No, Analyzing The Gender Politics Of ‘Grand Theft Auto V’–Or Anything Else–Isn’t ‘Unprofessional’


Credit: IGN

Over at Medium, Fruzsina Eördögh takes on the reaction to Carolyn Petit’s review of Grand Theft Auto V at GameSpot, and by extension, a new frontier in the attempts to marginalize feminist analysis of popular culture by calling it “unprofessional”:

The kindest criticisms of Petit’s review are that it is “unprofessional” and has “a political agenda,” while the worst have taken to mocking her for being trans and starting petitions to get her fired. All this because she docked the game a single point: it still got a 9/10. One point isn’t usually something to get up in arms about, but in this case it is because Petit’s reasons were personal, say the critics. The basic argument of the angry gamer is that a review is no place for Petit to point out aspects of the game that made her uncomfortable. Who cares if women will be offended, yet again, by a GTA game… that’s not the point of a game review.

Actually yes, it is. It is Petit’s job as a video game reviewer to make observations about video games — whether it is gameplay, story or graphics — and to praise and/or offer criticism accordingly to inform the reader to the best of her ability. It would be unprofessional for Petit to not mention the sexism she found in the game. As someone who dealt with domestic and gun violence as a little girl, I now know to avoid this game, like all other GTA games (and all of Rockstar Games library, actually), because it will make me uncomfortable. Other men and women not interested in a testosterone-fueled fantasy will know to avoid this game too.

I’m glad to see Eördögh point out the narrowness of the assumption that all consumers, even ones who consume material in the same genre, have the same needs and priorities. If we’re thinking of reviews as purely service journalism that help readers decide what to consume or not to consume, it’s genuinely a service to gamers who might be fine shooting zombies or aliens, but who aren’t comfortable with more realistic scenarios of violence against women, to let them know that this is a title with an endgame they might not enjoy. Just because you have different preferences and are looking for different information in a gaming review doesn’t mean that someone who is serving a different need is being unprofessional. It means you’re uncomfortable with the existence of preferences that aren’t yours, and with the information that gets raised in the process of meeting them.

And even more broadly, the Grand Theft Auto franchise is one of the offerings that’s most invoked in the argument that video games deserve to be treated seriously as art, because it has deeply-developed worlds, beautiful graphics, and a sophisticated if often ugly morality that mirrors the work being done in, for example, anti-hero television. If criticism is meant to determine the bounds of the canon, to map artistic trends and consider the reactions to them among consumers, and to push art to be better, then taking the ideas in art seriously is one of the highest forms of demonstrating respect for the world. If I’m supposed to treat Grand Theft Auto like an artistic accomplishment rather than a consumer product, then of course I’m going to ask questions about how how it balances our respect for its characters’ competence and the way we’re supposed to react to how the game asks us to deploy that competence, in the same way I’d interrogate how Breaking Bad succeeds at teaching us how to see Walter White. If I’m supposed to take Grand Theft Auto‘s world-building seriously, doesn’t that include thinking through what its creators have chosen to include in that world, and how they’ve chosen to establish its norms, much in the same way I’d ponder the way Game of Thrones handles sexual assault? And if Grand Theft Auto makes Carolyn Petit uncomfortable but still is incredibly impressive and compelling to her, doesn’t that speak to the overall power of the creation?

The idea that politics and art occupy spheres that are hermetically sealed off from each other is so naive that I feel like I shouldn’t have to address it here, but I will, anyway. The reason violence against women shows up in the Grand Theft Auto franchise repeatedly is political: shooting, beating, or injuring women is a transgressive act, and part of the point of the games is to examine how easily players step into behavior that they understand to deviate from societal norms. If, as a society, we agreed that violence against women was morally neutral, or even acceptable if the bitch seemed to be asking for it, then violence against women wouldn’t be a repeated motif in the franchise, much in the same way that Grand Theft Auto itself wouldn’t be transgressive or interesting at all if we lived in an anarchic, Randian dystopia where economic transactions were conducted purely by force. If the point of a piece of art is to stretch and break norms, then discussing those norms, why they exist, and what we feel when we step over them is an entirely logical place for conversation about that art to go.

It’s always fascinating to me when consumers react to criticism as if its sole purpose is to provide some sort of affirmation that a work is good in exactly the way a given consumer believes it to be, and not to spark any further discussion. Suggesting that a piece of work isn’t worthy of further discussion has always seemed to me to be a way of saying that it’s not actually very rich or very interesting. And insisting that a creator’s work can’t possibly be improved on in any way often seems like a way of saying you don’t expect much from a creator you claim to respect–there are obvious pinnacles in artists’ careers, but not everything you like has to be an unparalleled work of genius in order for you to like it. I understand not wanting to face up to your complicated feelings about difficult art–you’re talking to a woman who spent a bunch of time in the fetal position after last week’s Breaking Bad before peeling herself upright to go write about it. But complaining that other people are unprofessional for making you feel uncomfortable is the exact opposite of the moral sophistication that you’re supposed to demonstrate by occupying an anti-hero’s head for an hour or two.