Thoughts on Computers, Gender, and the Body Electric

Lisa Gerrard

I suppose it's a normal human impulse to wonder how every technological innovation is going to change society, and the same has been true of computers and gender; the question has been posed, will computers change gender relationships? I wouldn't even try to guess what gender relations might be (with or without computers) several generations hence, but from what I have observed, what we've been doing so far is simply carrying our culture online. The computer has offered a new medium for behaving online as we behave off. Despite the hue and cry over "cybersmut," online pornography shouldn't surprise us; whatever people purvey in their daily lives--porno, spam, flames, wisdom, friendship--they'll purvey over the net. I haven't noticed anyone taking on a personality change with an e-mail address. Consider women's identities, for example.

Women have always been defined in terms of their bodies: as mothers, whose bodies bear and nurse children, as wives and lovers, whose bodies bring aesthetic and sexual pleasure. In intellectual circles as well, women are associated with their physical selves. French feminist literary theorists exhort women to celebrate their bodily processes and if they are writers, to "write the body." So when computer networks began to be widely used about seven years ago, they provoked a question important to people who theorize about gender issues: what happens to a woman's identity when she becomes a presence online, where she has no visible body? Women are used to being responded to according to their physical appearance; more than men, their choices of clothing and hair/makeup, the way they walk and smile and gesture, whether or not they dress to please others (and who those others are)--these are all seen as defining their character and relationships to others. What, then, happens to their identity in a medium without a body? It isn't so much that a woman can pretend online to be a man (or a dog, for that matter), but that she has no material presence at all, no physical self to define her. Radio, at least, allowed women performers to suggest a body through voice. But what are the implications of a bodyless, soundless woman?

The question implied that technology might change society's expectations for women, change relationships between the sexes, maybe even change the way women think about themselves. But while I pondered these implications, the question itself began to seem irrelevant. Judging from the behavior of contributors to online discussion lists, I could see that the computer wasn't changing gender relations or identities. People simply invented identities for other participants based on whatever information they had. If the name was female, other users imagined a body, some rather vividly. A woman friend of mine, a multimedia developer active on a number of technology lists, would occasionally receive online come-ons just because someone thought her name (her name is Lisa, but it's not me, honest) was sexy. In 1994,Glamour published a story about Christian Sykes, a man who posed as a woman on an interactive computer game. Sykes would be having a friendly conversation with (what he believed to be) another guy when he'd be asked for a hug, a kiss, or an invitation to bed. It doesn't matter that your online self has no body; one will be imagined for you. Computers, after all, have always appealed to the imagination (isn't that what Dungeons and Dragons, et al are about?). So has pornography.

With MOOs, came tools for creating more graphic verbal images and scenarios and thus new opportunities for the imagination. It became easier to create an erotics of cyberspace, however disembodied. And, as Julian Dibbell showed so clearly in his account of "A Rape in Cyberspace," one could even violate a body online, a body made of words. The woman whose online persona was appropriated and violated by the "rapist" experienced many of the feelings of bodily rape victims: degradation, powerlessness, grief, and rage.

Then the Web came along, and the imagination had far less work to do. The body was back-well, two-dimensionally, but still you could send an image of your physical self over the wires-so we're now back where we started: as in the pre-network days, a woman's body defines her. She has to decide whether to put her picture on her personal website: if she's pretty, will she be taken seriously as a professional? if she's young or old will she be taken seriously at all? if she wears makeup, will someone think she's on the make? what if she's thin or fat? The fact that so much of our culture has moved online makes no difference: online or off, we live in a world that has trouble seeing past a woman's body.

The computer gives us new opportunities to be ourselves. Consider JenniCAM (, the website of 21-year-old Jennifer Ringley, who has positioned a digital camera on top of the Mac in her bedroom. The camera snaps a picture every three minutes, 24 hours a day. You can log on to her site as a guest and get a sampling of Jenni's bedroom life, or you can subscribe for $15 a year (or if you're in Australia or Europe, you can send beer instead), and get a new picture of Jenni every three minutes. You can watch Jenni working (she's a web designer), paying bills, sleeping, combing her hair, dressing (yes, there's nudity), daydreaming, whatever she happens to be doing when the shutter snaps (although she does turn the camera away from the bed when her boyfriend comes over). This site is a voyeur's heaven and has a huge following, over 100 million hits a week. (Like Jenni's exhibitionism, this voyeurism is scarcely unique to the net: we live in a voyeuristic society-where People is a top selling magazine and Oprah/Jerry Springer/Leeza are considered entertainment.) The net is not so much a new world as an extension of the familiar one; we've exported our culture into the air.

When I first read about JenniCAM I thought about Simone de Beauvoir's discussion of "female narcissism": a woman who has been taught-as most have-that she will be valued according to her physical appearance goes out of her way to be sure she gets looked at. Jenni's use of digital technology seemed to be the perfect illustration of female narcissism, and the technology the perfect medium for self-display. But when I logged on to JenniCAM I found the site more playful than self-aggrandizing, more of a goofy experiment by a young technophile flaunting a few social conventions. Jenni's site is a lot like the sites of the other twenty-something women I've been analyzing lately: friendly, witty, irreverent, and individual. I don't know Jenni, but my guess is that technology hasn't changed her: it's merely given her a new tool for expressing, and publicizing, her self.

In the same way, I don't think technology will change us--at least not in the short run; instead, it has vastly expanded our opportunities to be ourselves--as men, as women, and in relationships marked by gender.

Lisa Gerrard is editing a special issue of Computers and Composition which will focus upon COMPUTERS, WRITING, AND GENDER, She can be reached at

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