Wednesday, November 28, 2012

So I played "Hey Baby"...

(Originally posted by Pat on 8/3/10)

So there's this game on the Internet, called  Hey Baby.
And let's first set aside the fact that it is without a doubt the worst-made first-person shooter ever. The least they could have done was modded a respectable game engine, like the Unreal engine. The graphics would be fine... in 1993. Also, they really should have given you a gunsight, more precise aiming controls, better collision detection, limited ammunition, crouch and jump abilities, levels and scoring, and some weapon options, because that's what FPS is all about... but obviously this is completely beside the point. It is meant to send a message, not actually be a playable game.
I really don't think the "this is a sexist double standard in its own right" argument is at all valid (most feminists seem to agree). Grand Theft Auto is significantly more violent and just as sexist as this game, and it is a mainstream work of entertainment, not a political work of expression. Hey Baby is sexist in the same way that the film CSA: Confederate States of America is racist---to make a point about how horrible that is.
Reviews of the game were largely positive despite its horrible mechanics. But as a gender-egalitarian man who also has a healthy sex drive, there are a lot of things about the game that bothered me.
First, the game is based on no empirical data whatsoever. From the game itself I have absolutely no way of knowing how common sexual harassment is, how intense it usually gets, how many women experience it, how many men participate in it, or what the typical consequences are. I realize that it is a work of art and expression, so perhaps it can't be expected to do such things; but if you're hoping to raise consciousness in men about sexual harassment, you need to be telling us exactly what sort of consciousness to raise. The frequency and intensity of harassment struck me as wildly unrealistic---in the game, every man you meet says something, and no men I actually know would ever say most of these things---and that made the overall message seem hyperbolic rather than persuasive.
Second, there is only one response to any level of harassment---machinegun fire. Now, I understand that the game is intentionally over-the-top to send a message and provide some catharsis. But that is a remarkably extreme response to anything, really; and unless you're also trying to make a point that video games are too violent (which dilutes your message), it's a little jarring. Machinegun fire is an appropriate response to genocide or tyranny; but even as a response to forcible rape it seems rather extreme. As a response to mere harassment, it's like swatting flies with a sledgehammer.
On a subtler note, I think the game's one-act-fits-all structure tends to encourage a black-and-white morality that obscures the real issues of gender and sexuality and is precisely what most bothers me about typical discussions of sexual harassment and rape.
For not all "harassment"  is the same, and indeed not even all "rape" is the same. There is a complex continuum of moral behaviors. Some are mildly impolite, some highly rude; some acts are deceptive or manipulative; others are aggressive, threatening, or coercive; some are outright violent. There is a difference between "I like your bounce, baby" and "Suck my dick or I"ll break your face"; there is a difference between encouraging a woman to drink a bit more than she should and dropping a tablet of gamma-hydroxybutyric acid into that drink. There is a difference between escalating from foreplay to penetration without asking and forcibly tearing off a woman's clothes and penetrating her even as she cries out and fights to resist you. The "rape is rape" mentality of many feminists fails to capture this complexity, and it thereby undermines its own message with precisely the nuanced, compassionate, reasonable people who would be most sympathetic to feminist change.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the game does not seem to understand what constitutes "harassment". I only played for a few minutes before my browser locked up (which is fine because I was extremely bored anyway), but I received the following statements from various "harassers":
"You fucking bitch, you fucking whore, who do you think you are?"
"I don't mean any disrespect, but you're beautiful."
"I like your bounce, baby."
"Very attractive."
"I'm not hungry, but I'd love to eat you."
"Smile for me, baby".
There are at least three types of statements here, and only one of them is really what I would consider "sexual harassment".
Let's deal with those examples first: "Smile for me, baby", "I like your bounce, baby" and "I'm not hungry, but I'd love to eat you" are extremely rude things to say to someone you have just met, they are offensive to me, and I can understand why women would consider them degrading. Even if that man really would be interested in a relationship (and even a one-night-stand is a kind of relationship) with you, he needs to understand that this is not at all the way to go about starting one. (If he were already in a relationship with you, and the two of you had achieved that comfort level, then these statements would be much more acceptable.)  If a stranger really says something like this to you, the appropriate response is to say something equally rude back, like "Well, too bad you're an asshole, baby" or "I'm sorry, I only sleep with men who have tact and understand politeness. Tough luck for you." If you fear he will escalate to violence, then you should either leave now, or if he actually starts to get violent, hit him with pepper spray (or a taser if they are legal in your jurisdiction) and call the police. Rudeness should beget rudeness---and violence should beget violence. Reciprocity is the essence of justice, as I'll elaborate much more upon in my upcoming book The Science of Morality. (\end{shameless plug})
Now, on to the others. "You fucking bitch, you fucking whore, who do you think you are?" That isn't sexual. It's angry. This is the sort of thing one would say in fight with someone. If I ever said something like this, it would be to a woman who had lied to me or cheated on me. And if a man lied to me or cheated on me (remember, folks at home: I'm bi.), I would say something comparable, like "You fucking bastard, you fucking asshole, who do you think you are?" In any situation in which I'd call a woman a "bitch" or a "cunt", I would equally well call a man a "dick" or an "asshole". It's a little strange that our culture assigns gender to many terms of derision, but we do the same thing with pronouns and terms of affection. That is a much more general issue than sexual harassment, and I'm not convinced it is really a problem.
The other two however, strike me as entirely reasonable things to say, and it upsets me that they are in the game. "Very attractive" is a little weird because it has no subject---What, the sky is very attractive? My face is very attractive? Magnets are very attractive?---but extended to "You're very attractive", that's a compliment!  "I don't mean any disrespect, but you're beautiful" is even better---it prefaces the statement with an acknowledgment that you are taking a risk of being misread. These comments aren't lewd, they aren't explicit; depending on context, they may not even be intended to refer to physical appearance. They probably are, but not necessarily. ("You're attractive because you're so smart." "You're beautiful in your own way, deep down.") Now, I've never had anyone on the street say things like this to me, but I would love if they did. It would make me happy. I might well wear a smile for the rest of the day because someone stopped to tell me that I am attractive. Now, maybe that's not true of you---but it definitely could be true of many other women, and men who meet you have no way of knowing either way. Taking a shot by giving someone a polite compliment strikes me as an entirely legitimate thing to do. And you know what? Maybe he does want to have sex with you. What's wrong with that? Why is he suddenly a bad person because he might be interested in having sex with someone pretty? Feel free to tell him politely that you're not interested, or you already have a boyfriend, or you're a lesbian, or whatever. He should then leave in mild disappointment. If he doesn't, now we're talking about harassment. But if he does leave when you ask, he has done nothing wrong! In fact, I'd bet that many serious relationships have been started by a casual compliment on the street.
And this is why I don't think the one-response-fits-all mentality is merely an artifact of the game design. I think it may actually be a political message the designers are trying to send---that polite compliments and angry shouts and lewd presumptions are all the same, and indeed perhaps that all these things are tantamount to rape and should be punishable by gruesome death. The game delights in gory death in a way all-too-common among first-person-shooter games, but it's hard not to feel that the designers would on some level like to do something similar to all the men in their lives. Essentially, Hey Baby treats men the way Jack the Ripper treated women, and even if it is meant to be satirical parody or a hyperbolic counterstroke, I'm not really comfortable with that. There are a few women in the game, but they are literally Immune to Bullets.
We definitely need more consciousness-raising about sexual harassment. We need people to talk about it more often and more openly. We need to set guidelines that both men and women can accept, guidelines that clearly delineate legitimate sexual advances from impolite or harassing statements. But feminists need to keep in mind that there are such things as legitimate sexual advances, and indeed the survival of our species depends upon them; many, especially the "rape is rape" and anti-porn/anti-sex factions, seem to ignore this fact. In most accounts of harassment I've read (like this one, for instance), no distinction is made between expressing sexual attraction toward a woman and being rude and aggressive toward her. A man who wants to have sex with a woman is immediately treated as if he were some kind of monster who is purposefully participating in a massive conspiracy of oppression. "You're pretty, I'd like to get to know you" suddenly becomes a war cry of male against female.
There are two sides to this story. So feminists, listen up: What you say about sexual harassment can hurt people, for it has hurt me. I was raised in Ann Arbor, clearly the most liberal city in the Midwest. I spent most of my high school career thinking (at least subconsciously) that all sexual advances were harassment. I felt that if I came on to someone, I was hurting them, I was being a bad person. It didn't help that I had been raised into a Catholicism that demonized the male-male part of my sexuality. So I didn't come onto anyone; I didn't tell any girls or boys that I thought they were pretty and would like to have a relationship with them. I was lonely and horny and depressed. I don't mean to blame all of this on feminist accounts of sexual harassment; that was surely a small part of much larger issues I was going through. But it really wasn't good for my sexual development to be told (if not in so many words) that wanting to fuck a woman was the same thing as wanting to hurt her. It can't be good for lots of women either, to be told that wanting to be fucked is the same as wanting to submit to patriarchy. There are lots of horrible things men do to women, I know that; and whatever we can do about it, we should. But it isn't helping to tell men that their most fundamental desires, desires for things that could be beautiful and good, are immoral and harmful.
I believe in peace and equality between the sexes. I don't want women to be afraid to walk in the street. But I also believe in sex, and I don't want men or women to be afraid to seek sexual relationships. We need nuance, we need depth; and Hey Baby isn't offering any.

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