercial discourse have bred this subjugation, and it feels like the post-war attitude evident in the States is returning.
Actor Mark Ruffalo (Hulk in the The Avengers movies) recently published a blog post criticising women who were against feminism. In it he remarked upon women biting "the hand that has fed [them] freedom, safety, and a voice". Ruffalo lists many of the historical events in which women fought for these freedoms. Maybe our live-for-now modern mantra doesn't have the time to look back and realise how different things were not too long ago, or maybe the freedoms achieved inadvertently allow for the choice to not be a feminist. This is not to say that you can't do that and be happy, or that Ruffalo is anyone to tell you otherwise. The freedom of this choice is a freedom in itself, but only if it is a choice, and not just assumed by a cultural rhetoric.
GTA V and Amanda De Santa live in a world of commercial excess and celebrity geared towards the pleasure of men. TV, the internet and years of cultural commentary has informed how she should feel and, much like the 1950s, her choices are only as limited as the media she's consumed in the satire. The advertising has evolved, but the rhetoric remains the same. So what if we try to make an entire gender self-subjugate in order to make more money? Let's light a cigar at the old boys' club and quaff brandy over our discussion of emerging markets while we force your wife to learn 14 different types of yoga in order to achieve an orgasm.
Amanda has her yoga instructor and the knowledge that she can pretty much have anything, but she also realises it's under the duress of her situation. While you play the game, you do feel sorry for her, but not for the obvious reasons. You feel, as you are intended to, bad about the break-up of her marriage to Michael and the stagnant nature of the couple's lives. But the reasons why this has happened are buried underneath, connected to cultural and social forces that exist both inside and out of the game.
'GTA V''s music is pretty rad, and if it's music you want: Noisey
This is very dependent on how you read the character of Amanda De Santa, and she's obviously written to highlight the calamitous effects on Michael's personal life. However, she isn't the only character that falls into this patriarchal mystique. Her daughter, Tracey De Santa, spends the entire game trying to sexually objectify herself for fame after being actively and continuously encouraged to do so. Franklin's aunt Denise Clinton actively embarks on what is seen as a "new age feminist" discovery, parodying the many suggestions our own print and television media try to impart on women, yet the ends seem more imprisoning than liberating. Debra, a career lawyer whose work involves lots of travel, is constantly perceived to be a controlling and manipulative influence that has emasculated her partner, Floyd Hebert, and is demonised for doing so.
Yet if video games are art then we must be able to criticise and analyse their characters as openly and broadly as books, television or film. Hopefully this can lead to some much-needed debate both, critical and constructive. So in that regard, I'm saying Rockstar have, inadvertently, given us a character that epitomises and highlights a significant, real undercurrent of a society so convinced of its freedom by commercial messaging that it's freely, and dangerously, restricting its own gender equality. Much like Betty Draper, Amanda De Santa could be the most modern interpretation of the problem – not without a name, but rather with one widely forgotten.
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