(En)gendering the Digital Body: Feminism and the Internet

By Luckman, Susan | Hecate, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

(En)gendering the Digital Body: Feminism and the Internet


Luckman, Susan, Hecate


(En)Gendering the Digital Body: Feminism and the Internet

The 1990s have seen the emergence of a significant new media form. Unparalleled commercial interest has been generated around the Internet which, in terms of its potential impact upon the conduct of Westernised societies, has been compared to the Gutenberg Press whose capacity for mass production of the printed text was one of the principle ushers of the industrial age. Amongst the heralding and marketing of this new digital epoch, a good deal of thought has been dedicated to the utilisation of information technologies for progressive social ends. Cyberfeminisms, as a popular avenue for contemporary feminist intervention in technologically mediated structures of power (in particular the Internet), have flourished in an environment traditionally hostile to feminist viewpoints and respond to the male domination of information technologies. Computer-mediated communication, where male users traditionally outnumber women, facilitates forms of sexism and misogyny which can be far more prevalent online than in the physical world. Feminists employed in electronic, science and communications industries and research have long identified the Internet as an important social institution dominated by men and hence in need of feminist attention. Put simply: `Cyberspace cannot escape the social construction of gender because it was constructed by gendered individuals, and because gendered individuals access it, in ways that reinforce the subjugation of women."(1) Cyberfeminisms have set out to challenge the male centred culture of the Internet and to imprint their own models of open and accessible computer-mediated communication onto the new technologies.

First coined by Sadie Plant, the term cyberfeminism refers to a diverse range of practices and discourses all generically identifiable by their commitment to exploring non-oppressive alternatives to existing relations of power through the manipulation of information technologies. Ideologically, cyberfeminist practice retains as a basic tenet a commitment to feminist principles of gender equality. Beyond this, there exists no singular cyberfeminism per se; certainly no theoretical party line which needs to be adhered to for acceptance. Cyberfeminist activity is frequently utopian in its outlook; draws heavily on postmodernism and psychoanalysis, and is commonly technologically determinist, uncritically supporting the contention that technology can save the world. Cyberfeminist exemplars include artists, designers, writers, academics and software developers, as well as other women for whom information technologies -- and in particular, the Internet -- have become a central part of their everyday, lived feminist politics.

Cyberfeminisms are offered as a female-centred alternative to the overwhelming cultural dominance of men in regard to matters of technological agency. Cyberfeminist discourse gives voice to a particular `women-with-attitude' spirit within computer culture. This modern hip, sassy, post-feminist approach to life in a wired world holds substantial currency for many young women. Such an image resonates with Donna Haraway's cyborg who is a `bad girl, she is really not a boy. Maybe she is not so much bad as she is a shape-changer, whose dislocations are never free. She is a girl who's trying not to become Woman, but remain responsible to women of many colors and positions.'(2) This conceptualisation of cyborg subjectivity as a model for socialist feminist praxis was theorised by Haraway in the now legendary article: `A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.'(3) In it, Haraway articulates a project which recognises the need for new ways of operating, of relating to others, in a postmodern world where partial subjectivities are the norm rather than the aberration or, in the words of Stimpson who conceptualises a similar project: imagine how players of all genders `might juxtapose points of view to lace together new, perpetually provisional feminist cultural treaties. …

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