Online Life and Gender Vagueness and Impersonation

Online Life and Gender Vagueness and Impersonation

Jonathan Marshall
Copyright: © 2006 |Pages: 7
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59140-815-4.ch147
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Gender is not always immediately obvious online and this has excited interest from early on (e.g., Bruckman, 1993; Curtis, 1997). Sometimes, people have drawn extreme conclusions from this vagueness. For example, Mark Poster (1997) suggests that “one may experience directly the opposite gender by assuming it and enacting it in conversations” (p. 223). McRae (1996) writes, “mind and body, female and male, gay and straight, don’t seem to be such natural oppositions anymore ... The reason for this is simple: in virtual reality, you are whoever you say you are” (p. 245). Such statements imply that gender is simply a voluntary and unconstrained conscious performance. Other writers have concluded that such identity vagueness allows, or enhances, the formation of postmodern decentred or multiple selves (Kolko & Reid, 1998; Turkle, 1995). These arguments suggest that, when online, people are free of off-line conventions, restrictions, and power dynamics, and can experience hidden aspects of themselves, or create themselves, through an act of will and performance. Frequently, these positions are surrounded by a conflicting moral discourse, either suggesting that the Internet promotes freedom and true self-expression, or that it promotes bad faith and betrayal. However, easy voluntarism may not be common in practise. Although it is possible that people may present new identities, the categories they use and present within can remain unchallenged and may even intensify. After her praise of voluntarism, McRae (1996) points out that if someone plays a woman and wants to “attract partners as ‘female’ [they] must craft a description within the realm of what is considered attractive” (p. 250). Schaap (1999) likewise remarks on the relatively “strict rules on what constitutes a convincing female character and what a convincing male character.” So, although the gender of the person online may not match their gender off-line, the gender they choose usually exaggerates the conventions of attractive or good gender construction. As Kendall (1996) writes, “choosing one gender or another does nothing to change the expectations attached to particular gender identifications” (p. 217). Even if gender is simply a matter of performance, people will not experience life as the other gender or class does because they have to indicate which category they are impersonating via conventions, and thus tend to experience cliché, and reaction to cliché, rather than normal complexity. On MOOs (MUD [multiuser domain] object oriented), where Netsex can be important in reducing the ambiguities of presence and sustaining relationships, most women and men are adorned with an excess of the symbolism and roles of the gender and sexual discourse they participate within, and this may reinforce ideals of gender difference (Marshall, 2003). This seems to be the case even when people portray themselves as nonhuman. As an example of this supposed variance, McRae (1996) quotes a player on a kind of MOO in which people present themselves as anthropomorphic animals, saying there is a form of sex in which “the submissive partner is eaten at climax ... [B]ears and wolves are usually dominant. Foxes are sorta generally lecherous. Elves are sexless and annoyingly clever. Small animals are often very submissive” (p. 248). Even here, the relationship of size, bulk, aggression, and strength to dominance is not far from conventional constructions of male and female. This requirement to indicate gender by conventional referents may also lead people to portray their off-line gender in conventional terms as well. Clark (1998) notes this clichéd gender emphasis in her study of online teenage dating, while Herring (2000) writes that she “found that nearly 90% of all gendered behavior in six IRC [Internet relay chat] channels indexed maleness and femaleness in traditional, even stereotyped ways; instances of gender switching constituted less than half of the remaining 10%.” Conventions can also provide debate on women-only groups, where people can only be identified as female by their feminine behaviour unless they are checked by known links off-line. As it is possible to ignore the gender of those who contradict our expectations of gender, those expectations may grow stronger for not being challenged.

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