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In Trauth, Eileen (Ed.), The encyclopedia of gender and information technology (pp. 1018-1022). Hershey, PA: Information Science Publishing, 2006. Title: Postmodern Feminism Alternative Titles: Postmodern Feminist Theory, Postmodernism, Cyberfeminism, Technofeminism, Postmodern Theory Keywords: Cyborg, cyberfeminism, Donna Haraway, computer-mediated communication, postmodernism, identity, MOOs, MUDs, weblogs, podcasts, zines Clancy Ratliff University of Minnesota Introduction Since the 1970s, researchers have been using gender as an analytic category to study information technology. In the decades since then, several questions have been raised on an ongoing basis, such as: How is gender constituted and reproduced in electronic spaces? Can the Internet be a place where there is no gender, a place where gender becomes fluid and malleable? How are identity and the politics of identity constructed online? Some scholars studying these questions have relied on feminist standpoint theory to frame and inform their inquiries into these issues, which foregrounds the differences between men's and women's experiences in electronic spaces and computing in general. However, others, particularly throughout the 1990s, have found postmodern feminist theory to be not only more accurate for explaining the actual practices of electronic communication and behavior, but also more conducive to the achievement of feminist political goals. The sections that follow will explain the general principles of postmodern feminist theory and its use in studies of gender and computer-mediated communication. Background What is known as postmodern feminism is often associated with the work of Judith Butler (1990, 1993) and is marked, in part, by a “linguistic turn,” a view of gender as a discursive construction and performance rather than a biological fact. These theorists criticize the conflation of sex and gender, essentialist generalizations about men and women, and the tendency to view gender as fixed, binary, and determined at birth, rather than a fluid, mobile construct that allows for multiple gender expressions. The gender dichotomy of man/woman so pervasive in Western culture can be understood in terms of the cultural imperative to be heterosexual and a history of biological determinism in Western philosophy. Postmodern feminism rejects a dualistic view of gender, heteronormativity and biological determinism, pointing to the inseparability of the body from language and social norms. Medical professionals can, for example, conform to and reinforce social norms by surgically transforming an infant with ambiguous genitalia into a culturally intelligible girl proper whose clitoris is a socially
acceptable size (Butler, 1990). Medical technological intervention is also responsible for sexual reassignment surgery, making the materiality of gender malleable and blurring the boundaries between “man” and “woman.” Postmodern feminists argue against the assumption that all women share a common oppression; this assumption has, unwittingly, totalized and naturalized the category of “woman” into a white, heterosexual, middle-class, able-bodied, young- to middle-aged norm. Moreover, avowing political categories such as “woman” or “queer” as part of one’s identity, what is called “identity politics,” is both intellectually and politically misguided. Identitarian terms such as “transgender,” according to the postmodern school of thought, emerge into discourse at certain points in history, and it is important to keep this point in the foreground. Ignoring a term’s history can end up reifying the term and reinforcing its place in a discursive hierarchy. From this body of work, the theorist whose work has been particularly influential to scholars of gender and information technology is Donna Haraway. Haraway (1985) argues that in a culture of high technology, the boundaries are no longer clear between human and animal, animal and machine, or human and machine. While not a new observation, Haraway recasts it as a windfall for feminist theory; hierarchical dualisms such as man/woman, heterosexual/homosexual, and white/black are no longer stable in high-tech culture. High technology is embedded so deeply in politics and knowledge (examples include artificial intelligence, genetic modification of organisms, and reproductive technologies) that the technologies are no longer tools deployed by agents in positions of power but now to a great extent construct those agents. New technologies prompt redefinition of such concepts as literacy, work, nature, reproduction, and culture. Haraway argues that taking the cyborg, a figure without boundaries that is both human and machine, as a metaphor for socialist feminist theoretical interventions can be useful for feminist theory because it can help feminist theorists imagine a world that is not seen in or confined to hierarchical dualisms. The cyborg resists and eludes final definitions, as should feminist theory in order to avoid totalizing the category of “woman.” Braidotti (2003) suggests three potential ways to use the cyborg metaphor as an intellectual tool. First, the cyborg as an analytical tool “assists in framing and organizing a politically invested cartography of present-day social and cognitive relations” (p. 209). Second, the cyborg functions in a normative mode to offer a more complex and nuanced evaluation of social practices (see Selfe & Selfe, 1996). Third, we can use it as a “utopian manifesto” for imagining ways to “[reconstruct] subjectivity in the age of advanced technology” (p. 209). Also, with its focus on the organic and technological body, the cyborg metaphor keeps the body in view; one charge against postmodern feminism is that the materiality of the body “on the ground” gets lost in theorists’ preoccupation with discourse. Postmodern Theory and Identity in Cyberspace When the World Wide Web became popular and commonly used, some wondered if the Web could become a truly democratic place, where discrimination on the basis of race, class, or gender could be eliminated. As much research has shown, however, and indeed as anyone who happens upon racist and misogynistic Web sites can attest to, the Web is not a utopia. Feminists have responded to gender inequalities online in several fashions, but Hall's (1996) study of women's experiences online makes a useful distinction between what she calls “liberal cyberfeminism” and “radical cyberfeminism” in online discussion practices (see also Wolmark, 2003). What Hall terms liberal cyberfeminism is “influenced by postmodern discussions on gender fluidity by feminist and queer theorists, imagines the computer as a liberating utopia that does not recognize the social dichotomies of male/female and heterosexual/homosexual” (p.
148). Radical cyberfeminists, on the other hand, are concerned with everyday online problems: homophobia, harassment of women, and pornographic representations of women, and they seek to create safe spaces for women only (see Herring, 1996). Liberal cyberfeminism corresponds with a postmodern feminist view of gender as mobile and performative, not necessarily tied closely to identity. In online spaces, identity is constructed in communities with certain discursive norms, and identity is based on conversations and credibility established in those conversations; as such, only the community decides whether or not they accept the user as a woman, a disabled person, or the like. Turkle (1995) and Stone (1995) use postmodern theories, which problematize the humanist subject, to show that online heightens the sense that identity is shifting, fluid, de-centered, and multiple; online, identity is a series of fictions and textual play – “personae all the way down” (Stone, 1995, p. 81). Turkle (1995) claims that computing is taking us “from a modernist culture of calculation toward a postmodernist culture of simulation,” from “centralized structures and programmed rules” to “a postmodern aesthetic of complexity and decentering” (p. 20). Turkle (1995) agrees with Haraway that “[t]he computer is an evocative object that causes old boundaries to be renegotiated” (p. 22). One such boundary is that between “man” and “woman.” Turkle (1995) cites netsex as one such simulation which allows for the flexibility of identitarian categories, with what she suggests is rampant “virtual gender-swapping” (p. 212, see also Bruckman, 1993). Turkle describes several cases of gender swapping and finds that “a virtual gender swap gave people greater emotional range in the real” (p. 222). Not only does this kind of gender play give users a space in which to express masculine and feminine aspects of their personalities, virtual gender-swapping also lets users explore their sexuality. For example, women can play men in order to have netsex with other women, and men can play women to have netsex with other men. Heterosexual women can play lesbian and bisexual women, and heterosexual men can play gay and bisexual men. (Turkle, 1995, p. 223). Gender-swapping in online spaces disrupts traditional gender hierarchies, which is desirable for postmodern feminism. Butler (1990) argues that subverting gender norms through parodizing traditional gender roles, cultural unintelligibility (e.g. rejecting gender as do genderqueers), and gender proliferation is good for feminism: “The loss of gender norms would have the effect of proliferating gender configurations, destabilizing substantive identity and depriving the naturalizing narratives of compulsory heterosexuality of their central protagonists: 'man' and 'woman'” (p. 187). Hall (1996) claims that a postmodern feminist approach is “identified by an insistence on equality rather than oppression” (p. 151, see also Plant, 1996). Playing with gender or abandoning it altogether allows women and men to reject traditional roles and avoid occupying assigned positions in the hierarchical dualism of man/woman. Future Trends Much of the work that draws upon postmodern feminism has used MOOs and MUDs as its object of study. With their encouragement of role-playing, gaming, and other forms of creativity, including imaginative work such as writing detailed descriptions of objects, rooms, sensations, and people, MOOs and MUDs provide ample opportunity for spontaneity and experimentation. However, the technology is changing; people don't use MUDs and MOOs much anymore. Instead, asynchronous publication tools such as weblogs, wikis, and audio software for podcasts are becoming more popular. While gender-swapping isn't entirely absent on weblogs (Sorgatz, 2004), it is less common, and the studies of gender and communicative practices using these new tools reflects this. As a result, many researchers in CMC interpret gender online on the practical basis of self-identification and gender cues. Comstock (2001), in her study of grrrl zines, approaches gender from a third wave feminist perspective, carefully pointing out that she is not
using the term "women" (or grrrls) to mean one group with common attributes, which often is hegemonic, taking white middle-class women's agendas and experiences to be the norm. Rather than stating her theoretical assumptions about gender, she only writes that she is not using the term "women" to mean one set of attributes, and she seems to rely on self-identification only as a gender indicator. Comstock discusses grrrl zine authorship, which is highly political and helps young women to participate in a public sphere. Discourse on grrrl zines "is often articulated at the site of the traumatized, adolescent female body" and embodied in narratives of abuse and body image (2001, p. 388). Comstock's research relies in a tacit manner on postmodern feminist theory, with a focus on gender as discursively produced. In their study of gender and weblogs, Herring, Kouper, Scheidt, & Wright (2004, online) clearly explain how they classified bloggers as men or women: Gender of blog authors was determined by names, graphical representations (if present), and the content of the blog entries (e.g., reference to “my husband” resulted in a “female” gender classification, assuming other indicators were consistent). Age of blog authors was determined by information explicitly provided by the authors (e.g., in profiles) or inferred from the content of the blog entries (e.g., reference to attending high school resulted in a “teen” age classification). The gender of the blog author was evident in 94%, and the age of the author in 90%, of the blogs in the combined samples. Herring et al. acknowledge heterosexual gender norms and how bloggers present a particular gender online, and while they do not discuss specific feminist theories that inform their interpretation, one can see that they interpret gender based on selfidentification but also on discursive performance, which speaks to Butler’s (1990, 1993) theories of gender as performance. What weblogs, podcasts, and zines have in common is a desire to reach an audience. Whereas with synchronous conversation in which role-playing is common it might be easy to try on various identities, new publication technologies encourage the maintenance of a stable Web presence, the garnering of a readership, the interaction with a public. It is more difficult to inhabit another gender category for an evening than it was before, and it is also more difficult to use theories that argue for shifting and multiple gender identities to study online activity when the actual practices are so divergent from the theories’ claims. Also, postmodern feminist theorists who study science and technology such as Plant (1996) and Haraway (1985) have been criticized for an overly utopian view of technology. Because the emphasis has shifted from MOO and MUD activity to citizen media, future feminist work with computer-mediated communication will make more use of feminist theories that deal with notions of public, private, and personal narrative, including Fraser (1992) and Benhabib (1992).
Conclusion There is now a large body of research and theory of gender and information technology. Gender and IT is a field with a history, but more research remains to be done, and lingering questions and problems exist. One such problem is postmodern feminism’s concern with the continued assumption (and potential reification) of a man/woman, masculine/feminine gender binary (LeCourt, 1999). LeCourt (1999) observes that much feminist research in CMC relies on
essentialist or constructivist models of gender, both of which reify a masculine/feminine, man/woman gender binary. However, while it might be theoretically sophisticated to approach information technology from the perspective of postmodern feminism, in the everyday practices of information technology – education, work, and communication – most people do identify themselves as either men or women, however problematic those identitarian processes may be. Moreover, much astute policy research has been done on behalf of women in information technology, research that assumes a male/female dichotomy. Recovery work on the history of technology, especially that of Sadie Plant (1997) and Cheris Kramarae (1988), reveals that women have always been part of the production and use of machines. The underrepresentation of women in IT careers and education is still a problem, and while the research done so far on women's experiences in IT education and the IT workplace has been helpful, more needs to be done to assess the industries' and educational institutions' efforts to create a more egalitarian workplace.
References Benhabib, S. (1993). Models of public space: Hannah Arendt, the liberal tradition, and Jürgen Habermas. In C. Calhoun, (Ed.). Habermas and the public sphere (pp. 72-98). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. Bruckman, A.S. (1993). Gender swapping on the Internet. Retrieved August 1, 2005, from http://www.cc.gatech.edu/~asb/papers/gender-swapping.txt Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble. New York: Routledge. Butler, J. (1993). Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of “sex.” New York: Routledge. Comstock, M. (2001). Grrrl zine networks: Re-composing spaces of authority, gender, and culture. JAC, 21, 386-409. Fraser, N. (1992). Rethinking the public sphere: A contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy. In C. Calhoun, (Ed.). Habermas and the public sphere (pp. 109-142). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. Gerrard, L. (1999). Feminist research in computers and composition. In K. Blair & P. Takayoshi (Eds.), Feminist cyberscapes: Mapping gendered academic spaces. Stamford, CT: Ablex. Hall, K. (1996). Cyberfeminism. In S. C. Herring, ed., Computer-Mediated Communication: Linguistic, Social and Cross-Cultural Perspectives (pp. 147170). Amsterdam: John Benjamins. Haraway, D. (1985). A manifesto for cyborgs: Science, technology, and socialist feminism in the 1980s. Socialist Review, 80, 65-108. Herring, S.C. (1996). Two variants of an electronic message schema. In S. C. Herring, (Ed.) Computer-mediated communication: Linguistic, social and cross-cultural perspectives (pp. 81-108). Amsterdam: John Benjamins. Herring, S.C., Kouper, I., Scheidt, L.A., & Wright, E.L. (2004). Women and children last: The discursive construction of weblogs. In L.J. Gurak, S. Antonijevic, L. Johnson, C. Ratliff, & J. Reyman (Eds.), Into the blogosphere: Rhetoric, community, and culture of weblogs. Retrieved August 13, 2004, from http://blog.lib.umn.edu/blogosphere/women_and_children.html Kramarae, C. (1988). Ed. Technology and women's voices: Keeping in touch. New York: Routledge.
LeCourt, D. (1999). Writing (without) the body: Gender and power in networked discussion groups. In K. Blair & P. Takayoshi (Eds.), Feminist cyberscapes: Mapping gendered academic spaces (pp. 153-175). Stamford, CT: Ablex. Plant, S. (1996). On the matrix: cyberfeminist simulations. In R. Shields (Ed.), Cultures of the Internet: Virtual spaces, real histories, living bodies (pp. 170-183). London: Sage. Plant, S. (1997). Zeroes + ones: Digital women + the new technoculture. London: Fourth Estate Limited. Selfe, C.L., & Selfe, R.J. (1996). Writing as democratic social action in a technological world: Politicizing and inhabiting virtual landscapes. In A.H. Duin & C.J. Hansen (Eds.), Nonacademic writing: Social theory and technology (pp. 325-358). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. Sorgatz, S. (2004, June). Girl, interrupted. City Pages, 25. Retrieved August 1, 2005, from http://www.citypages.com/databank/25/1230/article12271.asp Stone, A.R. (1995). The war of desire and technology at the close of the mechanical age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster. Wolmark, J. (2003). Cyberculture. In M. Eagleton (Ed.), A concise companion to feminist theory (pp. 215-235). Malden, MA: Blackwell. Terms and Definitions Performativity: A term associated with poststructuralist feminism. The idea that gender is a learned, daily act grounded in social norms of heterosexuality, femininity, and masculinity, rather than biological sex. Grrrl zines: Not-for-profit publications (print or online) containing art, creative writing, political rants, essays, collages, or anything else the author can imagine. Often associated with punk rock and the Riot Grrrl movement, a feminist movement situated in the early 1990s in Olympia, Washington and Washington, D.C. Essentialism: The belief that all members of a group share common attributes. For gender, men might be seen as naturally strong, aggressive, logical, and independent, women as naturally weak, passive, emotional, and dependent on social relationships. Wiki: A Web site that runs on software that enables any reader to add or edit content on the site. As a result of this affordance, wikis are highly collaborative. Weblog: Also called “blog.” A frequently updated Web site consisting of timestamped posts in reverse chronological order. Netsex: Also called cybersex, netsex refers to the act of participating in a role-playing sexual situation. Netsex usually takes place in synchronous chat venues. Turkle (1995) also uses the term “TinySex” to denote netsex that takes place in TinyMOOs. MUD: An abbreviation for Multi-User Dungeon, Multi-User Domain, or Multi-User Dimension. MUDs are spaces where multiple users are logged in at the same time, often to participate in role-playing games.
MOO: An abbreviation for MUD, Object Oriented. Unlike a basic synchronous chat space, a MOO contains rooms and objects. Both MOOs and MUDs are text-based, meaning that paragraphs of description serve in the stead of images of objects.
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