Reconstruction Vol. 12, No. 2
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Modes of Resistance: A Critical Discussion of Hey Baby. Participants: Street Harassment scholar Holly Kearl, and Men’s Anti-Violence Council member Jerrod Koon / Derrais Carter
Abstract: In recent years, street harassment has garnered a significant amount of public and scholarly attention. Activist campaigns to spread awareness on this issue and promote women’s public safety have shaped laws along with cultural understandings of gender and power. In 2010, integrated media artist Suyin Looui offered her contribution to this discourse through a game titled “Hey Baby.” Designed as a first person shooter, “Hey Baby” allows the player to experience street harassment.
This roundtable places “Hey Baby” in conversation with two activist-scholars concerned with street harassment. Holly Kearl is the founder of StopStreetHarassment.org and author of Stop Street Harassment (2010). Kearl has been instrumental in educating audiences on location, national, and international street harassment campaigns. Jerrod Koon is a Counseling Psychology doctoral student at the University of Iowa and member of the Men’s Anti-Violence Council (MAC).
Keywords: Gender, Video Games, Resistance, Anti-Violence, Street Harassment
In recent years, street harassment has garnered a significant amount of public and scholarly attention. Activist campaigns to spread awareness on this issue and promote women’s public safety have shaped laws along with cultural understandings of gender and power across the globe. In 2010, interactive media artist Suyin Looui offered her own contribution to this discourse through a game called Hey Baby. Designed as a first person shooter, Hey Baby allows the player to experience street harassment through a woman’s eyes. As the player journeys down the street, men who offer complements and/or insults approach them. The player can thank their harasser by showing him with a love or shooting them with a machine gun.
This discussion addresses the ways in which Hey Baby speaks directly to issues of gender, power, and public space. Street Harassment activist-scholar Holly Kearl and Men’s Anti-violence educator Jerrod Koon critically engage the game’s politics, weighing in the the possibilities and challenges that the game presents. Kearl is the founder of StopStreetHarassment.org and author of Stop Street Harassment (2010). She has been instrumental in educating audiences on location, national, and international street harassment campaigns. Koon is a Counseling Psychology doctoral student at the University of Iowa and member of the Men’s Anti-Violence Council (MAC). MAC offers educational workshops on bystander education. He also maintains the Men’s Anti-Violence Council blog.
DC: Could you talk briefly about your activist work? What problem(s) do you want to alleviate and how?
HK: In my day job as a program manager at the American Association of University Women, I’m an activist on issues like fair pay, ending sexual harassment and sexual assault at schools, ending workplace discrimination, and advocating for stronger enforcement of Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972. Outside of work, my main activist work focuses on gender-based street harassment. In 2008 I founded the website www.StopStreetHarassment.org with resources on the topic and a companion blog where people around the world share their stories and I highlight global anti-street harassment efforts. In 2010 I wrote one of the only books on the topic and have since given over 50 talks and written numerous articles on the issue.
Locally in Washington, DC, this spring I was part of a coalition that successfully pressured the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority to start tracking cases of verbal harassment on the transit system, launch a poster public service announcement campaign about how to report harassment, and improve the training they give their employees.
JK: The main focus of my activism involves violence and abuse prevention. The majority of the work is primary prevention, where we strive to change community and campus culture in a way that prevents harmful behaviors from happening in the first place. Specifically, my work engages men as active participants in violence prevention initiatives and bystander intervention strategies regarding intimate partner violence, stalking, sexual assault, and harassment. There is an awareness raising and problem focused aspect to our work. However, we take it a step further. Instead of telling people what not to do, our programs and training teach people helpful and effective strategies about how they can be a part of the solutions that create safer communities for everyone. Although there is a gendered component to our work, our primary message is that no one in our community deserves to be abused. We provide individuals with the skills they need to intervene in situations that are inappropriate and unhealthy.
DC: What role do you think video games play in shaping social views on the problem you want to solve?
HK: A recent BBC article reports that 42$ of the total video gamers are women, but sexist and abusive language against them by many male players is the norm. When so many youth play hours upon hours of video games a day, hearing or spewing that kind of language there, where there are few consequences, can’t help but influence their mindset about women out of the game and likely contributes to the vast amount of sexist and abusive language used offline, especially in public places, where there similarly are less consequences for the abuse than if the words were said in a workplace or school setting. So, the abusive language in the video game world likely contributes to gender-based street harassment.
JK: I’ve been an avid gamer my entire life, so I’ve always felt the tension between immensely enjoying the products and the frustration of trying to hold the industry accountable for the impact of their products. However, I have always been interested in the discussion about the impact of violent media and video games on attitudes and behaviors. We’ve really reached a saturation point with media consumption, where we have to move the conversation from “does this have an impact” to “how does this impact the consumer?” There are numerous positive and negative outcomes of video game consumption. It is a complex issue with numerous factors. However, there are significant ways that video games impact the violence prevention work I do. I mainly work with college students who have never known a world without the Internet, text messages, and video games. Many of these students were raised consuming gratuitously violent movies, music, and video games. Not only can that repeated engagement with violent entertainment serve to desensitize them to the impact of harmful and offensive conduct, but it also reinforces it as being entertaining. I don’t care if they enjoy violent media. However, I want to discuss why it’s entertaining to them, how it affects their attitudes and behaviors about violence, and the impact on others. I want them to be conscious about what they consumer and conscious about how their behaviors impact other people. The most common response is an apathetic response. The excuse that, “It’s just a game. It’s just a movie” without any consideration about the impact it has on them and others.
DC: Collectively, activists have used a stealthy combination of film, the Internet, and public protest to combat street harassment. What unique contribution might video games provide for addressing this issue?
HK: Too often our anti-street harassment efforts reach women and then men who aren’t harassers. It’s much harder to reach men who are or might one day be harassers and get them to think about why that behavior is harmful. Video games can be a medium for reaching a huge male audience that may not be reached any other way. Also, the one video game that does focus on street harassment, Hey Baby, was so unique it made a huge stir and caught the attention of the mainstream media (garnishing reviews in Time and the New York Times, for example) and any time that happens, that is a good thing because then the issue is reaching the general population and not just feminists.
JK: To me, it’s a completely untapped market. I’ve seen several attempts to infuse social justice issues into video games that completely failed to engage me as a gamer. They interested me as a social justice advocate. The problem was that they wanted to create a social justice video game. They spent most of their energy on the content and forgot to create a good video game. There is a reason that there are no video games where all you do is attend a lecture or a workshop. I attend lectures and workshops all the time. As a gamer, I want to escape into a world where I can do things I cannot do in reality. I want to have fun. I think that is the challenge with overt attempt to create social justice video games. Personally, I devote my day to violence prevention initiatives, so I do not want to go home and pick up a game based strictly on violence prevention. I would much rather have creative nonviolent options implemented into a game than one specifically focused on violence prevention. If social justice advocates want to engage gamers, they need to create engaging, entertaining, and novel experiences through a video game. That would have a tremendous impact on the player. Gamers devote hundreds of hours immersed in these virtual spaces and thousands of hours researching, commenting, and planning their next adventures. Advocates need to engage the mainstream and independent video game industry to infuse complex social issues into an engrossing story through plot, main characters, conversations, and decision options.
DC: Could you give your first impression of Hey Baby? What did you think? How did you receive it?
HK: The creator of Hey Baby reached out to me months before her video game was done and talked to me at length about her project, so I was biased in favor of it before it came out. I hate violent video games though, so I personally don’t like playing it but I do think it’s something that can engage people who like it (though only briefly since the graphics etc are very rudimentary compared to the sophisticated games they’re used to).
JK: To be honest, I was amused. It was novel and provocative. It immediately allowed me to engage others in a conversation about the issue. Over 90% of all main characters in video games are male. Very few female characters get entire stories built around their experiences. Even fewer get to be as provocative and violent as male characters. Male characters don’t need excuses to be violent. Why make such a fuss over this game? I appreciated the project because of the discussions it created. At this point in my violence prevention work, I had heard hundreds of stories from women who have experienced street harassment their entire lives. They could vividly describe the fear, disgust, powerlessness, and shame they felt just existing in public spaces. Their experiences happened because someone chose to make them the target of their harmful, offensive, and inappropriate behaviors. I imagine that many of those street harassment recipients them would enjoy engaging in some revenge fantasies and the cathartic experience of destroying their virtual harassers.
DC: In Hey Baby, the player has three options for handling harassers. They can (1) offer a heartfelt “thank you,” (2) shoot the harasser with an assault rifle or (3) continue walking while the harasser follows them. Could you talk about the implications of giving players these particular choices? Does it sufficiently portray the real world options available for harassment victims?
HK: Because I didn’t want to shoot them if I didn’t have to, when I played it, I mostly walked away from them or gave them the heartfelt thank you, but that didn’t keep them away for long. Only shooting them stopped them. While I know the game creator wanted this to be tongue-in-cheek and over the top, at some level, it’s actually true.
When you’re harassed, you don’t know what response will get them to permanently leave you alone, but if you could shoot them, I guess that would!
A thank you could be seen as encouragement by them and then they’ll follow you and harass you more. Yelling at them could be seen as a challenge, especially if they’re with friends, and they could become violent, yell hateful things, chase you, or assault you. Another option that the game creator didn’t give is to say something that throws them off (e.g. “Would you want someone talking to your sister or daughter that way? Or Stop harassing women! Or asking them to repeat themselves) and this type of response is usually the best one as far as stopping them, but that doesn’t guarantee they won’t follow you or continue to harass you. So, in that sense, shooting them is the only guarantee…but of course in the real world, that is morally wrong, will land you in jail, and isn’t a proportional response.
The reality that no matter what response you have, the harassment may continue or escalate is very frustrating and is why I think a lot of people who are harassed like the game. At least in the game they’re given an option that will truly make the harasser stop.
This reality is also why there has to be a multi-level approach to stopping street harassers that doesn’t put the onus only on the harassed individuals. We need education in schools, better laws and policies, and more social awareness that this happens and that it’s not okay.
JK: Most victims of street harassment have suffered in silence. Few people listen to them, believe them, or take their reports seriously. There are often no legal options. Even more sadistic, are the times the recipients get blamed for who are they, how they look, or what they were wearing. I have never experienced street harassment. However, I have witnessed it and heard numerous stories of the experiences. From what I hear, the most common, least confrontational strategies are either smiling or ignoring them. However, I am constantly amazed by the creative and engaging work created by those in the street harassment movement. They are creating real change and offering solutions to these behaviors.
I think that the options were selected for Hey Baby for very specific reasons. Thanking the harasser or ignoring them doesn’t stop the behavior, so the only options the player is left with are tolerating it or reacting violently. Since this is a video game, why would you do what you can do in real life? That’s boring. Looui was very strategic in offering limited options that created the biggest impact, literally. If Looui were going to expand on this project, it might be interesting for her to collaborate with street harassment advocates like Holly Kearl at Stop Street Harassment or the Hollaback! project to offer additional realistic, creative, and effective options for responding to harassers. I think that for the purposes of this project, the initial options highlight the creator’s purpose effectively. However, for this to be used as a tool beyond starting a conversation, it would be helpful for my work to offer some helpful options that recipients and bystanders could use when they witness this in reality. Of course, those who work in primary prevention could always use this project as a way to create those strategies for our own work!
DC: In an interview with Games for Change, Suyin Looui commented “I intended Hey Baby to repurpose the mechanics of the first person shooter, and transform this typically male form into a space for women to transgress” (gamesforchange.org interview). To what extent do you see the game transgressing a “male” gaming experience?
HK: In the first-person shooter gaming world, most characters are male and the female characters aren’t often independent/strong. So I think this game does transgress it in that the first person shooter is female and she’s in control of the game and the fate of all the men walking around.
JK: I definitely think this transforms the experience. It gives a voice, a story, and agency to a female character who is experiencing a variety of inappropriate behaviors. Instead of having the female character passively accept being a victim or being rescued by a male hero, this character can make the choices to take care of herself. If it didn’t violate some unwritten rules, it wouldn’t have received the reaction or the press it did. Looui’s contribution was providing a vehicle through which discussions about this topic could develop.
DC: Does the game’s satirical slant divert the player’s attention from the “problem” or is there something more productive happening here? If the latter holds true, please explain.
HK: I was really impressed by the New York Times review of the game, here’s an excerpt:
“At first I found myself somewhat offended. In Hey Baby a man says, “Wow, you’re so beautiful,” and that is license to kill him. It should be obvious that a video game in which you play a man who can shoot only women would be culturally unthinkable, no matter the circumstances.
But as I played on, I came to realize that it is equally unrealistic and absurd to suppose that saying, “Thank you, have a great day” is going to defuse and mollify a man who screams in your face, “I want to rape you,” with an epithet added for good measure.
And that is the point of Hey Baby. The men cannot ever actually hurt you, but no matter what you do, they keep on coming, forever. The game never ends. I found myself throwing up my hands and thinking, “Well what am I supposed to do?” Which is, of course, what countless women think every day.
So where is the line between saying “Hey, sweetheart” and “Baby, I could blow your back out”? Is there one?
I doubt any noninteractive art form could have given me as visceral an appreciation for what many women go through as part of their day-to-day lives. Just as I have never been sexually harassed, I have never accosted a strange woman on the street. After playing Hey Baby, I’m certainly not about to start.”
And I thought that was a very productive analysis and review. I don’t think the game diverts the player’s attention from the problem but forces them to confront it. Everything the men in the game say are comments real men said to real women in the streets, and, as the NYTimes reviewer says, the reality is targets of harassment always wonder what am I supposed to do and when will this end? If those feelings can be conveyed through a game, that is productive and powerful.
JK: I think it depends on the audience and the context. The way that Hey Baby offers something potentially more productive is that it situated the behaviors in reality. These experiences happen to real people. Millions of women every day experience lewd, inappropriate, and degrading sexual harassment in public spaces. It is a situation that they can relate to. I don’t have the same experience when I play other first person shooters. I’ve never been in a police car chase or an illegal street racing competition. I’ve never been to war. I’ve never fought an alien invasion. Those games are often fun and engaging, but I rarely connect on an emotional level. That is what separates a good game from an epic game. Hey Baby offers that potential connection with the real life behaviors it presents. However, without a conversation or understanding the impact of the behaviors on individuals in real life, the project runs the risk of simply being dismissed by those players that don’t understand why this is such a big deal or an important topic.
DC: What concerns arise when using violence to confront street harassers? Should Hey Baby address those concerns?
HK: A lot of us in the anti-street harassment activism world advocate for non-violent solutions, so of course we don’t advocate for shooting harassers in real life. Since so few women carry guns and very few women even verbally confront harassers unless they’re touched, it’s extremely unlikely any woman would ever decide to shoot a harasser in real life.
I think as long as people recognize that it is supposed to be an over-the-top and tongue-in-cheek response, there isn’t harm in it. The creator is purposely using a model of gaming that is violent and a lot of the people who play those games are people who need to be exposed to this issue.
JK: Well, it depends. I believe that in street harassment situations, the recipient should make the choice that they believe best ensures their safety and wellbeing. It is impossible to prescribe an appropriate reaction for someone else. If someone is physically assaulted, one option is self-defense, which may include a level of violence that is in proportion to the threat. I would encourage people not to engage in behavior that could make them vulnerable to criminal prosecution.
I believe that Hey Baby accomplished what it was designed to accomplish. It would be easy to highlight all of the aspects of street harassment that it does not address. However, that is a common tactic used by those who criticize social justice initiatives. The instant you announce your program or initiative, someone will complain about all of the things that you are not doing. If you start a group that is designed to prevent violence against women, they want to know why you aren’t focusing on all other victims of violence. If you want to focus on college students, they want to know why you aren’t in the high schools and middle schools. That never happens in other fields. Researchers who focus on pancreatic cancer are never accused of not caring about prostate cancer victims. Mechanical engineers are never criticized for not spending time learning about chemical engineering. No one program or initiative can effectively address every aspect of a complex social issue like street harassment. There need to be numerous, diverse groups engaged in every level from awareness raising to policy and legislation. I think Hey Baby did what it set out to do.
DC: What pedagogical possibilities are there for educators and activists who endorse Hey Baby?
HK: It’s an interactive way for students to engage with this issue and to generate a discussion about what street harassment is and what are the best responses to it that may or may not be offered in the video game.
JK: Someone with expertise in popular culture studies and media analysis would be able to provide a more thoughtful, informed response. However, as a violence prevention advocate, I can see several uses in my work. I think it is a great example of how much traction street harassment activists have achieved in getting this issue into public awareness. In the last few years, they have achieved a tremendous amount of success and change. They still have a lot of work to do, but it has been humbling and amazing to see what has been accomplished around this issue. It is very hopeful. Hey Baby is also a provocative conversation starter. It can provide an introduction to the issue or as the basic of a more in-depth critique depending on the audience. It has the ability to evoke a reaction that is not possible with simply lecturing about the impact of street harassment. This is one tool that can be used to highlight the importance of this issue as well as make a statement about the gendered aspect of the video game industry.
DC: Do you have any final remarks about Hey Baby?
HK: I posted about the Hey Baby game immediately on my blog when it was launched. A few weeks later, after the game received so much public attention, the creator wrote me and asked me to take down her name from my blog post because of the negative backlash she was facing. It’s so sad that women who dare to speak out against male-dominated practices, even in a tongue-in-cheek way, have to pay such a big penalty. She moved to London from the USA soon after she graduated (the Hey Baby game was her final school project) and I reached out to her several times to involve her in international anti-street harassment efforts but she said she’d moved on from the issue. I’m sure the negative responses had something to do with that. So while I think the game has the potential to bring more attention to the issue and has done that, it’s important to realize the cost associated with it.
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