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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge