By Erik and Gaines
Ever since Grand Theft Auto V’s (GTA 5) release, there have been a series of blog posts concerning the deviant and aberrant behavior one can engage in within the game. Topics of discussion have ranged from the ease of initiating sexual encounters with strippers to the rampant misogyny found within the game’s world. Overall, these criticisms are largely correct: it is very easy to have sexual encounters with prostitutes; the game is plagued with misogynistic moments; and the in-game violence does present itself as the easy solution to all problems.
There has also been criticism about whether or not these events represent a satire of everyday American life, or if they are merely gratuitous in nature. However, we would like to argue that, for satire, parody, and meaning-making to emerge, an internally consistent world is necessary where violence and misogyny become the norm to be reproduced rather than that which must be evaded. GTA 5 immerses players in an internally-consistent world that demands a complex and thick analysis.
In case you missed it, GTA 5 was released, and it is terribly misogynistic, violent, and vulgar. Carolyn Petit at Gamespot.com wrote an excellent review of the game, and the gamer-cum-comment culture responded with what’s become a predictably sexist response. Some say it needed a female character, and, by the way, it did. Some play it as a grotesquerie for which the dominant concern is whether or not it wasted the player’s time, and, by the way, it is grotesque and can be played as a grotesquerie. Far from being apologetic, we’re saying that a nuanced critique of GTA5 as a satire exists, and it lies between the “unnecessary strain of misogynistic nastiness running through it” or “lazy misogyny” and “all the game does is reinforce and celebrate sexism.”
We’ve also heard that GTA 5 is not a satire, but it is a failed satire. We’ve heard that GTA 5 is not critical – let alone provocative. And, we’ve heard that only apologists call it satire. Satire, though, is a complex and confusing thing. The apologists that Anjin Anhut calls out for defusing misogyny with satire do not understand satire. Claiming GTA 5 is not satire is untenable, but alleging it is a failed satire is tenable. Finally, to be clear, if you think that GTA 5 being satire absolves it of its misogyny, you don’t get it — neither satire nor feminism. So what is satire?
Satire is a text, like a book, movie, television show, or game, that uses irony to set up a target for derision. It requires a satirical text that sets up an ironic appearance of reality and a real target for derisive criticism, but it also needs you. Satire needs you because satire is, most crucially, a way of interpreting or playing.
Let’s try a definition by example: if you are the stereotypical fan of Fox News watching The Colbert Report or the racist in the audience at The Chappelle Show and cannot see the satire of these performances, these performances are not satire. If these performances are satire, you’re hearing and seeing them as satires (of American media and American racism, respectively). That is, you have to be on board with the satire — you have to “get” satire — to get what is a satire and what is being satirized.
For the misogyny apologists: Satire does not let GTA 5 off the hook for its misogyny. The misogyny in GTA 5 happens as part of its ironic representation of the American dream, but GTA 5 doesn’t give us any reason to suspect misogyny as the target of its derision. The misogyny in GTA 5 is lazy, i.e., not developed as a clear target of derision, and unnecessary, i.e., not required to satirize the American dream.
Let me put this another way. Rockstar could have written a satire of the American dream without using misogyny. They didn’t. The game they made is a satire and misogynistic. The game asks you to deride representations of the American dream but not how sexist those representations are. Is the real American dream still wrapped in a patriarchal bow? Yes. But, GTA 5 doesn’t ask you to see that bow for the sexism it is.
The best way to describe GTA 5 would be to say that it is set up as a satirical carnival. The idea of the carnival rotates around grotesque realism, which GTA 5 shows us through its obsession with the few actions you as a player can take in the game, namely kill, die, fuck, eat, drink, and drive. But, this carnival of the seediness of life derides our ideal of the American dream. The characters in GTA 5 don’t know they aren’t real, they don’t know their dream is a wrong dream, they don’t know how to pursue the dream the right way, but we know that (or we should) — this is irony. Our knowledge and self-reflexivity in Los Santos makes it satire.
One of the most common ways a satire reminds us to see it as satire is by using what’s called a “stylistic hook.” Stylistic hooks are a kind of sign post, often as puns, to a satire’s irony. Los Santos is an almost believable city surrounded by a ridiculous media environment. Whether it’s a billboard with a woman’s pelvis advertising “Gusset” or the NASDAQ-turned-BAWSAQ stock exchange website, this is an inescapable media environment that cannot reasonably be believed in a Los Santos that has believable traffic patterns and recognizable socio-economically segregated neighborhoods. This perverse and parodic media environment is the stylistic hook that GTA 5 uses to keep pointing you back towards its social criticism.
The social criticism of GTA 5 is complex and poignant. However, when we talk about social criticism, we look at the narratives that are being deployed, how they are being deployed, and what work they do. In GTA 5, one such narrative is a critique of common representations of the American dream, developed through satire. But, the work this does relies on an appreciation of satirical cultural space developed through gameplay in the Los Santos world.
Within this particular critical framework, Los Santos is a lively cultural place with its own character and rules. Specifically, Los Santos deploys violence as the means through which conflict resolution can and should be enacted. Very few, if any, actions taken in Los Santos possess any kind of morally or ethically redeemable qualities. However, Los Santos as a satirical cultural space enables the deployment of particular cultural archetypes that allow us to reflect upon and question why their everyday life and practices appear to be abhorrent to us.
A useful framework through which this can be understood is that of biopolitics. Coined in the late 1970s by French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault, biopolitics is, simply put, the capacity for any existing system to institutionally produce and reproduce the particular normal human roles and identities that are necessary for the system’s continuation. Originally conceived through a historical study of human sexuality, the framework nonetheless lends itself surprisingly well to the analysis of a multitude of systemic and institutional events.
For example, Trevor can be built up as a pathological character who will go to any lengths to obtain what he desires. Trevor lashes out violently for any and all reasons, sees violence as a sure way to accomplish his goals, and espouses the Los Santos way of life to its fullest. This is exemplified in the numerous missions available to Trevor.
For instance, a mission set available only to Trevor is the rampage. During these events, Trevor becomes enraged and attacks a series of opponents ranging from rednecks, to the military, to cycling hipsters. The rampages are typically initiated when some slight is committed against Trevor who, as a way to settle the dispute, brandishes a weapon and unleashes havoc and destruction upon his surroundings.
Also emblematic of Trevor’s lack of self-control and randomness are the numerous scenes presented to players when switching to Trevor. Amongst the most memorable that we encountered are: Trevor throwing a man over an overpass and into oncoming traffic; a bloodied Trevor wearing only a pair of underwear, socks, and boots, waking up on an island, surrounded by four dead members of a criminal motorcycle gang; an enraged Trevor chasing down three cyclists in his truck; and a confused Trevor telling a bodybuilder that the man had, in fact, stolen Trevor’s underwear. No context is given for any of these scenes, which reinforces the apparent randomness of Trevor’s behaviour.
What positions Trevor as an effective character in defining the world of GTA 5 is that such behaviour, thought morally and ethically reprehensible, nonetheless comes as no surprise. The internal consistency of Los Santos puts players in a position where expendable morality and ethics become the norm. In other words, Trevor Phillips is exactly who we would expect to meet in Los Santos. Far from being pathological, Trevor Phillips represents normality, and that is precisely why he is so effective when it comes to satirizing our own world. He is morally repugnant, yet fits in perfectly in Los Santos. He is the perfect biopolitical citizen produced by Los Santos, a citizen that will ensure that Los Santos’ way of life remains vibrant in the future despite our own moral and ethical quandaries with the presentation of events in the game’s world.
If Trevor is an open book when it comes to Los Santos biopolitics, Michael De Santa is a more nuanced character. Contrary to Trevor, Michael is depicted as the rational criminal, albeit one that is down on his luck. At the start of the game, Michael is directly attempting to leave behind the life of crime that has long followed him. Nevertheless, aspects of his past continue to haunt him.
Again, Los Santos’ biopolitics play a role in shaping Michael’s character. However, they act on Michael in a more insidious manner than they act on Trevor. While Trevor is never conflicted about the life he lives – to the point of repeatedly calling it a life choice – Michael is caught in a double bind he never manages to resolve: He wants to escape the life of crime that has led him to where he is today, yet the only way he knows how to do such a thing is by committing even more crime. For Michael, redemption can only come through accepting his role as a biopolitical citizen, his final escape from a world of crime secured through a massive heist that provides him the promise of security that only criminally obtained money can buy.
However, Michael’s trajectory never takes him far from the ideal Los Santos citizen. For example, during an early mission where Michael must rescue his son from thieves speeding away with Michael’s prized yacht, he readily admits to losing control and reacting out of anger. Similarly, Michael’s children repeatedly emphasize Michael’s reliance on anger as the means through which he communicates.
The game narrative’s solution to Michael’s double bind comes in the form of psychiatric therapy, a solution all too common in our own world. According to the psychiatric narrative found in the game, Michael will be able to leave behind his former life of crime and accumulated guilt only if he’s able to let go of the past. During one session, he is told flatly by his therapist that “remorse is good, but not as good as taking control before you act out.”
However, the game remains consistent biopolitically when the therapist keeps reminding Michael that each session becomes increasingly more expensive, that Michael’s insurance has run out, and that special phone-in or walk-in sessions incur extra costs. And these costs must be covered by Michael, whose only recourse is to fully embrace the life of crime he wishes to leave to gather the funds that will allow him to escape the criminal life he despises. Los Santos’ future is secure.
Of the three playable characters of GTA 5, Franklin Clinton probably is the one about which the least is said. One possible reading of Franklin is that of the typically Grand Theft Auto-series anti-hero, and this reading largely stands up especially when contrasted with characters, such as Trevor and Michael. Franklin’s depiction is remarkably honest. Where Trevor is outrageous and Michael ambivalent, Franklin appears to be normal in almost every way. His turn to crime reflects many of the popular assumptions present in mainstream media concerning the lives of urban African-Americans, which makes him appear realistic when compared to his co-stars.
From a biopolitical perspective, Franklin might well be the most interesting character in GTA 5. Where Los Santos thrives on everyday chaos, Franklin searches for stability. In a city where treachery is the norm, Franklin remains doggedly loyal to his friends Lamar and Tonya in the neighbourhood of Strawberry. When the game world asks the ultimate betrayal of him, Franklin says no and sides against institutionalized and corrupt authority.
However, neither is Franklin free from Los Santos’ biopolitics. Los Santos needs crime and criminals to thrive, and that is exactly what Franklin becomes when he steals and kills his way to success. During the course of the game, Franklin expresses the desire to learn as much as he can from the two more experienced thieves and becomes fully complicit in their crimes. At some point of the game, Franklin even undertakes several assassination missions that result in an ally’s manipulation of the stock market. Make no mistake: Franklin is not a “good” character.
However, contrary to Trevor or Michael, Franklin never fully succumbs to the biopolitical influence of Los Santos. Where Trevor embraces and Michael struggles, Franklin cleverly plays the city against itself. Los Santos is the butt of the joke, and Franklin is the clever trickster who manages to exploit the city’s weaknesses and questionable moral character and is quickly rewarded with a large mansion and an escape from the ghetto life he so despises.
Nowhere is this sense of trickery more evident than during Franklin’s switch scenes. During such scenes, Franklin can be seen walking his dog, engaging in light exercise, eating potato chips or even having breakfast in his kitchen. Franklin’s mundane switch scenes contrast heavily with Trevor’s absurd ones and Michael’s depressive ones. It’s as if Franklin looked Los Santos right in its seedy biopolitical eye and said, “I know what you are, and I’ll even play the game. But only up to a point. And I will win.”
Contrary to Trevor or Michael, Franklin never accepts the crimes he must commit as normal. They are necessary, yes, even desirable, but never normal. And biopolitics is all about the production of normality. And this is where we, as players often fall into the trap. When we dismiss the violence and misogyny in games as trivial because “it’s just a game” or because such behaviour is to be expected in a world such as GTA 5, then we too have been enrolled as biopolitical subjects into Los Santos. When violence and misogyny become our norm, then satire and its messages become impossible to understand.
The misogyny and violence are morally reprehensible and may not be necessary to perform the function, but their presence, nonetheless, allows treating GTA 5 as a thick object deserving of a reading as satire. Satire is at its best when it presents us with an inversion of what we would consider normal behaviour coupled with an internally consistent deployment of biopolitics, and there, GTA 5 succeeds brilliantly.