In Her Own Image?

Metaphors of Empowerment?

Whose Gaze Is It, Anyway?

Taking Back the Site?

Works Cited

Navigating the Image of Woman Online

Whose Gaze Is It, Anyway?

In the same way that postmodern feminist theorists have shown that the concept of "woman" is protean, multiple, and contested, so too are women's experiences with computer technologies and with the World Wide Web specifically. From a user's perspective, it is sometimes very hard to cipher through the complexity of women's Web pages to understand the writer's intentions. For example, a number of female-written and female-aimed Web sites have a resistant tone and posture, though this resistance is not always coupled with redefinition of the cultural meanings of "woman." Images of women on the Web exist along a continuum from objectification to representation, and although it would be comforting to attribute all objectifying images to men, it is clear that women grapple with this continuum both consciously and unconsciously in their own production of electronic discourse. The Web phenomenon of Jennifer Ringley provides a good example of a Web site where these layers of meaning come together. A Web celebrity whose name draws hundreds of hits on Netscape (a high percentage of male Web writers have links to Jennifer's pages), Jennifer Ringley initiated created a personal Web page which, in addition to her portfolio, resume, and links to friends, included an image map called "Name That Curve" and currently includes a gallery of video-cam images called "The Jennicam." With "Name That Curve," users linked to an image of a particular part of Jennifer's body to"name that part," whether it be her earlobe, her areola, the bottom of her breast, or the nape of her neck.

In an ongoing and popular trend, Successful "Curve Connoisseurs" had their names listed with the name of the part they have guessed and the week they've guessed it, suggesting the ongoing nature of the activity. Now, with the "Jennicam," Ringley has set up a QuickCam which will snap a shot of her bedroom every three minutes and upload it to the Web. Ringley describes the objective: "The concept of the cam is to show whatever is going on naturally. Essentially, the cam has been there long enough that now I ignore it. So whatever you're seeing isn't staged or faked, and while I don't claim to be the most interesting person in the world, there's something compelling about real life that staging it wouldn't bring to the medium." And although the JenniCam has uploaded images of Jennifer nude, doing a strip tease, or engaged in sexual activities, she asserts that "This site is not pornography. Yes, it contains nudity from time to time. Real life contains nudity. Yes, it contains sexual material from time to time. Real life contains sexual material. However, this is not a site about nudity and sexual material. It is a site about real life." Yet because of the amount of traffic the site receives, this peek into one twenty-year-old white woman's "real life" comes with a $15 a year, subscription fee.

One could theorize Ringley's feminist status in her obvious control over the presentation of her own image online and her control of what her male viewers are able to gaze. Ringley herself asserts her own outlook as one which embraces womanhood: "Personally, I think any woman who says she'd prefer to be a man, or any man who says he's happier being a man, is foolish. *wink* There's nothing finer in the world than womanhood." Still, the addressed and invoked audience for Jennifer's site is male, a creation of an image by a woman for a man. Jennifer's site represents a complex dialectic between woman as subject and woman as object, woman as both consumer and consumed, and woman as a "performer" of femininity through her interaction with "woman" as object of desire, a positioning that privileges the presence of women online as objects first, subjects second. As Ringley's site suggests, women attempting to re-image themselves often have little encouragement from mass culture to produce resistance discourse and often are positioned as both complicit with and resistant to their traditional subject position as an object of desire.