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 centers 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, publicized 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 criticize 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 memorizing 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 normalized. And not only normalized, 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 desensitize 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 behavior, 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: