"Girls Need Modems!"
Cyberculture and Women’s Ezines
Master’s Research Paper
Submitted by Krista Scott
Graduate Women’s Studies
January 30, 1998
© 1998 Krista Scott
"Girls need modems!"
--Jude "St.Jude" Milhon, hacker and "patron saint of women online."
TABLE OF CONTENTS
PART ONE: INTRODUCTION
"How many… at this hour are living in a state of bondage to the machines? How many spend their whole lives, from the cradle to the grave, in tending them by night and day? Is it not plain that the machines are gaining ground upon us, when we reflect on the increasing number of those who are bound down to them as slaves, and of those who devote their whole souls to the advancement of the mechanical kingdom?"
--Samuel Butler, Erewhon
This is an essay about technology and politics. It is also an essay about identity and self, myth and metaphor, and the struggle to conceptualize the birthing of a new robot dream dimension which, although it is an electronic fantasy to which only to a fraction of one percent of the world’s population are privy, has already made its presence felt in the collective un/consciousness of technocrats, digerati , and merce-uomini; from NetChicks to the "digital every/woman" and "a thousand aunts with modems."
Though my purpose is grandiose my project is modest. I intend merely to outline some of the theoretical ways in which cyberspace and gender intersect (concentrating mainly on their relevance for women), and apply these to the study of electronic "’zines", or ezines (ee-ZEENS). While many ezines deal only with such topics as favourite bands or hobbies, the ezines which I have selected for study are those which engage with women’s identity, activism and politics, albeit with different concerns, backgrounds, and foci. I will provide a brief overview of some of the online women’s ezines, and then select two to examine in depth: one, Brillo, which represents a more polished and complex feminist point of view; and one, Girlrights, which is oriented more towards visceral self-discovery and Riot Grrrl-style politics than academic theoretical analysis. I am not assuming that all women’s ezines self-identify as feminist (though since the creation of an ezine is often part of a kind of leftist "alternative culture"—see later discussion on ‘zines—I would be surprised to find one which didn’t). However, because of the nature of this study I have purposely chosen the ones which deal explicitly or implicitly with issues of women’s identity, voice, and politics in their content. By examining two ezines which offer disparate levels of political sophistication and analysis, I can show women’s ezines as diverse texts in their own right, and at the same time explore how both utilize the medium of cyberspace to create virtual feminist texts.
For the purposes of this paper I will not concentrate particularly on the publishing aspects of the medium of which ezines take advantage. Theoretically at least, the Web offers many concrete aspects of ezine publishing which facilitate their distribution and accessibility. Firstly, an ezine may be widely disseminated over computer networks, which increases potential breadth and depth of circulation. Anyone who is capable of surfing the Net can, in principle, find and read ezines. Although an ezine, as an electronic product which may appear and disappear without warning or trace, is more ephemeral than a print zine whose concrete paper solidity is comfortably permanent, a reader has the potential capacity to capture and retain the elusive ezine by downloading its contents into her own personal computer.
Secondly, in terms of physical process, an ezine is much easier than a print zine to create. Ezines require no cutting, pasting, paper, photocopying, binding, or transportation/postage to distribution points; they require only a basic grasp of computer programming and can be changed or updated at will, without the cumbersome process of manipulating printed text (which, once set to paper, remains immutably there). In addition, since Web space is often free and computers may be freely (or cheaply) accessed through schools, libraries, universities and Internet cafés, the creator does not have to deal with production costs such as printing or supplies. There is little difference in distribution cost if, for example 250,000 as opposed to 250 or 25 people read the ezine, whereas a print zine is limited in its print run by such costs.
Thirdly (although not all ezines take advantage of this possibility), ezines can serve as foci for networking in a variety of ways ranging from simple dialogue via email to providing access to chat rooms. While certainly like-minded readers are capable of forming networks for discussion and information through print text communication (such as mailing lists), to do so online facilitates speed and breadth of contact. In my discussion of the first point, I noted that ezines enjoy increased distribution outward; here it is evident that the process can work in reverse: a diverse readership can not only be spoken to by a textual forum, but can then speak to the creator and each other through and about the forum. A good way to think about how this works is to use the metaphor of a bulletin board (and indeed, some electronic forums are called BBSs, for "bulletin board systems"). A bulletin board with a certain theme may have its owner post some information and ideas on it. People who read what is posted on the bulletin board may themselves affix Post-Its, with their reactions to and thoughts on the material, perhaps directed to the original poster or to other readers. More people walking past can pin up notes in response to the Post-Its, and so forth. The bulletin board or ezine serves as the focus or starting point for the formation of networks and forums of discussion. Thus the Net offers some important advantages for the actual publication of ezines.
However, as I have mentioned, in this essay I am not interested primarily in the prosaic considerations of publishing an online product. Rather, I am concerned with the slightly more abstract relationship which these elements have with the culture in which ezines operate, and how current theories of cyberspace intersect with what verbal/textual and visual/iconographical content is present in the ezines. More explicitly, I intend to examine the ways in which the intersection of cyberspace and gender is presently being theorized, and to test these theories against the texts (ezines) themselves to see which ideas are the most useful analytically and strategically. In other words, I am interested in what kinds of things women are saying online, how they are saying them, how theories of cyberspace and gender play themselves out when applied to the things being said, and the consequences of such a study for future investigations into the study of women online.
My methodology involves, after the fashion of Donna Haraway’s cyborg (which I will explain later in the essay), a hybrid of cultural, feminist, political, and literary theory with a bit of social science thrown in. Since as yet there are no models which a scholar of cyberspace may use to direct her inquiries, I have made up my own. To focus my research, I identified and critically examined five major theories, drawn from different disciplines and ideological backgrounds, which seemed most influential or prevalent in the current discourse around cyberspace and gender. I then surveyed the ezines which I could find between January and September 1997 (no doubt some have already disappeared back into the electronic ether as I write this).
I used two modes of inquiry into the ezines: first, a textual analysis directed mainly at discursive (visual and verbal) content, to engage with the text in its own right as well as to apply the previously examined theories; and second, e-interviews with the creators which were designed to draw out more information about the issues involved in the creation of an ezine, as well as the creators’ thoughts on cyberculture in general. It was at this stage that I discovered an important limitation of e-interviews: while they allow respondents to answer at their convenience (and allow me to interview respondents from Australia to San Franscisco without having to leave my desk), they also allow respondents not to answer at all. So, while the few replies I got revealed e-interviews to be a fruitful avenue of enquiry, the method proved frustrating when a larger number of such replies did not appear (despite my enthusiastic prodding of respondents). Nevertheless, I feel that what information and ideas I got added greatly to the process of "fleshing out" the essay.
I have divided this essay into several parts so that the reader may more easily progress through a large body of material which at times may be muddy and somewhat unclear, looping back upon itself and often reflecting more unfinished complex thoughts than clear definitive explanations. The investigation of a new area of study, such as cyberspace, always seems to result in the dis-covery of more complexity as it proceeds, rather than in revelation of some kind of "truth". Furthermore, the way in which I have chosen to address the subjects of cyberspace and gender shape what conclusions I will be able to draw; to put it another way, which questions I ask will determine what answers I get. I am also conscious of the fact that due to the speed of evolving technology (and disappearing electronic sources), this paper will likely be obsolete the moment it departs from my printer, to become part of the nascent scholarship around cyberspace and gender.
Part 1, which the reader has nearly completed, serves as the introduction to the paper. Here I outline my general project and aims, as well as my methodology.
In Part 2, I discuss theoretical issues relating to cyberspace and gender. Here I discuss and critically examine five major strains of thought about cyberspace and gender that were helpful to me in varying degrees, both in reference to themselves and when applied to ezines. I see theories as useful if:
Since it would be sloppy thinking to suggest that there is one theory which explains everything (would that it were true, though—how much easier the theorist’s task would be!), I assemble what I think is the strongest combination of the five theories for my own. As my methodology is a hybrid, so is my analytic theory.
Part 3 defines ezines and describes the challenging process of developing a paradigm with which to examine them. Here I include a brief survey of the ezines which I found in the course of my study, remarking upon some of their more significant aspects and identifying some themes which recur.
In Part 4 I apply the theoretical concepts from Part 2 and 3 to the two ezines which I have selected for examination, Girlrights and Brillo. I do not compare them because I have deliberately chosen the two ezines for their dramatic difference from one another. I will, of course, make some comparisons, but they are not my focus. Rather I am more interested in how each text functions within the medium and in relation to itself, for both engage quite distinct concerns and methods.
Part 5 is the conclusion to the paper. As I have said, how nice it would be to come up with "the" theory of gender and cyberspace to provide a smashing finale! However, the essay concludes with more questions than answers, and with a greater sense of complexity than closure.
PART TWO: CONCEPTUALIZING CYBERSPACE
2.01 What is cyberspace?
Although it is generally conceptualized spatially (which leads to metaphors like that of the frontier, discussed later), cyberspace isn’t really a thing or a place. Cyberspace exists as more than the sum of its electronic synapses busily exchanging billions of bits of data along phone lines between computer networks, in the same way that thoughts are more than the sum of their electrochemical signals racing between neurons. Cyberspace and thoughts have no apparent time, space, or physical presence; like thoughts which one knows are "inside" the head, but which cannot be uncovered no matter how minutely the brain is dissected, "cyberspace" is somewhere "inside" computers and their networks, but it would not be found it if they were taken apart. Cyberspace is mercurial, ephemeral, and physically untouchable. It encompasses everything from an automatic credit card approval to virtual reality. Interaction with it seems increasingly direct and unmediated by gatekeepers in the form of knowledges, people or institutions (of course, whether it is really so is a topic for another entire essay). Not so long ago a person would need to be a programmer to understand the garbled code necessary for access; now many kinds of typing and clicking hands send cyberMorse across the ether; cyberpunk fiction and technocrats herald the near-arrival of direct neurological interface—"jacking in"—with cyberspace.
Cyberspace is a medium of electronic communication used by individuals in technologically advanced contexts and countries in particular social configurations—that is, cyberspace is accessible mainly through private ownership or through schools, workplaces, libraries, Internet cafés, or universities. While I intend to focus mainly on ezines as the products of some of these people who benefit from living and working in these contexts, I would like to briefly discuss cyberspace as a sort of undifferentiated milieu which encompasses IRC, home pages, ezines, Usenet and BBSs as the mainstay of private individual use. Cyberspace is a new medium with slippery categories, and ways of thinking about one part of cyberspace (say, email) reflect ways of conceptualizing it as a whole. As theorists we have barely begun to untangle and understand a phenomenon that includes everything from the physical reality of hardware to electronic signals which seem intangible.
Ezines inform and are informed by other locations in cyberspace. For example, the creator of the ezine Girlrights connected her page to a weekly chat room "just to discuss issues, exchange info, make contacts and recommend ‘zines, bands, etc." Other ezine creators supplement their web site with personal home pages, use reader email as much of their ezine content, contribute to newsgroups, run online forums, construct networks and search engines, and compile online archives and resource centres. While creating and posting an ezine is, of course, not equivalent to getting money from a bank machine, the two are nevertheless loosely related in their technological components and use of the semi-imaginary dimension of cyberspace.
Furthermore, to discuss cyberspace as a whole is to reveal and critique related cultural, social, economic, and most important, political ideology, "because… the digital revolution, in its heart of hearts, is about power in a way that cultural conversations are not, and because… mass descent into virtual reality, though clearly a cultural affair, nonetheless leads to a political reality." Since cyberspace as a concept and tool was introduced, many have been eager to inscribe current discursive anxieties, fictions, and mythologies, as well as concrete juridico-mechanic restrictions and codifications, upon its seemingly blank electronic slate. As such, to examine cyberspace as both an abstraction and real-life tool is possibly to dis-cover what political yarns are being quietly woven into the strands of its stories.
It is important to consider the climate and historical context in which cyberspace exists, since we cannot ignore its past or present manifestations. What we think of as cyberspace was birthed during the Cold War as the ARPANet, a prescient postmodern military experiment which decentered a communications base, so that if one site went down it would not cripple the rest. It began to be used by university scientists in the 1970s, and in the 1980s grew to encompass university communities at large. In 1997 the Net is a booming business and easy access is the name of the corporate game. Servers such as AOL (America Online) and WebTV (a server through one’s television) have made it their goal to introduce non-computer people to an easy way of getting online. Present fans of cyberspace use breathless hyperbolic language to describe its merits, and laud the happy future when we will all be speeding down the information highway. Some even extend their salivating prostrations to what they see as a super-intelligent organism which uses as its synapses the millions of networks to which it is linked; and a technology reporter writes in an unfortunately un-Swiftian and unsatirical manner of the day in which the written word will disappear in the supremacy of the computer icon, since writing "will disappear because it’s getting in the way of the human need for information and entertainment. It’s not an effective use of time, which means it’s not cost-effective. Time is money."
Such uncritical slaverings miss important facets of cyberspace history and culture which are worthy of note and critiques: first, its military roots and corporate branches. It began as a war toy, intended as a multi-tentacled postmodernist guerilla response to the Modernist Red/coats, as a chain of defense with so many links that it would not matter which were weakest. That it was co-opted by scientists and hackers does not mean that it was cheerfully given by the military for the betterment of all. And that it is now used by students and grannies and "average" Jills does not mean that corporations are generously donating their software. In fact, corporations and governments are seeking greater control over the market and medium which has been relatively unregulated up to this point.
Second, the use of cyberspace by males within a specific context has significantly influenced its present culture. Although there were several notable women pioneers of the field, such as the flamboyant and brilliant Ada Lovelace, in whose memory the computer language ADA is named, those who first explored the possibilities of this new form of communication were generally males working within the field of computational science within private institutions. The culture of computer hacking remains largely male-dominated and concerned with questions of Man’s control over the machine. Sherry Turkle has documented this extensively in her book The Second Self.
Third, the use of cyberspace by people within a certain socioeconomic frame of reference cannot be overlooked. Those who have access to the technology must first have the education (which of course, includes literacy) to learn to manipulate it, as well as the funds to purchase or rent it. Thus cyberspace is a toy of affluent North America, Western Europe and Japan. In addition, many people, the majority of them women, were more likely introduced to the technology not as a liberating recreational device but as another part of low-paid wage labour: maybe as a machine over which they hunched for hours under fluorescent lights while performing monotonous data entry tasks, or perhaps as thousands of silicon chips repeatedly squinted at by low-paid workers in a Singapore factory. For a certain class the computer is a toy and fantasy object; for another the computer (or its components) is involved in the performance of menial low-wage tasks.
Fourth, despite the growing presence of cyberspace, it does not occupy a space of great symbolic value (and indeed is something of the greatest irrelevance) to many in their daily lives. In terms of recreational use, cyberspace is mostly a toy of the young and affluent; many over forty do not feel they understand it, know enough about it, or really relate to it. This feeling seems to be irrespective of education levels. A beginner’s course in computers was held at a Toronto university, and the room was filled with Ph.D.s frozen in fear before their screens because they could not figure how to "get out of the trash bin". It’s a common humorous truism that parents can count on their preteen children to answer their fumbling computer questions (often with just a hint of child condescension and impatience). This unease and sense of disconnectedness probably fuels much of the hysteria over Net porn as parents apprehensively watch their children’s tiny hands fearlessly and manipulate the mouse as a mere extension of their minds, and click into cyberspace, a universe in which only the "VCR generation" seems to truly feel at home.
Fifth, it is important to consider the discourse around cyberspace and what it reflects. Although the medium is still new and there is as yet no "canon", there are nevertheless some theories about cyberspace (and gender) which have emerged as central to the discourse. These theories reflect different concerns and ways of engaging with cyberspace, but all attempt to present some kind of coherent framework with which to understand the medium. I have chosen to examine briefly some of the significant theorists working with the concept of cyberspace, so that the reader may better understand the theoretical context within which an online product such as a zine might operate. In addition, in later sections I will test the utility and strategic success of these theories against the texts themselves.
What are some of the discourses around cyberspace as a place of gendered self-presentation and interaction? Theorists disagree on what cyberspace actually represents within the context of gendered relationships. Their visions range from hostile dystopia to visionary utopia, and everywhere in between. There are no concrete schools of thought as yet, but several strains of looking at cyberspace through the gender lens may be distinguished. They are not necessarily contradictory, but they each signify different ways of relating to cyberspace as a general and gendered medium, and employ different definitions of what women should be concerned with when they log on.
I will articulate these five viewpoints in roughly equivalent detail, but I do not feel that they are all equally useful. Furthermore, in using theorists who draw upon different backgrounds and areas of inquiry, I am to some degree conflating all their concerns as similarly relevant to ezines. This is clearly not so, because while ezines are active participants in cyberculture, their concerns are not entirely congruent with, say, the newsgroups that Herring studies, or Turkle’s MUDs and MOOs. In relation to ezines, the usefulness of theorists certainly varies. Nevertheless, I have chosen these theorists because their ideas represent the major contributions to the discourse around gender and cyberspace, and the larger questions they raise can be applied to disparate online material.
For example, the first viewpoint, introduced by linguist Susan Herring, in implication, could impede the development of ezines and other forms of feminist/women’s presence in cyberspace. I realize that her area of interest is in actual online dialogue, but she is representative of a current of thought which suggests women’s very presence online puts them in danger. The second viewpoint, put forth by Laura Miller, analyzes of the power of metaphor in the conception of cyberspace and interrogates the idea of the gendered mind, but unfortunately it falls victim to many of the same patterns it criticizes. The third theory, provided by Howard Rheingold, while problematic in its understanding of key inequalities, is more promising. The fourth framework, devised by MIT psychiatrist-turned-computer-guru Sherry Turkle, is appealing on an individual level but it is hard to apply systematically. The final viewpoint, articulated by feminist "technoscientist" Donna Haraway, is, I feel, most useful because it brings together visionary aspects of cyberspace and a hard-headed look at feminist political activism. This is, of course, merely a passing overview of five major theories; I will now turn to a more in-depth discussion of each.
A proponent of the view that cyberspace is not only gendered but is also actively hostile to women is Susan Herring, who has written extensively on the gendered nature of computer-mediated-communication (CMC). A linguist, Herring is concerned with the way in which men and women (or those who self-identify as such) interact online. She claims that "women and men appeal to different---and partially incompatible---systems of values both as the rational foundation of their posting behavior and in interpreting and evaluating the behavior of others online."
According to her, users (and hence online culture in general) are predominantly male and espouse stereotypically male values: conflict, adversarial communication, domination of discourse. She finds evidence of this in posting styles within Usenet. Women, says Herring, "preferentially evoke an ethics of politeness and consideration for the wants of others, especially their desire to be ratified and liked…" as well as exhibit "supportiveness and attenuation." Men, on the other hand, "evoke an ethic of agonistic debate and freedom from rules or imposition", in addition to "an authoritative, self-confident stance whereby men are more likely than women to represent themselves as experts..." Thus since the majority of users are men, "[t]he male ethic predominates in official netiquette guidelines and in discourse about the Internet in general." Male-identified discourse, according to Herring, "assign[s] greater value to freedom from censorship, forthright and open expression, and agonistic debate as a means to advance the pursuit of knowledge."
A secondary result of this kind of interaction, says Herring, is that communication styles "are recognizably---even stereotypically---gendered". As a result, "women with a politeness ethic must create and defend women-centred spaces online in order to carry out the kind of discourse they value", since women who communicate in such a fashion tend to get "ignored, trivialized, or criticized by men for their tone or the inappropriateness of their topic".
But what of the women who defy the patterns of predicted female behaviour, who might be greater in number than Herring’s bell curve suggests? It was in one of the kind of female-dominated lists which Herring celebrates, WOMEN-L, where an angry flame war took place over the introduction of WHOA (Women Halting Online Harassment). It began when a woman subscriber announced the formation of WHOA as an organization which would "educate the Internet community about online harassment, empower victims of harassment, and formulate voluntary policies that systems can adopt in order to create harassment-free environments". One might have thought on a women’s list that this announcement would be greeted with cheers of support, and Herring endorses a similar idea in her thoughts on bringing women online, calling for women to "participate in any way they can in the process that leads to the encoding of netiquette rules… Take the initiative and write down guidelines for suggested list protocol… " But WHOA was not so warmly received. The first response was swift, lengthy (over four printed pages) and brutal:
Whoa is right!!!! Take a step back and rethink what you are hoping to set in motion here. So you got a little harassed on some chatlines, or maybe even greatly harassed on some BBS. Now you’ve turned into the NET-POLICE?!?!? Setting and judging the standards by how the "internet" is going to deal with women? Pull-ease!…
This contribution not only exhibited what Herring would call a classic male style in its length, direct responses to every point, sarcastic and adversarial language, and direct disagreement, but also a classic male content involving discourses of freedom of choice, individuality, fend-for-yourself tactics, and freedom from censorship (which according to Herring are "themes that are missing almost entirely from female responses"). The next responder was a seasoned veteran of the Internet who’d been online since 1981. While she used a more "female" rhetorical style, she nevertheless espoused the same values as the first in her content:
Over the past 16 years, I have logged more time online than I care to admit. So many enriching hours! … And it’s true: every now and again you encounter an intellect that is just gross. Spiritual B.O., maybe. And then you discover another fabulous aspect to this medium: you hit delete or add a name to your kill file and the odious person ceases to exist. … I like it this way. The control is entirely mine and I own that.
The rest of the responses in the "first wave" of the next few days were somewhere between endorsement and worried caution. Concern was raised about control, safeguards, and access to information. Then an argument erupted between one WHOA supporter and the women who had made the first two posts. The WHOA supporter had written a lengthy post detailing what she thought were the flaws and "ironies" in the other two arguments. The rebuttal arrived thereafter from one of the detractors: "And you’ve just shed *so* much more light on it. (Heavy sarcasm intended.) … And rather than drivelling on with the 27 levels of irony, did it ever occur to you to try answering my question?… It is not worthwhile to mention any subsequent posts; suffice it to say that the level of discourse quickly descended into Herring’s worst visions of appalling "male" behaviour.
Were the flaming women "male-identified"? Possessed of "false consciousness"? Do we need an organization such as WHOA? Who is right? I could make the argument that women’s frequent aversion to and wariness of cyberspace may be due more to their degree of familiarity with the medium, as well as their situation in terms of computer comfort, rather than a vulnerability due to gender; it is noticeable that the ones who champion so-called "male values" also identify as hackers or experienced users. In one of the rebuttals to WHOA, a woman wrote: "You don’t say how long you’ve been online. My guess isn’t very long." In addition, women who have not grown up around computer technology (the use of which can be overwhelming in itself) may approach it with trepidation due to confrontation with the apparent endlessness and chaos of cyberspace. After all, quips abound among baby boomers about the insurmountable difficulty of setting a clock on a VCR. I find it significant that online ezines are largely generated by younger women. However, such an argument, while important, obscures the fundamental problem of "gendered incivility" online.
I am critical of Herring’s stance for a number of reasons. Although her analysis does not merits significant attention, particularly for its deconstruction of the claim of gender-blindness of CMC, as well as its raising of the age-old tension between women’s very real claims of harassment and hostility and those who feel that to curtail such exchange is to limit free speech, yet I am concerned that Herring does not provide an adequate strategy for interacting in mixed-gender groups, or for women becoming a palpable online presence. It seems that in Herring’s analysis women must choose to segregate themselves in order to enjoy being online and avoid hostile interactions. Many women find this problematic, and one of them, known online as the "patron saint of women hackers", is Jude "St. Jude" Milhon, who says, "Hanging out with nice people is nice. But I don’t want to sit around in the politeness ghetto all the time." Herring’s proposed solutions centre around women getting involved in regulation of cyberspace and forming moderated women-only groups. Much of her discourse centres around the concept of harm caused by "gendered incivility." Many women who, like St. Jude, do not feel that online communication needs to be "friendlier" for women to use it successfully see Herring’s solutions as inappropriate for the "problem" of online gender. Others see no problem at all.
Furthermore, there are methodological problems in denoting just who is male and who is female online. Many women assume ambiguous pseudonyms or male names. A study conducted around gender and CMC discovered that
people apparently felt more comfortable participating to a greater extent in CMC when they were able to mask their identities. Whereas women felt the need to project a cross-gender identity, men did not… The tendency for women to mask their gender identity might reflect an effort to maintain a parity of status in the shared activity of conversation, an imperative which men would be less likely to feel in a mixed-gender setting.
The study also discovered that when pseudonyms were used, men became more "socially independent", communicating more in what Herring would call a "female" way. The researchers speculated that perhaps the freedom of gender anonymity enabled them to do so.
While pseudonym use resulted in greater expressions of social interdependence among men, there was no observed change in this variable for women… It is quite possible… that… the need for social interdependence is equally strong for males as it is for females. Thus, what we consider to be a "feminine" pattern of exhibiting social interdependence might actually be an essentially human style unconstrained by the expectation of male power assertion.
Most interestingly for the purposes of this paper, the researchers concluded: "[A] person given the opportunity to manage his or her projected identity will do so… The limited variety of symbols, along with their absolute control by the user, in text-based communication might reduce inhibitions due to social expectations which otherwise constrict socioemotional and relational discourse."[italics mine] In other words, the most important factor online for women is control of their discourse and identities.
I propose that it is not accidental that women who are comfortable enough online to write ezines and construct networking sites tend to have adopted "handles" and online personae, which often invoke important female figures, whom they avenge: geekgirl, NrrdGrrl, Rosie X, Cybergrrl, Zelda Underground, Max Airborne, Venus Futura, Cruella de Ville. If Herring’s women tend to be the goodwives of the "frontier", then the hackers and NetChicks tend to be the saloon women and renegade cowgirls. Herring’s analysis does not take into account the effect which identity play and control might have on the way that women communicate and relate online.
Finally, Herring’s article does not account for the great variety among women users, both in presentation style and real social diversity. While they share the characteristic of access to the technology, the similarity ends there. Laura Miller notes in "Women and Children First", "[It] isn’t that my reactions [to cyberspace] are more correct, but rather that [all of these] are the reactions of women, and [no one] has any reason to believe that mine are the exception rather than the rule". One contributor to the list WOMEN-L made the following point while commenting on a post about an "in-depth look at why women go online, what women do online, and what keeps them away" done by Interactive Publishing Alert in 1995:
I just took it for granted that women were as diversified in their use of, and reasons for using, computers and electronic networks as are men. Do you think any of those "what do you like about computers" questions will take any of this into account? NO! They will report in only the fact that I [am] A Woman, and this woman doesn’t fill the coffers of shoot-em-up software authors… [M]ost of the "research" available on ‘women and computers’ doesn’t, as far as I can tell, even try to skim the surface of what’s REALLY going on.
Amy Bruckman, in "Finding One’s Own in Cyberspace", shares a similar sense of resistance to gendered classification, and to questions such as: "Are women comfortable on the Net?" In her opinion: "It’s like asking: ‘Are women comfortable in bars?’ That’s a silly question. Which woman? Which bar?"
2.04 "Women and Children First": Mythos and Metaphor
"How do you know they’re men? I’m no lady, darlin’."
--St. Jude, "Modem Grrrl"
Metaphor is critical for an understanding cyberspace. In her article "Language, Technology, Gender and Power", which examines how both the military and religious metaphors in the culture of computing can often exclude women from discourse, Fiona Wilson points out that "[metaphor] can be seen as an essential medium through which reality is constructed… It is a basic structural form of experience through which human beings engage, organize, and understand their world." There is general agreement among theorists that language shapes social reality, although there is disagreement as to the degree to which this occurs. Nevertheless it is instructive to examine the metaphors of cyberspace discourse because they are both descriptive and prescriptive of attitudes, fears, and ideas around it. Mark Dery, discussing the cyberspace future scenarios of various theorists, points out that "[t]he problem with all of these visions is that while they have the glossy, streamlined look of science, or at least science fiction, when we open up the hood we find that they conceal age-old myths…" Just as zealous parents of a new baby bring its gender into being by surrounding it with pink frills or blue pinstripes, we too relate to a just-born form of communication by enveloping it in our own social fictions. Such a relationship cannot but determine the future of the infant technology.
Through metaphor "more is communicated than the words literally say." In metaphor meaning is created by making use of contextual and conceptual links outside the actual linguistic components. To understand a metaphor is to participate in that meaning-making process, and by definition to become complicit. Furthermore, the metaphors which are most effective (and which achieve permanence and/or cliché status) are those which most strongly speak to social concerns and discourses. Thus it is not that one metaphor is more "true" than another; rather that the strongest metaphor provides ideas that "both depend on and constitute selves and societies…" in the most discursively resonant way. Knowing this, we must ask the questions: how do theorists choose to engage with metaphor to construct their meaning and how do these metaphors play on current (and collective) social anxieties, assumptions and fictions?
Returning to Herring’s analysis, one observes that she often uses the metaphor of the "virtual frontier" to conceptualize cyberspace. In her article "Women and Children First: Gender and the Settling of the Electronic Frontier", Laura Miller argues that the metaphor of the frontier is a potent one in "the rich figurative soup of American culture", and that
"the way we choose to describe the Net now encourages us to see regulation as its inevitable fate. And, by examining how gender roles provide a foundation for the intensification of such social controls, we can illuminate the way those roles prescribe the freedoms of men as well as women".
As a linguist, Herring must be conscious of the discursive power of the frontier metaphor, which is evocative of the anarchic ramshackle settlements of the old American Wild West where only the toughest and baddest survived. Paul Edwards notes, in "The Army and the Microworld", that the discourse of "mastery" in computer programming exists in all aspects from concrete program design to more abstract theoretical concerns about the medium. "It is supposed to be hard… dangerous, bad, harsh, unfriendly---a real man’s job". Herring has not failed to note the gendered implications of using the frontier metaphor, but is uncritical in her use of it and does not deconstruct its political implications. She feels that women must engage in defining the laws of this savage place, and that "it may be vital that we do so if women’s behaviour is to be accorded value, and if we are to ensure women the right to settle on the virtual frontier on their own---rather than on male-defined---terms". By using such language, Herring implicates herself in this metaphorical construct. She situates women in a particular role, one which is already familiar to us from legions of westerns: the good, morally superior woman who comes into the badlands to exert her civilizing domestic influence. Furthermore, by describing it thus and placing women within a certain online role, she has also constructed a fundamental part of cyberspace’s discursive future,.
Miller describes the frontier as a particularly North American (and more explicitly, American) construction, evoking as it does images of a "lawless" West or an "untamed" Yukon, "a realm of limitless possibilities and few social controls, hover[ing], grail-like, in the American psyche…" She finds the use of the metaphor problematic in that the Net is not an expanse of unpopulated space (and neither was the West upon European arrival, though this is often conveniently forgotten in false nostalgia) but rather a crowded piece of bandwidth (in fact without electronic communities the raison d’etre of the Net would disappear altogether). I would argue that to characterize cyberspace thus reveals a persistent strain of imperialism often found in discourse around technology, particularly virulent in the hacker and artificial intelligence (AI) community. Tom Athanasiou points out cynically in "Artificial Intelligence: Cleverly Disguised Politics": "The culture… is imperialist and seeks to expand the kingdom of the machine. And [it] is a Promethean science; like the genetic engineers, members of the ‘artificial intelligentsia’ see themselves as struggling against the anti-scientific dogmas of the past." The romanticized notion of the rebel pioneer is appealing to many North Americans yearning for a fictive past of limitless land and possibilities
Nevertheless Miller also finds the metaphor instructive for explaining some of the public perception of online social relationships. In the frontier metaphor
…civilization is necessary because women and children are victimized in conditions of freedom. Introduce women into a frontier town and the law must follow because women and children must be protected. Women, in fact, are usually the most vocal proponents of the conversion from frontier justice to civil society.
Miller believes that the modern counterpart to this phenomenon is the "imperiled" women and children who "make their appearance today in newspaper and magazine articles that focus on the intimidation and sexual harassment of women on line and reports of pedophiles trolling for victims in computerized chat rooms". Organizations such as WHOA have sprung up to aid these damsels in distress, and help to define what is "appropriate and inappropriate behaviour online".
However, says Miller, women should not welcome increased protections uncritically; rather they should "regard the notion of special protections (chivalry, by another name) with suspicion". One reason for this is that online women do not have the physical disadvantage which they experience in real life, nor do they have bodies which can be physically violated. Online, says Miller, "where I have no body and neither does anyone else---I consider rape to be impossible". The famous story of the cyber-rape in the MUD, first described by Julian Dibble in the Village Voice, which later became the apocryphal account of violence against women online, raised the question of whether speech equalled deed. If the "rapist", a character named Mr. Bungle, wrote on the screen that he was raping another character, is that the equivalent of him actually doing so? And if so, what implications does this have for the connection between women’s minds and their bodies? Miller writes, "[I]n accordance with the real-world understanding that women’s smaller, physically weaker bodies and lower social status make them subject to violation by men, there’s a troubling notion in the real and virtual worlds that women’s minds are also more vulnerable to invasion, degradation and abuse." In other words, the assumption exists that since women’s bodies are gendered, their minds must be as well, and Herring’s analysis seems to support this contention. Hence women’s online personas are subject to all of the constraints and abuses which are present in the physical world. But should this be the case? While perhaps it is hasty to trumpet the age of genderless cyberspace, promoting the concept of women’s minds as an open plain on which the male frontier pioneers trample—nature penetrated by civilization—does women a grave disservice. Miller notes:
As someone who values online forums precisely because they mandate equal time for each user who chooses to take it and forestall various "alpha male" rhetorical tactics like interrupting, loudness, or exploiting the psychosocial advantages of greater size or a deeper voice, I find [this notion] perplexing and disturbing. In these laments I hear the reluctance of women to enter into the kind of debate which characterizes healthy public life, a willingness to let men bully us even when they’ve been relieved of most of their traditional advantages. Withdrawing into an electronic purdah where one will never be challenged or provoked, allowing the ludicrous ritual chest-thumping of some users to intimidate us into silence—surely women can come up with a more spirited response than this.
But does Miller’s rebuttal to the "gendered mind" theories really signify a new era of gender-free mind-meetings, or does it adopt the familiar Cartesian mind/body dualism as its basis? If the latter, feminists should remain concerned for the future of the gendered body, since experience has taught us that women are generally the losers when the supremacy of mind, intellect, and spirit are discursively lauded. Does rejecting the idea of cyber-rape simultaneously trivialize real physical rape, or does it mean a new age of women socking it to the loudmouths and bullies? Beneath Miller’s theory I detect the sort of frontier individualism which she criticizes, for her solution sounds very much like the "Well, why didn’t you just punch him in the nose/grab him back/tell him to go away?" response to women complaining of sexual harassment. While I think the questions Miller raises about the gendered nature of online communication are certainly valid and merit further exploration, I am also concerned that her strategic solutions, like frontier justice, lean towards the private, the particular, and the individual without much challenging the systemic nature of gendered discourse and communication.
2.05 Participatory Democracy and "Many-to-Many Media"
"Interactivity is another name for shopping."
During the 1997 Megacity debates in Toronto, Liz Rykert was not simply sitting at home griping privately and unproductively about what the provincial government was up to; instead she was busily running the Web site and Internet bulletin board for Citizens for Local Democracy (C4LD), the bulk of the anti-amalgamation forces. People could log into online discussions, post their views, keep abreast of new developments almost as soon as they appeared, argue about strategy, and generally interact with others who were of like political minds. In this instance cyberspace appears as a tool for the promotion and concrete incarnation of the democratic process. Rykert states, "These [forums] are a place for people to participate… The political process is about building positions and developing ways for people to get involved in civil society. For the last few years that’s been relegated to the vote."
Howard Rheingold has been one of the major proponents of the Net as a space for "the spirit of cooperation and really democratic discourse". As he sees it, cyberspace exists as a sort of anarcho-democratic forum for people to post, discuss, and debate ideas and information with millions of others, particularly in terms of politics. Invoking vaguely neo-conservative discourse of "yankee ingenuity" and "the market", Rheingold nevertheless hopes to resist the centralized control of the Net by large corporations and the government, and dreams of the abolition of vertically-organized hierarchies in favour of a communal, more horizontal social structure. His dream is information and participation for all, which he hopes will lead to "grass-roots democracy", people gaining a better understanding of the issues, and citizens feeling more "plugged in" to the political process. The consequences of this in terms of gender would be increased access for diverse groups and individual women to network, exchange and debate ideas, and participate in political activities. Mailing lists and forums such as WOMEN-L, ABIGAILS-L and Women’space as well as web sites and ezines are points of connection which allow women to disseminate information about political initiatives or conferences, make alliances and organize with like-minded e-compatriots, and perhaps seek to improve women’s access to online resources. For example, interactive online forums can aid disabled women, who might be limited in their mobility but who might wish to organize internationally, to communicate. "’Email has made an international disabled women’s network possible’… One interactive online service… has grown to more than 100 subscribers from 23 countries". In this paradigm, as opposed to Herring’s, women are forming their own networks not to self-segregate but expand arenas of political activity.
One of the dangers inherent in Rheingold’s paradigm, however, is that it homogenizes the intellectual and social demographic of computer users and their products. While he addresses the problem of accessibility, his model of democratic space is predicated on literate, thoughtful users who are genuinely interested in social and political participation—"philosopher kings" and exemplary citizens with enough resources to gain access (a metaphor likely informed by yearning for a kind of Athenian democratic state, which, as we know, offered "democracy" and political participation only to a very small group of city inhabitants). In reality the Net teems with electronic garbage and noisy cyberflotsam that make discovering the tiny pearls of useful and intelligent information difficult. As Herring has shown, the Net can be an actively hostile environment, particularly for women. However Rheingold does not address systemic problems with the Net, preferring to regard the only challenges to online freedom as external: meddling governments and greedy corporations. While such freedoms may be helpful to, say, feminists advocating for accessible information for all women, they can also extend to ultra-right-wing groups which benefit from rejecting all forms of government control with regard to hate speech.
Rheingold does not provide a model for critical evaluation of the form and content of cyberspace. He conflates access to information with access to knowledge. All information is equal in his paradigm. Theodore Roszak writes in The Cult of Information: "This prospect is surely based on an odd diagnosis of our social ills. It assumes that the body politic is starving for a lack of information and that only the computer can make good that shortage." Once users have enough information, assumes Rheingold, they will be enticed to political participation. Promoters of technology seem to share that view to an exaggerated degree. For example, during the 1998 Super Bowl an ad was aired for the California-based software company Oracle, which showed a montage of civil war scenes and street fighting in what appeared to be Asian and Latin American countries while a voice-over proclaimed, "The revolution of the future is about knowledge". The final shot, after the viewer had been treated to thirty seconds of people running in fear from armed assailants, centred on a computer. Oracle’s staggering level of discursive trivialization of genocide and other human atrocities, which are ongoing in much of the world, is unfortunately not uncommon in the sense that technocrats laud access to the Net as the solution to global problems. However, even assuming that access to large quantities of data could resolve the world’s conflicts, the overwhelming quantity of information available has the potential to satiate the user in place of action; all energy is consumed simply weeding through online data and none is spent in concrete physical action. Roszak suggests that "data glut is not some unforeseen, accidental fluctuation of supply, like a bumper crop of wheat. It is a strategy of social control, deliberately and often expertly wielded. It is one of the main ways in which modern governments and interest groups obfuscate issues to their own advantage; they dazzle and distract with more raw data than the citizenry can hope to sort through." As the saying goes, "if you can’t convince, then confound."
Furthermore, Rheingold assumes that the decentralization of political discourse will necessarily lead to a dispersal of power and hence greater democracy. However, notes Sherry Turkle, "the jury is still out on it ultimate effects. It may, for example, be possible to create an illusion of decentralized participation even when power remains closely held." This is particularly true given cyberspace’s potential for producing illusions. Thus, it is important to read Rheingold as advocating more than just online discussion; rather the importance for feminist politics is his idea of the use of cyberspace as a tool for organization, and not merely as an end in itself.
After all, Rheingold provides an important model of the way in which cyberspace can be used for women’s political initiatives. He notes: "There’s a real potential for computers to connect people together… It’s a tool that humans can use to build communities… It’s a relationship between the people…" The medium of cyberspace allows for the building of networks and communities based on affinities (see the section on Donna Haraway below). For example, Aliza Sherman, better known as Cybergrrl, has constructed an extensive web site designed as a tool for women to be able to find resources, share information, learn more about cyberspace, and generally feel more comfortable in the online environment. While not an explicitly political site in that it was not designed for networking around actual political initiatives, Cybergrrl’s "objective is to help women and girls get online through books, TV appearances, speaking and teaching - then to be there once they get online with a guide and interesting and helpful links - and then to entertain them once they are savvy netsurfers with compelling content." Once networks are created, then they can be used. After all, the feminist movement of the twentieth century was largely enabled in its initiatives by such networking tools as informal phone trees. Networks are excellent ways of distributing information, resources, petitions and planning initiatives such as protests, boycotts and demonstrations. Thus for feminists operating within Rheingold’s paradigm, cyberspace should not be the telos of their efforts, but should rather function as a tool used for concrete political action.
2.06 Multiphrenia and Turkle’s Second Self
"We come to see ourselves differently as we catch sight of our images in the mirror of the machine."
Sherry Turkle is an MIT-based psychologist who has spent over a decade researching and writing about the relationships between humans, computers, and the idea of selfhood. Her latest book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, is the most instructive of her publications for examining ezines and their play with identity.
In this book Turkle argues that computers have moved from being modernist tools (to be used as mere mechanical abacuses) to becoming postmodernist objects-to-think-with, and that not only does this postmodernist perspective allow us to play with multiple selves, it also posits new modes of thinking about human selfhood and thought process. The modernist way of conceiving of computers was linear, rational, and governed by fundamental truths. There were standard rules about how to program and use computers, rules that allowed no deviation. Turkle recalls: "As recently as ten or fifteen years ago, it was almost unthinkable to speak of the computer’s involvement with ideas about unstable meanings and unknowable truths." Ideas about how computers worked "were presented as one of the great modern metanarratives, stories of how the world worked that provided unifying pictures and analyzed complicated things by breaking them down into simpler parts."
But with the development of the Apple Macintosh, which provided the first virtual spatial "desktop" environment, as well as a thin veneer of "personality" (a little smiling computer icon would appear on the screen when the drive was processing), and with the computer’s greater ability to contribute to a "culture of simulation", the ideological construction of the computer as glorified abacus began to break down. In its place grew new postmodern ideas which paralleled ever more rapid developments in the new breed of more opaquely operating computers. The Macs of the late 1980s and early 90s came as a single unit, screen, drive, and processor, which could only be disassembled with difficulty: woe to the hapless user whose Mac crashed while his or her disk was still being digested within its electronic innards, since there was no mode of manual extraction. The computer was becoming a machine that could not be tinkered with in
clumsy mechanical fashion, as one tinkered with an automobile. Turkle notes:
Frederic Jameson wrote that in a postmodern world, the subject is… fragmented… the self is decentered and multiple… The personal computer culture began with small machines that captured a post-1960s utopian vision of transparent understanding. Today, the personal computer culture’s most compelling objects give people a way to think concretely about an identity crisis. In simulation, identity can be fluid and multiple, a signifier no longer clearly points to a thing that is signified, and understanding is less likely to proceed through analysis than by navigation through virtual space.
Turkle uses the metaphor of "windows" as one example of how the computer provides a model for describing postmodern thought/identity formation. In the windows environment on a computer, the user begins with a "desktop" upon which various "files" or "windows" can be opened and run simultaneously. The user can view them all at once or individually, shuttling back and forth between multiple windows as necessary. And even the "desktop" is not a constant but can be modified by the user. Turkle writes:
[t]he development of windows for computer interfaces was a technical innovation motivated by the desire to get people working more efficiently by cycling through different applications. But in the daily practice of many computer users, windows have become a powerful metaphor for thinking about the self as a multiple, distributed system.
In the jargon of pop psychology, "multitasking" is used to connote certain kinds of consciousness in which several jobs are simultaneously performed; for example, the parent who can concurrently talk on the phone, make dinner, and instruct children as to the correct format of table setting. In the windows environment it is recognized that one window is not "better" or "more correct" than another, merely that certain windows are more necessary or appropriate at certain times. This has translated into the view of humans as playing multiple roles or having multiple selves, one early (and rather destructive) example of which was the media icon of the "superwoman" who "had it all" and was everything to everyone—devoted wife, sensuous lover, caring mom, competent professional, fit recreational athlete—while looking and feeling great. In a modernist conception of personhood, one had an identity problem if one was "alienated" from one’s true identity; in a postmodernist society one has an identity problem if one cannot summon the correct self at the appropriate time, or cannot figure out how to enable the fractious selves to work together.
Turkle sees the Internet as an explicit example of multiple personality. Online, as the joke goes, no-one knows you’re a dog. The Net has enabled users to play with identity as never before. One’s only identifying feature is one’s email address, and even that can be modified. All else is up for grabs. When participating in MUDs or MOOs, users can assume and construct any identity they want, and many are not even human. A giant carrot might chat with a purple mouse in a virtual environment. To post in a chat room or Usenet one can assume a name that is male, female, or completely ambiguous. Turkle feels that this kind of identity play allows people to more fully understand the hidden aspects of themselves through enjoying the freedom that anonymity lends, for on the Net "people are able to build a self by cycling through many selves". A shy person might become talkative and flamboyant online, or indulge a secret desire to be publicly rude to others. Users can read and post to an immense number of newsgroups or chat groups in an equally immense number of roles, since no-one knows that the person giving them knowledgeable advice on how to keep aphids off tomato plants in rec.gardens is the same person who cruises alt.tasteless looking for pictures of orangutans in compromising positions. Gender play is common, as is a relaxing of the rules about polite social interaction. "The Internet has become a significant social laboratory for experimenting with the constructions and reconstructions of self that characterize postmodern life. In its virtual reality, we self-fashion and self-create".
Turkle’s identity play is not limited to dialogic interaction. She feels that home pages (and, by their close connection and similarity, I would suggest ezines) are part of such a process of creating an identity for oneself. She writes:
On the Web, the idiom for constructing a "home" identity is to assemble a "home page" of virtual objects that correspond to one’s interests… Like the agents in emergent AI [artificial intelligence], one’s identity emerges from whom one knows, one’s associations and connections… Home pages on the Web are one recent and dramatic illustration of new notions of identity as multiple yet coherent…
I would argue strongly that Turkle’s description of the role of a home page is highly congruent with the function of an ezine, since ezines work in the same way and are often autobiographically driven.
Turkle’s idea of multiplicity is a challenge to Herring’s structurally gendered environment, as well as an interesting counterpoint to Miller’s ideas about separating the online "mind" from the physically gendered body. Turkle proposes that not only can the self assume an identity online which is different from its actual concrete incarnation, but also that theoretically these identities are infinite. However, Turkle’s context is psychotherapy, with which I am not particularly concerned, since to confine the concept of the multiple self to an individualized psychological dimension does not allow for an exploration of how the multiple self might translate into a political subject. While Turkle’s examination of multiplicity online is instructive, it focuses more on a vision of the self than on the effects of multiplicity to political action; her personal remains personal and not political. I am more interested in the political applications of epistemological pluralism, the "story of the eroding boundaries between the real and the virtual, the animate and inanimate, the unitary and multiple self, which is occurring both in advanced scientific fields of research and in the patterns of everyday life" that can be applied to a model for political action. For this I will turn to the model of the cyborg proposed by Donna Haraway.
2.07 Cyborgs in Cyberspace
Donna Haraway, a feminist theorist of science, does not deal explicitly with cyberspace in her books Simians, Cyborgs and Women and Modest_Witness@Second_Milennnium.Female-Man©_Meets_OncoMousetm, but her model of the cyborg is applicable and instructive to cyberspace.
In the story of the cyborg, Haraway aims to create what she calls an "ironic political myth faithful to feminism, socialism and materialism", as well as animate her theoretical musings about science. The cyborg "is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction." The cyborg exists materially in the realm of technoscience and abstractly in the realm of political theorizing, both a metaphor for a lived reality of new technology and for postmodernist and political identity play.
In the sense of a concrete physical relationship to cyberspace, Haraway’s cyborg manifests itself when a user interfaces with a computer. Her initial vision has become more, not less, true to life with the progression of technology, as industry and hackers alike seek more direct ways of interacting with cyberspace. Turkle’s virtual desktop of the Macintosh superseded the cold code of DOS-based systems, and presently software exists that recognizes voice commands. Some laptops have no mouse or tracking ball but rather a small square along which the user runs her fingertip to guide the pointer action. When she wishes to click somewhere onscreen, she merely taps the square lightly; the intermediary function of the mouse-as-external/additional-object has disappeared and in its place is a seemingly direct connection between the hand and the machine.
While the possibilities of human-technology interface are intriguing, for the purposes of this essay I am most interested in Haraway’s cyborg as an icon for identity play as well as a powerful paradigm for feminist action. Haraway writes: "[M]y cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities which progressive people might explore as one part of needed political work." The physical reality of the liminal cyborg self translates into a framework for action which also encompasses partiality, boundary transgressions, contradiction, and fracture. This is not to say that the ideal political self becomes fragmented; rather it exists as a dynamic collection of disparate aspects whose synergistic whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. Haraway feels that the cyborg myth has the potential for radical political action; since physical/epistemological boundary breaks can be extrapolated to political boundary crossings, the cyborg frees feminists from a desperate search for similarity with one another. There is no pretense to unity or singularity; in fact such aspirations are not focused but myopic, as well as dangerous.
This is another way of stating Turkle’s thesis that static modernist categories, of self and computers, are not only incorrect but problematic, both in terms of technology and in terms of political identification. No longer is "Us" and "Them" sufficient, and indeed the question becomes: who do I ally myself with—who becomes the Us and Them of my politics? And then: what do I do when this tenuous collectivity based on an imagined self becomes fragmentary, or when I realize that I have defined "Us" as "not-Them" and the "Them" has shifted so that my negation is meaningless? Finally, most shameful: what do I do when a part of the "Us" happens, secretly or otherwise, to be aligned with "Them"? The lesson that many feminists have learned is that feminist systems based on a monolithically guiding concept are not only exceedingly limited in scope and application, but also that diversity and difference are punished. "Taxonomies of feminism produce epistemologies to police deviation from official women’s experience." As a result, theories and systems lose their utility for collective political action.
This is not to endorse the cyborg heartily as a utopic vision. Haraway is very clear that we must enter the cyborg politic with eyes wide open, and be aware of its agenda, as its family tree resembles that of cyberspace. The spawning of cyberspace is analogous to her description of the birth of the cyborg, "spat out of the womb-brain of its war-besotted parents in the middle of the last century of the Second Christian Millennium.". Thus:
From one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in a Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defense, about the final appropriation of women’s bodies in a masculinist orgy of war.
Technological advances can give rise to global control of communications by what Haraway calls "the New World Order, Inc." (presently embodied in software and telecommunications firms which are battling for command of the virtual remote control); and/or, as in Herring’s vision, render the world more hostile to women. "The actual situation of women", writes Haraway, "is their integration/exploitation into a world system of production/reproduction and communication called the informatics of domination." This, perhaps, is what Herring might have directed her attentions to had she not been exclusively focused on linguistic indicators of gendered communication, for the issues she raises around gendered production of cyberspace are certainly not limited to men and women being rude to one another. Haraway’s analysis does not erase the systemic problem of women’s place in New World Order, Inc., but it does provide a model for resistance.
For the cyborg can represent other, more positive things (the advantage, of course, of having multiple selves). Haraway hopes to use the cyborg to represent "lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints." The solution for her is to see with plural vision; to be aware and critical of both birth-and-death aspects of the cyborg in the development of political struggle. As mentioned, the old static categories which were useful determinants in the past of "Us" and "Them" are "all in question ideologically. Identity politics—or rather, monolithic identity politics which do not account for shifts and partialities—are no longer effective when identities are constantly being reworked." Identity politics—that is, politics based on (often physical) characteristics of the "self" such as class, race, ability, sexual orientation—proved to be an extremely divisive force within the feminist movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s. While not ignoring the concerns that women have about how their physical/social identity is given meaning or experienced, cyborg politics posits that women with disparate concerns and identities can still mobilize together around political initiatives. In practical application, women who connect over modem lines are engaged less with discovering individuals who share their physical identity configuration—after all, they may never see exactly with whom they are speaking—and more with forming relationships based on shared personal/political inclinations. Cyborg politics and cyberspace work by forming networks.
In a way, modems are at the center of cyborg politics… It’s about networks… From the individual consumer to the misunderstood loner, modern citizens are taught to think of themselves as beings who exist inside their heads and only secondarily come into contact with everything else… Unless, that is, you’re a collection of networks, constantly feeding information back and forth across the line to the millions of networks that make up your "world." A cyborg perspective seems rather sensible, compared with the weirdness of the doubting Cartesian world.
Haraway suggests instead a politics of affinity and "kinship"—not kinship in the most literal sense, but in the manner of recognizing that our travels across this political plane can make for strange bedfellows.
For my purposes, Haraway’s application lies in the idea of politics based in affinity, and in this easy multiplicity, cyborg politics neatly integrates all the previous theories of cyberspace. The cyborg aims to participate in the technopolitical sphere in the same many-to-many manner as Rheingold advocates, but it is less naïve about its roots and latent possibilities. Since, as Turkle has shown us, identity in cyberspace is mutable and constantly in flux, it does not make sense to construct a politics which is based upon static identities; yet the cyborg transcends the Turklian concerns of self-examination in its expansive potential for actual political activism. Nor does Haraway’s cyborg completely share the reservations of Herring, since it is a model of visionary technopolitics that cannot function by asserting unequivocal discomfort (or, as Haraway terms it, "knee-jerk technophobia") in the virtual arena. The cyborg recognizes (and enjoys) Miller’s debate concerning the genderless mind, for it does not slip into easy dualisms but acknowledges that tension and contradictions are inherent to its existence.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of Haraway’s cyborg theory is that of all the theories it is the one which seems most truly distinctive, unfettered by many of the geriatric social anxieties and fictions which appear in some of the other theories (instead, of course, it inscribes new social anxieties and fictions upon itself). As such it is less bound (as much as any defining discourse can be) by the need to "fit" cyberspace into an aging mould and eschews somewhat a prescriptive role in defining the future of the medium—its mantra is not "this is how it will be" but "wait and see". In addition, Haraway is much more conscious than the other theorists in her use of metaphor and imagery; the construction of the cyborg story is a deliberate and ironic fabrication of a political myth. She tries to avoid drawing on the kinds of social legends which inform many of the other theorists: the frontier, the Promethean hero-self, the community of philosopher-citizens. Instead she attempts to create an entirely new metaphor based in current technoscientific developments.
Haraway’s cyborg is the most useful cyberspace theory for examining ezines, because ezines represent part of the first clumsy inklings of feminist cyborgs finding their way into cyberspace, learning to use and control the technology (granted, not everyone online is a hacker), adapting it for political ends, and ultimately developing politics which grow from the use of the medium. The cyborg acknowledges and allows for contradictions, conflicts and paradoxes, such as that of women discovering visionary potential within a hostile medium, while remaining conscious of its importance for actual political strategy and actions. In the same way that the literal cyborg cannot readily be classified as human, animal or machine, the figurative cyborg frees feminists from political organizing based on static identity categories of Us and Them. Ezines act as a point of contact and often networks or resources for women online, making connections possible between people who otherwise would never have met, and facilitating different kinds of political resistance. I will further discuss how ezines do this in the next section.
PART THREE: Ezines: What and How?
3.01 SEARCH FOR: theoretical AND paradigm
The question that eventually arises when attempting to examine the ezines, or any new media form, is How? How does one go about the task of reading and critiquing them? One way to do so would be to draw on media theory. Of course one immediately thinks of Marshall McLuhan’s seminal theory, "The medium is the message", but does it apply to the Net? Umberto Eco, in an interview discussing his new project, the Multimedia Arcade, points out that McLuhan’s phrase:
…works a lot better for television than it does for the Internet. OK, maybe at the beginning you play around, you use your search engine to look for "shit" and then for "Aquinas" and then for "shit AND Aquinas," and in that case the medium certainly is the message. But when you start to use the Net seriously, it does not reduce everything to the fact of its own existence, as television tends to. There is an objective difference between downloading the works of Chaucer and goggling at the Playmate of the Month..
Eco is partially correct in saying that the comparison between the Net and television does not work very well. The cyborg physical closeness between thoughts and electronic transmission which is possible online is not congruent with the passive ingestion of information supplied by the television (although despite protestations of "interactivity" many large corporations would have us believe that what we want from the Net is exponentially increasing amounts of vaguely specified "information"). However, I think that the strength of McLuhan’s idea is its ability to encompass new forms of media without substantial change. The Net may not have been around long enough for us to figure out how its medium can be its message, but I think Eco is too quick to dismiss McLuhan. Eco interprets McLuhan to mean that the content determines the medium, and that a user who accesses the Net to download sexually explicit photos is not the same as a user whose interests lie in a more cerebral direction. Yet both are accessing the content in a specific way, which is more important for McLuhan than what they are actually getting on their monitors. But while I find McLuhan’s application to the Net an intriguing project, it is not a useful endeavour for the purposes of this essay; I am looking more for a theory that addresses the Net as the Net.
Nor can the Net be approached as merely an animated print publication, though one can use the tools of literary criticism to study the words presented onscreen. Film (and television) theory is of some assistance—engagement in "the gaze" is rampant as users sit cloistered with their computers and voyeuristically visit each others’ home pages and adult sites, but the constructed objects of scopophilic desire often exist as textual abstractions. Furthermore, the concept of "links" is fundamental to an online product, in the same way that a single shot is given meaning once juxtaposed with other shots. In addition, as discussed previously, the active manipulation of identities online makes it hard to figure out just who is the subject and who is the object.
Scholars of the nascent field of cyberspace studies provide no framework either. The technology itself has only become largely available to the average user in the last ten years, and the Web only in the last five years. As such most intrepid forays into the study of cyberspace have concentrated only on examining the medium as a whole, or on examining mainly text-based CMC. While they raise useful and informative contextual issues, a concrete paradigm of website analysis cannot be located at this point in time.
I suspect that cyberspace is presently where film was in the age of the Lumière brothers, where it was seen as an extension of theatre. Although millions of cyber-products already exist, few take full advantage of the possibilities of hypermedia—at present most are merely text received in a unique format. Thus part of the difficulty of formulating a theory of cyberspace is that the medium itself has not been fully formed, and we are looking at its embryonic self in some stage of development—those of the "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" frame of mind will notice that cyberspace has moved from text to animated image—with the "final" product (if there ever will be one) yet to be realized. While it uses elements of other media, cyberspace is more than the sum of these things. As such it is too reductive to restrict analysis to these aspects of it which are known quantities. The Net may be the first medium to exist mostly as an idea, removed from the concrete facticity/artifactuality of such things as paper texts or film in a canister.
So here I am in late 1997, struggling to put together some kind of object-to-think-with about ezines, and furthermore to add something feminist to the discussion. I have set my mental search engine to look for "theoretical AND paradigm" but have received the response: "0 sites were found to match your query". Thus I must proceed rather like the blind men describing the elephant, with one crucial difference: cyberspace’s ephemerality and aery abstractions are quite unlike the comforting mammalian solidity of a pachyderm’s body. In other words, I am not only examining what already exists but I am also bringing it into discursive existence by naming it. My role, like that of the theorists who I have already discussed, is descriptive and prescriptive.
Therefore I have decided to go back to the conceptual beginning, to ask the simplest questions I can. What is an ezine? Once I have attempted to give the reader some basic grasp of what I am discussing, I will examine two ezines in greater depth, asking questions like: What is being said? How is it being said? And how do feminist ezine creators regard their role within the larger role of gendered cyberculture?
3.02 What is an ezine?
The roots of ezines are in print ‘zines (from "magazines") which were self-produced publications, cheaply photocopied and circulated within a small group of like-minded individuals. They were about everything, anything, and nothing at all. On the subject of feminist ‘zines, Angela Richardson writes:
Like their punk rock predecessors of the 1970's, today's zine publishers are usually individuals who see little of their lives reflected in the pages of Time and Newsweek. The realm of modern-day ‘zines exists as an arena for many marginalized populations, but perhaps for none more fittingly than feminists. Particularly in today's backlash climate, ‘zines provide an alternative to, as well as an oasis from, the mainstream press's (mis)representations of our experiences as women. Similar in form to the poetry chapbooks and small press output of the 1930' and 40's, the first ‘zines were homemade, mimeographed magazines in miniature put together for and by the fans of particular punk bands.
Constructed with a clear postmodern pop cultural consciousness, zine creators appropriated from every source with cheerful irreverence. Richardson notes, "Women use ‘zines as a forum for interacting with, reacting to, hacking up and re-assembling pop culture."
On one level, the ezine is the print ‘zine’s online congruent in its self-publication, often sharing its spirit of witty tourism of mass culture. But self-publication cannot be cited as the defining characteristic of an ezine, since self-publication is not a unique characteristic on the Web. The Web lends itself perfectly to such a mode of production: all it takes is a web site, which is often free. Cyberspace is already cluttered with self-produced creations from personal home pages to essays (and the boundaries are often blurred between these things and ezines). Interestingly, a difference of opinion is apparent between ‘zine and ezine creators as to the process. Richardson writes:
Most ‘zines are the results of hours upon hours of creative collage work and story-writing, followed by a trip to the local copy shop. Articles are sometimes hand-written (therefore occasionally illegible), more often typed or output on computer for pasteup afterwards. Some ‘zines are laid out entirely on computer, although this practice is frowned upon by most ‘zinesters, who swear by the hands-on approach of old-fashioned cut-and-paste methods.
The essence of a ‘zine is its self-publication process (and laborious effort therein), so it is noteworthy that although ezines are most certainly self-published, their relative ease of presentation may signify a lack of "blood, sweat and tears" to diehard print ‘zinesters.
Since ezines, like ‘zines and the majority of other sites on the Web, are directly produced by their creators, without intervention from editors, publishers or even collective editorial boards, and are not governed by any rules on content, they are generally driven by their creator’s sense of identity or interests, and often highly autobiographical. Because of this self-production, ezines provide a forum for their creators to express themselves freely with little mediation between creator and publisher. The perceived immediacy of the electronic medium (plus our ability to interact with it on the microlevel through, for instance, sending email to creators) augments the illusion of direct contact between creator and reader.
Thus what exactly defines an ezine can be rather difficult to specify, since in many cases the boundaries are blurred between personal home pages and an actual ezine in terms of content and means of publication. I have decided to include those which appear to be meant to stand alone as a discrete entity: they have names and follow the general content format of print ezines, including articles, table of contents, occasional editorials, recurring column features, and so forth. In fact, in their organizational structure ezines resemble commercially produced print magazines rather than print ezines, since the ezines that I studied were quite formally organized. Articles, columns, and features were often classified under subject or genre headings and there was always an index or table of contents. While one can peruse the articles in any desired order, one is never in any danger of getting lost or having the previous pages disappear into the electronic ether; there is always the option of returning to the main index. Some do this with links at the bottom of the article saying, for example, "Back to Main", which mimics the effect of flipping back in a magazine to the table of contents; others present a greater range of possibilities by using frames in their presentation so that a range of options ("Index", "Editorial", "Email me", "Features", etc.) is always visible at any point in the browsing, which mimics the effect of flipping through the magazine at will. In contrast print ‘zines tend to be more like comic books in their organization: because of the "collage" process mentioned above, items often flow into one another unannounced and without central indices.
Interestingly, few ezines actually make good use of the truly unique aspect of the Net medium: interactivity. Pages are linked together in a rather formal fashion, and once on a page it often reads as mere print text. Hyper-references are rare within the articles themselves, though a nice exception to this is the ezine WWWench, which features articles peppered liberally with hyper-references (for instance, clicking on the word "photographer" in a piece about the death of Princess Diana takes you to the New York Library photography collection web site). I suspect this is because the medium is so new that creators are still thinking of it as glorified print, in the same way that early photographers thought of their creations as more realistic paintings, or that early filmmakers conceptualized film as recordable theatre.
3.03 "Chicks. Flicks. Politicks."
"Revolution starts where your hand starts writing."
--Dead Jackie Susann Quarterly #1
In this paper I have suggested that ezines exist as a form of online resistance by women. The critical reader is by now asking how this can be so. I propose that ezines exist as resistance in several ways.
First, if I assume as my starting point that online culture has largely been created by and for men, and furthermore by men in a certain privileged configuration (as we saw in the history of cyberspace), the sheer act of female foray into cyberspace is resistance—an electronic version of crossing Virginia Woolf’s grassy quadrangle. The very fact that women are educating themselves and each other about how to use the technology show that many women recognize the links between control of technology and control of resources. As Lisa Greber and Ruth Perry write in Signs’ special issue on women and computers: "We must continually remind each other---through education, organizing and action---that we have the right, the responsibility and the ability to control the future of the computer." In other words, to make it online is to make it from the realm of the object into the realm of the potential subject (whether or not that potential is realized). There is some small grain of insubordination in the action of presence itself, and conscious presence is even more an insult to the status quo. This acknowledgement, I believe, is something which is not addressed in Herring’s works, since Herring does not take into account the political significance of the act of speaking or consciously be-ing in "alien" territory. Furthermore, the discursive history of woman/body-as-object vs. woman/mind-as-speaking-subject (as well as feminist investigation into "writing the body") is neglected in Miller’s discussion of a gendered online mind. The theorist who seems to best understand the links between speaking-the-self and subjectivity is Sherry Turkle, who in her study of online personae makes clear the links between identity play, coming into presence online, and healthy selfhood. However, merely existing in a hostile environment is not entirely sufficient to constitute any kind of comprehensive resistance.
Second, even if cyberspace is not entirely hostile to women, resistance can be found in the creation of an online voice. Not everything a woman puts online is resistance in this sense, but many publishers of ezines find the connection between voice and activism to be important. This is not to suggest that "the female voice" on its own is privy to a unique viewpoint (though, of course, that could be debated), or to insist it even exists at all. What I mean to say here is that for many women the symbolic act of speaking/writing, particularly in an aware and critical way, is linked to an entrance into political space. One woman writes in her ezine article: "Give me a microphone. Hear what I say. Get ready, this world is going to rock apart." Amelia Wilson, creator of NrrdGrrl! and Grrowl!, expresses a similar point of view: "To me, anyway, until things are really equal… there will be a need for voices speaking up saying, ‘Hey, we’re here!’ NrrdGrrl! is one of those voices." Since I have pointed out that cyberspace is still highly contested ground both in its metaphor and its reality, it stands to reason that a conscious decision to put one’s voice online can be construed as a political act in that it confronts ideology and physical facticity. In one form of resistance, it suffices that women are online. In another, women are online, they aren’t keeping their mouths shut, and they’re learning how to get heard.
Third, the most sophisticated form of resistance is found in those ezines which actively promote feminist issues, as well as serving as a network/resource for women. Beyond simply gaining voice, women are now using this voice actively as a political tool. The voice has moved from being to doing. Rosie X, a.k.a. geekgirl, writes:
Demystifying the world of computers and information technologies for women and grrrls is a delightful consequence of being able to use the tools and tricks of the net. geekgirl [sic] is both liberating by example and also disseminates necessary information regarding networking, skill sharing and training. Readers have become designers of their own destiny, and know that helpful information can be gleaned each and every issue.
The self-publication potential of the net is one of the main reasons which creators cite as advantageous, since it allows for rhetoric and content which is unmediated by publishers, editors, or the like. Self-publication lends itself to a perception of immediacy, in that readers/users are more likely to feel that they can interact with ezine creators whose thoughts apparently are laid bare on the screen. One of the concerns of many women’s ezines—among other feminist issues—is promoting women’s access to technology. Not only have they constructed their own site as a voice of resistance, they actively seek to aid other women to do likewise. Some ezines, such as Brillo, also serve as networking sites or resources which direct women to information about gaining online proficiency (and control).
3.04 Ezine survey
The ezines produced by women are more different than they are alike, but in general they have some things in common.
First, they are often produced by (self-identified) women who have some desire to make their presence felt online. They may or may not have an explicitly feminist viewpoint, but they generally manifest an awareness that they are providing an important resource and point of connection for women. Amelia Wilson of NrrdGrrl! And Grrowl! writes:
I’ve been so touched and amazed by the letters of thanks I get from women (and yes, particularly young women). There really isn’t anything out there in the mass media that is making women feel good about themselves—nothing to make them happy to be smart and independent and free to speak and feel in peace instead of being squelched by fear of not being popular.
Many ezine creators see their product serving as an opening for debate on feminist issues in a unique way: if a reader disagrees with the creator she can email her directly and engage in discussion, and often ezine creators use forums such as real-time chat to facilitate online discourse. Pillitteri says: "A while back I tried to host weekly meetings at Girlrights… I found a site called Free2Talk[;] their server supported chat rooms and I created one for the meetings and linked my page to it." The ezine Bitch views itself as "a constantly evolving webzine and community space where feminists, Internet gluttons, media addicts and thoughtful folks in general can talk about women, pop culture, advertising, and just about anything else." In addition, many creators express the feeling that ezines exist as a kind of outlet for their frustrations and political discourse. Wilson says: "The whole point of NrrdGrrl! is exploring frustrations… I wanted to create a place where women could vent their spleens—either by writing to me or by publishing creative work in Grrowl!." On a more prosaic level, Disgruntled Housewife has a section called "The Dick List" where the creator, Nikol Lohr, invites her readers to list all the "dicks" in their lives who have wronged them. While "The Dick List" or many of the "bitch sessions" in Bitch could not be counted as political activism in most paradigms, they nevertheless comprise a cathartic aspect of ezines. Sometimes ezine pieces involve sheer personal purging, and sometimes "rants" lead to more complex political actions or community-building, as Pilliteri points out: "In order to increase the strength, unity and effectiveness of [Riot Grrrl] networks and movements, everyone involved must contribute and participate." For example, Brillo features a Hit List with every issue, which involves a listing of offensive web sites (anti-choice, white supremacists, et al) and a call to bombard these sites electronically (for this purpose, Brillo helpfully includes a handy guide on how to create electronic anonymity should users wish their mail to be untraceable).
Secondly, ezines often engage in some kind of reclamation of discursive and/or electronic space. Deborah Cameron writes in Feminism and Linguistic Theory that reclaiming can involve "investing a negative word with a more positive meaning." Richardson notes that "‘zines provide a space in which we can create our own meanings, for our own pleasure and amusement." Wilson echoes these thoughts when she writes, "I hope that I provide a ‘clubhouse’ atmosphere that makes women and girls feel they can raise their voices with pride—admit to and be proud of their ‘oddness’." She encourages women to reclaim their inner (or outer) "nrrd"; NrrdGrrl!’s opening page reads in part: "Have you ever been told you’re: too smart, too loud, too opinionated, too tall, too short, too fat, too thin… too ANYTHING?, too EVERYTHING?"
While not all ezines function as Riot Grrrl-inspired publications, most are nevertheless informed to some degree by the Riot Grrrl reclamation of "girl culture" (which in turn is inspired by a general movement of ironic postmodern cultural awareness). Instead of rejecting the accoutrements of growing up female in North America surrounded by the mass culture of the late 20th century—little plastic barrettes, Wonder Woman and Hello Kitty lunchboxes, baby-doll dresses—Riot Grrrl aggressively claims them as part of "girl culture". This reclamation serves as both a collective remembrance of girlhood as well as a public celebration of femalehood. However, this kind of girl culture is not a sentimental sort of femininity but rather a recollection of some of the messier parts of girlhood, parts which used to be too shameful to mention. As Virginia Eubanks writes in Brillo, "we think it’s really important to bring back some of the mess—especially the girl-mess—to these supposed clean white spaces." Not caring to be the idealized clean, quiet, asexual female role models of the 1950s and 60s, Riot Grrrls juxtaposed their baby-doll dresses and slashes of red lipstick with big boots, loud punk music (with band names like Bikini Kill and Huggybear and song titles like "Jesus’ Whores", "Soiled Princess", and "Dead Men Don’t Rape") and the occasional fistfight. Riot Grrrl culture is in many ways a paradox—reclamation of mass girly culture combined with rage at the restraints of culturally imposed femininity.
Riot Grrrl culture not only reclaimed the word "girl" but also words like "slut", "dyke", and "cunt". This aggressive reclamation now forms part of the underlying culture of ezines. Perhaps the best example of word reclamation is the ezine FaT GiRL, which takes as its theme "Fat dykes and the women who want them." In FaT GiRL many of the pieces deal with reclaiming and learning to own language which was previously hurled as insults. In an article entitled, "A Fat, Vulgar, Angry Slut", Betty Rose Dudley writes:
I usually tell people that I am a fat, white, working-class bitch who comes from a small town in the slightly southern, mostly midwestern state of Missouri…I am an angry woman, a very angry woman… I am a slut. A fat, lecherous, rude, crude, and very nice slut… I am tacky and vulgar. I wallow in vulgarity, consume it with the hunger fat girls are famous for… I make words and music my own. I take back my power… I no longer give you the power to tell me who to be or how to behave… I am a vulgar woman. I am a powerful female.
The writer’s aim in this piece is to take back the insults which she has received about her class, looks, attitude, and sexuality, and change them into a source of power. By co-opting these words as part of her identity, she feels that she is in control of her be-ing and actions. Nikol Lohr of Disgruntled Housewife writes about a similar subject in her piece "Slutty":
As a teen, I was called slut a few times. It certainly wasn’t meant as a term of endearment, and it actually wasn’t true—at least not how it was intended. At the time, it made me furious and humiliated and full of righteous indignation. It made me act as squeaky clean as I could. For a while… Now that I’m older and have the humour to appreciate it, no one calls me a slut anymore. Sigh. The closest I can get nowadays is slutty looking… as far as I am concerned, the sluttier the better. There is no such thing as bad slutty.
In "Slutty", Lohr examines the idea of the slut and how it has been constructed to be conflated with female sexuality in North American pop culture. She presents her thoughts on how she constructs her own personal incarnation of the slut. Disgruntled Housewife is an excellent example of visual reclamation. Since Riot Grrrl culture (and hence, ezines) is highly informed by the mass consumer culture of the twentieth century, it also draws upon a lexicon of familiar images. Disgruntled Housewife uses "happy housewife" pictures as well as cheesecake and Bettie Page photos from the 1950s. Brillo uses images of tampons, cleaning products, and tacky Valentine candies.
Since ezines are self-produced, they allow creators to control how they speak, write, and inhabit discursive space. Within ezines creators are able to have power over their words (unmediated by editors or the desires of a commercial market), and many present a conscious awareness of this fact in their acts of reclamation. Ezines engage in a postmodern ironic invocation of cultural forms which they presume the reader/viewer will understand.
Third, ezine creators like the ease of dissemination which the net affords. Lisa Jervis of Bitch writes: "I realized that I really wanted to write feminist essays on pop culture and I also realized that most of them would never see print unless I published them myself." Print ezines generally have limited runs, and mostly cater to urbanites in the city of publication who are hip enough to know where to find them (although they are available by mail, but the addresses can be hard to obtain). Ezines, in contrast, can be seen by anyone with a computer. I myself stumbled into the world of ezines quite by accident, and I suspect there are millions of other users who have discovered ezines in the same manner. Rachel Mariko Pillitteri points out that "people who would never have heard of your zine may stumble across it on the net, increasing the diversity of the viewer." Rosie X notes proudly that "with an average of 750,000 hits a month geekgirl rox!" Print ezines are costly to compose, print, and distribute. Asked what she thinks the advantages of net over print publication are, Amelia Wilson replies: "[U]nlimited, free distribution. There’s no way I’d be able to do what I do in print—the cost would be prohibitive." Pillitteri concurs: "You don’t have the same financial limitations you would with a print zine, allowing you to have an unlimited ‘print run’." Thus while ezines have restricted accessibility in the sense of requiring education and availability of technology, they also have expanded accessibility in that they can be made and/or seen by anyone who makes it online. Howard Rheingold states: "What [makes] the medium valuable is that every desktop can be a broadcasting station or a printing press. You no longer have to rely on a central authority. Everybody can communicate with everybody else: Many-to-many media."
PART FOUR: EXAMINING THE EZINES
Girlrights is written by Rachel Mariko Pillitteri, a 16-year old San Franciscan. It contains Pillitteri’s poems, "political ranting[,] and prose" in a self-described "crude writing style", as well as a few reprinted quotes, song lyrics, and articles by feminist theorists. The audience for Girlrights is intended to be particularly "subcultured youth, especially punks and riot grrrls…", although the issues presented—such as body image, sexuality, and relationships—echo many of the concerns of young women across demographics. This choice of audience reflects the major group who form the readership of ezines in general, since ezines are by definition created as alternatives to commercial print media, created by people who cannot or may not wish to access such mainstream modes of communication. Girlrights allies itself closely with the Riot Grrrl movement, of which ‘zines are an integral part. In fact Girlrights could be thought of as a "typical" ezine since it possesses features which are characteristic of the medium: the author is a young woman who identifies with an urban subculture (since "within these scenes are probably some of the only people who would welcome, be interested in, understand, or appreciate my crude writing style and sometimes aggressive opinions"); she created the product to have an outlet for her writing and creative expression; the style is loose and rough; it is aimed at a young audience who is exploring political activism through music and other "unconventional" outlets; and it prefers self-selected marginality to moderate centrism.
Pillitteri started Girlrights as a print ‘zine called girlfaZe, which contained her poetry and short essays. Representative of the autobiographical nature of the zine medium, she explains that her political inclinations grew from visceral emotions. She notes:
Experiencing and witnessing various forms of sexism and violence against women, I became aware of these immense problems at a very young age. I was aware of misogyny, but didn’t have an understanding of it, which resulted in depression, rage and hatred, projected inwards and out. Eventually, mentally and physically sick I reached a point where it was vital that I changed the way I was treating myself, and part of that process was making the decision to try to understand the reasons for my personal experiences… It was around this time that my interest in the Riot Grrrl movement was sparked. I found a sense of community, support and inspiration from the thousands of young women and girls who were creating a whole network of chapters, ezines, bands, record labels and presses etc… I made a conscious decision to utilize my anger (and the immense amounts of energy I spent on it) and transform that into creativity.
It is clear in the case of Girlrights that the ezine serves as both autobiographical outlet and nascent political activism. From one point of view, this ezine is not much more than an online diary in which Pillitteri records her thoughts and ideas. I find Turkle’s theory instructive here; for although it can be argued that Pillitteri is not particularly interested in exploring multiple selves, she is certainly using her ezine as electronic catharsis in opposition to what she perceives as a social identity imposed upon her. As I mentioned, Riot Grrrl culture involves something of a paradox: reclaiming mass girl culture while simultaneously raging against social constraints of "femininity". Thus while Pillitteri herself constructs only one identity, that of a Riot Grrrl-type political activist, that identity is constituted as a contradiction. With the ezine and her participation in a political movement, she constructs an identity for herself online which in turn allows her to engage more substantially with her own life. So, while she is not cycling through selves, she is using the medium to build and promote a self.
From another perspective, Girlrights is a point of political contact for other young women in Pillitteri’s position. In theory, millions of young women are able to read Pillitteri’s words and perhaps identify with her concerns as well as examine their own beginnings as feminists and/or Riot Grrrls. Girlrights is intended to construct a community, virtual or otherwise, of like-minded women (who might not otherwise know each other or have other means of collaboration) for the purposes of "community, support and inspiration". In this aspect of Girlrights Rheingold’s "participatory democracy" is apparent—women are networking, making one another aware, and using each other as resources, and they are doing it not through mass commercially-based media but rather through small independent forums. As he states:
What's important is not how you put… words together in a machine, what's important is what a population does with it. When you collect computers and telecommunications together, you created a global many to many medium that unlocks the access to other peoples' minds. You no longer have to be a television network or own a newspaper, take a little computer bulletin board system and publish a manifesto or an eyewitness report… I believe that is as fundamental a power as the printing press was. And I think ultimately if you believe in democracy, it, it's a very important step forward.
Rheingold feels that the kind of community building which the net (and more specifically for our purposes, an ezine) provides not only allows individuals to receive information, but also actively to participate in shaping that information by contributing ideas, discussion, and critique. In the case of Girlrights, Rheingold’s paradigm certainly seems to be at work, since the publication of this ezine enables a 16-year-old grrrl to make herself heard and create a community of great numbers of women. The Riot Grrrl movement is by definition one which operates outside of traditional spheres, such as commercial print, and as such requires another kind of networking forum. Furthermore, as a somewhat marginal (or at least alternative) movement mostly based in urban areas of North America, it would otherwise be unable to reach potentially like-minded women in other regions.
Pillitteri’s content is bold and seethes with the anger of a young feminist coming into her own in a sometimes hostile climate. There is minimal graphic or textual augmentation in Girlrights, since text is the principal focus. This absence of graphics, the text broken only by a few pictures, forces the reader to concentrate exclusively on Pillitteri’s words. In her writing she deals with such issues as violence, beauty, political control and resistance, capitalism, and punk music. Her main subject matter is plumbed from the often painful process of maturing as a politically active and conscious female teenager.
Once again I feel that Turkle’s concept of self-exploration is helpful for understanding Pillitteri’s work. Granted, Pillitteri’s content does not function as a strict Turklian model of multiple identities but I find the combination of self-engagement as subject material and the electronic forum in keeping with Turkle’s reading of the home page as identity presentation. Turkle provides a way of engaging with the material and persona presented in Girlrights. Pillitteri is not concerned with exploring many selves, but with exploring and sharing the manifold aspects of the one which she has both brought into being through her own discourse, and constructed for herself in relation to external social forces. Girlrights serves as a means for Pillitteri to examine questions of identity through text. Upon initial examination, Pillitteri seems to be merely a one-note singer, easily dismissed as an angry young woman; as she writes: "’It’s just teenage rebellion…,’ ‘you’ll get over it,’ ‘it’s just a faze everyone goes through.’" However, a tension between the self-created self and the self in relation to others appears in the zine upon closer analysis. Pillitteri’s use of language, her choice of included quotations and her record reviews signify what parts of her "self" she considers relevant for public discussion; and above all her use of the ezine as a medium to convey them situates her within a certain social context. Thus she does not, as in Turkle’s model, "build a self by cycling through many selves"; rather she provides a self for others to cycle through. She is the quintessential online Riot Grrrl. In McLuhanesque terms, she creates her audience/consumer by the way in which she chooses her content and how she presents it. Young women online who are "shuttling through selves" may find that this ezine speaks to one of these selves.
At this point the rhetoric is engaged for local and personal concerns, and does not propose formally organized political activism. Pillitteri writes:
I guess you could say that what’s addressed on the Girlrights page has mostly been small personal revelations on the subject of gender roles, the portrayal of women in the media, body image and preconceptions about feminism and feminists. I write about what is important to me… usually issues that I am trying to understand or change on a personal level.
Her writing is pure "personal is political" experience, unmediated as yet by theoretical complexities or analysis in its fluid stream-of-consciousness style.
For example, in "Conviction of Venus", she examines the ideal of beauty and its relationship to personal subjectivity:
Conviction of Venus, bleached roots. ingrained junkie of inordinate feminine pose. PROPOSTROUS. Infedelity iS Her justice- prisoner of circumstance. The lottery of her existance thru naked eye and mended satchel… Her plight, exploited… compromise, fall pleasantly into narcosis. Servant to censorship, Placid, medicate her narcissism… hoodwinked… robbed of existance… subordination. Her ritual placebo.
Although ostensibly Pillitteri presents a single identity, that of a Riot-Grrrl style political activist, the theme of much of her writings is multiple identities—the socially acceptable and the marginal, public and private, ideological and real. In "Conviction of Venus" she explores the relationship between discursive ideals and self-destruction. Other images which reflect the theme of multiple selves in flux include:
I remember a ten yr old post Thanksgiving which was spent bent over the toilet with my best friend, puking up our turkey and pumpkin pie so we could be as perfect and beautiful as Barbie.
LIES GREED HATE… the façade. We, in our limosine... crack house… REVOLVER… middle class… sweatshop… GUN-crack-BARREL-fuck… cozy apartments… dopesick… are all statistics.
Plastic cars and houses. Bleeding normalicy… Maybe one day someone might think up some crazy ideas which forces em to see through this monopoly game, it keeps us busy, does it keep us happy? Maybe one day someone might see through the consumerism which television preaches and the lies which politicians shove down yr throat like a nutrasweet lolli-pop and the american dream, which teaches you yr self-worth is determined by your paycheck and normalicy.
The general writing style of Girlrights, as evidenced by these pieces, is rough, chaotic, and unpolished, containing erratic punctuation, spelling errors and loosely applied grammar and syntax. This manner of writing effectively conveys the sense of anarchism and conflict Pillitteri chooses to present as part of her Riot Grrrl-inspired politics, but also point out contradictions between socially imposed femininity/normality and her awakening political consciousness. The lyrics of a randomly selected Riot Grrrl band, Tribe 8, bear a striking similarity in their content: "Pentagon CIA/What you telling me today/Corporate USA/How you set me free today/…Yeah I saw it on TV/I know you wouldn’t lie to me/Coca-Cola isn’t God/Shell saves tiny animals…/Got my gun in my hand/Drinking Coors from a can."
It is interesting to balance Herring’s discussion of "gendered incivility" against Pillitteri’s prose, particularly since Riot Grrrl-style politics involve plenty of rudeness and vulgarity. Pillitteri titles her index page "I am an evil bitch" and proceeds to offer the following disclaimer:
this is a list of political ranting and prose…some of it may be offensive, so (god i hate saying this shit) if yr under 18 or anal then please go elsewhere. if you read these rants, do not hold me or my server responsible fer any of the following symptoms:
*divorcing yr husband/killing yr children/destroying capitalism/becoming a lesbian/practicing witchcraft etc. etc.
*vomiting/rashes/diahrea/high blood-pressure and/or high colestrol/ headaches/ tooth decay er heartburn
*straying from the herd
Pillitteri chooses to write in a style which Herring would label typically male: aggressive, confrontational, "evok[ing] an ethic of agonistic debate and freedom from rules or imposition", as opposed to the female-identified "ethics of politeness and consideration for the wants of others, especially their desire to be ratified and liked." It is easy to think that sheer verbal piggishness is equal to male-identified aggression, but it is too simplistic to make this facile division between "nice" female and "naughty" male users. Pillitteri does not want to control the discourse in the same way that Herring’s male subjects do; rather she wants to aggressively claim her space and set her boundaries, while encouraging other female users to do the same. This is still a woman-centric online space, but one of an entirely different flavour from that envisioned by Herring. This is characteristic of the Riot Grrrl "style", which combines a "girly" culture with bellicose militancy to create an in-your-face feminist politics. I think it provides a refreshing counterpoint to Herring’s ideal, for it provides a model of resistance (online and off) that remains fiercely feminist and grrrl-oriented while allowing women to explore their decidedly "unladylike" sides.
Pillitteri examines various modes of political subjectivity and agency besides her personal preference for radical activism. In "Perfect Woman/Newton’s Third Law" she uses as her theme Newton’s third law of motion, which states that for every action there is an equal yet opposite reaction. She writes:
You don’t have to cause riots or devote yr life to resisting in order to contribute. THE RESPONSIBILITY DOESN’T LIE ON ANY ONE WOMAN’S SHOULDERS, BUT IT IS IN ALL OF OUR HANDS. All together, we can change all of this, every little bit helps… Realize, if you resist in a quiet, even casual way, it adds up. Not only will we create a resistance strong enough to balance the presently unequal force exerted on us, but we will also create a resistance so strong that no matter what force is exerted on us, just like the earth, we will be strong enough to match it.
In this piece Pillitteri clearly has a sense of the dynamic between personal agency and collective action, and she suggests a continuum of political subjectivity for all women.
However, it is evident that her foundation in feminist theory is helping her to further develop her ideas. She notes:
In the future, with my new knowledge on feminism (from books, articles, women’s studies classes, life experience, etc.) I hope to influence riot grrrls to get involved with feminism on a more intricate level. To learn more about its history, specific issues, theories and to further develop their beliefs.
Pillitteri’s inclusion of two articles by feminist theorists, one by Margaret Ehrenberg about women and evolution and one by Zae Zatoon about body acceptance, provides an interesting contrast to her own rough writing style. The juxtaposition of a young woman’s poetic awakening with a more polished feminist outlook reflects a little bit of Haraway’s cyborg—a new feminist organism is created from a jumble of disparate components, and the self is only created through a hermeneutics of other selves. Girlrights is a snapshot of an emerging feminist consciousness, set in the scrapbook of the ongoing process of the political maturation of its creator. Thus it is ephemeral not only because it exists online, but also because it reflects a brief period in time in the existential relationship to its maker.
Brillo is the "opposite" of Girlrights in many ways, and definitely not a "typical" ezine. It is written by more than one author; its audience is not subcultured youth but educated academic-oriented readers; its format is polished and formally organized; its content, while accessible, is based in academic feminism. It is difficult to imagine Brillo ever beginning its life as a cheaply photocopied zine filled with the ramblings of an alternative media junkie. Brillo is a much slicker and more sophisticated product than Girlrights, and reads like a truncated online version of Ms. rather than an in-your-face Riot Grrrl publication. Articles are sprinkled liberally with theoretical terminology like "paradigm" and "postmodern", and clearly based more in the realm of educated activism. It main focus is the realm of women and technology, although it includes other articles related to issues of race and gender such as "Staking a Claim: Biblical Women Strike Back", "Fear of a Black Language: Ebonics, Self-Determination, and Linguistic Correctness", and "Anger, Art and Activism". Yet, although Brillo begins from a much different point of origin than Girlrights, it is nevertheless an ezine, meant as an alternative to commercial media and to be viewed as a discrete entity.
To place Brillo in the realm of the academic is not to say that it lacks humour and wit. Rather, it has these qualities in abundance. Their subtitle reads, "Extra Abrasive: For Today’s Cranky Feminist", and their table of contents displays a Rockette chorus line of little Brillo pads. Cheekily using various tampon logos and packages (as well as lettering from cleaning products and tacky Valentine candies) as motifs, Brillo prefaces each issue with a "tampon tip" such as, "Leave a tampon on the dashboard of your car to deter auto theft." Tampons dance spermatozoically across the screen in animated as well as still graphics everywhere, fluttering their strings like flagellae. Brillo includes humorous pieces such as a listing of suggestions for sexual usage of computer components and an interview with the Barbie Liberation Front.
There is more than one author writing for Brillo, in contrast to Girlrights, and while most are women, there is one male author who has contributed two articles on the politics and linguistics of Black English (both jive and Ebonics). The editor and main writer is Virginia Eubanks, who rarely mentions her real identity, preferring instead to use only initials and the pseudonym "Cruella de Ville". Aside from the "Editorial Rant", the articles are generally interviews rather than prose or poetry pieces (although Eubanks does inject a great deal of her own viewpoint into interviews). Thus it is difficult, in contrast to Girlrights, to examine the relationship of the creator’s identity to her work in Brillo.
However, to say that questions of identity, voice, and activism are not addressed simply because the creator has not baldly used the ezine as a diary is too simplistic. In fact, Brillo engages with issues of identity and identity play almost constantly, but on a much more abstract level. Eubanks frequently uses the metaphor of marginality and liminality to describe what she is doing in her writing, and situates herself personally within a Turkle-Haraway kind of multiplicity:
The boundaries, while not politically expedient, can be powerful places, offering unique insight… My own position, straddling the fence between the telecommunications industry, grassroots activism and teaching, has taught me that maybe we’re all sleeping with the devil… but sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s screwing whom.
While Eubanks does not discuss her personal boundary-crossing at length, she nevertheless reveals enough to show that she herself articulates her position in political terms. As an ezine, then, Brillo itself serves the purpose of boundary-crossing: it is a relatively "marginal" form of media but it operates within a technological framework created by a telecommunications-military complex; it discusses academically-based questions of identity and voice, as well as race, class and gender yet it identifies also with grassroots activism. Its aspects are multiple.
Within Brillo Eubanks articulates multiple positions, but prefers to engage discursively and conceptually (rather than cathartically) with questions of identity, and indeed she finds these crucial questions for understanding women and their experiences online. In her interview with Rosanne Allucquere (Sandy) Stone, Eubanks writes:
In a lot of ways, this issue of Brillo has expressed some profound suspicions about where the body of the "other" fits into cyberspace. As women or men of color, or any group that is placed on the boundaries of society, outside the "dominant paradigm", a lot of folks have every reason to be suspicious of something that comes so obviously from the first-world military industrial interests. At the same time, though, it’s important to remember that (like any good trickster) we may stand in a position of privileged knowledge, a knowledge… of both worlds. A lot of us are already good shape shifters, boundary crossers, because we’ve had to be.
Eubanks is clearly using the paradigm of Haraway’s cyborg to structure her thinking about how women should relate to cyberspace. She acknowleges the role of the military-industrial complex, or as Haraway calls it, New World Order Inc., in the promotion of technology. However, she, like Haraway, sees that resistance can exist in the form of combined political knowledge acquired by moving across categories.
Eubanks also finds Haraway’s metaphor of the "coyote" to be instructive, and since I did not mention the idea earlier, I will briefly describe it now. A more organic form of the cyborg is to be found in the figure of the coyote or Trickster, present in most of the world’s mythologies in some capacity. The Trickster figure plays with categories and identities in a humorous or ironic way. Haraway notes:
Richly evocative figures exist for feminist visualizations of the world as witty agent. The Coyote or Trickster, embodied in American Southwest Indian accounts, suggests our situation when we give up mastery but keep searching for fidelity, knowing all the while we will be hoodwinked… I like to see feminist theory as a reinvented coyote discourse obligated to its enabling sources in many kinds of heterogeneous accounts of the world.
Returning to Eubanks’ point, she clearly feels that the cyborg/coyote is a good metaphor for understanding how a politics of technopolitical resistance can be mounted by those previously marginalized in the discourse of cyberspace. Indeed, she has certainly grasped the significance of humour and play for political community-building—engaging in cheerful reclamation of feminine objects (tampons, Valentine candies, cleaning products) and telling jokes about feminists ("Q. How do you offend a feminist? A. That’s not funny.").
The first issue of Brillo, "Armed and Dangerous", takes as its mission statement the critical examination and deconstruction of sexist paradigms around women and technology, and it takes as its method the "dissemination of information, tools and strategies." In the first editorial, Eubanks writes:
We hope to show that there are people out there changing these metaphors in significant and productive ways. And we’re not just talking about the Internet and the WWW, but about how talented and brave people are challenging paradigms of all kinds—paradigms that actively exclude white women and people of colour from a broad spectrum of cultural activities and pursuits—from religion to the media to business to electronic resources. And we hope that we can provide not only ideology, but practical examples and models of how these paradigms can be changed and how we can create useful alliances to effect substantial change.
Eubanks engages with some of the issues raised by Herring in her discussion of how women should relate to technology. While she is conscious of significant concerns around systemic exclusion of women, noting that "[t]he Internet and the World Wide Web are actively and aggressively hostile to women," she nevertheless challenges the idea that the solution involves "adapting technological training to suit ‘our learning styles.’… The concept of ‘dumbing down’ and ‘friendlying up’ technology so that women will be more comfortable with it is thoroughly offensive and counter-productive." She feels that cyberspace is "simply a tool—and those of us in the margins of society need to be taught to use those tools effectively."
As evidenced by the previous quote, Eubanks is aware also of the significance of active online voice in the creation of subjectivity. As I have noted, resistance comes in different forms, and the act of conscious speech constitutes a transition from the realm of the object to the realm of the speaking subject. Her discussion of the importance of using cyberspace as a tool for voice and activism (as well as her understanding of the systemic correlation between race, gender and class with regard to technological access) works well with James Peterson’s two articles on the use of Black English.. I find Peterson’s first article, "Buggin’ In and Out", to be the most intriguing for the purposes of this essay, for it clearly articulates the systemic intersection of race and speaking as well as technology. He describes how (presumably white) programmers at the University of Zurich in Switzerland created a computer program which "provides an expedient, transformative ‘jive’ function that translates [incorrectly] email messages from standard English into… jive-ass vernacular forms.". Peterson explores the relationship between computer programming and the appropriated use of vernacular (while also deconstructing the use of the concept of "vernacular" itself).
Another article which fits well into the discussion of multiple identities initiated by Eubanks is by Eleanor Mason, and entitled "Resisting Erase-ism on the Net". The article critically examines the concept of the egalitarian/difference-erasing potential of technology which theorists like Rheingold have promoted. In his discussion of the creation of a virtual community, Rheingold writes, "It’s important that we recognize that this [cyberspace community] has potential for leveraging a lot of the very difficult social problems we’re trying to change." In her article Mason challenges the Rheingoldian concept of "many-to-many" media which erases the differences between people to render them merely electronically codified intellects. In fact, she argues:
[b]esides the fact that this simply isn’t an actuality on the Net, there is another element to this John Lennon Imagine rip-off which I find disturbing. While these advertisement campaigns promote free-form interaction, exploration and escapism (which can be desirable), they also fall in line with the growing social approach to dealing with racism, sexism, ageism and other isms. Rather than continue confronting actual institutional inequities currently perpetuated in modern society, contingents of people like to purport we’ve "gone far enough"… [T]here is a great deal of lip service given to the theory of color-blindness, or what I like to call the, "Oh, I didn’t even notice you were a Chicano lesbian female philosophy." The blindness approach may seem innocuous in its intent, but it disempowers one’s sense of identity more than it works towards freeing it from stereotypes. Instead of ridding people of social prejudices, we are pushed to simply ignore that they are there: if we do not see race, then we do not see racism; if we do not see gender, we do not see sexism, and so on.
Mason feels that celebrating the idea of genderless/raceless/classless/ageless etc. bodies in cyberspace allows for erasure of very real social meanings still attached to certain characteristics. Such a discussion not only presents a challenge to the Rheingoldian paradigm but also of Miller’s "genderless mind."
In keeping with its spirit of challenging paradigms around gender and technology, Brillo also includes a humorous piece on the work of the Barbie Liberation Organization, whose most memorable effort involved switching the voice boxes of G.I. Joe and Barbie dolls just in time for Christmas, 1989. Interestingly, the BLO spokesperson articulates not only the importance of challenging gendered notions around technology, but also the use of the Internet as a networking tool. S/he states: "I feel like [the Net] works as a networking tool, to throw ideas out to an activist community." However, s/he also critiques the Rheingoldian notion of utopic online democracy: "There’s this idea that this space is a democracy and everybody comes here onto an equal playing field… I don’t really see it. I see the same kind of boy games going on."
Issue #2 of Brillo, "Wetware", looks at "where the body of the other—any group that is put on the boundaries of society, slightly outside of the normative power structure—fits into cyberspace." This focus is particularly interesting when we consider the concerns around the gendered mind/body raised by Laura Miller. On the one hand, as Miller asserts, it is possible to conceive of gender as having no meaning in cyberspace, and that we interact with a kind of Cartesian mind which is free of bodily (sexed) signifiers. But as Eubanks points out significantly, "We’re taking the word body pretty metaphorically here—the physical body, bodies of knowledge, linguistic and symbolic bodies." In this way of thinking, as in Herring, the issue is more complex than simple dualism. It is important for feminist scholars to understand the ways in which discursive signifiers operate around gender in a larger sphere than merely the physical, and the ways in which the physical is re-constituted in cyberspace. Eubanks writes: "Despite the growing number of grrrl-powered ‘zines online, despite the rising voice of African-Americans and other "ethnic minorities" in new communications technology, we commonly get cyber-pornography and the Jive Function, not sharing across cultural boundaries."
The third issue of Brillo, "The Invasion", takes on the question of how to define feminism online. Eubanks writes in her editorial, "Do Feminists Hate Men?": "[M]any of these [Web] sites created by and marketed towards women tend to lack a certain discursive edge. We see more of the same old glossy magazine-style stuff…. I think there’s [an] important reason: women are afraid of appearing humorless." In this editorial she articulates some of the issues raised by both Herring and Miller, namely, how to navigate the contradictory position of interrogating the systemic misogyny and sexism present online while simultaneously organizing around women becoming assertive, independent online subjects. In this position I hear a call for new metaphors, for new ways of conceiving women’s struggle to be heard online which doesn’t doom them to being cast in the same old roles of sluts or goodwives.
Humour and paradox are central to Haraway’s metaphor of the cyborg, and it is this upon which Eubanks draws most strongly. Interestingly, in this issue of Brillo it is an article on a fictitious ancient character—Xena, Warrior Princess—which most strongly articulates the questions raised by the modern female cyborgs. The show Xena is shameless in its use of historical dissonance, and mixes famous historical figures from a span of a few thousand years—Sophocles, Attila the Hun, Lao Tzu, Julius Caesar—with a jumble of historical events, languages, mythologies, and contexts. It cannot be pinned down to one category. Xena herself is aggressively and unapologetically female and female-centric, travelling and working with her buddy and possible lover Gabrielle, and "wear[ing] both her masculinity and femininity with pride. There’s really no question that Xena’s all woman—her boobs are bustin’ out all over, yet she wields the kind of power that only American men are able to obtain in today’s political climate." This combination of individual strength, sexuality, and independence coupled with a systemic awareness of and desire to fight injustice makes Xena hugely popular with her female fans: "Xena is the heroine we’ve all been waiting for: one who neither apologizes for her brutal behavior nor hides behind a mousy, secretarial alias. One who would respond to cries of, ‘Why are you such a megabitch?’ with a fatal stab in the gut." I find the parallels between the aspects of Xena raised in the article and Haraway’s metaphor of the cyborg amusing and intriguing. Xena, like the cyborg, is an ironic fiction full of wit and wonderment. Both Xena and the cyborg have rejected an imagined past in favour of creating their own future. And both argue for a politics of affinity rather than identity: Xena travels a transhistorical world trying to work for justice with all kinds of peoples and creatures, and the cyborg similarly rejects the static categories of identity politics in favour of metaphoric "kinship" politics which unite feminists based on political causes rather than personal identities.
I point this out because on one level it is comic and pleasantly silly. However, it also struck me as an appropriate comparison because of the power of both characters, Xena and the cyborg, as metaphors for understanding how Brillo articulates the position of women online. Metaphor, and the process of making meaning, has been an important part of our discussion about how to theorize a politics of gender and cyberspace. How Brillo chooses its metaphors is of interest to me as I examine how it uses its discursive tools to situate itself in relation to cyberspace. Brillo, like the cyborg, understands the problematic roots of cyberspace yet continues to find visionary potential within a hostile medium.
PART FIVE: CONCLUSION
My general goal when I began this essay was to contribute to the emerging feminist scholarship around cyberspace and gender. I feel it is important that feminists continue to engage with technology in all its forms, and mount a critique which is able to both interrogate the technological discourse in an informed and familiar way, as well as propose concrete political initiatives.
Arriving at the end of this paper, I realize that I have not told the reader exactly why I selected women’s ezines as the foci for my discussion around gender and cyberspace, or why it is useful for a feminist scholar to look at them at all. There are a number of reasons in answer to both questions. First, ezines function concretely as text, which may be examined in a similar fashion as other texts with regard to form and content. Since feminist literary theory has already enjoyed a long and substantive history, there are many feminist ways in which a text qua text can be approached.
Second, ezines as they exist on a more conceptual plane provide a point of entry into discourse around and about technology. As I pointed out in my discussion of Brillo, ezines are able to combine an existence within a technological framework created by a military-industrial telecommunications network with individual (or small-scale) non-commercial authorship. As such they can exist as cyborgs themselves, as technology-which-is-not-technology, that which references esoteric aspects of computer programming while remaining accessible to the average reader.
Thirdly, I feel it is important to write the his- and herstories of emerging technologies. Recording and examining the sometimes transient products of feminism online is of great importance not only for showing new developments in feminism and technology, or for present feminist scholars to see what their pop culture contemporaries are up to, but also for future cyberfeminists who wish to know of their perhaps clumsy-looking precursors. The very nature of cyberspace is ephemeral; material on the Web, unlike paper publications, for example, can vanish without a trace, and so writing the history of these endeavours is particularly important.
Finally, I chose ezines because I feel that they function most successfully as some of the positive and visionary online forums for women. While they certainly engage with critical discourse and spare no pains to openly interrogate many problems still evident in the online medium, ezines nevertheless represent the fact that women are gaining knowledge about how to manipulate technology, and are making that knowledge evident for other women to see. Ezines provide a way to explore female-created cyber-culture and its sometimes conflicting philosophies, directives, and sense of community. As well, they mediate the spaces between private and public, articulating the contradictions of making a personal stamp on a public forum, and making visible the arbitrariness and obsolescence of such divisions.
In keeping with the spirit of feminist scholarship and cyberculture, I have created a web page devoted to links and reviews of the ezines. In addition, I intend to put up this paper so that it can also be read online. Since I have challenged theorists of cyberculture to provide a concrete way in which their works can be used for feminist political initiatives, it is only right that I subscribe to my own criteria. In making my work available for others to read I am taking steps towards the creation of an online feminist community; by actively engaging in the cyber-discourse I am participating in shaping its future.
Because the nature of the medium of cyberspace is change and flux, and since the political questions and contradictions raised by feminists will likely not be neatly resolved any time soon, I regard this paper and all others to follow as unfinished. I am curious to see how ezines will evolve, if they will at all, or whether feminists will decide that it is a branch of their electronic evolution that has ended. I am curious to know if and how women will continue to expand and articulate their online subjectivities, and what effect the growing influence of global corporatism will have on access and content. I am curious about whether this new medium will prove itself to be something truly innovative, or whether it will crumble under its own hubris and reveal that after all it was merely a collection the same old stories, told in another format. And finally, I am curious to see if and how feminists can use it to build new connections and renew old ones; whether it will augment or simply distract our efforts in the political organizing yet to come.
APPENDIX 1: List of Ezines Studied
Bitch Dyke Whore
Dead Jackie Susann Quarterly
Girls can do Anything
New Style American Girlie Magazine for Girls
Alexander, Jeffrey C., and Steven Seidman. Culture and Society: Contemporary Debates. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Allen, Brenda. "Gender and computer-mediated communication", Sex Roles 32 (April 1995): 557-63.
Barry, John A. Technobabble. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991.
Benedikt, Michael, ed. Cyberspace: First Steps. Massachussetts: MIT Press, 1993.
Booth, Wayne C. "Metaphor as Rhetoric: The Problem of Evaluation", Critical Inquiry 5 (1) (Autumn 1978): 49-72.
Brody, Herb. "Session with the cybershrink: an interview with Sherry Turkle", Technological Review (Feb/March 1996), online version.
Bruckman, Amy. "Finding one’s own in cyberspace", Technological Review (Jan. 1996), online version.
Brzezinski, Zbigniew. Between Two Ages: America’s Role in the Technotronic Era. New York: Viking Press, 1970.
Butler, Samuel. Erewhon and Erewhon Revisited, 1872; reprint, New York: The Modern Library, 1927.
Cherny, Lynn and Elizabeth Reba Weise, eds. Wired_Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace. Washington: Seal Press, 1996.
Cross, Rosie. "Modem grrrl", Wired 3.02 (1995), online version.
Cummins, David, Arch, Elizabeth. "Structured and unstructured exposure to computers: sex differences in attitude and use among college students", Sex Roles 20 (March 1989): 245-54.
De Loach, Amelia. "Grrrls exude attitude", CMC Magazine (March 1996), online version.
Dery, Mark, ed. Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994.
Dery, Mark. Interview with Paul Maxwell in MediaCulture Review (Institute for Alternative Journalism, 1997), online version.
Dholakia, N., Pedersen, B., Dholakia, R.R. "Putting a byte in the gender gap", American Demographics 16 (Dec. 1994): 20-1.
Edwards, Paul N. "The army and the microworld: computers and the politics of gender identity", Signs 16 (Autumn 1990):102-27.
Ermann, M. David, Mary B. Williams, and Michele S. Schauf, eds. Computers, Ethics, and Society, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Estabrooks, Maurice. Programmed Capitalism: A Computer-Mediated Global Society. New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1988.
Frauenfelder, Mark, Sinclair, Carla, Branwyn, Gareth. The Happy Mutant Handbook. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.
Gilbert, Laurel, Kile, Crystal. Surfer Grrrls: Look Ethel! an Internet guide for us!. USA: Seal Press, 1996.
Greber, Lisa, and Ruth Perry. "Women and computers: an introduction", Signs 16 (Autumn 1990):74-101.
Haraway, Donna. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_
Meets_OncoMousetm: Feminism and Technoscience. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Herring, Susan. "Gender differences in computer-mediated communication: bringing familiar baggage to the new frontier", unpublished manuscript, keynote address at "Making the Net Work" panel.
Herring, Susan. "Posting in a Different Voice", Philosophical Perspectives on Computer-Mediated-Communication. Ed. Charles Ess. New York: State University of NY Press, n.d..
Huff, Chuck, and Thomas Finholt, eds. Social Issues in Computing: Putting Computing in its Place. McGraw-Hill Series in Computer Science. New York: McGraw Hill, 1994.
Jaffe, J. Michael, Young-Eum Lee, LiNing Huang, and Hayg Oshagan. "Gender, Pseudonyms, and CMC: Masking Identities and Baring Souls", paper submitted for presentation to the 45th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1995. Online publication.
Kaplan, Rachel. "The gender gap at the PC keyboard", American Demographics 16 (Jan. 1994):18.
Kennedy, Noah. The Industrialization of Intelligence: Mind and Machine in the Modern Age. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989.
Kraft, Michael E. and Norman J. Vig, eds. Technology and Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 1988.
Kunzru, Hari. "You Are Borg: For Donna Haraway, we are already assimilated," Wired 5.02 (February 1997): 156-159, 209-210.
Lehman, Sheila, and Pamela E. Kramer. "Mismeasuring women: a critique of research on computer ability and avoidance", Signs 16 (Autumn 1990):158-72.
Levidov, Les, and Tony Solomonides, eds. Compulsive Technology: Computers as Culture. London: Free Association Books, 1985.
McAdams, Mindy. "Gender without bodies", CMC Magazine (March 1996), online version.
Menzies, Heather. Whose brave new world? the information highway and the new economy. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1996.
Miller, Laura. "Women and Children First: Gender and the Settling of the Electronic Frontier", Resisting the Virtual Life (ed. J.Brook, I.Boal). San Francisco: City Lights, 1995.
Ogletree, Shirley M., W. Woodburn, and S. Williams. "Gender roles, computer attitudes and dyadic computer interaction performance in college students", Sex Roles 29 (Oct 1993): 515-25.
Ogletree, Shirley, and S.W. Williams. "Sex and sex-typing effects on computer attitudes and aptitude", Sex Roles 23 (Dec 1990): 703-12.
Penzias, Arno. Ideas and Information: Managing in a High-Tech World. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1989.
Pittaway, Kim. "The Digital Woman." Chatelaine 70, no.1 (1997).
Plant, Sadie. "Babes in the net." New Statesman and Society 8 (Jan 27, 1995): 28.
Pollock, Scarlet, and Sutton, Jo. "Position Paper for the Universal Access Workshop, Feb. 6-8/97", paper presented at UAW.
Proulx, Serge, Brunet, Jean. "Formal vs. grass-roots training: women, work and computers." Journal of Communication 39 (Summer 1989): 77-84.
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Regan Shade, Leslie. "Gender issues in computer networking", unpublished manuscript, address given to "Community Networking: the International FreeNet conference", Carleton University, Ottawa, August 17-19/93.
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