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Athwart

Action-Game Activism

by James Lileks

We’re told the election will be about the economy. As in, “We would like to have one again.” No luxuries like social issues: When businesses can hire without worrying that parental leave will be extended to include caring for a puppy, we can get back to arguing over whether we’re in a moral swamp up to our knees, or our necks.

Doesn’t mean we can’t kick back and indulge a little social-issue action just for relaxation. Time magazine served up a good one recently, writing about a video game that’s violent AND degrades women! But not how you’d think. It’s called Hey Baby, and no, it’s not a first-person shooter that takes place entirely in a womb. You play a woman who walks around town shooting men who annoy her. As the website says: “Ladies, are you sick and tired of catcalling, hollering, obnoxious one-liners and creepy street encounters? Tired of changing your route home to avoid uncomfortable situations? IT’S PAYBACK TIME, BOYS.”

Indeed. A man walks up, mumbles a bad pick-up line. Bang! The gun jerks, the blood flies, the miscreant stumbles back — and a tombstone rises where he fell, engraved with his final words. One guy says, “I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but you’re really beautiful.” Bang! Should have said, “You appear to be underpaid for the same job as a man due to the result of systemic sexism,” and then you’d only blow out his kneecaps. The old wolf-in-feminist’s-clothing dodge. Creep. The lines get more salacious as you go along, the men angrier, and soon the street is studded with tombstones. Still they come! They never run out of lines; you never run out of bullets.

It’s dull, ugly, and boring, but since it combines video-game violence and feminism, that leads to all sorts of knicker-twisting. Let’s handle the violent aspect first, and do so with care: The Right often overreacts to video-game violence, which strikes younger voters like Grandpa yelling about the TV showing Elvis’s hips.

Sure, gamers will tell you, the graphics are better, but “realism” is still a subjective opinion. In some WWII games, multiple gunshot wounds can be healed by walking over Red Cross packages conveniently strewn all over Europe. Talk to a vet; not quite how it worked. No one got to save his game at Normandy so he wouldn’t have to start over from England when he died on the beach. Doom, a hugely influential game, made many blanch with its “realism” in 1994, but now it looks like you’ve packed Vaseline in your eyes and gone gunnin’ for angry Lego blocks.

It’s the moral context that counts. In the Grand Theft Auto series you play a brutish sociopath in an amoral world, which helps compensate for the fact that you are actually a nerd with a bag of Doritos in your lap. But Bioshock puts you in an underwater city founded on Ayn Rand principles, undone by human nature. It all depends, as it always has; for every Spillane there’s a Chandler. Even Salman Rushdie has come out in favor of video games as an art form. Granted, a game based on his story would be dull — shave your beard and stay offscreen for 20 years — but he understands it’s a new form of storytelling.

The moral context in Hey Baby, however, is banal: Doncha just wanna? Wuncha just loveta? Most feminists would probably deplore the game for its gunplay and prefer a game that shoots “Race for the Cure” ribbons out of a handbag and turns attackers into chestless men with clipboards ready to go door-to-door for NARAL. But feminists would also bristle if you suggested that female nature makes them less interested in splatter-fests. Them’s fightin’ words — er, passive-resistance words. Women may not want to shoot men in a video game, but you have to understand the underlying anger, and they should be able to do so without anyone thinking it’s unladylike. Er, unfeminine. Er — GENDER IS A SOCIAL CONSTRUCT!

Movies abound with action heroines now, so young women can have Strong Role Models and young boys can have . . . well, who cares. The actress may have the physique of a praying mantis, but she can still punch out a 350-lb. brute amped up on steroids and meth. A comic-book movie adaptation called Kick-Ass has an eleven-year-old girl who kills people while performing moves that would make Nijinsky throw a disc. The actress in the remake of I Spit on Your Grave, a revenge fantasy, described in interviews her initial reluctance to appear in a splatter-fest, but said she was convinced it was really a female-empowerment story.

It’s a remake of a 30-year-old film. There’s been a little empowering between here and there, but progress just shows us how far we have to go. As long as our overwhelmingly male-dominated education establishment still slaps the math books out of girls’ hands and makes them go to the Home Ec room to be measured for pink aprons, you’ll get the righteous anger of Hey Baby. We also need a national debate on video-game ratings, studies that suggest a link between Pac-Man and obesity, and some guidance from Oprah at the very least.

Doesn’t it make you look forward to prosperity, when we can start arguing about these things again?

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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