In Her Own Image?

Metaphors of Empowerment?

Whose Gaze Is It, Anyway?

Taking Back the Site?

Works Cited

Navigating the Image of Woman Online

In Her Own Image?

As Robert Toup's Babes on the Web suggests, women's online attempts at self-representation are often co-opted. Rather than pages by women and about women for women, Toup's "Babes" are images of women for men, as the nearly 300,000 hits (Gilbert and Kile, 1996, p. 147) indicate. While Toups has claimed not to be engaging in sexist behavior, he only links to a woman's site if there is a picture that he can rate. His main Babes on the Web page provides an alphabetical list of women's names, with his own unique rating system from one to four "toupsies." In linking to those women who received only one or two toupsies, a browser could access the site of a female professor at MIT, who, despite her credentials and position, is still reduced by Toupsie to a surface appearance. In many ways, such an example recalls a chilling passage from Margaret Atwood's bleak commentary on the status of women The Handmaid's Tale, in which the Colonel, describing sex workers at a bar, brags about their former status as lawyers, sociologists, and business executives. Somewhat more resistant of Toup's co-opting process is a link to a page of a woman who received two toupsies, in which she replies "Whatever it was you wanted isn't here."

On the other hand, women-generated such as WebGrrl and CyberGrrl suggest that as women gain more access to the knowledge necessary to produce web sites, women themselves can take control of images of women. Still, though the WebGrrls and CyberGrrls sites are meant to be a source of empowerment via their networking possibilities for women online, representations of "grrls" remain narrowly defined. Both sites play with and parody the concept of webgrrl and cybergrrl as virtual female counterparts to the traditionally male superheroes found in popular media through the construction of cartoon images representing WebGrrl and CyberGrrl. These images raise the question of who can be a cybergrrl, however, in their construction of both WebGrrl and CyberGrrl as thin, white women with long flowing brown hair and smiling faces. Images like these, in their narrow, standard representation of "woman," exclude women from subject positions rooted in race, class, age, and sexual identity. Although Webgrrl and Cybergrrl fall well within traditional visual representations of women's material being (and in that way suggest, perhaps inadvertently, boundaries on who might identify with Cybergrrl), these sites attempt to emphasize characteristics of strength, self-esteem, and intelligence.

Yet the women depicted are not the flesh and bone objects of desire who reveal what lies beneath their clothing; women on the grrl pages are cartoon representations who don't necessarily correspond to any actual individual woman's material body. CyberGrrl's creator, Aliza Sherman, is a thirty-year old white woman living in New York City. Speaking of her site in Gilbert and Kile's recent book SurferGrrrls (1996), Sherman notes that "Cybergrrl was my homepage, and she was created to represent me. Now, she represents all women and girls online . . ." (p. 234). For Cybergrrls everywhere, the Web offers the potential for openly rewriting oneself in resistance to the narrow image of woman as the weaker sex, dependent on the kindness of strangers. Cybergrrls often flaunt their strength, their belief in themselves, and their faith that all women can fly (in their supergirl capes) above the gendered stereotypes of their culture. Meanwhile, The Adventures of CyberGrrl! defines CyberGrrl in empowering terms: "CyberGrrl is on the Web to better herself and to reach out to others. But now, instead of reaching out to her family and to her immediate community, the workplace and the village, she can reach even farther and touch the peoples of the word with an action as simple as publishing her own homepage, or as complicated as becoming an established voice in the growing Internet society."