Fans of the Grand Theft Auto series have been eagerly awaiting a sequel for nearly a decade.
Given the astronomical success of Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto V, which has sold more than 140 million copies since its debut all the way back in 2013, expectations for the unannounced yet inevitable sequel are sky-high. And a substantial chunk of that audience hopes to see a meaningful evolution for the series that goes beyond a next-gen graphical update.
“I’m hopeful and excited that Rockstar is going to have a strong female lead who can be herself in the game," says Vicky Pearson, a 30-year-old gamer from the UK, who's been a fan of GTA since the first game came out in 1997. “When I first started gaming, the only female characters were just side figures: stick thin, big boobs, short skirts, and big hair.”
Inverse spoke with three female GTA fans who looking forward to seeing where Rockstar takes the series next. All of them agreed Rockstar has developed truly unforgettable male protagonists, though its woman characters have often felt like caricatures by comparison. But their opinions diverged on whether a female protagonist is totally necessary for the next installment of the series.
The rumor mill
In January, rumors spread that Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto VI will feature the franchise’s first-ever female protagonist. This isn’t the first time this particular GTA 6 rumor has made the rounds, but these recent claims come from slightly more credible sources than usual: noted Call of Duty leaker Tom Henderson and gaming YouTuber LegacyKillaHD.
Rockstar has not released an official statement on the matter, nor has the developer ever actually confirmed GTA 6 is in development, despite widespread assumption that this is the case.
In the weeks since, gaming forums and social media sites have been ablaze with arguments from warring factions. Many are looking forward to seeing the franchise evolve, others don't understand the fuss. A vocal minority of aggrieved bros think it’s the worst thing that could happen to GTA.
“A mission having us do house chores?” one wrote in response. “No thanks.”
Striking a balance
The rumors speak to a longstanding hope within the GTA fan community. Pearson wrote a letter to Rockstar about the topic five years ago, and also started an online petition at the time, urging the developer to bring a female lead to the series.
“A lot of people are saying it’s not that big a deal — but I think it’s massive! Culture is really important for encouraging young girls to be who they are," she explains, citing Cyberpunk 2077 as an example of a recent game that offers players the chance to explore a rich interactive world as a woman protagonist.
Pearson admits to having misgivings about Rockstar's past track record with female characters. “Rockstar is a bit sexist — as much as I love them, it is frustrating sometimes that all their female characters are highly sexualized,” she explains.
The family therapy scene with Michael and his family in GTA V.
From strippers and sex workers to the perfunctory girlfriend mechanic in San Andreas and GTA IV, women in the series range from irritating obstacles to sex objects. Despite ongoing content updates since its release, Rockstar has done little to develop the ladies of GTA V. Amanda de Santa is presented as an insufferable bitch for wanting to protect her kids from Michael’s criminal lifestyle, while her daughter Tracey is an attention-hungry airhead.
Back in 2013, Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser told The Guardian that a woman couldn't possibly work as one of GTA V's three playable characters, because "the concept of being masculine was so key to this story." The comment ruffled feathers at the time, and is awfully tough to reconcile with the recent blockbuster successes of women-led, action-forward games like 2020's The Last of Us Part II and 2017's Horizon Zero Dawn. Can the company still afford to overlook the fact that women are now 46 percent of the gaming market?
Canadian gaming YouTuber gamermd83, who asked to be referred to as MD, says she isn't looking for role models in the next GTA game. She cares more about fascinating characters and a thrilling story.
“The thing about representation in GTA is that no one is represented in a very good light. Pretty much every character has vices, criminal inclination, questionable motives, and dysfunctional lives," MD says. "What I hope most for when it comes to the next protagonist — male or female — is a well-written, intense character who is passionate about what they’re doing."
The stories games tell are shaped by the people who make them. Another of the GTA fans we spoke with said her biggest hope was to see women make more creative contributions to the next game in the series.
“I would be interested to know what representation looks like ‘behind the camera’ in GTA. When a whole industry is as homogenous as the games industry, the stories we see are also very homogenous,” says 25-year-old Hannah Milligan, who discovered GTA V in her second year of university.
She's not wrong. According to a report from the UK Government’s Gender Pay Gap Database, Rockstar North’s female developers were paid 53 percent less than their male counterparts based on hourly rates between April 2019 and April 2020. Only 8.8 percent of the top-earning quartile of employees at Rockstar North were women.
The fans we spoke with emphasized that representation for its own sake isn't enough — the characters and storytelling need to feel authentic. For that to happen, women need to be involved in key creative decision-making.
“It’s 2021. The fact that GTA V had three protagonists, all of whom were cis men and two of whom were white, makes me feel like [a female protagonist] would just be done for brownie points. There are infinite possibilities out there — showing the same kind of male protagonists over and over again just feels so lazy,” Milligan explains.
Rockstar's past successes with boundary-breaking storylines and characters offer a glimmer of hope for what a female protagonist could bring to the next installment of the Grand Theft Auto series, whenever Rockstar gets around to making it official. 2004’s San Andreas featured GTA’s first protagonist of color, CJ Johnson, who became one of the franchise’s most beloved characters. GTA V broke ground in having Trevor openly discuss his bisexuality. Red Dead Redemption 2 gave us a badass outlaw in Sadie Adler, and featured a brief but respectful nod to two gay side characters, Mr. Black and Mr. White.
“The world is so much more exciting and engaging when you open yourself up to experiences that are not your own," Milligan adds. "For a studio like Rockstar to put a female character at the center of a major franchise game would be a big step in the right direction.”