A pretty blonde mob princess, bound and gagged, is taken kicking and screaming raw-throated curses out of the trunk of the player's car. Tied to a chair in the hideout of the gangsters who hold her hostage, the player's asked to snap a photo to send to her Mafia father.
She screams muffled protests through the rag between her lips, the image on the camera phone screen reflecting her tormented, terrified eyes. As the player centres her face in the frame, she offers a desperate moan, a wracked sob.
"Smile for daddy," the player tells her.
Is Grand Theft Auto IV an expression of hate towards women? Are those who enjoy it misogynists?
Feminist interest blog Feministing certainly thinks so - though not because of this mission scene from later in the game. At the time of GTA IV's launch, Feministing poster Samhita came across a video called "Ladies of Liberty City: Very Bad Things," created by IGN. The video featured sequences of the game edited together by IGN, and all of these sequences depicted violence, with sexual overtones, toward the prostitutes and strippers in the game - such as soliciting a prostitute and then running her over with your car to get your money back.
Feministing's Samhita was offended, and excoriated the game for what she called its "blatant violence and misogyny displayed towards women."
Before we address an argument to her statement, it's necessary first to pick out a few serious flaws in her opinion of the game.
First, she referred to IGN's video as a "trailer" for the game, which it was not, of course, being that it was neither produced, publicised or sanctioned by the title's developer, Rockstar, and was not intended to be used as advertisement nor representation of the game. The development of that video was entirely the doing of IGN, who when questioned by MTV Multiplayer's Stephen Totilo, admitted it "messed up," and removed the video, whose caption had read: "Grab a cup of hot coffee and enjoy the working girls of the city."
If Samhita of Feministing was unaware enough of the game industry to know the difference between a game's trailer and its official promotion, one could certainly argue that she was unqualified to criticise the game. Unfortunately, though, only a very small percentage of the world is especially educated on video games, and the majority of attacks on the medium come from the outside looking in. With that in mind, a hearty portion of the blame for this misunderstanding is squarely on the shoulders of IGN, who should have known better, to say the very least.
Who's Raising Our Kids?
Beginning with this misconception, Samhita, who hadn't played the game, expressed concern that young men might be having their first sexual experiences with women in GTA IV's prostitute-populated, violent city streets and strip clubs.
Because the modern school system encourages memorising information to regurgitate it, discouraging creative analysis, Samhita argued that young boys playing GTA IV would not only be introduced to negative stereotypes of female sexuality through the game, but would also lack the critical thinking skills to understand that they were not being "trained" in a value system.
"It can be argued that they are being force fed heavily marketed violent images (that often reflect the violence in the media, movies, government policy and in their own communities) that become normalised. And not only normalised, but given the popular nature of GTA, it is cool to be violent and kill prostitutes."
It's a common position, and even a viable one, that media today and the ready access to information may desensitise not only young people, but adults of all ages and creeds to heavy violence and sexual themes. But are children really "force-fed" any sort of entertainment, implying that there is no choice? If media really is the sole determiner of children's values, I'm afraid we've got a bigger problem than a violent video game.
Does Samhita suggest that parents have no power to create what's "normalized" for their children? Assuming such a lack of influence on the part of mothers is at least as misogynistic as any entertainment medium.
And even so - let's pretend a moment that it's possible for media to single-handedly ruin our youth. Even then, how can Samhita place blame on a title that, at the time she leveled her critique, had been on store shelves for a single day? One that she never even played?
Of course, Samhita is neglecting the most essential point of all - Grand Theft Auto IV is not a game for children, period.
Those Virgin Eyes
After being evaluated by several ratings organizations worldwide, the game was assigned a "mature" rating - this is 17+ in the United States and 18 in Europe and the United Kingdom. Moreover, the ESRB has repeatedly urged consumers to use the ratings as a guide, and that the word "mature" in the ratings is equally as important as the number.
In other words, this game is not intended to be played by curious youth about to get their first look at a pair of boobs, Samhita.
Ironically, by the way, Feministing used the Australian box shot of that region's heavily-edited version of GTA IV - with the "15+" rating sticker clear in the image.
Technicalities aside, Samhita's post went on to wonder why "a game that depicts such violence towards women [is]so popular," and asked, "How is that acceptable?"
To be fair, this is a more challenging question. In its eagerness to defend gaming, the game community has repeatedly stressed that GTA IV neither forces nor explicitly rewards you for engaging in prostitution, violence towards women, or random acts of brutality. But it would be untruthful on our part to say that anyone plays GTA IV primarily for its engrossing story, its flawless driving mechanics or its watertight gameplay.
We play it to wreak mayhem, so let's just admit it. Maybe then, we can finally stop feeling guilty.
GTA IV, at its core, is not a violence simulator, nor a gripping television drama, nor a camp comedy - rather, it's all of these, presented as an essay on freedom of behaviour, a fantasy world where morality is suspended, subjective or selective. What we do in that fantasy world says something about us as a society, about the state of the real world, rather than being a blatant advertisement for the innate immorality of entertainment.
Rockstar's Dan Houser recently told Playboy in an interview:
"We're trying to give gamers freedom. It boils down to critics not liking the fact that people can choose to do 'bad' things in a fantasy world - which to me is silly."
Even Samhita admits that violent media is merely a reflection of a violent world. In that respect, GTA IV is merely truthful, an unwillingness to avoid the ugliest aspects of society. Instead of avoiding them, it embraces them, a poignant satire of those truths. Why is Samhita so incensed that players in the game can visit seedy, low-lit and vaguely gross strip clubs, when those things are actually plentiful in reality?
And in real world strip clubs, the women choose to put their flesh on display. You can assume, then, that the digital women have elected to be there, also. Although not everyone always makes ideal choices for their lives, and many women become sex workers out of desperate e conomic circumstances, still more appreciate burlesque as an art and embrace the work they do.
And to Samhita's quintessential argument - that a game that makes this behaviour possible is "misogynistic"?
Freedom And Equality For All
As a mirror of society at its worst, no one is spared the harsh lens in the game. Rarely are any of the game's characters portrayed in a favourable light, and it presents in fact a level playing field - the men are as mad for their addictions and bloodlust as the women are. And if any of the characters are likeable, it's because of empathy - or pity - for the nature of their human failings.
In fact, one of the game's more powerful drug barons is the full-figured, fierce and feared Elizabeta, whose treatment is no more or less gentle than her male counterparts. Equality abounds. Yes, GTA IV is hostile to women. It's hostile to everyone.
To call misogyny here is divisive, actually, implying that the treatment of women needs to be elevated above the treatment of any other group - as if "woman" were a separate, special "race" with a unified mind. We aren't, thank you.
In fact, with all due respect for the feminist community, demand for that sort of favoritism seems to breed resentment - perhaps even the very resentment that GTA IV provides the framework to explore. Just who are those large-breasted logo silhouettes on Feministing's website supposed to be giving the middle finger to, anyway?
The imagery of the blond mafia princess held hostage is disturbing - but no more so than the scenes from film, television and novels with which humankind has been fascinated for centuries, dating even further back than the dramatic works of the ancient Greeks. These things don't begin with GTA IV, not by a long shot. And to argue that mankind (and not merely "men") have no right to the dark fantasies the game allows us to examine is painfully naïve.
And GTA IV earns praise above all for delivering that playground in which to explore and reflect on our baser ideas, even those we don't necessarily embrace in our real lives. It does appeal to misogynists, who would have espoused those philosophies with or without a video game, and to those who choose to focus only on the grossest elements. In IGN's "citizenmike"'s flippant defense of the IGN "Ladies of Liberty City" video, he wrote:
"GTA games, ultimately, want players to shoot innocent people. It's one of the core tenants of the game design. In fact, GTA games fail in entirety if you try to play them without some degree of moral depravity."
I think Rockstar's core tenet, actually, is to force people to consider moral depravity, not to beg them to embrace it. And that's why GTA IV appeals to the socially curious and the civil-minded, too - all of whom tire of having their intentions assumed, and of being told they've no right to their entertainment by those who haven't even bothered to try it.