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Virtual Gender: Technology, Consumption and Identity

Editor: Eileen Green, Alison Adam
Publisher: London, UK: Routledge, 2001
Review Published: February 2003

 REVIEW 1: Monica Whitty
 REVIEW 2: Andrew Dalton

In Virtual Gender: Technology, Consumption and Identity, co-editors Eileen Green and Alison Adam have created a wonderful and intriguing collection of varying perspectives all based around the concepts of leisure, technology, and cyberculture set within a firm gender and feminist framework. It is interesting to note that each article comes from a unique perspective that ultimately makes Virtual Gender a novel and interesting text, both leisurely and academically. The aim of this text is to alert us to the gendered notions of how we sex and engender everyday life through technology and cyberculture, and it also asks fundamental questions of identity within virtual life. As stated, the book sets a standard in the sense that, as Green and Adam note, "[t]here has been relatively little published on women’s activities in relation to new technologies" (i). Obviously a review of this length cannot afford all of the pieces so I have taken a ‘case study’ approach of much of the text in order to give a rounded picture of what this book is about.

The book is split into four main sections: Part I: Gendered Access and Experience of ICT’s and the Internet; Part 2: Leisure, Pleasure and Consumption; Part 3: Citizens at Work and in the Community; and Part 4: Identity and Self: Gendered Play, Virtual Reality and Cyborgization.

Part 1 primarily addresses women in specific to the Internet; it focuses, especially in the chapter entitled "Women and the Internet" by Anne Scott et al, on research in which women are primary users of the Web and how much ‘access’ they have to this domain. The authors chart accurately the history of women and the Internet, and note that recent empirical figures have suggested that 39% of world-wide Internet users are now female and that figure is now still on the increase (6). Yet the article questions this new found access to the Net: "The story of ‘women and the Internet is . . . a narrative about the restricting of Internet access to men (and some women) of certain social groups" (19). Indeed, it forwards a theory of ‘locked into locality’ or, the narrative of problematic divisions of public and private in women’s lives and so individualised access is a research task that has potential to be difficult as assuming that women as a group as homogenous is naïve and so it questions the idea of doing so in research. This article proves to be a wonderful introduction to the book and sets the scene for later chapters. Academically speaking, I tend to agree with the conclusions of the research in that individual notions of ‘access’ need to be studied rather than women as a grouping.

Furthermore, this section of chapters addresses issues of cooperative problem-solving through communication modes such as email and email as a means of conversational purposes. The research by Greg Michaelson and Margrit Pohl claims that past email language was impersonal most of the time, lacking signatures and maintaining a non-conversational language using smileys and Uniform Resource Locators (URLs). The research was conducted using email as a medium sent to various subjects of both sexes in Edinburgh and Vienna and inviting replies – the result being that women from both cities proved to be ‘selfish’ (a word used by Michealson and Pohl to represent a lack of personal conversation) and that men tended to be more elaborate. I asked myself as I read these results is it perhaps because women have less access to the Internet and so language ‘tools’ tend to be less developed? However, this is to side step into women as a homogenous group and, as such, proves to be speculative. It was noted as a criticism though and this article does not offer any satisfactory conclusions on this point. However, it is said in this research that women’s email conversations tend to ‘overlap’ and therefore tends to be more ‘exhaustive’; and on this point I feel that this issue can be related to my previous point of access. Overall though, Part 1 gives us an understanding of how men and women observe and utilize technology in a most insightful manner.

Part 2 situates itself firmly within a cultural feminist studies perspective with an interesting piece of research based on "Understanding Computer Game Cultures" by Simeon J. Yates and Karen Littleton. This research was undertaken through psychological and ethnographic research methods of watching and observing adult game players followed by focus groups with the male and female players. It states that it is "[u]nlikely . . . that players will engage with a game unless their cultural and discursive position make it possible for the affordances of the game and their effectiveness in working together" (109). Interestingly, with this in mind, the research looks into this concept via gender stereotypes. The subject of Tomb Raider™ is of interest in this research, as women in the focus group disliked the male readings offered about Lara Croft's (the main character in the game) appearance. The research distinguishes between what men and women see in cyber-reality, and how men tended to like ‘details’ and women preferred the overall ‘practical’ strategy of the game. It is suggested that computer games have formed their own ‘cultural niche’ and indeed the results showed the varying approaches to social stigma involving computer gaming – addressed more readily by men, however women saw it in relation to work, home and male relations in the sense that men organise ‘game sessions’ and women tend to manoeuvre game playing sessions around their own schedule. Upon reading this research, it occurred to me that women’s schedules are socially unbearable in that home, work, children, and numerous other factors weigh heavily, and that a gender split still exists between men and women’s leisure time, with men finding it increasingly easy to afford this time to play computer games. Is there not perhaps a cultural element in which this research could address? I feel that, however interesting it may seem, the research did not address the idea of leisure time enough and bring into context the roles socially constructed for women; it merely hints at it through an over-elaborate use of academic language.

Eileen Green's chapter, "Technology, Leisure and Everyday Practices," is worthy of reading in the sense that it is a fascinating, well-written, and precise indication of women’s leisure time. She addresses the relationship of ICTs and new technologies within the household as she brings to the forefront a feminist critique of these leisure practices as women continually disregard their own leisure time in favour of letting their children have access. As such, Green brings into place the politics of the household in an astute commentary. She calls for the need for the ‘everyday’ qualitative research in looking at women’s lives and puts forward the notion that women have little time to play. This backs up the research by Yates and Littleton mentioned earlier and proves to be interconnected in the fact that gendered space and time exists on a most fundamental level.

Maria Lohan's accurate description of the everyday continues this theme in that she looks at the gendered use of the telephone in her piece "Men, Masculinities and ‘Mundane’ Technologies." Here she conducts qualitative interviews on respondents with the central theme of the telephone and its replacement by new technologies such as the Internet. Lohan questions the use of the telephone as a social tool for communication between families and the usage by different genders via this device. Outcomes are interesting as she notes that mothers tend to use the telephone as an instrument in which to talk about the everyday and as something in which to check on her children’s progress. She comments that masculinity is a process what restricts fathers from chatting on the phone to their sons and daughters. This concept leads an intriguing argument and proves to be one of Virtual Gender more intellectually interesting chapters. It argues that the telephone has undergone a change as an agent of technology and communication: it has been culturally deconstructed as being a once masculine tool and reconstructed as a feminine tool for ‘chatty’ women. This chapter highlights this concept magnificently and proves to bring to light one of the key aims mentioned on the back cover as bringing notions of gender and technology to publication. In this sense the book certainly does fulfil its aim.

Part 3 brings to light a contemporary issue of "cyberstalking," especially in Alison Adam’s chapter "Cyberstalking: Gender and Computer Ethics." Adams argues that the "[d]iscipline of computer ethics could benefit from insights into feminist theory, particularly in areas where there may be substantial differences in men’s and women’s experiences online" (209). Indeed, cyberstalking has been prevalent within various newspapers and controversy recently involving paedophilia. Adams then suggests that feminist theory can make an extended analysis to the computer ethics debate rather than ‘normal’ forums of discussion of cyberstalking. This chapter is a worthy and relevant addition to Virtual Gender as cyberstalking is an extreme and powerful use of inequality, especially toward women and that feminist computer ethics can bolster the already diluted and masculine computer ethics that are used as the norm. Citing the work of Tong (1998), she describes feminist ethics as "gender-equal politics . . . that generate non-sexist moral principles, policies and practices" (212), and continues to note that they will display to us the power relations and inequalities that exist within cyberculture. I believe that Adam’s ideas about feminist computer ethics are forward thinking and much needed and so I recommend her chapter to all new readers on this topic, as well as academics and policy makers who are already versed on this subject.

Part 4 deals with identity and self as concepts of technology. In a fascinating chapter titled "The Social Geography of Gender-switching in Virtual Environments on the Internet," Lynne D. Roberts and Malcolm R. Parks argue that people are in complete control of their identities, the construction and presentation of their virtual body. This postmodern argument and the studies of transsexualism online offered by Roberts and Parks offer appealing and sophisticated arguments of gender identity online as they provide open-ended answers and perhaps more questions to ask about the topic. Overall, this research gives Virtual Gender a ‘roundedness’ of multi-disciplinary approaches.

Overall, Virtual Gender: Technology, Consumption and Identity makes an interesting read and is thoroughly well researched in context. I found it accessible for all types of cybercultural thought and it even manages to surprise the reader in the sense of using examples of everyday experiences that a reader can relate to. Some of the research can be questioned with respect to whether it could have moved further, however this is often addressed and proposals for further research are always offered. The book remains fluid, despite the fact that it is a collection of different ideologies. And this, I believe, is where the appeal lies, in its multi-disciplinary approach to a vast and wondrous subject matter. I enjoyed this book a great deal and advise it for academics and leisure readers alike.

Tong, R. (1998). Feminist Ethics. In Edward N. Zalta (ed.) The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Autumn, 1999 Edition.

Andrew Dalton:
Andrew Dalton has a BSc (Hons) in Sociology and Social Research from the University of Northumbria, Newcastle upon Tyne UK. He is currently studying for a MSC in Social Research at the University of Northumbria specifically involving Gender Roles in Fairytales. His interests include gender and identity online, transsexualism and fetishism, cyberculture, and feminist theory.  <Therevadabuddha@hotmail.com>

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