Exploring the virtual classroom

Online education and the metaverse

Cyborg Feminism

Annelu Alsop / Elan Paulson
Ephraim Dalglish / Dr.Mark McDayter
The University of Western Ontario
November 21, 2009

Below is the paper read by Elan Paulson and Mark McDayter at Virtual Praxis, the online conference held on Minerva OSU.. This paper elicited a spirited response from the audience, portions of which are archived here.

In the past eleven months Dr. Mark McDayter and I have used Second Life to enhance the materials we teach in our university courses. Today, I am going to talk about the opportunities and challenges of using Second Life to teach Donna Haraway’s “cyborg feminism.” Then, Mark will elaborate on some of these ideas based on his own experiences in and research about Second Life. We hope that some of our final thoughts will inspire a discussion about a collaborative plan to foster Second Life’s international communities.

In my honours-level feminist literary theory course at the University of Western Ontario, our class discusses Donna Haraway’s “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” in the context of a two-hour class “field trip” into SL. Although we spend only a brief time in SL, we take a hands-on approach to considering some of the central features of Haraway’s cyborg feminism, what she describes as “an ironic political myth [that is] faithful to feminism, socialism, and materialism” (149).

I decided not only to show students SL but also to have them to explore it for themselves so that they may experience as they learn about three key ideas grounding Haraway’s cyborg figure: posthumanism, cyborg writing, and cyborg feminism’s “unfaithfulness” to mainstream science and techno-culture. Literature has been theorized as a fictional “virtual world” (Ryan), in which feminist writers may represent how technology shapes identity, ideology, and culture, and also how it may be used to exclude others based on gender, race, class, and sexuality (Lawley). However, with these imagined worlds feminists may also create spaces to envision social realities differently. Similarly, SL provides students with an opportunity to experience for themselves technology that extends and transforms their identities in cyberspace, their social relations in a simulated world, and their chance to imagine how in that world they might resist cultural practices that are motivated by misogyny, racism, and homophobia.

SL is also a useful way to teach about posthumanism, an ideology that suggests that users reciprocally shape and are shaped by the technologies that they invent; the blurred boundary between body and machine alters how we think about, and how we think with, technology. However, Haraway’s posthumanism views the body not as obsolete in relation to technology but as grounding the experience of that technology. Rather than seeing the body-tech relationship as an “upload” of the human mind onto the web that discards the body, cyborg feminism reminds SL users that online identity is “virtually” corporeal.Thus, First Life resources, values, and experiences inform SL users’ appearances and activities as they interact and form communities with others in SL.

Haraway’s cyborg feminism also reminds SL users that the technology that they enjoy in recreation was initially used only by the technological elite in the government and for the military; it was grounded in discourses of domination and colonization that shored up white, patriarchal Western privilege. Although Haraway’s cyborg is “is the product of […] masculinist technologies,” Jenny Wolmark writes, it “marks a refusal to sustain the very dualisms that structure existing relations of power and control within science and technology” (4). Feminist cyborg figures “hack” elite computer technologies to expose and subvert their dominant power structures, and also to promote more democratic access to and inclusive use of them.

To disrupt the historical exclusion of women and non-whites from participating in and benefiting from technological progress, Haraway entreats marginalized subjects to “seiz[e] the tools to mark the world that marked them as other. […] The tools are often stories, retold stories, versions that reverse and displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities” (175). By owning the means of technological production, cyborg feminist projects promote inclusive, community-oriented ways of thinking about identity in relation to technology. Cyborg feminist SL users may therefore “seize the tools” of the world’s building and scripting resources to resist the closed market system, which tends to perpetuate existing inequalities by commodifying and homogenizing appearances and activities.

Thus, cyborg feminism features a non-dualist world view, a corporeal techno-body, and a parodic, DIY, and coalitional approach to resisting what Haraway describes as “the central myths of origin of Western culture” (175). SL avatars are endlessly alterable but also material and experiential. It offers a virtual commons for egalitarian, user-generated content and “free,” democratic access to a diverse, international virtual world. Ideally, this virtual world provides the “tools” for enacting cyborg aesthetics and cyberfeminist politics insofar as this virtual world can simulate but also “do differently” First Life. But although by this account SL may seem to be the cyborg’s ideal home, in practice, viewing SL through the lens of cyborg feminism also helps students to recognize the extent to which its avatars and communities fail to enact the aesthetic and politics of cyberfeminism. As we are all aware, the anonymity of SL creates conditions in which harassment, stalking, and griefing, and other misogynist and racist activities, become possible. Moreover, the majority of businesses that make up the market economy in SL reveal the degree to which First Life cultural discourses, institutions, economics, and norms are more often transported into, rather than transformed by, SL. As a result, the appearances and activities of many SL avatars reinforce rather than subvert the idealization, objectification, and commodification of bodies and sexual practices, even as users are presumed to be “free” to choose all aspects of their online identities.

This virtual world may seem utopian insofar as it can be used to “do differently” real life social problems and inequities, but access to and knowledge of SL remains divisive. The digital divide still separates technological “haves” and “have nots” in North America and worldwide. In addition, the discourse of technology is still largely embedded in a universal language that implicitly associates technological progress and online culture with whiteness alone. Lisa Nakamura has noted “in its earlier stages [the internet] was not hailing people of color [;] it assumed a normative white user, [and] in fact often still does” (“Cyberhypes” par 4). Aside from some of the fascinating presentations that we have seen this weekend, this statement, I believe, still largely applies to most popular spaces and activities in SL as well.

The draw of SL may also be due in part to what Nakamura describes as recreational “identity tourism,” in which, for instance, “the Orient is brought into discourse, but only as a token or ‘type’” (“Race,” 712).Stereotypical role-play of non-white ethnic and cultural groups forecloses empowering representations of race difference. Moreover, while some SL users seek cyberspace’s promise to release them from their bodies, the relationship of avatars to real life identities often implicitly remains of crucial importance. Beth E. Kolko notes that “It has almost become an assumption in cyberspace that knowing the gender of one’s conversational partner provides a kind of shorthand, a discursive/visual cue that automatically delimits the conversation, a cue without which ‘real’ or ‘meaningful’ conversation and connection cannot take place” (179). Users’ gender provides an index to conversation and social relation; thus, avatars are often expected to reflect the “truth” of users’ real life identities, and so radical avatar experimentation is either regarded negatively or ignored. Kolko also finds that “gendered bodies come to affect gendered voices” in cyberspace (179). When real life gender—and race—stereotypes are transported to virtual spaces, they re-circulate and reinforce the meaning of avatars in limited terms. “While everyone is ‘passing,’” Nakamura notes of a text-based chat room, “some forms of racial passing are condoned and practiced since they do not threaten the integrity of a national sense which is defined as white” (Nakamura, “Race,” 712). The predominant visual element of SL only increases the use of pre-packaged racial and gender stereotypes to make sense of the online identities of others. Given that, as Amiri Baraka explains, “[m]achines have the morality of their inventors” (par.12), the predominately white Western “inventors” of SL have produced avatars and virtual communities that, on the whole, still reflect rather than challenge pre-existing mainstream values and privileges that Haraway’s cyborg feminism challenges.

How then do the practices of virtual identity and virtual community in Second Life challenge Haraway’s vision of a re-embodied humanism, and a cyborg feminism? And, as importantly, how can that vision be brought to confront and challenge the stereotypes and conditioned responses that have migrated from our physical world into this virtual one? That such stereotypes and responses exist is evident in a range of ways, from the prevalence of the so-called “frankenbarbie,” the laminated, large-breasted, and wasp-waisted female avatar all too common in Second Life night clubs and other social venues, to the prevalence of pornographic representations of women that embrace even the most violent forms of misogyny. “There is nothing,” Haraway has written, “about being ‘female’ that naturally binds women. There is not even such a state as ‘being’ female, itself a highly complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses and other social practices.”So why is it then that, even in Second Life where the identity of any given avatar is almost endlessly mutable, residents so often adopt the myths of identity that prevail in “real” life?

The answer lies in another “origin myth” that casts a very deep shadow over Second Life: the perceived “truth” and importance of racial, sexual and gender identity in “real life.” Far from seeing Second Life as an opportunity to experiment with and ultimately redefine socially-constructed identities, most residents remain chained to these. To understand how, we first must acknowledge the existence of a spectrum of “approaches” to Second Life that runs from “Augmentationist” at one extreme, to “Immersionist” at the other. Augmentationists are most obviously invested in their real life identities, for these are users who treat Second Life as a social networking application, akin to MySpace or Facebook. For them, “truthfulness” of representation is most important: they see Second Life as merely an extension of other, more conventional means of linking with “real” people.

Immersionists, on the other hand, enforce a more or less strict separation between their “second lives” and their “first lives.” They are, in theory at least, more free to experiment with self identity, and tend to be much more tolerant of others who do the same. For Immersionists, the “origin” of integral identity in “real life” is, putatively at least, less influential than it is for Augmentationists, who build their own self-identities and behaviours within Second Life upon an acceptance of their biological and socially-constructed selves in “real life.”

Even Augmentationists, however, abandon the veracity of their self-depiction in Second Life if it is felt that they can “better” themselves in some way here. As one resident explained in a recent blog article that “At first I played with an avatar that I thought represented me physically . . . But not many people talked to me. Now [with a large-chested avatar] people go out of their way to IM me and send me friend requests.” There are two disturbing elements to this account. The first is, of course, the recognition of the fact that sexual appearance still accounts for much in Second Life. The second is the speaker’s willing acquiescence to a gendered mode of social interaction that presupposes that the female is “passive”: rather than pursuing friendships herself, she enhances her sexual allure in order to attract the attention of others.

This acknowledgment of the fact that breast size, and physical appearance in Second Life in general, is an important determinant in social interactions underlines a key point that is applicable as much to Immersionists as to Augmentationists: the expectations regarding appearance, character, behaviour, and identity in Second Life remain predicated upon an acceptance of the socially-defined norms of “real life.” Large breasts in women, and broad shoulders in men, for instance, still equate to sexual attractiveness. Interactions between residents are still enormously gendered, and seem, frankly, to be based upon either an acknowledged or covert interest in sex. Interestingly, for instance, it is a common complaint of male avatars in Second Life that they have few “male” friends; the bonds of homosocial interaction seem weaker here than in “real life.” In other regards, however, heteronormative relationships within Second Life very much mirror the prevailing cultural norms of the physical world. To cite only the most ridiculous instance: by convention, pose balls for men are blue, while those for women remain stubbornly and nauseatingly pink.

The issue of race in Second Life is, on the face of it, less problematic in Second Life. Overt racism is one of the few contraventions of the Community Standards that Linden Lab employees will respond to promptly and reasonably decisively. Moreover, and despite the infiltration into Second Life of a few real life racist organizations, tolerance for nonwhite avatars seems reasonably widespread. Nonetheless, it is clear that real life racism does receive expression in Second Life. A year-old study out of Northwestern University of attitudes towards race in the virtual world There.com found that there was a significant difference between the willingness of residents there to assist a “white” avatar, and a “black” avatar. Rather dishearteningly, but significantly for our purposes, the study concluded that “interactions among strangers within the virtual world are very similar to interactions between strangers in the real world.”

The real problem with representations of race in Second Life, however, is the degree to which nonwhites are underrepresented here. In part, this is no doubt due to the demographics of the affordable technology capable of accessing Second Life.For whatever reason, however, “race” is not seen to be much of an issue within SL. What, for instance, are we to make of the comment by one blog writer that if one wants “to experience ‘racism’ first-hand in Second Life,” one should try “being a furry.”While this comment was probably intended to quell fears that “real life” racism is prevalent in Second Life, its equation of bias against “furries” with discrimination against nonwhites should give pause for thought.

Mention of furries (and we can add other oppressed minority groups such as Nekos, Tinies, Elves, and the always-downtrodden Vampires to the list) brings us back to the practices of Immersionists. By embracing such fantasy identities, of course, Immersionists seem to signal their recognition that identity can be remade anew in Second Life. In fact, however, the most common form of experimentation with identity here is the adoption of a differently-gendered avatar. A recent study from Nottingham Trent University suggested that up to 70% of women swapped genders, while 54% of men did the same. The methodology of this study has come under attack, and the numbers certainly seem badly skewed: for one thing, it is the common perception, and probably the reality, that more men play with gender identity than women, possibly because female identity is more invested in the physicality of the body.

Nonetheless, a great many men and women do “play” the opposite gender in Second Life. And how do they manage this? Well, almost invariably with reference to the socially-determined myths and preconceptions that rule our “understanding” of these genders in “real life.” Which brings us back to that most popular of Second Life subjects, breast size. In one admittedly informal and small-scale survey, 70% of female avatars interviewed “regarded their bust size as a primary concern when creating a Second Life avatar.”
The fact that one of the most talked-about stories in the SL community of late has been the introduction of a “jiggly boob” feature in the third-party Emerald Viewer suggests that there is some truth to this. On the whole, “Real-world females proved more likely to rebel against the Second Life ideal described by one female avatar as ‘a balloon chest and a low-cut top.'” Whether accurate or not, this view is certainly reflected in a nearly universally held Second Life axiom, that the likelihood of a female avatar representing a real life female is in inverse proportion to the size of the avatar’s breasts.

In other words, Immersionists, no less than Augmentationists, remain dependent upon conventional “myths” about sexual and gender identity. As Lynda Boudreault and Joseph Moser put it, “Social norms . . . still apply, as evidenced by the relatively conventional gender roles that users tend to assume.”And because of this, both Augmentationists and Immersionists are also prey to a widespread and deeply ingrained social anxiety about “Authenticity.” Authenticity, in this context, is constituted by an adherence to the received normative attitudes about the links between character and socially-determined notions of gender, race, and sexuality.

The test and proof of Authenticity is the close correspondence between representation in Second Life, and the so-called “reality” of the physical world. For Augmentationists, this social anxiety is manifested both in an insistence upon the absolute veracity of their self-representation, and a barely submerged panic about the “truthfulness” of the representational identity of those with whom they interact. The use of Voice (VoIP) as a means of verification to this end has become widespread. For Immersionists, on the other hand, the test of Authenticity is the “accuracy” of their depiction of whatever their adopted identity may be, as measured against a “real life” standard that is, in fact, nothing more than a set of received “truisms” about sexual, racial, and gender identity.
In the face of this social anxiety, and the perceived need for authenticity, then, how does one approach a resistance to the continued domination of stereotypes and unquestioned “truths” about identity in SL? The answer may reside, paradoxically, in a deliberate exploitation of this social panic about authenticity, for this panic is, by its very nature, interrogative. If that panic can be sustained, maintained, or even cultivated, the indeterminacy that it implies will work to erode the influence of First Life cultural norms in SL.Students, then, should be encouraged to articulate, through their avatars, multiple alternate readings of identity in SL that destabilize fixed identities. They must always be prepared, however, to negotiate their own difference, and the differences of others, with an ethical awareness of the other embodied human beings that exist behind their avatars. If, as Haraway suggests, the “tools” of the feminist cyborg are “often stories, retold stories,” then these retellings must indeed “reverse and displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities.” Our retelling of such narratives must be a challenge to authentic, transcendent origins – in both First and Second Life.
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Wolmark, Jenny. “Introduction and Overview.” Cybersexualities: A Reader on Feminist Theory, Cyborgs and Cyberspace. Ed. Jenny Wolmark. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1999. Print.

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