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Gotta catch ‘em all

Nikolas Oktaba on what we can learn about sex and sexism from Pokemon Go!

In order to understand what all of my students are going gaga over, I downloaded the new Pokemon GO! app. Within a few minutes of starting the game, I had a formidable array of beasts under my command: Bulbasaur (an amphibian with a scallion strapped to its back), Pidgey (a pigeon), Spearrow (an angry pigeon?) and Hypno (which I can only describe as a Shakespearean kangaroo). By walking around town with the game open, I could discover the most fertile Pokemon-hunting spots and plan my movements accordingly. Deciding to examine my new pets in an air-conditioned space, I took my band of critters to a local café and sat down with a drink and soon found myself gripped by the conversation of two men at a nearby table. Both were hunched over their phones; one pontificated at the other about the best way to effect capture. A seemingly innocuous conversation, and one that would not have been out of place in a Pokemon-obsessed world. I listened more attentively without alerting anyone to the fact that I was eavesdropping.

The men were discussing women and the best ways that one might lay hold of them. They saw women as passive creatures listlessly wandering the streets awaiting capture and servitude, just like the weird and wonderful creatures that populate the Pokemon universe. Just as a Pokemon player must know where to find the rarest catches, the man - also a ‘player’ - must discover special hunting-grounds where he might be able to effect his own conquests. A callous and predatory outlook on life, to be sure. Phrases like ‘You need to make them do what you want the moment you see them’, ‘Take them for drinks here, mate - the women never see it coming’, and ‘If they’re fat, they’ll be more grateful for it’ abounded.

Of course, the Classicist in me immediately drew parallels between this dreadful conversation and what I have read in my journey through Antiquity. One of the men - clearly some sort of mentor figure to his interlocutor - informed the other that he ought to strike hard and fast when encountering a woman in the wild lest he lose critical momentum. The Greek poet Addaeus, as translated by Stephen Bertmann, writes: She’s pretty? Strike while the iron’s hot; Just grab your balls and state your case. But if you tell her, “I love you like a brother.” She’ll slam the door right in your face.

Unfortunately, the sentiments expressed above would not be out of place in a boys’ locker room or online chat forum - a grim reminder of how much like us the ancients were (or how we are still like them).

The man continued, noting that certain locations were better at chancing upon certain types of women; for instance, a bookshop was best for finding women with wit and intelligence, while a seedy pub specialised in ‘crazy sluts’. (In Pokemon GO!, players are more likely to find water-type creatures near rivers, etc.). The Roman poet Ovid writes: A mistress, though, doesn’t float down from the sky: You have to seek out the one who’s caught your eye. A hunter has to work, Know where to spread his stag-nets, in which glens boars lurk, A fowler’s familiar with copses, fishermen learn Which streams are the most rewarding. (Ars Amatoria 1.43-50, James Michie trans.)

The above is from his poem Ars Amatoria, ‘The Art of Love’. It is divided into three parts: the first two are addressed to men who wish to hunt for women, and the third is addressed to women who wish to be more attractive to their pursuers (for instance, in Ars 3.274, Ovid notes that women with small breasts ought to wear bras (angustum circa fascia pectus eat)).

Just as a Pokemon trainer must know where the best - and the most - Pokemon are found, the seducer-in-training must know where to find the women of his choosing. Ovid suggests strolling slowly through the shady landmarks, visiting various shrines and even the Sabbath observations of Roman Jews, and notes that the reader ought to hunt (venare, 1.89) at the theatre, where he shall find a woman suitable for both love and play (1.91). The same language used by Ovid in his didactic poem was used by the chaps sitting in the café. Sex, according to these men, is a zero-sum game in which there is a hunter and his quarry; according to this paradigm, men roam the world seeking women who are described only in terms of their stomping-grounds and how they are to be caught. It’s almost as if they were beasts inviting collection and (sexual) study.

Though I am still a neophyte to the weird and wonderful world of Pokemon, I like to think that I can now distinguish Pikachu from Sandshrew; more important to me, though, is the great usefulness of the app in initiating difficult conversations about sexism in Antiquity and today. Perhaps I shall even include it in the syllabus the next time that I teach Ovid!

*Nikolas Oktaba [2015] did an MPhil in Classics and has been teaching on Oxford for Oxbridge Academic Programmes over the summer.