Kali Tal on Sat, 7 Oct 2006 18:02:11 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> Gender and You

As a woman writing as a woman (and as a feminist writing as a
feminist), it's been an ongoing challenge to inhabit virtual space.
I've long insisted that practices like Alan's (what Lisa Nakamura
labels as "identity tourism") are deeply problematic when they are
undertaken by white men who decide to create and inhabit female and
non-white personae. Particularly in spaces where women and non-white
people are minorities, the sheer number of white heterosexual men
masquerading as the "other" tends to have the effect of reinforcing
stereotypes and supporting mistaken beliefs about female and non-
white sexuality, politics, social worlds, etc. I go into this in some
depth in my review of Julian Dibbell's _My Tiny Life_, when I critique
his sexual adventuring on LambdaMOO (http://tinyurl.com/s883g).

I read Sondheim's post "Gender and You" with an increasing sense of
distaste. I've watched Alan perform himself online for quite a long
time now, and although I appreciate some of his insights and his
writing, I am not at all happy with the unconsidered sexism that I
feel is reflected throughout his body of work. I've brought this
up before on lists, including POETICS and Cybermind, but it seems
important to address it once again. Because Alan writes himself
simultaneously intimately and publicly, I feel that his online
personae is open to, and indeed invites, critique.

That Alan can say, after years of this adventuring, that his
experience is of little use when considering gender issues, is both
telling and depressing, as is the Jenifer (sp?) excerpt appended to
his post. That a man can "inhabit" female characters for as long as
Alan has, and that he can simultaneously say he's never problematized
gender is a good indication of how privileged men are; problems
glaringly apparent to women can simply be ignored or glossed over. Men
can ignore, sidestep or appropriate female subjectivity; sexism still
is invisible to them on so many levels. I am, frankly, embarrassed
when I read Alan's feminine masquerades -- not because sexuality
embarrasses me, but because they always look and read to me like
virtual blackface, a man turning a woman into a buffoon for his own
and others' titillation and gratification. The lack of subtlety bores
and sometimes disgusts.

A longtime Lambda-MOOer, I'm more familiar than I'd like to be with
the result of such heterosexual male posturing. Almost from the
beginning, sex role stereotyping affected women's experience there and
in other online social environments. Because so many men correlate
online female gender identification with the practice of "cruising for
sex," asserting one's female identity became a trying experience and
women's time online was constantly interrupted by pages and outright
requests for sex. The sheer number of adolescent boys playing girls
so they could attract sexual partners for mutual online masturbation
sessions ensured that women's sexual identity would be controlled not
by women, but by the men who played them. When women gathered to talk
about this, one of the things we discussed was the irony that most
"lesbian sex" on Lambda and in other virtual environments was actually
comprised of men stimulating each other by reinforcing their belief
that women performed their sexuality to please men.

All of this would be far less complicated and disturbing if it were
not for the already performative nature of gender roles. Heterosexual
men support and enforce a sexist system that persuades or coerces
women to pretend to be the way men suppose women are supposed to be.
The distinction between "good" (sexually inactive or monogomous in
marriage) and "bad" (sexually active and non- monogamous) women is
inherently sexist. It is of course more titillating for men to play
bad girls, because "good girls don't." But bad girls play bad girls
too. The sexist system guarantees them some rewards for doing so
(though it also endangers those women -- for example, "bad girls"
forfeit, through an unwritten law, even the scant legal protection
against rape that "good girls" can expect) and the social order makes
it impossible for at least some women to avoid "falling" into the
class that services the sexual needs and fulfills the sexual fantasies
of men.

Alan's sense that he wrote his "analyses" in peacetime is again a
reflection of his white, heterosexual, male "location." Violence
against women and children, and against all people of color, is hardly
new in the world. The statistics are frightening any way you look at
them. The difference between "now" and "then" for Alan is based only
on the fact that NOW he notices the violence, when before he didn't.
It's all about his threshold of consciousness, and not at all about
the consciousness of the members of the group that he impersonates.

I'm still astounded when men claim that they have to impersonate women
to know "what it's like to be a woman." In terms of race theory, we
are far beyond the "Black Like Me" days. If white, heterosexual men
want to know what it's like to be a women, ASK US. We'll tell you.
We've been telling you for hundreds of years, but you don't bother
to listen. Playing characters dressed in our skins is hardly going
to be more informative, since the vast majority of you don't have
the tools or the life experience to interpret what you see or hear
(as Alan makes very clear). Dressing in drag doesn't make you a
woman; it makes you a guy in drag. As any drag queen worth her salt
already knows, it's internalizing "femininity" (social expectations
and assumptions that create female gender identity) that makes
for the gender shift, not getting dressed in women's clothing.
And as transgendered people understand all too well, switching
genders for real is not happy-fun-time; it's an uphill struggle
against a culture where one gender is considered superior to another,
and where real gender-queer people make members of the "straight"
majority uncomfortable enough and sometimes terrified enough to enact
legislation abridging their rights, and, more frequently than anyone
admits, to kill them.



>On Oct 5, 2006, at 10:33 AM, Alan Sondheim wrote:
>written for Jon Marshall, researching gender, Cybermind)
>Gender and You
>Michael Current and I started Cybermind back in 1994; we wanted a forum
>for discussion of cyberspace theory and practice. That's my background.
>I found myself exploring any number of Internet venues, most of them
>ascii at that time (what I've called 'darknet' although that word now
>seems used otherwise); I also started teaching Net matters, practice or
>theory, etc. One exercise - I asked people to log on to various IRC
>channels as 'Susie' or some such, no matter what the gender. Most of the
>time, the screen would immediately light up with bold-face characters -
>private messagings - asking for private contact - clearly for sexual
>purposes. There was always this air of marauding.


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