by Philip Wythe

As Grand Theft Auto V approaches a Steam release, gamers have continued to question whether the series will implement a female protagonist. Some fans have argued for a Bonnie-and-Clyde storyline, while others still believe the series should only have male protagonists. This week, we explore some of GTA’s history with female characters, and how a female protagonist would fit well for the open-world franchise.

In early 2015, Rockstar Games is scheduled to re-release the immensely popular Grand Theft Auto V onto PC. Rockstar’s long-awaited Steam version features a brand new first-person view, which utilizes high-end graphics in order to portray Los Santos and Blaine County with immersive detail.

However, GTA V’s PC release follows only shortly after a much larger debate in the gaming industry about GTA’s misogynistic content, after an anti-sexual violence petition led Target Australia and Kmart Australia to pull the game from stores shelves. While some gamers protested the decision, writers such as Polygon’s Colin Campbell have simultaneously rejected in-store removal, while defending the original petitioners’ concerns about misogynistic content.

GTA’s relationship with women has indeed been an ongoing issue over the past two decades. Last year, The Guardian’s Matt Hill hosted an interview with Rockstar Games’ co-founder and head writer, Dan Houser, in which Hill asked Houser about the lack of a female protagonist within GTA V. Houser originally responded, “The concept of being masculine was so key to this story,” disappointing many gamers hoping for a female protagonist.

Houser later expanded on Gamespot, stating, “… it’s one of the things that we always think about.” He argued that a female protagonist “didn’t feel natural for this game,” suggesting that a woman player character was “definitely for the right game in the future–with the right themes, it could be fantastic.”

Indeed, gamers have been wondering for ages whether Rockstar will finally design a female protagonist. The original Grand Theft Auto, released in 1997, featured four women playable characters – each from a variety of races and ethnicities. Since ‘97, the series hasn’t returned to women protagonists at all. And, as GTA V has reintroduced multiple protagonists into the series, many fans were disappointed to find that all three player options were male. Although Michael, Franklin, and Trevor are interesting and complex characters, the lack of gender diversity felt jarring.

When Houser notes that a female protagonist needs to “feel natural for [the] game” he’s largely correct. The right game requires the right protagonist, and creating a game setting which organically supports the player character is important for a strong narrative.

Yet, as GTA’s writers and developers have moved onto more mature and serious narrative themes, Grand Theft Auto certainly feels long overdue for a strong female protagonist. Rockstar’s 2004 rendition, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, took a critical view at Los Angeles gang violence and police corruption in the early 1990s. And 2008’s GTA IV touched on American socioeconomic class, wartime trauma, and class mobility in New York life.

Some fans have argued in the past that a woman protagonist would not necessarily “fit” into Grand Theft Auto’s world, suggesting that male protagonists are integral to GTA’s atmosphere and story. However, Grand Theft Auto’s core narrative themes – ambition, power, socioeconomic class, and cultural satire – are thematic concerns which a variety of female characters explore in the series alone. In GTA IV, socioeconomic oppression deeply affects Roman Bellic’s fiancé, Mallorie Bardas, who has a sexual affair with Russian mobster Vlad Glebov in order to settle Roman’s mafia debts. And women characters such as Candy Suxxx and Mercedes Cortez have examined sex work, and satirized the pornographic film industry in the process. Indeed, Grand Theft Auto’s maturing view at American society and culture means the series must seriously tackle women’s experiences in the American criminal world.

The idea of a female protagonist is not particularly foreign to fans, either. For years, gamers have been wondering whether a female protagonist would enter the series – and how she would appear. Some fans have suggested that a former sex worker would be an interesting protagonist; others note that an ex-FBI agent, military veteran, or police officer would provide an interesting backstory. Another recurring suggestion among fans is a Bonnie-and-Clyde storyline, between a male and female bank robbing couple. This idea seems to fit perfectly alongside GTA V’s introduction of multiple player characters, and even harkens back to GTA 3’s main antagonist – Catalina, leader of the Colombian Cartel, and ex-girlfriend of protagonist Claude Speed.

Likewise, GTA’s audience isn’t universally masculine. According to NPR, approximately 15% of GTA V’s fans are women gamers. Writers for Jezebel and Mashable alike have praised the game’s core gameplay, while also simultaneously critiquing its representation of women. Grand Theft Auto certainly does appeal to women gamers, and feminist critique of the series largely rests on its presentation of women characters – not, per say, its sprawling open-world gameplay. After all, a variety of open-world games with women characters – such as Saints Row, Assassin’s Creed Liberation, Fallout, Dragon Age, and DayZ – have been applauded for their engaging gameplay and freedom of choice, whether good or bad. Feminist concerns with GTA lie specifically with the series’ characterization and representation of women, not the game’s freedom of choice.

Needless to say, adding a woman protagonist into GTA VI does not inherently fix the series’ ongoing issues with misogyny – of which, might I add, would take an entire separate article to discuss. Indeed, many critics have noted that GTA V has serious problems with sexual objectification, transphobia, transmisogyny, shallow female characterization, male-dependent character relationships, and misogynistic humor that punches downwards onto marginalized genders. Among a plethora of other concerns.

Yet, a strong female character would be the right step for the series, and would demonstrate that the studio is working more towards creating satirical narratives that have an active role for women characters. Indeed, Rockstar’s writing team has constantly shown that they are capable of writing complex and nuanced male characters who deal with serious social, cultural, and political themes within the United States. So why not complex and nuanced women protagonists, too? Ultimately, a strong female protagonist is important for GTA’s future – the real question is whether Rockstar is up to the task.

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