Pop culture, politics and feminism

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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.