Is the GTA V Prostitution Scene Sexist?
It seems to be the cool new thing to be offended over video games, specially over sexual content represented in video games, and the latest bout of outrage comes addressed towards the latest remake in the always notorious series of Grand Theft Auto games, GTA V for the PS 4 and other 8th gen consoles. This outrage finds its roots in a scene that players have the option of participating in where they pick up a prostitute and engage in sex. This is something that has existed at least since GTA 3, and that was certainly present in the 7th generation releases of GTA V. Because now the game is experienced in first person, however, many consider it problematic. This outrage also comes in the heels of heated discussions regarding sexism in the content of games – a discussion which was largely prompted in the mainstream by Anita Sarkeesian’s video series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games.
I am hesitant to say that the medium of video games are inherently sexist because I subscribe to Oscar Wilde’s ideas regarding books. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde writes that “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” By extrapolation, one could also say that there are no moral or immoral games, just well designed / written or poorly designed / written ones (with the question of morality, of course, being representative of sex and gender issues). However, this does not mean that video games cannot represent situations, characters, or events that can be considered as sexist (or racist or whatever) by the viewer. Indeed, it is unquestionable that the claim that video games can be interpreted as being sexist has a lot of merit to it, and the application of this question to the GTA V first person sex scenes is not at all unwarranted. I won’t go into a long discussion of what can be considered as sexist, as a short blog post is nowhere near appropriate for such definitions. Neither will I use a broad brush and deem anything that anyone might find offensive as sexist. Instead, I will propose what I feel is a short common-sense definition of what might be considered as a sexist element in a game. I will then move on to issues of representation, and then finally, with a framework at our disposal, I will tackle the issue of sexism in the GTA V first person prostitution sex scenes.
In a game, something sexist can be considered as something (a situation, a visual, a narrative turn, a rule, etc) that works differently for female characters than for male characters, or a depiction, behavior, or reaction (etc) that a character may take or have, that would be considered preposterous under the represented event and that is created only to draw attention to the character’s gender characteristics. What does this mean? It means that “female armor” is sexist. In a world where there is full plate, no warrior would go into a battle sporting a metallic bra and iron panties. It means that the outfit of the protagonist in X-Blades is sexist – no dungeon explorer or adventurer would go monster hunting in short shorts and a bra. However, within the context of Lollipop Chainsaw, it could be argued that Juliet’s cheerleading costume is not sexist. Yes, there’s a zombie outbreak and she’s fighting zombies in a cheerleading costume, but the zombie outbreak caught her at the school where she is a member of the cheerleading team. The Dead or Alive costumes are unequivocally sexist both on male and female characters, as women martial artists don’t fight in bathing suits, men martial artists don’t fight in thongs. However, the case could be made that its offshoot beach volleyball game actually features characters in context-appropriate context, as people do play beach volleyball in their bathing suits and do lounge around the pool in bikinis. It means that in a game, if one gender levels up at a faster rate than the other, or that all things being equal a character of one gender will gain higher stats than another and this is not justified through the game’s narrative, said mechanic can be considered as sexist.
NOTE: The above paragraph does not attempt to make a value judgment as to the usefulness of these depictions in games, nor is it making any claims regarding the effects of such depiction on the player. Those are questions best addressed in lengthy academic studies. It is simply setting one standard for what will be considered as sexist for this specific post and showing examples.
This takes us to the issue of representation in art (yes, I see games as art), which I will frame using Aristotle’s concept of mimesis. Art, Aristotle argued, attempts to imitate reality. Good art imitates reality well. Since then there have been a lot of qualifiers and schools of thought as to what makes good art, but let’s focus on what the core message of Aristotle’s notion is – art depicts reality. If we look at games with this in mind, then we need to take a more nuanced view and consider which elements are mimetic (mechanics, visual, narrative) and whether the things being represented are consistent with what is being represented. Another school of thought suggests that if one can suspend disbelief and become immersed in art, then that art has been successful. If we take this to games, then it means that games with rules and worlds and narrative that are self-contained can be considered as good art. and become immersed in art, then that art has been successful. If we take this to games, then it means that games with rules and worlds and narrative that are self-contained can be considered as good art.
What does this have to do with GTA V?
GTA V attempts to replicate and represent the experience of the criminal underground. It invites the player to take on the role of a criminal and, within the safe confines of a virtual space, behave as a criminal would. If one looks at reality, prostitution is a large fixture of the criminal world (and in many cases of the mainstream world at large, but that’s beside the point). In GTA V, the player can, within the confines of the virtual space, steal, murder, and engage in prostitution. Now consider the real world.
Now consider the real world. In the real world, people can steal, murder, and engage in prostitution. However, for most of us, the rewards don’t nearly compensate for the risk. In the real world, if you steal, you will likely get arrested. If you murder, you will likely get caught and put to death. If you engage in prostitution, you could end up being killed or arrested. The risk of harm to life and freedom are inherently true. And in GTA V the same is partially true. When you rob or steal or murder or whatever, the cops get on high alert and hunt you down. And sure, the game has mechanics by which to escape detection, but these kinds of compromises between game and reality are expected, as technology doesn’t yet have the ability to fully replicate reality. However, as technology has advanced, so have attempts at imitating reality. GTA III brought us a 3D world, moving away from the more fictional 2D top down view of the previous titles. GTA IV brought us more realistic depictions of people, GTA V gave us even more realism, and the GTA V 8th gen remake further that realism by placing the player in the shoes of the character. Now the player doesn’t control the characters, the player IS the characters.
This brings us to the question at hand – is the controversial sex scene in GTA V inherently sexist?
I would argue that it really depends on who you are and what your views on prostitution are. Prostitution is something that has existed for as long as there has been human history (and likely before that). It is something that people can’t decide if it’s empowering or demeaning, if it should be legal or not. Whatever your views on prostitution are, however, one thing remains true – prostitution exists. It exists in America, it exists in major cities and in small towns, and most unquestionably it exists in many places as part of the criminal ecosystem.
If GTA V is in fact representing the ecosystem of a criminal space, then the inclusion of a prostitution event cannot be considered as sexist. It would be sexist if you could play as a female character and her only available attire was a bikini (no one wears a bikini in the middle of a major city, let alone when committing a crime), but the game showing prostitution is not a sexist act, it is a mimetic one. Certainly one could argue about whether prostitution itself is sexist or not, and no doubt those who say that prostitution is sexist will say that prostitution in GTA V is sexist and those who don’t see it as sexist will say that it’s not.
And that’s fine.
Whatever opinions you have on prostitution are your own, and I will not attempt to make a claim about it one way or another. What I will state, however, is that the inclusion of a prostitution scene in GTA V is not sexist, it is mimetic – it is representing reality in as close a way as it can. There can be an argument to be made that the lack of male prostitutes is sexist, as there are also male prostitutes in real life, however the question of lack of equal gender representation in prostitution is a different one from the inclusion of the act itself.
So in the end, is the inclusion of the GTA V prostitution scene sexist? Not really. Is it crude? Yes. Is it in poor taste? Absolutely. Is it uncomfortable to watch? Unquestionably. Is it offensive to some? Of course. But is its inclusion in a game about the criminal underworld inherently sexist? I’m not so sure. However, the reality that it represents might be, and it is that reality, not the art that makes representations of it, what one should question. After all, “there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all” (Oscar Wilde).