This article discusses plot points from throughout the entire game.
Outlaws Arthur, Dutch, and Micah navigate a snowstorm looking for shelter. They come across a cabin filled with rival gang members. After disposing of them and searching inside for supplies, I found a wedding photograph on the mantlepiece: “Jake and Sadie.” Giant posters pasted up around the corner from where I live, Rockstar’s own promotional images of the gun-toting, mean-looking Sadie Adler, had me curiously awaiting her introduction to the game. They promised a real female gunslinger who could give as good as any of the men. But the second that Micah announced he’d found a woman in the cellar, and she appeared, almost-disrobed, my heart sank.
With Sadie newly widowed and now rescued, this scene provides Red Dead Redemption 2’s opening with a dramatic crescendo, but I felt as though I’d been completely mis-sold. Then again, I was hardly shocked. It might seem like such a basic thing to say that the representation of women in Rockstar’s games is usually bleak at best. It’s taken for granted that it’s never done with particular nuance, while masculinity is always their guiding star. But it seems to me that for all the talk of how “realistic” this game is, or how historically “authentic” the world feels, the way it features women’s histories has barely been given a passing glance; odd when I seem to have read so many comments about horse testicles. And there’s much at stake when a game desires to be as resolutely historical as this one, and when Rockstar now seems to have won the authority to tell “authentic” stories about America’s past.
Perhaps the best way to describe the game’s engagement with women is ambivalent. While numerous missions or blink-and-you’ll-miss-them gameplay vignettes seem to be offering something meaningful, it doesn’t take much to scratch away this surface to reveal a hollowness beneath. Depicting factual things about American women’s history sees a mild improvement here compared to its predecessor, where recognition of the campaign for women’s suffrage was reduced to a punchline in one of the silent movies the player could watch: Damsels Causing Distress, starring the overtly ridiculous, perpetually emasculated Beaumont the Burly. It “satirically” informed viewers that “It is your patriotic imperative to oppose women’s suffrage,” lest Uncle Sam turn into Aunt Samantha. Let’s just say, then, the bar wasn’t especially high.
Now, story missions or simply walking around Saint Denis offer players era-appropriate depictions of women demanding their rights. Yet these are hardly depicted for “accuracy’s” sake alone. A suffragette declaring all the progress that’ll be made when women can vote is just one of a number of people across the city selling their wares, ideological or otherwise. One offers get-rich-quick books, another pamphlets on eugenics, continuing Rockstar’s proclivity for criticising seemingly staple American ills. While the game on the whole does feel sincerer than their previous attempt at telling the history of “the West” (I can’t bring myself to say mature, but what I mean is at the very least, a bit less snide), women are once again caught in the crosshairs of a petulant need to make everything seem ironic. It also seems inevitable that this gesture toward equity would come with another catch, as in the latest controversy in which some players gleefully-appreciated via YouTube the ability to beat this “Annoying Feminist” unconscious. This seems to be the only thing about women’s existence in the game that’s provoked mainstream critique.
I could name so many more instances, though, and it feels like I’d be cataloguing my disappointment. The way Karen, Tilly, and Mary-Beth asked me to come and talk with them at camp, providing virtual emotional labour while Arthur laments his perceived loss of self-control. What they think and how they feel is obviously less important than providing space for the player to hear Arthur’s current take on the gang and his own morality, and how much the world doesn’t want outlaws anymore. It’s hardly a two-way conversation that tells us how they world is changing for them. There’s all my attempts to check in with Abigail Roberts, to have these “conversations” feel like robotic, looping interactions mostly about Jack or John. There’s the way Molly O’Shea is treated when she returns, broken, to Beaver Hollow. And what about Charlotte, the city girl Arthur stumbles upon, defeated at her husband’s grave, who he teaches to hunt and survive? Her story serves barely any purpose but to underscore Rockstar’s need to tell us, yet again, that the American dream and the freer, “authentic” life the West offers usually won’t deliver.
Sadie Adler’s story feels like it encapsulates it all, though. For a significant portion of the game, she’s almost a non-entity at camp. She either sits alone, looking dishevelled, or maybe cries on Abigail’s shoulder. When she does manage to pull herself together, get herself a gun and some trousers, other characters can’t seem to do anything but let us know how strange this/she is for doing so. Being tough is literally unnatural to her, and she’s still completely othered, portrayed as an aberration to the otherwise-male outlaw norm. While the male outlaws come pre-formed, Sadie’s story leans into tired clichés of women being both damsels needing rescuing and having to overcome sexual violence to transform. Yes, she helps round up the family after the botched bank job, while Dutch and Co. get burned in Guarma. Preserving this quasi-domestic unit after the fallout of male recklessness isn’t exactly a feminist statement. And sure, by the end of the game she’s a ruthless bounty hunter, and more than proved her mettle. But she does so by becoming as masculine as possible, swearing off all integration within polite society (and femininity) in the process. It’s true that, like Bonnie MacFarlane in Red Dead Redemption, she’s probably the most developed female character. But is that really saying much, other than the fact that Rockstar is only interested in depicting female Westerners who are conforming to stereotypically masculine roles, and that it has to make us hyper-aware of it? And anyway, is it so hard to imagine we could have (even briefly) inhabited Sadie’s frame of reference in the game’s mammoth epilogue, instead of a man who already got his own game?
When I write about Rockstar’s treatment of women’s history in my work, I refer to Simone De Beauvoir’s seminal feminist text The Second Sex: “Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth.” This quote again came to mind when, while playing, I heard Dutch tell his followers: “We’re dreamers in a world of facts”. It’s one line in thousands, but it felt to me that it strikingly summed up how Rockstar view their experiments in writing American history. For all Dan Houser’s attempts at negotiating-down the seriousness of their engagement with America’s past (“It may be a work of historical fiction, but it’s not a work of history …”), what they have to say about America’s past carries weight. Cultural commentators and historians have long bemoaned—rightly or not—the fact that pop culture’s rendering of history has more influence on collective perceptions than anything written in history books. This is especially relevant for the Western genre’s mythologising of white-supremacist, colonialist ideologies, while the specifically “revisionist” films this franchise cites worked to crystallize the genre around hypermasculinity. Rockstar have the power and resources to do something different, but consistently don’t (or won’t). The “facts” of women’s lives never get in the way of the game’s elegising for a mythical West, as it continues to overwhelmingly tell players that women’s stories were secondary to men’s in America’s past, just as they don’t matter now.
If Red Dead Redemption 2 is going to be declared “true art”, the peak of the medium’s maturity, and placed on-par with cinema and TV, why should it get a free pass? After all, when films or shows with misogynist inflections are released now, there’s no shortage of critics willing to dissect them. I’m not encouraging the usual hand-wringing, think-of-the-children rhetoric that’s often accompanied the release of every new title, but it seems like we just keep expecting, and therefore accepting this as something Rockstar “just does.” What does it say about us if we’re content to endlessly praise the way it feels cumbersome to control and move like a middle-aged man, or that Rockstar motion-captured some horses, but don’t demand that the “realism” agenda account for more than this kind of spectacle? Because it is just that: a spectacle that’s apparently valued more than the lived realities it eclipses.
Esther Wright is a PhD researcher at the University of Warwick, working on the representation of American History in Rockstar games.,