There’s been a lot of thievery and magicky swordplay going on about what we lovingly refer to as Casa de Pepe the last few weeks as my husband and I immerse ourselves in GTA and The Witcher, respectively. We bought swanky new video cards just for the event and, unusually for us, hide under headphones so we won’t disturb each other’s experience. And, in my case, so I won’t spoil the plot for him when he gets around to Geralt. He doesn’t have the same problem. Because I won’t be playing GTA.
Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency has pretty strong feelings about both. Regarding Witcher 3 she says, “Enemies in Witcher 3 yell gendered insults at the playable female character but insults thrown at the male lead are decidedly not gendered.” Also, she added, “the ‘it’s realistic for enemies to sexually harrass female characters’ excuse is nonsense in fantasy games filled with ghouls and wraiths.”
She has stronger words for GTA San Andreas: “GTA V has little room for women except to portray them as strippers, prostitutes, long-suffering wives, humorless girlfriends and goofy, new-age feminists we’re meant to laugh at. Characters constantly spout lines that glorify male sexuality while demeaning women, and the billboards and radio stations of the world reinforce this misogyny…Yes, these are exaggerations of misogynistic undercurrents in our own society, but not satirical ones. With nothing in the narrative to underscore how insane and wrong this is, all the game does is reinforce and celebrate sexism. The beauty of cruising in the sun-kissed Los Santos hills while listening to ‘Higher Love’ by Steve Winwood turns sour really quick when a voice comes on the radio that talks about using a woman as a urinal.”
Anyone who’s dipped even a toe into either of these franchises knows that they are jaw-droppingly intricate landscapes occupied by, for the most part, the worst humanity has to offer (throw in a soupcon of actual monsters for The Witcher). The Northern Kingdoms and Nilfgaard are peopled with back-stabbing warlords and their sleazy hangers-on, exploited peasantry, buyers and sellers of illegal substances, thieves and murderers plying their trades to get ahead or from bitterness or just because they get a kick out of it. As for San Andreas…well, just repeat that list to yourself. These are worlds filled with the desperate and contemptuous and…the less desperate and contemptuous. Are women really more poorly treated than anyone else?
Let’s start with the latest Witcher and its secondary protagonist, a young woman and the main character’s adoptive daughter. Yes, Ciri is subjected to sexually charged taunts by casual observers (although Triss Merigold, a sorceress that witch hunters would be more than happy to burn at the stake if she didn’t stay one step ahead of them, is subject to “non-gendered” and far more dangerous taunts). But Ciri also wins respect and admiration for her horsemanship, and leaves an important (and armed) male NPC standing open-mouthed in awe and gratitude when her swordplay saves him from a dangerous situation that he wasn’t skilled enough to manage.
The insults of a few fools faded into the background as I played her. Not so different from what women still sometimes have to contend with in real life – filtering out the sexist noise, persevering on their chosen courses, happy when they find themselves in the company of men who see them so much as equals that they don’t even think about it any more. I liked it. I related to it, in my own small “not able to slice the head off a rampaging griffon” kind of way.
But women are only one of a number of disenfranchised individuals subjected to systematic humiliation and harassment in the Witcher universe. As Erik Kain of Forbes pointed out in a response to Sarkeesian, “the Witcher games deal with racism. Elves and dwarves aren’t just other races there for the fun of it—they represent downtrodden racial groups. There’s even pogroms.” (Pogroms that protagonist Geralt of Rivia can be inadvertently – or deliberately – responsible for if he isn’t cautious.) The ways that ignorance and superstition breed insularity, fear and disdain is one of The Witcher’s most pervasive themes, and it manifests not merely in the treatment of women – and here I would add the caveat human women, for the elves have a far more egalitarian society – but in the treatment of anyone who lives outside the patriarchal, heterosexual, worshipping the right god and paying taxes to the right lord norm.
When depicting such a society, having ignorant, small-minded characters hurling gender-based epithets at women doesn’t strike me as gratuitous – it strikes me as what such people would do. But then I see the Witcher series as first and foremost a portrayal of a medieval society, one in which as it happens all of the fairy tales and ghost stories are true. So casual disregard for women (and racial and religious minorities and anyone else who was different)? Yeah, it was a thing.
GTA explores similar terrain, though I would venture to suggest in a more scattershot, less considered way – as perhaps befits a game whose idea of mini-games spans tennis, golf, mountain bike races, triathlons, BASE jumping, and yoga (yes, yoga). Even more than Witcher, whose motto might as well be “no attempted good deed can help but go awry because someone will take advantage of it,” GTA is filled with unrepentant nastiness. And again, like Witcher, it runs the gamut: casual sexism, casual racism, casual homophobia. Toss in casual drug use, casual theft, casual murder while you’re at it.
In fact, it’s all so casual that I would argue Ms. Sarkeesian is dead wrong when she says that there is “nothing in the narrative to underscore how insane and wrong this is.” Because normal people don’t live a life that is so utterly devoid of meaning. GTA is satire, it is caricature in the best tradition of farce (which, for those who need a refresher, is defined by Britannica as “a comic dramatic piece that uses highly improbable situations, stereotyped characters, extravagant exaggeration, and violent horseplay”).
I imagine it’s also, for a set of the adults (and make no mistake, neither San Andreas nor Wild Hunt belong in the hands of children), a kind of release. Though I haven’t played it I’ve watched my husband occasionally – and yes, after having grown up spending hours stuck in Southern California traffic I do laugh when he’s driving wrong way down the streets of a simulated Los Angeles running over fire hydrants and light poles. He has a very meticulous approach to stealing occupied cars – he walks into the road and takes the vehicle of the first person who cusses and flips him off – and that also amuses me.
If I were going to assign GTA a genre, I’d call it black comedy (another meaning refresher, from TV Tropes: “a sub-genre of comedy and satire where topics and events that are usually treated seriously (death, murder, mass murder, suicide, blackmail, violence, domestic violence, disease, insanity, handicaps, environmental disasters, famine, fear, child abuse, drug abuse, rape, castration, war, terrorism, racism, sexism, homophobia, bestiality, child pornography, line-cutting, etc.) are treated in a satirical manner while still being portrayed as the negative events that they are.”) A trio of protagonists – Franklin, Michael and Trevor – ensure that the latter condition is met. For however far outside the law and social mores they operate, each of them has moments where they think the others have gone too far.
So if they share so many similarities, why will I play The Witcher and not GTA? It is, in the end, partly (but only partly) a gender-related issue, and it comes down to point of view, I suppose. Although the peasants standing in front of their houses picking their noses say crude things to and about women, Geralt does not, and he’s the individual I spend the most time with. He loves his daughter, whom he trained to be the competent fighter and traveler that she is in the present day. He admires the sorceresses that he knows and works beside (and yes, sometimes they travel with him for brief periods, lending their expertise in situations that are too difficult for him to handle alone). You can play him as sexually cavalier, but you don’t have to, and I don’t. And then there is Ciri herself – a tough, smart, capable woman.
GTA doesn’t offer those kinds of opportunities. Ms. Sarkeesian isn’t wrong about the way women are portrayed, and it does get fatiguing, particularly with no counterweight. All three main protagonists are male (although you can have women on your heist crews, their presence is brief and not well developed). A stint at a strip club is unavoidable. The casual racism frankly bothers me as much if not more than the casual sexism. Though there is a pointed scene regarding waterboarding, a hilarious exchange about hipsters, and an in its own way poignant look at a family in decline the game is, in the end, too ugly, too unrelentingly crass for me to want to invest dozens of hours in it. But I don’t like black comedy or vulgarity in movies or literature either, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that I wouldn’t want to immerse myself in its world.
I admit I find it peculiar that anyone would bother to attack either game for rampant sexism when they suffer, for lack of a better word, from rampant everythingism. I happened to glance over when Trevor was dropping his pants in front of a male associate, and though detailing what happened would be spoiler territory, I can guarantee that it wasn’t “glorifying” male sexuality. It was horrifying, it was funny, but it was a roomful of men being assholes, and any man I personally know would see it the same way.
I’m frankly more concerned about games marketed to children and teens where women are scantily clad in impossible bodies, props for the men, or entirely absent. Because young people are still forming their world views, and the lessons they learn from such images may matter. But a clearly adult game like Witcher or GTA, where horrors abound and not much of anyone escapes unscathed? If you haven’t already brought your moral compass with you, no amount of sanitizing the content is going to make you a more or less sexist, more or less racist, more or less tolerant person.
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After I’d finished the bulk of this post I ran across this on Sarkeesian’s Twitter feed: “Welp, I guess we could just use The Witcher 3 to illustrate the rest of our #tropesvswomen series because it includes all the sexist tropes!”
I’m about thirty hours into the 200 hour game (which makes me wonder how much of it Ms. Sarkeesian has played through) and this is what I’ve seen so far:
Sorceresses and women warriors in full armor.
Women who are terrified of rats, and women who stride fearlessly among them.
Worn, wrinkled women whom Geralt treats with just as much respect as young, pretty ones.
A young woman who saves a little girl abandoned in a wolf-filled forest by desperate parents with too many mouths to feed.
An old woman who cares fiercely for a small tribe of war orphans.
Three ancient crones and an old druidess locked in a struggle over an ancestral land.
A lengthy and genuinely moving subplot about spousal abuse and its emotional toll.
There are women everywhere in Witcher: fighting, healing, tending bar, tending children, hoeing in the fields, selling their bodies in taverns. And there are men who love them, who despise them, who call them friends and lovers, who call them cunts and whores. But I guess I don’t call a game that explores the entire beautiful and ugly gamut of the human condition an exercise in tropes. I call it something approaching art. Something approaching life.