Lindsay Lohan Sues GTA V. Can Rockstar Claim Parody Protection?
Is Grand Theft Auto V is actually satire? And if it is, what is it satirizing?
Let’s face it, Lindsay Lohan’s lawsuit is probably a lost cause. The former child star and current troubled actress is suing publisher Take-Two and developer Rockstar, claiming that they used her likeness without permission. However, as pointed out by Mike Futter at Game Informer, past lawsuits of a similar sort are unsuccessful due to First Amendment protections and Lohan has no established precedent to go on.
Lohan has always had a skill for headline-grabbing, and she claims that this skill is so unique that Rockstar Games leveraged her celebrity to sell more GTA V copies without giving her a cut. Ironically, the minor character in dispute, Lacey Jonas, is remarkable in how unremarkable she is: the media-hounded, anorexic celebutante could be inspired by any number of skinny blonde actresses who are mostly famous for being famous. Even if Lohan's alleged doppelganger could be seen to be an integral part of the game – which it's not – GTA V could claim satire protection, as the character is a symbol of the vapid “selfie” culture that the game frequently both criticizes and embraces.
The question is, however, is Grand Theft Auto V is actually satire? And if it is, what is it satirizing? Satire is characterized by its use of irony, and in GTA V it is applied mainly to pro-social tropes: the nuclear family, psychotherapy, spending time with your kids, even multiculturalism. The greatest mockery in GTA V is reserved for “politically correct” social trappings — AKA anything that encourages greater civility and less violence — because the “fun” lies in doing stuff that’s illegal in the real world. When you throw parody into this stew of catharsis, things get confusing. When the interactive component of a videogame is then added to the mix, the result is too messy to determine any theme or meaning with certainty. GTA V is just too big to be anything but a strangely whiny collection of violence.
The brothers-in-arms meets deep-dark-secret plotline of GTA IV, while problematic, was ultimately able to overcome its questionable moral elements. GTA V has not achieved a similar balance. The juxtaposition of the three protagonists present Trevor, the anti-social psychopath, as having the hypocrisy-free life that family man Michael craves; meanwhile, Franklin serves as an embodiment of the “troubled black man” role. GTA V's most consistent theme is that being an upstanding white male just isn't as “fun” it used to be.
And that’s, sadly, not an attempt at satire. The most earnest moments in Grand Theft Auto V come when someone's being killed. Honest emotion is always connected to bloodshed. The game induces a fifteen year old hyper-masculine mindset incapable of processing irony. Call it “ludosatirical dissonance”, if you will. The result isn't satire. It's assumedly good guys doing bad things in a fictional environment where nothing (except their attitudes towards women) is ever hurt or challenged. Lindsay Lohan wrecked a Porsche in real life, so she can't say the same.
Now, there’s no denying that there are satirical moments in GTA V, most notably in Michael's therapy sessions. Michael's whiny affluenza and his shrink's greed are portrayed with high doses of irony. The problem is that it's hard to maintain that satirical edge when the player is controlling Michael unless the player actively makes satiric choices. In the case of GTA V, if the player's choices are earnest, satire does not hold.
That doesn't mean satire in open-world games is impossible. In Saint's Row 3 and 4, heavy doses of farce ally with satiric use of character, dialogue, and setting to show that most video game conventions are inherently ridiculous. Unfortunately, Saint's Row gets lumped into the “misogynist video game” pile alongside Grand Theft Auto V, since the very presence of strippers and hookers in a game makes people start slapping on labels, with no examination of how those elements are used. Personally, I think that strippers in the White House would be more honest and healthy than the “intern” euphemism that's been going on since at least JFK. That's the glorious thing about truly satirical games: they cause us to reveal too much about ourselves through our reactions to them.
If GTA V's satire worked, it would have gotten a self-deprecating chuckle out of me through Michael's whining, because he sounds like a gamer: we want to be able to act out our biggest asshole fantasies without being willing to accept that they are the fantasies of assholes. The psychiatrist, in that scenario, would represent Rockstar itself, which keeps taking money to let players screw around in their entitled crybaby sandboxes, and would really rather their clients didn't grow as people. (Actually I don’t really think that was Rockstar's intent. That would require self awareness).
Meanwhile, when I attempted to play Grand Theft Auto V, I felt like the game was deliberately calibrated to offend me. The misogyny felt contrived. The racial stereotypes of gang bangers and Triads felt pandering. The torture made me roll my eyes. The overall experience was one of crushing boredom, because it didn't challenge my preconceptions. In trying too hard, they did not try hard enough.
The bright side is that many players play the GTA games in spite of their problems, because they enjoy the overblown physics and open-world freedom. They don't pay the slightest attention to the story, because it's pat enough to ignore. As video games as a hobby becomes more and more expensive, brand loyalty becomes the real driver. Most gamers don't want to risk their hard-earned dough sampling other open-world franchises. Players may not think the GTA experience is ideal, but it is predictable: things get bigger, shinier and louder, but they don't change much. It's an evolution of better graphics, bigger maps, and “now with multiplayer!”, at the expense of an investment in the game world and story.
Grand Theft Auto is becoming World of Warcraft with cars and hookers. Like WoW, Grand Theft Auto is no longer a rebellious flag-bearer of counterculture. It's now an established pillar of pop culture. Its brand is, in itself, a shorthand. Blizzard embraced this with WoW because it really likes money. Rockstar needs to similarly recognize its status before it can be successful at satire: you have to face your own spoof-worthiness before you can successfully lampoon others.
Fortunately for Rockstar, you don't have to make good art to enjoy free speech protections. So Lindsay Lohan will probably lose her lawsuit, if it even gets to court. Rockstar might just throw money at a settlement just to make the Lohan problem go away, but they're just as likely to spend the dough on lawyers to subject her to yet another public embarrassment.
If Lindsay Lohan truly recognizes herself in the world of Grand Theft Auto V, perhaps she should invest her money in a change of career instead of a lawsuit. Arguing that her cartoonish public persona is in any way special is undermined by the very appearance of the trope-based character she sees as herself in Los Santos. If you see yourself in Grand Theft Auto V, you're probably not a very good person. A lawsuit isn't going to change that.
Liana Kerzner is a media personality, video game pundit, and Jewish Canadian ginger kid. She will not be suing the South Park game for proving that Jewish Canadian ginger kids are cool. Follow her on twitter @redlianak if you like talking about video games and sharing pictures of pets.