Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Avatars: Exploration of Gender in the Digital Age

History Repeats Itself
Four hundred years since the English theater was the place of gender explorations a new social stage has emerged where gender identity is challenged and created, the World Wide Web. This world, composed of objects both real and fantastical in nature, has reversed the old way of one's perception of others, traditionally being based on objective physical, emotional, and mental criteria. The World Wide Web is primarily dependent on how and what one chooses to communicate about his or her self. The subjective nature of online profiles make for a prime place to explore a gender other than the one typically associated with specific sexes.

Gender-Oriented Language
Word choice is one method of determining an author's identity and gender affiliation on the World Wide Web. The subjective nature of this digital forum makes an
ideal place to change gender without changing sex or being labeled as "gay" or "lesbian." Authors of blogs who seek to try on different gender roles while retaining their original sex participate in a phenomenon known as "disembodiment." This term refers to the idea that while the body is necessary to connect to the internet, after that the body is no longer necessary for self-definition, and "This ultimately alludes to a sense of detachment from the identity defined by the physical body" (Sexual Identity Online). Another study comments, "While physical constraints such as the body, biological sex, race, or age can have a profound effect on self-definition and self-presentation, many of these attributes become flexible online" (Huffaker, Calvert). Anonymous blogs are becoming increasingly prevalent as a recent study shows, "BlogCensus randomly sampled 490,000 blogs to find 40% male, and 36% female, with the remaining 24% of the blogs unidentifiable in terms of gender" (Huffaker, Calvert). This could lead to one conclusion that authors of blogs wish to remain anonymous possibly to refrain from an audience bias based upon gender.

Technological Explorations of Language
My colleague, James, referred me to a study conducted by researchers at the
Georgia Institute of Technology who were fascinated by the role words play in revealing gender and invented an internet game to explore the issue. The Turing Game is based upon a question-and-answer setting in which questioners interrogate panelists, all posing as the same gender and attempt to discover the gender posers through purely written responses. Most users found it is not as easy to determine the impostor, the language being a good mask for defining one as a specific gender. Simply put, "girls are more likely to disclose personal information, feelings, and concerns than are boys...and (boys) often go out of their way to avoid appearing, in any way, 'feminine'...boys at adolescence tend to (and are encouraged to) restrict their emotions and emotional disclosure during adolescence" (Stern). Blogs have become forums where gender specific language is utilized in associating one with the opposite gender as well as when exploration of one's ascribed gender. One study found boys more likely to present themselves as gay online than in person and conversely, girls are more likely to explore more masculine or "unladylike" talk such as sex, depression, suicidal ideation (Stern) through the online sphere. These studies push the thought that emerging social networking sites have become venues where it is socially accepted to present one's self as a different gender or a combination of both masculine and feminine.

Graphic Disguise
Words are not the only mask the online community has to offer. Visual design "speaks" of gender as much as actual words. Studies have found that "In terms of their structure and style, men's home pages tend to be more technologically complex, to incorporate more motifs related to technology, and to emphasize status. Women's home pages...tend to be technologically simpler, include more floral designs and pastel colors, share more original creations, and more commonly integrate addresses to the audience" (
Stern). Colors as well assist in defining gender of a blogger with lighter and pastel colors more commonly used by females and darker, solid colors used by males.

A class mate of mine, Ben, has been the butt of a few jokes regarding his very "masculine," dark colored, technologically advanced, blog. My blog, being the classic feminine color, pink, attributes a gender through purely visual stimuli. My good friend, Krista, wrote for a question-answer service and unintentionally did not reveal her sex or gender. When this became apparent, she comments on her blog, Uffish Thought, "I liked the Uffish part because it doesn't seem to have a set definition. I saw how boxed in sometimes writers can become, and I wanted to have a 'nym that I could use to answer any kind of question, any way I chose and not have a big uproar." Her followers were shocked when she revealed "I am female." The visual appearance of her blog reveals little by way of gender and promotes the anonymity of her blog. The colors, word font, pictures, etc., do not ascribe gender either way and assist her readers in their interpretation of her answers as unbiased gender-wise.

The Implications
As understanding of words and visual appearance becomes more apparent, the hermaphroditic nature of combining these two elements of writing and visual appearance to create an atmosphere where one can explore different modes of thinking and writing as well as combine their sex with the opposite gender, will enhance self expression and evaluation. The blogosphere will increasingly become a modern day transvestite theater and, in the words of Phyllis Rackin regarding the English theater, an "important site of cultural transformation-a place where cultural change (is) not simply reflected but also rehearsed and enacted...An arena where changing gender definitions (can) be displayed, deplored, or enforced and where anxieties about them (can) be expressed" (Rackin).

A/N: This is the last in a series of three blog posts which explore the idea of the hermaphrodite as related to the Renaissance and modern digital age.
  1. The Digital Hermaphrodite
  2. The Hermaphroditic Sovereign: Renaissance Exploration of Gender
  3. Avatars: Exploration of Gender in the Digital Age


  1. Interesting Becca! Couple things: I'm assuming your post The Digital Hermaphrodite is your "head" post. But maybe not? Maybe you could try defining that more, like saying specifically "This post is about my thesis" and "This post will be about this". I was a little confused when I jumped into your posts about where to start. Also, maybe you could use block quotes? All of the quotes you use are really interesting, but blocking them would just make the post easier to get through. Seems like you have good solid research.

    Here's a problem I ran into. Dr. Burton wanted me to have more solid "stakes" in my argument. What are the implications for what you are arguing? Why is it important for us to know that the blogosphere will become just like a transvestite theater? Don't get me wrong, I think your arguments are very interested, well-supported, and valid. Just a thought!

  2. Excellent comments from Heather, which I second.