Laurie Penny: Hey Baby - Playing out feminism's fantasy

Hey Baby’s not big or clever, but boy is it cathartic

Let’s be clear: this video game is neither an incitement to real-world crime nor a manifesto for lasting social change.

There are moments in life when every girl wishes she were packing an AK-47. As a morose-looking sort of person, I regularly get instructed to smile by strange men in the street, and without wishing to criticise men’s indisputable right to pass public judgement on absolutely any woman’s appearance and demeanour, too much of that sort of thing can make even the gentlest soul long to execute the leering scumbags with a great big gun.

Now, there’s a video game that lets you play out that fantasy.

The makers of Hey Baby have created an urban street simulation from the point of view of a woman walking home in the evening. As you pulverise digital aggressors into a welter of pixellated meat, headstones appear displaying their obnoxious comments. It’s not big and it’s not clever, but it is cathartic.

Video-game violence can often feel uncomfortable -- especially against a backdrop of real-world tragedy. Hey Baby, however, is neither an incitement to real-world crime nor a manifesto for lasting social change.

“It’s definitely not feminist to fantasise about shooting men,” says Ellie Levenson, author of The Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism, “although I can imagine it might be quite satisfying sometimes.”

Across the web, furious male commentators have decried the game as sexist, but part of their anger might also have to do with discomfort about a system that models male privilege from a female perspective.

"You can file Hey Baby with any of the games which suggest that hyperviolence is an acceptable response to an everyday frustration," says the author and games critic Kieron Gillen. "The game isn’t about mowing down men. It’s about male privilege, and how male privilege feels."

“It fills me with rage that a stranger on the street feels at liberty to demand that I smile, and now someone's made a game that’s an outlet for that rage,” wrote Leigh Alexander, a games journalist. “So many guys in the street are jerks that I often feel like I have to force a polite attitude.

"It takes my power away and makes me an object in front of people I don't even know, and that's not OK, whether they're nice about it or not.”

Hey Baby taps into the everyday violation of private space that is part of the lives of most women living in cities.

The most subversive aspect of the game is the way it translates what men often see as individual compliments or comments into an atmosphere of sustained threat not so different from that of most first-person shooter simulations, where players understand that violent monsters might lurk around every corner.

Video-game violence often evokes the darker sort of petty wish fulfilment. “It’s about expressing transgressive thoughts, and that’s not always positive,” says Gillen. Men’s transgressive fantasies, as ever, get plenty of airing -- from games such as Grand Theft Auto to pornography to brooding films such as A Clockwork Orange or this week’s The Killer Inside Me, we are bombarded with opportunities to contemplate the darker side of men’s desires.

Men’s violent thoughts are so deeply encoded in our cultural orthodoxy that, when a real-life tragedy such as last week’s Cumbria massacre does occur, we are invited to understand it in a context of bloodthirsty fantasy, which is implied to be fundamental to the male psyche under stress. This line of argument is deeply insulting to men, not to mention to victims of violent crime and their families.

All human beings have ugly thoughts, and the disjunction between everyday transgressive fantasy and the type of violent, premeditated hate that obtains a real weapon and goes on a real murder spree is enormous. And contemporary cultural production sees plenty of use in exploring men’s violent impulses, often to the point of insensitivity.

But what about women’s dark, secret fantasies? We get plenty of cues as to what advertisers think women should fantasise about, mostly involving giant shoes made of chocolate, younger-looking skin and wild sex with men who wear a particular brand of deodorant. But what if there were more? What if women, too, had bad thoughts and private daydreams too transgressive for polite society? What if we fantasised about responding with criminal violence to everyday harassment? What if we wanted to make men afraid? What if we wanted money, status and power? What if we wanted to rule the world?

In 1861, John Stuart Mill declared in The Subjection of Women that male culture would be incomplete “until women themselves have told all that they have to tell . . . As yet, very few of them may tell anything which men are unwilling to hear.”

Almost two centuries later, the true subversion of projects such as Hey Baby is their revelation of how rare it still is that culture and media are experienced from a female point of view -- especially if that point of view isn’t smiling, sexy and submissive.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism