The Problem of the Female Gangster

Drawing on familiar media representations and cultural histories for the sake of building a female gangster actually seems pretty difficult.

The standard hullabaloo has, of course, arrived following the release of the trailer for Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto V. One bit of disappointment that some fans expressed in seeing the video for the first time was the implication that the game will feature a standard male lead in this upcoming GTA. Just before the trailer was released, rumors swirled around the internet that this iteration of GTA might feature a female protagonist, something that no GTA up to now (and really no other open world crime game, barring Saints Row -- sort of -- but more on that in a moment) had done.

Actually the rumors have not abated in some circles that a playable female character may still exist in the forthcoming game, as a number of folks have suggested that the absence of the male protagonist in some scenes in the trailer might suggest that this GTA might also feature the story of multiple protagonists. Some of these folks are still holding out hope that one of these speculative protagonists might be a woman.

Now, this is a notion that I myself have floated before -- that it might be interesting for a GTA game to feature a female protagonist. However, I am also a little skeptical that a reasonably well defined female protagonist might be written for an open world crime game. Indeed, the one effort that I can think of to do so, in the Saints Row series, is to me a clear failure of imagination and might speak a bit to the problem of creating a female anti-hero within this particular genre construct.

Both Saints Row 2 and Saints Row: The Third leave the gender of those games' protagonists up to the player. You may play the leader of the Saints Row gang as either a male or female character, though in terms of the background story of the game, this character was originally a male, and Saints Row 2 is quite explicit about this idea.

As the Saints Row series -- unlike the GTA series -- maintains a direct continuity of characters and plotlines from game to game, the second game justifies the potential gender swap of its main character (who could only be male in the first game) through a plot device. At the close of the first game, the protagonist was caught in an explosion on a boat. As Saints Row 2 opens he is hospitalized and is undergoing reconstructive surgery. At this point, the character creation screen appears allowing the player to “reconfigure” the face, race, and gender of what would have been the game's previous protagonist.

Opting to play as a transsexual is handled with no narrative sophistication by a game noted more for its comedic antics than its complex characterization. The leader of the Saints Row Saints merely adopts a female body and life goes on with few, if any, references made by other characters about the change, nor does the main character ever confront this change him- or herself. Instead, what we end up being treated to is a kind of explicit representation of the typical mishandling of gender and sexual identities in terms of something quite simple: a game's art assets.

Watching the female protagonist of this game (like many others that offer a male/female choice of characters) makes it clear that character animators had a default male character in mind for the most part, as the “female” character walks with squared off shoulders and generally moves as a man would, not a woman. The masculine energy of this body language is likewise mirrored by plot sequences that appear to be clearly written for a stereotypical male criminal character, motivated in his occupation as a criminal by “typical male desires,” like fast cars and fast women. Seeing the female lead kick back with her “boys” to enjoy herself at a party full of strippers is not an impossible narrative circumstance, but it is surely a less credible one than not if I want to believe in an authentic and familiar representation of gender. The developers of Saints Row clearly gave up on writing a female gangster and simply provided the option to play as a character that follows masculine gender conventions that can look either like a man or like a woman.

All that being said, as I noted before, Saints Row is not a game that worries itself much with the psychological make-up of its characters. It is a series that is all booming spectacle and simplistic parody. On the one hand, GTA is also satirical in nature. While on the other hand, it is a series whose handling of characterization has evolved over time and resulted in some reasonably interesting and recognizable characters. GTA characters are plausible figures who exist in an exaggerated and absurd world, and they have continued to grow more believable as the series has evolved. In part, this is because Rockstar's critique of American culture arises from a more searching exploration of American media and cultural history than Saints Rows's brand of “comedy.”

While Claude and Tommy Vercetti are not much in the way of characters (Claude lacks both a voice, and in my mind, a soul, while Vercetti is merely a mash up of famous mobsters in film), nevertheless, the character of CJ Johnson emerges from the influence of the history of and media surrounding the LA gang scene of the 1990s and Niko Bellic resembles post-glasnost, post-USSR Eastern European and Russian immigrants of the turn of this century, some of whom were responsible for the further “immigration” of the brutal tactics of the gangsters that arose in Europe and Asia after the fall of the Soviet Union.

In this regard, drawing on familiar media representations and cultural histories for the sake of building a female gangster actually seems pretty difficult.

There really is little precedent for a female gangster historically and even female anti-heroes in media are fairly uncommon. So, finding a recognizable background to build on could be fairly difficult for Rockstar.

All three models of the gangster lifestyle that Rockstar has used to create authenticity for their characters, the Italian mafia, the LA gangs, and the Russian mob, are all groups of organized criminals that are very much male dominated. Indeed, criminality in general would seem to be an occupation that has a fairly inviolate glass ceiling. The Italian mafia, for instance, is grounded on extremely traditional values that assume that men handle the business and women do not. Explicit rules within early examples of this form of mafia suggest that women and children are off limits in regards to vendettas that might arise from their business practices. Those practices are ones that emphasize “work” that seemingly is best handled by an intimidating male figure, not jobs open to female recruits. Extortion, after all, was the bread and butter of the earliest iterations of the Italian mafia, a job best suited, in their tradition, to a man.

Instead, most senses of female criminality in American culture seem best typified by Oxygen's Snapped, a show with an almost 19th century sensibility about the relationship between women, criminality, and madness. This is a show that features women who would in that century have assuredly been diagnosed as victims of “hysteria” (a diagnosis that etymologically implies a madness brought on by having a womb – a psychological term coined in the 1800s to describe “uncontrollable” women), as these female killers have all obviously “snapped.” Good, sane girls aren't likely to burn their husbands alive or poison their Gatorade. But a hysterical woman would. Such a shallow psychological profile seems rather unlikely to produce an interesting character over a 40+ hour game. “She's so crazy” can only be dragged out for so long.

Historically, there are a few famous female criminals, the pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, for example. In Under the Black Flag, David Cordingly writes of a former prostitute, who would inherit her husband's business after his death; “Mrs. Cheng” would oversee an entire fleet of Chinese marauders during her own time. And, of course, in America, Bonnie Parker would become famous alongside her boyfriend Clyde Barrow. All of these examples could form the basis for the creation of a reasonably authentic female criminal in the GTA mode, given the series's modus operandi of telling stories of criminals who begin at the bottom of the food chain and eventually make their way up in the world to become more powerful figures within their chosen vocation. But they do require a bit more biographical research to form such a basis. Seeing what made these women tick and what motivated them could form the beginnings of some degree of authentic characterization.

In that regard, the story of the rise of a madam could be generally rather interesting, as the madam represents one of the few positions of power within male dominated criminal operations in the western world in which women have been “allowed” to make themselves a success. It is also one of the few that might afford the greater agency and authority that a female protagonist might call for because it is a role that has been accepted in the history of criminality. Finally, the idea appeals to me because I think a scene in which a previous GTA protagonist (maybe Claude) made a cameo and could be beaten up by a prostitute and killed in order to take his money would be a fitting and poetic end to the GTA III protagonist. Such poetic justice seems to me within the scope of Rockstar's own sensibilities as well.

Barring real-life examples, again though, the female anti-hero is one that is relatively uncommon in crime fiction and other media. Women are often featured as villains in film noir and hard boiled fiction, but for the most part, the preferred femme fatale model is one that is largely villainous, not sympathetic in the way that a good anti-hero should be.

Female anti-heroes do exist in exploitation cinema (a genre frequently subsumed by the conventions of the crime genre and seemingly related to GTA's exaggerated worlds). Pam Grier's turns in Coffy and Foxy Brown or Uma Thurman as The Bride in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill serve as examples of female anti-heroes that we are intended to root for, despite their violent and lawless behavior.

The configuration of such characters does return us to issues of character motivation, specifically the way that they have been traditionally gendered in media of this sort, though, as rape-revenge serves as justification for most of the more vicious characters played by Pam Grier, for instance. Such a plot device seemingly exists to justify a woman “gone bad.” We, as an audience, can accept her brutality against her foes, since she has been terribly hurt at various points earlier in her films. Likewise, The Bride's brutality is also justified in part by rape in Tarantino's film, though by the film's conclusion, he adds an additional and distinctly feminine construction to The Bride's sense of purpose. The Bride seeks not only revenge, but also the ability to regain her role as mother, a role stripped from her by the events that led to her need for revenge in the first place, her attempted murder by her former love, Bill. Likewise, this notion of a woman with a need to mother seems intended to evoke sympathy for what might otherwise be viewed as unforgivable behavior. Building a character on such tropes as rape-revenge, however, might make for an even darker turn than GTA is normally willing to take. GTA is comfortable with dark comedy, perhaps, but such “character building” could very quickly drain the humor from a GTA-style world.

On the whole, I tend to trust Rockstar's ability to build characters. Despite their reputation for using stereotypes, they also know how to turn stereotypes on their head and also develop engaging and well rounded characters. Gay Tony, for example, is probably the most complex homosexual character presented in a gaming world (and any other media for the that matter). He is a man defined by more than his sexuality, who has surprisingly strong paternal instincts mixed with a capacity for self destruction. He just isn't a simple cookie cutter figure, as he is a man with good and bad qualities that expresses both weakness and great strength. So, I definitely would be willing to see what they could do with something like a female gangster. I just would hope that some time would be spent sketching an actual female character and not the female impersonators that are so often foisted off on gamers.


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