To put it mildly, Rockstar’s games have a history of problematic depictions of female characters. Following on long-running problems with the series, Grand Theft Auto IV famously caused an eruption of outrage thanks to the IGN-produced “Ladies of Liberty City” promo. While the experiences shown in the video were not mandatory for players, they were supported by a game that regularly treated women as disposable objects there for the pleasure of the player. The few female characters that inched above that level were universally bereft of agency and dependent on the player. Given that the Wild West occupies a part of history where women really were looked on as property, I did not have high hopes for Rockstar’s western-themed Red Dead Redemption. Yet, I found myself pleasantly surprised to find three competent, independent women at the core of the story.
Bonnie MacFarlane plays a central role in Red Dead Redemption‘s first act. She saves John Marston’s life at the beginning of the game, rescuing him from an otherwise certain death after he was shot by Bill Williamson at Fort Mercer. She offers up most of the early missions, which amount to a temporary job for Marston as her ranch hand. Although the extensive, townlike MacFarlane Ranch technically belongs to her father, it’s clear that Bonnie is the one who’s in charge there. Moreover, she’s not in need of a man to help her run the place. The ranch has its share of problems, but they’re external, not internal.
Bonnie’s an intelligent and independent woman, one who doesn’t feel the need to get married just for form. It’s clear throughout the game that she likes John, but never so much that she can’t spare a moment to eviscerate his self-image as a “noble bandit”. Even when John rescues her from a dire situation, she reacts with sharp-tongued sarcasm, not weepy relief. The game allows her to be a strong, capable woman who is on an equal footing with John, as opposed to the many other characters who clearly need John much more than he needs them.
In the middle third of the game, John spends a great deal of time around Luisa Fortuna. I won’t go into great detail about her here, as I already discussed the essentials in my previous piece on the Mexican story. Suffice it to say that although I seriously disliked the way her relationship with Reyes was handled, Luisa was impressive as an agent within the story. She has her own organization that she leads quite effectively (in contrast to the careening disaster of GTA IV‘s Elizabeta Torres). Although she meets a sad fate and has a regrettable obsession, she comes across as a surprisingly strong person.
This leaves Abigail Marston, who is the most weakly characterized of the three, even though her abduction by federal officials lies behind John’s odyssey through the west. From what we see of her, she doesn’t have Bonnie’s intelligence or Luisa’s political spirit; she’s an illiterate ex-prostitute still trying to figure out how to be a farmer’s wife. Although the portrayal never gets out of hand, there’s a clear jealous streak in her nature when it comes to John as well. All the same, the game makes it clear that she held her own during her captivity. John’s success reunited the family, but it didn’t “save” her from anything except perhaps boredom.
Of course, all is not sunshine and roses here. One thing these women have in common is that they must be rescued by John at one point or another. While many of the male characters need to be rescued too, that’s not true of all of them. Some of the stranger tasks and random events echo this idea of the main character saving a woman, although others turn that trope on its head. Additionally troubling is the extremely high population of prostitutes. Although they aren’t available to John, this is because of his character, not theirs. Female NPCs are often depicted as sex objects, even if the player can’t experience them in that way directly.
In comparison to GTA IV, these problems are minor. Red Dead Redemption has female characters who are equal or even superior in their power relationships to its main character. More broadly, Red Dead Redemption generally lacks much of the objectifying context — available hookers, strippers, and player-side sexual violence — that made projects like “The Ladies of Liberty City” seem an appropriate response to GTA IV. Aided, perhaps, by their freedom from the GTA heritage, Rockstar managed to create an open world that was suitably seedy without embodying an appalling attitude towards women. Moreover, the strong female characters they included were some of the best in the game. Hopefully this success will encourage Rockstar to make further strides towards real maturity in their depiction of women in future titles.