Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Feminine Miss Geek

If there are two main ideas that I have (so far) gleaned from this course, it would these two: 1) technologies introduced into the classroom have the opportunity of being panoptic, and 2) the same oppressive ideologies that exist in the physical world also manifest themselves in the cyber world. The later point was definitely manifested in the three articles that we read—Romano, Sullivan, and Hawisher & Sullivan. The male gaze still exists online and discursive oppression in chat forums still exist despite the fact that the chat forum gives women more of an ability to speak and not be silenced.

I further shatter my hopes of technology being a liberating space in reading (and agreeing with) these three readings. Romano’s hope for reform of the female subjective self seems only partially possible in that women are able to speak in online forums, but they can only really control their own cyber personae and not the male oppression that speaks them. In this same way, Sullivan accounts the disturbing male gaze as perpetually objectifying women, and making them self-conscious in an online space that is able to transform hegemonic gazes (but traditionally refuses). When I got to Hawisher & Sullivan’s article, it then hit me: women are able to take control of their visual representation when they are able to alter the image on their own terms. Here is some hope to counteract male hegemonic gaze, and yet this ability to alter the image is exclusive in itself.

One characteristic that I noted about Hawisher & Sullivan’s 20-something women whom creating websites was that both of them were studying graphic design. Hawisher & Sullivan note that these women have more control over how they are visually portraited and they expose themselves to the male gaze on their own terms. However, they have the liberty to do this through their expertise: they are cyber geeks who know how to operate the internet and they are graphic design geeks who know how operate graphic design software in order to represent themselves in the ways they want to be represented. In contrast, the faculty example of Susan Hilligoss showed that Susan either did not have the time to make her own website, did not have the expertise to construct a site, or was restricted by the department from creating her own site; these days, the first two possibilities are more likely. Those women with the abilities to visually alter themselves, to mold their cyborg selves, can do so. But what about the women that don’t have the expertise to alter image? Are they still subject to the male gaze because they cannot shield themselves through technological abilities?


amymcdougall said...

Excellent points, Jim. It strikes me as strange how your two main ideas could co-exist, but I know they do. What I mean is, on the one hand we've read about the ever-present "gaze" in online spaces, which leads to widespread warnings, laws, and redefinitions of public vs. private (with the understanding that anything online could be accessed by others). On the other hand, we still have the predatory and oppressive acts, as you mention. If panopticism exists in many of these spaces, then how can the male-dominated ways of being/knowing/perceiving/oppressing still thrive? Is it because the computer engineering field is still male-dominated, and hence even the interface designs show such bias?

For some reason, I hadn't thought deeply about the "cyber geek factor" that you bring to light from the Hawisher and Sullivan piece. That is, we can tell ourselves we have total control over our online identities, but clearly some of us are more limited than others in terms of technological prowess. And that has serious implications in terms of how we are represented in online spaces. You gain control only if you know the secret handshakes and complicated codes, which can be learned, yes, but only if the resources, time, and interest are there. And often that fragile combination doesn't come together, which is happening for some of my non-tech-savvy female 402 students who are building professional Web sites. Not only do they feel intimidated by the students who are MIS majors (both males, in this case), but they are also incredibly frustrated with the way their "Web identity" (which I'm calling it) is being presented due to their lack of control/expertise. The other day one of my female students said something to the effect of, "If someone looked at my Web site right now, I'd die. I wish I knew more about this stuff so I could paint a better picture of myself." I was reminded of her when I read your thoughts on women/men/online identities/representation/control.

But no speaking of shattered hopes, fellow colleague! Even after all of our readings that would suggest otherwise, I think technology can be liberating if we take the time and energy to be critical users and teachers, as Cynthia Selfe has stressed. Discussing the issues you covered in this very blog with your students, for instance, could provide liberation (on a small-scale, perhaps) for a female or male in the back of the class who previously felt left out of the whole electronic e-quation.

amymcdougall said...


Just after I published my comment, I ran into this creepster story that kinda seemed related. Even monks are acting out in predatory ways in online spaces!?

kristin said...

These two ideas you present are really interrelated:

1) "women are able to take control of their visual representation when they are able to alter the image on their own terms."

2) [re: Hawisher and Sullivan's egs] "they are cyber geeks who know how to operate the internet and they are graphic design geeks who know how operate graphic design software in order to represent themselves in the ways they want to be represented."

I think altering one's image on one's own terms, particularly in online spaces, is a result of two things. First, the sheer techie ability to do so. So I think you're spot on here, and this is why I believe getting women involved in computing is so important. It's happening more and more for sure, but it seems when it does it happens on the design level and not the coding/behind-the-scenes leve. Second, to be able to represent oneself outside hegemonic norms one must be able to envision oneself outside these norms. I just recently made a female friend who told me the other day, "seeing and knowing you, and knowing you have your PhD makes me realize that I can do it too." I think this type of "seeing and knowing one can do" also exists for "seeing and knowing one can represent." I often wonder what we can do to make other representations seem worth striving for, in that I'd much rather my DTC students learn to code so that they can represent themselves as smart, strong, intelligent women instead of learning to code so that they can represent themselves as beer bonging, cage dancing at the zzu, made up women. I didn't quite say that right, but you probably catch my drift.

In any case, I do think Amy has a point about hope, and as Cindy Selfe always used to preach in our classes, it's the "small potent gestures" that really matter.