I'm knee deep in Grand Theft Auto V right now and I find it difficult to wait until I finish the story before getting some thoughts down. I spend some of this write up talking about gender issues in GTA and I do so not to fan any flames (other people can do that). And I apologize in advance if I missed any important and/or meaningful details. Be warned that there are some early game story spoilers that go until a little bit after the player controls Trevor for the first time.
A lot has been said about GTA V's, as well as the rest of the series, issues with misogyny. Truthfully, the games don’t go out of their way to depict women in the most positive light. Oftentimes, they are characterized as strung out street walkers, strippers, internationally renowned porn stars and gussied up pieces of sex meat. There are barely any notable empowered female characters in the franchise, with the possible exception of "Ma" Cipriani (GTA III) and Elizabeta Torres and Karen (GTA IV). Simply put, women just don’t get a fair shake in Grand Theft Auto. GTA Online will give people the opportunity to play as a female avatar, but they don’t come with an established, thought provoking narrative along the lines of Michael, Franklin and Trevor.
Yes, the method in which women are treated in the game is wrong. I don't want to marginalize the issues regarding their portrayal, but what’s interesting about these games, especially in GTA V, is that men are treated in the same vein. In today’s society, women are bombarded with obnoxious standards of beauty and are made to feel worthless if they cannot reach such heights. As for men, they cannot be successful and desired by women unless they’re rich, devastatingly handsome, and cut from the same cloth as God Himself. The humor in Grand Theft Auto works because it puts a funhouse mirror up against our society but because the real world media has an obsession with how men and women should look and act, Rockstar doesn’t have to work very hard to present such a warped view on beauty and masculinity.
Take Brucie, for example. Brucie represents everything that’s dumb and stupid about the whole "Alpha Bro Male" personality. After spending five minutes with him, you get that he's just a 'roid douche who, despite his best efforts, never amounts to anything and ends up looking incredibly pathetic rather than masculine. Men like Brucie exist as a parody of the hypermasculinity our society deems appropriate in modern America. There are no female analogs to Brucie that come to mind. Instead, women are painted in very broad strokes. There are some exceptions, again Elizabeta and Karen, but none of them really get a chance to stand out before the men come along.
Bringing this discussion back to GTAV, at the point I’ve reached in the game I’ve found that the concept of masculinity is a theme that plays heavily towards Michael. In my mind, Michael is one of the best realized characters in the entire Grand Theft Auto franchise. Michael, the retired bank robber, should be happy because he’s obtained the classic American Dream: money, family, fancy cars and a great house. The problem is that despite having what most of us want, Michael is absolutely miserable. He’s also angry. Unlike, say, Niko or Tommy, Michael’s anger comes from the fact that retirement is stifling, leaving him emotionally and mentally impotent. Stuck with a family that doesn’t pay him any respect as a father and husband, Michael growls, screams, lashes out and smashes TVs.
Compounding Michael’s angst are the challenges to his masculinity. In a perfect world, Michael would play the role of loving husband and father to a doting wife and children. The reality is that Michael has little to no control over them. Amanda, his wife, openly flirts and sleeps with her various instructors (thereby directly threatening Michael’s masculinity). Michael’s daughter will do anything to get in with high Los Santos society, even if it means hanging out with a porn production company or taking her underwear off to dance in a TV reality show competition. And then there’s Jimmy, a shiftless pothead and a bit of a fuck up.
Michael has failed his family and in turn, they show him little respect and undermined his authority. The heartbreaking thing about the relationship is that Michael wants to be connected to his family. There are two missions in which Michael and Jimmy go out on the town together and listening as the father tries to show his love and support for his son only to get rebuked is pretty damn sad. When Michael and Trevor are reunited for the first time and Jimmy reveals to them that his sister is auditioning for a TV show, Michael doesn’t immediately act, causing Trevor - of all people - to tell Michael to man the hell up and get his girl back (this is an incredibly powerful moment of softness in Trevor’s otherwise incredibly violent nature).
Between the reunion with Trevor and the success of the jewelry heist, things might actually be looking up for Michael - that is, until his son drugs him in order for the family to move out of the house. In the face of the positive gains Michael has made for himself, his family’s flight once again shows how much of a failure he is to those that matter the most. I still have plenty of game to play, so I feel that I’ve talked as much as I possibly could without knowing what happens between Michael and his family. Will he finally man up? There are hints that we’ll get to see Michael develop further considering his change in personality after the jewelry store heist. Before the mission, he was frustrated and angry. Afterwards he’s calm, collected and, more importantly, happy.