Review by Estee Beck, Bowling Green State University
Radhika Gajjala and Yeon Ju Oh, editors
New York: Routledge, 2011: 352 pp.
In “Notes on the Political Condition of Cyberfeminism,” Faith Wilding and Critical Art Ensemble trace the first and second waves of feminism to suggest that post-feminism’s birth in the early 1990s came too soon for women to enter, disrupt, and claim spaces in cyberspace. As a result, the needed discussion of cyberfeminism had to occur after the shift of society to the World Wide Web in 1992, in order to highlight the institutional and cultural practices brought into technology and cyberspaces, including themes of race, class, and gender. For Wilding, cyberfeminism is the act of interrogating the utopian idealizations of early net users who claimed cyberspace would neutralize any type of marginalization because cyberspace is free of defining characteristics. However, part of the early call of cyberfeminism by those who met at the First Cyberfeminism International was to create empowerment for women to get into cyberspace and to create educational opportunities for women framed by feminist tenets for web development.
While Wilding and Critical Art Ensemble’s work with the participants at the First Cyberfeminism International signaled a shift or refocus on how women were participating online and called for sprightly engagement through empowerment, the scope of the call—broad and elusive—framed cyberfeminism as interjecting women in male dominated spaces without analyzing and interrogating those spaces first
Radhika Gajjala and Yeon Ju Oh’s edited collection Cyberfeminism 2.0 seeks to understand the participatory practices of women in online spaces. Their collection shifts from Wilding and the Critical Art Ensemble’s early call to examine scholar teachers’ catechisms of cyber-spheres as a place to nullify real life ostracism based on gender, race, and class. By examining how gender is embedded in wired networks, the authors in this collection ferret out how women’s voices either remain as passive consumers, coded as subordinate, or even showing exertion for their subject positions in trying to resist commodification and essentialism. The co-editors address this in the introduction: “It is a call for rigorous examination by researchers in order to unpack contradicting and inconsistent voices of women. The authors of this collection attempt to reveal the struggle and negotiations as these competing voices enact women’s presence online” (3).
The articles in this collection speak to a myriad of practices that women engage in online, including health networks, gaming, activism, and discussions about subversions of power relations in relationships. The book’s three divisions—Rethinking the Discourse of Empowerment; Technology, Gender, and Agency; and In Search of Feminist Space Online—hearken back to the Wilding and Critical Art Ensemble’s claims about how activists might approach cyberspace. While all of the articles in all three sections, which thematically address Wilding and Critical Art Ensemble’s appeal for empowerment, and representation of women online are compelling, this review addresses a handful of chapters that particularly highlight the overall arc of the collection.
Section I: Rethinking the Discourse on Empowerment
In the first section, authors Marina Levina and Jessie Daniels provide compelling evidence to suggest that women participating in online spaces, like Health 2.0 sites (Levina) and attending blogging conferences (Daniels) do not correlate with empowerment. Instead, we see from Levina and Daniel’s critical analyses of women’s participation in health websites and blogs that in some cases, women merely taking part in an online activity do not lead women to become self-confident enough to reshape the online space appropriate for joint gendered equality in all spaces. Some women participate in online spaces only to partake for their own needs, not necessarily with a cyberfeminist frame to analyze, interrogate, disrupt, and reorient the discourse practices of online spaces. What we need to pay attention to from these chapters is one of caution; cybefeminist researchers must carefully examine the voices of women online while listening to how these women are interacting in those spaces, regardless of whether these women are participating with empowerment in mind or not. This notion is echoed further in Rosalind Sibielski’s chapter on the do-it-yourself girl culture of creating machinima. Sibielski casts a critical eye, not on the girl culture she analyzes, but on those scholars in media studies who conflate women/girls and their web work of a participatory nature with women/girls who situate their work along political and economic lines to further post-feminist work of equality in cyberspace.
This first section teaches us that while cyberfeminism’s use is to interrogate and disrupt, empower and educate, that not all women participate wtih a cyberfeminist frame in mind. This is not to say that the early call for empowerment was ill-formed or missed the mark, as enabling women to generate safe spaces for all women is a hallmark of feminism. It does suggest, however, that researchers have to pay attention and listen to the voices of women online. The authors in this section teach us that women participate in several ways in cyberspace, and those degrees may not seek to empower others, and that is okay. What is most important, for us, is that we listen and respect the voices of women online. By having the authors interrogate and analyze how women participate online, we can begin to understand the many ways women negotiate how they appropriate and use virtual space that may or may not line up with a cyberfeminist agenda.
Section II: Technology, Gender, and Agency
The second section of the collection asks readers to consider how online space becomes gendered and even hostile to women by limiting access and placing women in subordinate positions. Erica Kubik, Jessica L. Beyer, and Genesis Downey’s reflections on online gaming culture suggest video game spaces either inside games or on message boards are primarily male-dominated and resist female inclusion. On a broader scale of what it means to be classified as a certain type of gamer, Kubik’s discussion of the signifier of “hardcore” gamers calls up signified notions of white, heterosexual, men who invest hours in rigorous gameplay, whereas “casual” gamers points to white, heterosexual, females who invest little time in “easy” games that require little effort. In Beyer’s research, some women face open hostilities about what a “woman” means to the flamer who incites violence upon women in online communities. Beyer provides an example where for some women their body becomes politicized and fetishized by trolls who brashly summon “PIX PLS” or the more graphic, “Tits or GTFO” to position women as marked and trivialized. And Downey’s exploration into guild formation for MMORPGs intimates that women can either reject the sexist and inflammatory discourse patterns or can assimilate to the dominate heterosexist, white male culture or create their own guilds promoting awareness for equality for all participants in their group.
The authors of the chapters in the second section analyze traditionally male gaming spaces online to highlight how women either appropriate masculine features to gain acceptance or have to carefully negotiate their identities of gendered woman and their relationship to technology. As the authors in this section point out, the relationship of gender and technology (especially when coded as male) becomes a space of contention when females enter those spaces; the discourse practices limit and silence alternative voices, namely female voices. When women participate in spaces where men claim authority over certain technologies, women may become commodities for male desire or face gender politics instead of getting to contribute to technological space absent of gender considerations.
Section III: In Search of Feminist Space Online
The final section of the collection leaves us with an exploration into online feminist spaces that promote authority and autonomy to engage in discussions about subverting psychological advice for a healthy body and promoting a lifestyle to continue with certain eating disorders (Murray), and disrupting what intimate partner violence means in a lesbian relationship on a discussion board dedicated to the television show, the L-Word (Walker). Murray’s analysis of a pro-eating disorder web site reveals that while the authors claim agency and liberation under a feminist banner, the author of the web site enacts the institutional forces she rails against on the site, thereby leading unsuspecting followers to dangerous physical and psychological consequences. These same ideological and emotional concerns flare up in Walker’s investigation into a discussion board topic about a woman on woman rape as depicted on the television show, the L-Word. Walker reports that several commenters denied rape occurred because of the fictional assailant’s gestures towards the victim or that it was a “mutual rape.” Walker concludes that the online discussion board allows participants to discuss lesbian intimate partner violence in ways that the opportunity to discuss and theorize in real life do not afford.
The final section of this collection provides readers with a sense of how women interact in online spaces to examine their positions and theories about womanhood either safely, radically or otherwise. As the co-editors contend, this last section is about “the potential for, and limitations of, communicative aspects online for women” (7). The chapters in this section highlight the critical need for examination of how women use online space to enforce, resist, theorize or complicate gendered relations.
Critique and Conclusion
The entire collection provides readers with a mindful framing of what cyberfeminism means in the teens of the millennium, i.e., a careful inspection of how women are using space online to meet certain needs. As a reader, I found thorough analyses of webbed spaces as a springboard to not necessarily critique how women interacted in those spaces, but to comment on how scholars studying women’s participation online requires scrutiny and understanding. Not all women are activists shaping the ways in which gender dynamics play out online, and that is okay. With that said, I realize that the authors of this collection are vigilant in demonstrating there are many places on the web that are not welcoming to women. Perhaps by casting a critical lens on these spaces, gender activists—who may not necessarily be women—can take up the invitation to usher democratic notions to users who participate in hostile spaces
In thinking about the overall theme of the collection, there is one question that remains a point of contention, and that is the title of the introduction by Radhika Gajjala and Yeon Ju Oh, “Cyberfeminism 2.0: Where have all the Cyberfeminists Gone?” This title suggests to me that scholarship on cyberfeminism, once nascent has become moribund and that this collection will renew scholarly attention to how women are participating either functionally, critically, or rhetorically in webbed spaces. Yet, feminist, gender, technology, rhetoric, and communication studies have seen several cyberfeminist works over the past decade, including quite a few by Gajjala. To attempt to respond to this question, which not addressed in the introduction, leaves me thinking in light of this collection, cyberfeminists have not gone anywhere. They are still working to understand the hegemonic practices of the patriarchy in online spaces.
Even though the question asked by the co-editors of the introductory piece confuses instead of enlightens, I do find this collection suited for a go-to resource for those in the fields of media, cultural studies, communications, rhetoric, feminism, and gender studies. This collection is well suited for a graduate level course for those interested in online communities, empowerment, critical assessment of online spaces, cyberfeminist critiques, and feminist studies. It offers several points of discussion for a seminar class that may situate this text along with other cyberfeminist works. Overall, the authors in this collection realize cyberfeminism—once a call for spirited empowerment and education—has shifted under Gajjala and Ju Oh’s watchful eyes to an examination of how women participate online in light of feminist tenets.
Estee Beck is a PhD student in the Rhetoric and Writing program at Bowling Green State University. Her work focuses on the rhetoric of cyber-surveillance and big data collection of clickstream data. She also has strong interests in cyber- and techno-feminism with the identity politics of women online as well as advocating for sustained new media practices in scholarship and in the classroom. Her work has also appeared in Computers and Composition Online.
© 2012 Estee Beck, used by permission