Critical Essay—Playing with Masculinity: Gender Bending in Second Life

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Kaitlin Clinnin, Ohio State University





In the mid-2000s, the virtual world of Second Life was heralded as a location of the future for business, educational, and social endeavors. Second Life was marketed as a utopian space where users could make money from entrepreneurial ventures, engage with other users around the globe, and ultimately create an alternative life for themselves. One of the critical draws to Second Life was the opportunity to create an avatar, a visual presence of the user in the virtual setting. This article examines how the avatar is presented as an opportunity to engage in identity performances that are freed from bodily constraints with regards to gender, race, ability, and other identity markers. While the performances of online identities have been critiqued for reifying stereotypes, this article considers the motivation and experience of these users who purposefully adopt different genders for their characters. By focusing on the experience of males who “gender bend” by adopting female avatars, this article argues that gender bending provides male users an alternative identity performance outside of hegemonic masculinity. This gender play may make the constructed nature of gender performances more apparent and begin to denaturalize assumptions about identity performances in online and off-line settings. 




Second Life is an online visual community in which users create a utopian world. Created by Linden Labs in 2003, Second Life became a virtual phenomenon in the mid-2000s as its user base continued to grow. It found mainstream success in 2006 when Business Week featured a cover story on Second Life resident and entrepreneur Anshe Chung (Hof). Several universities created virtual campuses to teach classes and conduct research (“Second Life Education Directory”), brick-and-mortar companies like Toyota and Adidas opened digital presences (Veiga) and countries such as the Maldives, Sweden, and Estonia opened embassies in Second Life (Riley). In the ten years that Second Life has existed, over 36 million accounts were created, on average 400,000 new users registered monthly, and $3.2 billion in transactions were made (Linden Labs “Ten Years of Second Life”).
The appeal of Second Life over the past ten years to businesses, universities, scholars, and its users is undeniable. The online environment appears to be open to whatever the user wants to do on a particular day, whether that is to travel to a simulation of Copenhagen, lounge on the pixilated beach, buy or sell digital clothing, or chat with users from around the globe. The Second Life homepage encourages users to “enter a world with infinite possibilities and live a life without boundaries, guided only by your imagination” (Linden Labs “What is Second Life?”). Complex and aesthetically pleasing graphics compose the world of Second Life, where residents can navigate to portals that are incredibly similar to real life settings, or by entering a command the avatar is transported to an alternative universe. Second Life is completely designed by the residents who develop the portals and objects that others may use within the worlds. Second Life, unlike other online games such as World of Warcraft and EverQuest, has no programmed story line or ultimate end goal. It exists solely for the purpose of interaction among online users, commonly referred to as residents, who are able to enhance their virtual experience by personalizing their avatars, creating objects for use, engaging in actions, and even developing land. Second Life is much more than a visual representation or recreation of a “first life,” and this complexity requires more attention to how users construct the shared space, identities, and social roles.
Second Life is often classified as a MMOVE, or Massive Multiplayer Online Virtual Environment. However, this designation only characterizes the space and cannot account for the social roles and functions that take place within the space. Due to the limitations of the term MMOVE, I prefer to think of Second Life as a heterotopia and a community of play. These terms demonstrate the importance of how users interact with the space, with one another, and with their own avatars as part of a larger social network. Because of the emphasis on the social in heterotopias and communities of play, issues of power and identity politics on the individual and community scale are made explicit.
Online social environments such as Second Life can be understood as an example of Foucault’s heterotopias, a space that exists outside of hegemonic conditions and yet continues practices of discrimination. Foucault writes that these heterotopias are “counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted” (Foucault online). Heterotopias are essentially microcosms in which all of the contradictory and competing cultural intricacies are reflected and skewed, resulting in warped perceptions of reality and the unreal. The mirror and its reflected world are the prototypical example of heterotopias in that the physical mirror is locatable within a physical space, but cause a sense of un-reality that calls into question what is understood to be real, including understandings of the self. Foucault addresses the fragmentation of the self in his analysis of the heterotopia by writing
In the mirror, I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface; I am over there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am absent: such is the utopia of the mirror. (online)
The virtual setting can easily be substituted for the mirror in Foucault’s understanding of the heterotopia. The cyberspace world is locatable within a particular space in the physical world, but it also claims to occupy a physical space in its representation of landscapes. Cyberspace then occupies two or more places simultaneously, contributing to the user’s sense of both reality and un-reality. This displacement of location further contributes to the ambiguity of self-construction. Although the self in the mirror of cyberspace may appear to be an identical reflection of the physical body, the subtle changes and ability for subversion in representation result in a fragmented sense of self and the possibility for recreation. It is cyberspace’s heterotopian potential that makes it an ideal setting to question cultural assumptions about identity characteristics like gender that appear to be natural and inextricably linked to performances of the body and self.
Celia Pearce utilizes the term “communities of play” in order to define groups of individuals who form communities around nondigital and digital games (5). These communities of play have typically been devalued because play itself is not recognized as an important component of social interactions. Pearce establishes play as an important because it can be productive for creative purposes and community building (125). To engage in play, individuals must agree to a set of shared rule and values that guide the play. Pearce further recognizes that online communities of play can be “not only a context for personal transformation, but also a catalyst for strong and powerful social bonds” (126). Understanding Second Life as a community of play emphasizes the productive potential of play and the gravity of interactions and experiences in online settings. Critics of online environments have a tendency to dismiss what happens in virtual settings as not real or simply play. As Niels van Doorn notes, the virtual is often constructed as a “state of unreality or absence” largely determined by “the opposite or a lack of ‘reality’” (533). By addressing Second Life as a community of play, the identity and social role “play” that users engage in on an individual and group level becomes a subject for analysis in addition to the game itself. Furthermore, play comes to have real value, which helps to view the virtual environment as a space where social values and identities are constructed and negotiated, and the stakes for users are high.
Ultimately, considering Second Life to be both a heterotopia and a community of play establishes the online space not simply as a “second life” that is subordinate to the first, but a dynamic, social world that users co-create. It is important to examine how users are creating and playing with their identity within the world as well as the larger social values surrounding identity performance. In this article, I will examine some of the utopian and critical claims that were made in favor of online environments like Second Life, specifically as they relate to identity creation and gender performance in these online spaces. I will then address male gender bending online as opening a possibility for a new type of online masculinity.
 Identity and Bodies Online
Identity formation and performance have been examined in a variety of online spaces including MUDs1 and MOOs2 (Nakamura 2002, Turkle 1995, Taylor 1999), fan fiction communities (Chandler-Olcott and Mahar 2003, Jenkins 1992, Thomas 2007), social media outlets (boyd 2007, Williams 2008, Marwick 2011, Reid and Boyer 2013, Rosen 2007, van Dijck 2013, Van Doorn 2010), and online classrooms (Boon and Sinclair 2009, Hughes 2007, Morgan 2010) among other spaces. These studies tend to fall into two camps: those that view online environments as positive spaces for identity play, and those that are concerned with the larger social ramifications of identities in online spaces.
Scholars and users have addressed the utopian potential of online spaces specifically in terms of the freedom to create a new identity. In her book Life on the Screen, Sherry Turkle acknowledges the potential to play with identity because the virtual environment “gives people the chance to express multiple and often unexplored aspects of the self, to play with their identity and to try out new ones” (12). Davey Winder, a inhabitant of Second Life and, states that anyone can “become the person of [their] wildest dreams” because of the Internet and these virtual environments (ix). These online environments are spaces completely left up to self-determination; users have “the divine power to create life” and their own identity is left up to personal choice (ibid). According to Winder, bodily markers of identity such as race and gender are no longer important because the variety of choice makes difference acceptable and expected. For Winder and others, the great affordance of online environments is that users are able to create their own bodies and identities outside of the constraints and limitations of the physical world.
In Second Life, identity is an on-going process of creation and revision through the personalized avatar. When first registering an account, participants are presented with the choice of generic avatars to select from including buff male bodies, voluptuous female forms, and even humanoid alternatives such as cyborgs. Once in Second Life, users are able to customize their body by tweaking proportions and dimensions, changing body colors, and purchasing unique outfits in order to create their individual online persona. The minutest of details on the avatar’s body is controllable by users, including ear shape and placement. For those who are not interested in spending hours adjusting the avatar’s body, there also are a variety of pre-made bodies, known as skins, available for purchase. Skins allow residents to showcase their individuality by creating a body that represents their personality. On Second Life, the bodily appearance is limited only by the extent of one’s imagination and bank account. In order to personalize the avatar fully, customizations and skins must be purchased using Lindens, a monetary system that is based off of the American dollar. Second Life is not only a social community but also a booming capitalist economy in which the body literally becomes a commodity that can be purchased.
The importance of the avatar in online environments such as Second Life has been addressed by several scholars. T.L. Thomas argues that “avatars and textual bodies facilitate interaction, shape and solidify identity, as well as more generally mediate users engagement with the world” (438). The avatar is not simply a representation of the self, a static cartoonish image. The user experiences the virtual world through the avatar as if using a prosthetic device. The avatar is essentially an extension of the user into the digital environment, and as such, the avatar body plays an important role in interacting with other users and the virtual world itself. The avatar allows the user to become part of the world and its community, and by cycling through multiple avatar bodies and identities, the user is able to adjust to experience new communities and social roles as desired (Turkle 178).
The freedom from the physical body and the ability to recreate one without any limitations are two of the pervasive narratives surrounding the body in Second Life. The Second Life website defines an avatar as “a digital persona that you create” (Second Life “Avatar”). The avatar may be “you. only in 3D” or it can be an alternate identity, and so it appears that either option is an acceptable way to begin the avatar creation process (ibid). However, when examining this website further, there appears to be a tension present: is the avatar the 3D representation of the user, or is it a new identity? The website proclaims that “the only limit is your imagination” before asking the user “Who do you want to be?” (ibid). Users are not asked who they are but who they want to be as the foundation for building their avatar and on-screen persona. According to this text, users have unlimited control over who they are; they are the creators of their identity because they can customize their virtual body. Furthermore, the header on the page encourages the viewer to “become your avatar” (ibid). This command suggests that the avatar is what the user should aspire to be, not that the user is what the avatar should be. Ultimately users encounter an ontological tension between reality and the freedom to create an alternative reality in Second Life.
Not everyone views online environments as utopian spaces characterized by realizable self-determination. While analyzing the body-free perception of virtual reality, Anne Balsamo writes, “[u]pon analyzing the ‘lived’ experience of virtual reality, I discovered that this conceptual denial of the body is accomplished through the material repression of the physical body. The phenomenological experience of cyberspace depends upon and in fact requires the willful repression of the material body” (123). Balsamo continues to argue that this bodily repression is problematic because it not only erases bodily markers but also obscures ideological structures of difference and power. Technologies like virtual reality offer the illusion of control over the body; any body that the user can imagine can be his, and in spite of the open possibilities for bodily reconstruction, these technologically mediated bodies tend to revert back to “traditional gender and race markers of beauty, strength, and sexuality” (Balsamo 128). For Balsamo, the virtual body is not a passive “surface upon which are written the dominant narratives of Western culture,” and it is more than just a representation of these narratives; instead, the virtual body are these cultural values and expressions manifested in pixilated flesh (131). Through technology, it is possible to recreate the body, but Balsamo suggests that it is much harder to cast off the ideological baggage and societal narratives about bodies than it appears.
Lisa Nakamura similarly explores the utopian promises of identity and bodily performances in online spaces as specifically related to race. Unlike Winder, who posits that “race is no longer important in a world where orange aliens are the norm” (Winder ix), Nakamura identifies the whitewashing of internet spaces and the appropriation of racial identities as pervasive problems in online spaces. She writes, “technology’s greatest promise to us is to eradicate otherness,” so users online are assumed to fit dominant standards in terms of race, gender, ability, and class. It requires a conscious decision on the part of the user to present herself as a raced, gendered being. Nakamura critiques these identity performances because “…the ‘fluid selves’ they [chat-space participants] create (and often so lauded by postmodern theorists) are done so in the most regressive and stereotyped of ways” (xv). Her example of white men who adopt Asian female avatars in order to role play as hypersexualized geishas demonstrates how online spaces are not separate from the stereotypes and hierarchies associated with race and gender in physical environments. Even though there is the capability of playing with identity in online spaces by expressing multiple identities, for Nakamura, stereotypes and problematic representations of identity dominate.
The problems identified by Balsamo and Nakamura regarding the bodily performances of race, gender, and other identity markers in online environments are valid concerns. However, a significant number of users in these spaces are consistently playing with their online identity by adopting differently gendered and raced avatars. One study of World of Warcraft users found that 23% of the male users responded that a female character was their most enjoyable character (Yee). Comparatively, only 3% of female players, albeit a much smaller sample, responded that a male character was their most enjoyable character (ibid). Rather than discount the experiences of these users as problematic for the myriad of reasons listed by Balsamo and Nakamura, I want to examine the motivation and experience of these users who purposefully adopt different genders for their characters. In order to do this, I focus specifically on male users who adopt female avatars and personas in online environments. This choice is mostly due to the demographics of who gender bends; as the previously mentioned study demonstrates, male users are more likely to play female characters than female users are to play male characters. However, this imbalance in who gender bends also warrants further investigation: why are men more likely to gender bend than women? What motivates these users to adopt and maintain a female avatar and persona? How does male gender bending conflict or supports constructions of online masculinity?
Masculinity Online
The performance of gender in online environments has been the subject of much scholarly analysis because of its openness to reification, subversion, and deviation. According to Judith Butler, gender is a fluid social performance. She argues that gender is something that is done as opposed to something that is, positing that “if gender is something that one becomes—but can never bethen gender is itself a kind of becoming or activity” (152). Gender then is a culturally constituted marker of identity that must be constantly enacted in order to be legible, a process that is begun but never finished.
Examining how gender appears online presents a unique opportunity to see how the performance actually occurs. With the physical body of the user no longer visible and essentially removed, the gender roles that typically correspond to embodied experience are still performed, even if the gender roles portrayed by the user do not correspond to their supposedly true gender. In visual virtual worlds such as Second Life, the body may appear to be only a transient image created by the resident, but these bodies are actually “sites of struggle for competing forms of discipline that operate at the level of, and on, the body as it enacts virtual embodiment and subjectivity” (Green 132). In spite of the virtual context, the avatar body is still open to societal expectations especially in regards to gender as evidenced by the presence of a hegemonic masculinity. Since the representational possibilities online are not constrained except by the limits of one’s imagination, the performances of gender by both men and women can become so exaggerated as to be comical or serve as a commentary on the ridiculous nature of some gendered behaviors. As Butler states in Gender Trouble, “Gender is an act… which is open to splitting, self-parody, self-criticism, and those hyperbolic exhibitions of ‘the natural’ that, in their very exaggeration, reveal its fundamentally phantasmatic status” (192). Since gender online is removed from the medium in which it appears to reside naturally, that of the gendered body, it becomes necessary to perform gender to such an extreme in order to compensate for the lack of a corporeal embodiment. Such “hyperbolic extensions” of gender constitute an extreme method of enacting gender but also reveal the artificial construction of gender as a set of culturally determined scripts that are by no means natural or essential. Although it is possible that gender then may to be a set of regulations that constrain the individual and his or her self-expression, these normative behaviors can also be criticized and utilized for potentially liberatory actions by means of the parodic that Butler mentions. Gender play, such as gender bending, is such an action of subversive gender performance, an attempt to redefine and step away from the constructions of masculinity that regulate the behavior and actions of male participants.
One of the affordances of the virtual environment is that users may create a gendered avatar in many ways. The open approach to representation allows for gender to be in constant flux beyond the limiting binary gender system. As Jenny Sundén notes in her study of WaterMOO, a text-based online environment, multiple gender categories are available for users to select, including male, female, neuter, either, Spivak, splat, plural, egotistical, royal, and 2nd (28). These gender possibilities are accompanied by various pronouns that make reference to the gender selection, but because of the textual nature of the environment, the gender selection remains abstracted and not marked upon a particular body. In visual virtual environments like Second Life, users are able to “do” gender in their textual descriptions, appearance, and interactions with other users and objects, which provides a multifaceted gender performance. Subsequently, this leads to various contrasting understandings of gender performance online especially as it relates to what it means to be feminine or masculine online.
Masculinity as it is constructed and performed in various types of media such as television and movies (Lehman 2001, Moss 2011), video games (Burrill 2008, Kirkland 2009, Walkerdine 2006), and MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft (Corneliussen 2008, Eklund 2011,Valkyrie 2011). Typically these analyses focus on the presence of hyper-masculinity in media. Walkerdine asserts that video games are “the site for the production of contemporary masculinity because they both demand and appear to ensure performances such as heroism, killing, winning, competition, action, combined with technological skill and rationality” (520). To fit into the accepted masculinity as portrayed in various media, men must be aggressive and violent, have agency and take action, and dominate weaker individuals including women.
There is not one monolithic masculinity; instead there are a variety of masculinities present in a social complex, and the performance of masculinity shifts based on other identity characteristics and the context of the performance. In place of a singular masculinity, R.W. Connell offers the term “hegemonic masculinity” to describe the masculinity which is dominant in a particular location and time (76). He defines hegemonic masculinity as “the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women” (77). Connell’s understanding of hegemonic masculinity allows for there to be multiple masculinities that are dominant depending upon the social context. He also points out that this hegemonic masculinity is not necessarily fixed and that it can be changed or challenged (ibid).
In online environments, hegemonic masculinity has been most studied as it is constructed in video games. In his analysis of the Silent Hill series, Ewan Kirkland notes that much of popular video game culture “reveals a masculinity that appears rooted in the traditional iconography of action, guns, and violence” (165). This construction of masculinity in video games as based upon physical strength, aggression, and violence exists outside of the control of the player; in many games, the user has no control over the avatar he plays throughout the game nor the storyline and actions he must perform in order to beat the game. The narrative and design are previously created by the production team, and users must play along or forfeit the game. While these representations of masculinity in video games contribute to the larger narrative of masculinity in gaming culture, I am more interested in examining the performances of masculinity in environments like Second Life where the user has more control over his quest trajectory and avatar.
In online games like World of Warcraft the normative masculinity is a hyper-masculine testosterone machine. Male characters are expected to be extremely violent and ruthless in order to complete missions and dominate the game. This expectation has been well documented in studies concerned with the real life implications of violent video games. This performance of hyper-masculinity stands in direct contrast to the type of masculinity that is generally associated with computers and technology: the ubiquitous computer nerd. The nerd has long been a symbol of the tech savvy men who spend a significant amount of time with computers and online. The stereotypical nerd is a white, middle-class, young male who, because of his lack of involvement in physical activities such as sports that generally define masculinity in the real world, appears outside of hegemonic masculinity but conversely is also not part of hegemonic femininity. The characteristics of nerd masculinity such as “fascination with technology, interest in science fiction and related media, and perceived or actual social ineptitude and sartorial disorganization” are generally used to connote passivity or lack of masculinity, which therefore becomes coded as femininity (Kendall 81). Yet online portrayals of femininity are also highly specific and rely on burgeoning presentations of bodily sexuality, thereby also excluding those who gamers who perform marginal gender identities online.
In order to reject a label as a feminine weakling and to fit within dominant culture, it becomes necessary for male gamers to perform a violent destructive masculinity. Even the male avatar bodies that are available on games such as Unreal Tournament, another multiplayer online mission oriented game, are designed to be easily recognizable as masculinity on steroids. The bodies are solid and looming, feature bulging muscles, grim facial expressions, and an assortment of weaponry that supplement the avatar’s body strength and demonstrate that the character means business. The body is not the only means of asserting masculine gender, but masculine speech patterns are also utilized to show complicity with hegemonic masculinity by emphasizing aggressiveness. Men are expected to trash talk and participate in flaming, or acts of online bullying that typically target an individual who is viewed as inferior (Woods 35). Essentially, virtual spaces allow men who are typically subordinated to act out hegemonic masculinities that they cannot in the non-virtual world. Since the “nerd” body is removed in its place a new body can be created that fits the masculine ideal body image of the strong hero-soldier and the possibility of being part of the hegemonic masculinity. One of the alluring qualities of online games and communities is the user’s ability to role-play and act out events or personalities that are not possible in the non-virtual world. Those who may exhibit subordinated masculinities can role-play the hegemonic masculinity and finally experience the power available to dominant males. The allure of this position as the hegemonic man is still strong to those who are not dominant in the physical world, even though this power from the hegemonic position is limited to an online space. Davey Winder, an avid Second Lifer who published a book of detailed profiles of avatars and the real people who play them, also realizes the subversive potential of gender benders. He writes, “Forget notions of repressed homosexuality; this is a pure power play. The unheard nerd can, at last, gain control over other males” (86). Although some men do attempt to subvert this hegemonic masculinity by adopting female personae, the majority of men take advantage of the opportunity to be dominant and finally fit the masculine ideal.
Given Connell’s insistence that hegemonic masculinity is constructed within a specific social matrix at a particular moment, it is necessary to evaluate how masculinity is performed in Second Life. Hyper-masculinity is not limited to video games or MMORPGs, but it is also found in Second Life. Although users can design their avatar any way they can imagine, a quick tour of the virtual landscape shows that most of the male avatars conform to a certain look. A majority of avatars are white or various shades of light tan with a few avatars featuring skin colors of black, brown, purple, and green. This “white-washing” of avatars has been notably documented and critiqued by cultural theorist Lisa Nakamura as another example of utilizing avatars in order to comply with hegemonic power hierarchies. Most of the male avatar bodies are well muscled and slim; almost no male users have emaciated or obese builds, and disabled bodies are almost non-existent3. There are some portals on Second Life where greater bodily diversity exists, but most often these are areas for special interest communities like people with disabilities or those with alternative sexualities. These marginalized groups express their identities differently through their avatars and do not participate in the construction of the main form of hegemonic masculinity since they tend to exist outside of dominant culture norms. There is not much interaction among the various communities within Second Life. It is best described as a high school cafeteria: each different clique has its own table. Although there may be a few people who are able to successfully negotiate relationships and identities in order to be a part of multiple groups, most people remain with the group they are most comfortable with. On Second Life there might not be open animosity that occurs in high school when the cybergoth sits at the football team’s table but tension does occur. Some Second Life communities, most notoriously those based upon religion, develop their own portals and have restricted access to keep uninvited residents out.
The way male users interact in Second Life demonstrates a link between normative gender performances of hegemonic masculinity and acceptable expressions of sexuality. Except in areas that are specified as welcoming of alternative lifestyles, compulsory heterosexuality is one of the principles of the masculinity performance found online. As Kendall observes, “In keeping with acceptable performance of hegemonic masculinity, men … distance themselves from femininity. Conversations that refer to women… bluntly depict such women as sexual objects” (85). Demonstrations of sexual prowess through dialogue and actions with female avatars online are an important aspect in proving one’s manhood.
In a space where one’s gender is not readily determinable, the performance of manhood becomes over-exaggerated, and interactions with the opposite gender are essential to assert legibility within hegemonic understandings of masculinity. In addition to the importance of sexuality in the construction of online masculinity, non-sexual behaviors are also crucial to the gendered online interactions. The user-created atmosphere of Second Life allows users to develop objects and areas that fit their interests, so within the portals there are many opportunities to engage in stereotypically masculine activities such as athletics and high risk behaviors (although without any of the actual risk to the body). In order to be legible in the performance of masculinity, male avatars are expected to engage in virtual sporting matches and show their strength in areas designed for fighting other avatars. For a male avatar to appear in portals typically considered to be female spheres, such as a salon where users can receive digitized pedicures, automatically raises virtual eyebrows and calls into question the man’s masculinity and sexuality just as certain “first life” spaces.
The act of gender masquerade in gaming and online communities is commonly referred to as gender bending. Gender bending can take on different forms, depending upon the platform and limitations of the game, but most often it means adopting physical characteristics and performing behaviors typically associated with the opposite gender within a particular Western-centric cultural context (Kendall 11). Gender bending has been an object of much ethnographic research and critiques that have mostly focused on its possible link to homosexual repression or the problematic way that bodies of the opposite sex are used in the process of gender masquerading. In spite of these negative readings of the action, the positive effects that gender switching has on constructions and performances of gender in virtual spaces still remains to be examined.
Gender Bending as an Alternative
Gender bending in online spaces such as Second Life provides users with the opportunity to explore a new gender identity, and as previously discussed, the number of men who adopt female avatars and personae is disproportionately higher than the number of women users who adopt male avatars. There are several websites and studies that have attempted to account for the male-heavy gender masquerade. One study polled a group of self-identifying gender benders and asked whether there were any in-game benefits to portraying a female avatar. Over 45% of participants felt that female characters were treated better than their male counterparts (Wright, online). One gender bender recalls "in another mining incident, an evil character popped into a mine Joyce [his female character] was working, chatted with her briefly, and then mentioned that although normally he killed people who came into this mine, he would leave her alone because she was polite, female, and cute” (quoted in Wright, online). Whether as a result of an online form of chivalry or stereotypical paternalistic feelings, female characters tend to receive more assistance from other player in the form of gifts or non-tangibles, such as advice or advantages in role-play. Another online scholar suggests that the reason is purely a reason of scopophilic sexual pleasure, because “men prefer to stare at a female body rather than a male body. … the appeal of being able to view and, more importantly, control a female body that is sexy but deadly. Feminists have argued that male gender bending is really just a new way for men to dominate female bodies” (Yee). The average MMORPG player is on the server for over 21 hours a week, so the allure of having an attractive avatar to focus on is a benefit; the user can gaze upon a lithe female form rather than the typical steroid-produced physique of a male character (Yee). The notion of dominating female bodies recalls Laura Mulvey’s scopophilic pleasure from cinema studies. Like Mulvey’s analysis of film, the male user may derive a sense of pleasure from occupying a position of power and domination over the female avatar in addition to any sexual enjoyment from the attractive albeit pixilated form.
The benefits of a female avatar extend to online social communities like Second Life as well. New players that present as female are more likely to receive help adjusting to the disorienting virtual world and are also given free items more often than men. Women are also more likely to be approached by strangers on the site and develop more intimate relationships that positively affect user retention. This observation is due to the perception that women are friendlier than men and are less likely to engage in aggressive behaviors that are typically associated with men online. Women are also more likely to be on Second Life in order to form friendships and develop intimate relationships, though not necessarily romantic ones (Woods 35). Men who desire to evade the competitive role-playing and quest based course of action may choose to adopt a female persona in order to engage in such social interactions that are understood to be primarily women’s spheres. Although there are practical benefits for male users to appear as female characters in online spaces, I suggest that there is a deeper reason for gender bending. Beyond the free swag, male users can gender bend in order to subvert hegemonic masculinity and explore new aspects of their identity without fear of illegibility or retribution.
The existence of hegemonic masculinity in online spaces such as Second Life does not mean that all male users participate in it equally. R.W. Connell suggests that it may appear that disembodiment is necessary in order to dismantle patriarchy and the problematic hierarchy of masculinities, but a process of re-embodiment would be more effective. Re-embodiment, he writes, would enable “different ways of using, feeling and showing male bodies” in capacities other than “war, sport, or industrial labour” (233). This re-embodiment strategy does not involve eradicating hegemonic masculinity, which would eliminate the positive aspects of such masculinity, but would be more akin to a “gender multiculturalism” (234). Connell does not provide a suggestion for how to affect this re-embodied gender multiculturalism, so I suggest that gender bending in online spaces such as Second Life may provide male users with this experience.
Gender bending presents an opportunity for a user to play with his gender identity and step outside of hegemonic gender norms. Gender bending can be seen as a re-embodiment effort to explore new ways of experiencing a body. The limitations that the patriarchal system and expectations of performing the hegemonic masculinity places upon men are constraining and damaging. Male bodies are marked by their sex and therefore they are expected to enact the heterosexual, violent, and dominant behaviors that have become synonymous with masculinity. By refusing the typical markers of online masculinity, male gender benders are attempting to begin a resistance movement from one side of the computer screen.
Subversion of hegemonic masculinity begins with the recognition that gender norms can regulate the body and its interactions with other gendered beings. Following this recognition, a conscious decision is made to step outside of such normative performances rather than seek acceptance under these stringent gender expectations. If the hegemonic masculinity is not performed then uncertainties about a man’s masculinity and sexuality arise; as Connell notes, gay masculinity and other subordinated masculinities may result in expulsion from legitimate masculinity and association with femininity (79). This mode of questioning ultimately reduces personal agency and power, or may even result in violent moments due to illegibility. These hegemonic notions of masculinity exclude a significant proportion of men who are not violent, do not participate in masculine activities like sports, and are not heterosexual.
Although in the real physical world it is very difficult for these subordinated masculinities to escape the way that their body defines them, in the online setting they are able to recreate their bodies in a way that will allow them to defy the expectations of masculinity. By role-playing as a female, men are no longer expected to be extremely violent and do not have to conform to the virtual and “real” expectations of men. The escape into a female form allows for greater personality expression and connection with others. The male gender bender is no longer expected to conform to a certain masculine appearance and can instead explore different aspects of the self that might be ignored because of its conflict with typical notions of masculinity. For instance, men typically do not form intimate friendships with other men online because of a competition to prove dominance physically or sexually. As a female avatar, a man is able to form meaningful relationships without being labeled as weak for showing dependency and emotions that are necessary to establish intimacy (Wright). While there is definitely a hegemonic femininity online that constrains women in the same way that hegemonic masculinity affects men, there seems to be greater gender expression available to women without negative regulations. One male gender bender realizes how he uses gender switching as a way to break gender roles and dominant constructions of masculinity. He writes in response to an online survey, “We’re taught early on to adhere to our gender roles, so there is an internal struggle when we try to break free of societies [sic] expectations” (quoted in Wright online). While this user may articulate a greater self-awareness of the social construction of gender, many other users shared similar feelings of liberation.
After an extensive study on gender switching, Roberts and Parks came to the conclusion that the act was a form of identity exploration. They write, “We believe gender-switching for most people is best understood as an experimental behaviour rather than as an enduring expression of their sexuality or personality. Gender-switchers were more likely to endorse statements regarding the use of gender-switching as a tool for enhancing personal growth and understanding” (222). By stepping outside of the constraints imposed by hegemonic notions of masculinity, men are able to freely explore aspects of their personality that may conflict with the dominant expression of masculinity without fear of repercussions. Men can explore their sexuality in other ways than the compulsory heterosexuality without being labeled as homosexual. Personality traits that are most often associated with femininity can be expressed without fear of being characterized as feminine and therefore weak. Freedom to express one’s self-online without the constraints related to gender appropriate behavior is a positive experience and is a move in the right direction towards greater gender expression in the real world. If alternative gender performances can become widely accepted in Second Life, which is advertised as simultaneously a simulation of the first life and the “real world but better”, perhaps the acceptance will cross the technological boundary in to the non-virtual world.
In spite of its identity and gender play, gender bending is not without problems. In spite of the positive aspects of self-growth and subversion of gender norms, gender bending is not a respected form of self-expression on Second Life. As one study of gender switching individuals online notes, “the primary barrier to gender-switching was the belief that it is dishonest and manipulative” (Roberts 220). Many users note the sense of betrayal that occurs after finding out that an online friend was pretending to be of a different gender (ibid). In a medium that emphasizes the importance of role-playing and separation of real life from the virtual second life, this condemnation of gender bending seems out of place. This response does not seem to apply to racial or non-human performances, a distinction most likely caused by the societal idea that gender and biological sex are intertwined. Gender is often naturalized and considered to be an irrefutable part of the self, therefore to deny one’s gender is to essentially be lying about the self. This naturalization of gender is extremely problematic because it assumes an essential being and does not account for personal agency yet it still occurs. In online environments, interactions occur and relationships form entirely based on how the user presents himself in the virtual context. Revealing one’s true gender after the development of a relationship may be seen as a violation of trust and causes the other party involved to wonder what other part of the person is only a masquerade.
One of the reasons that gender bending has been viewed negatively by other users within online environments is because of its supposed homosexual implications. Male gender switching has long been associated with homosexuality, specifically because of the prevalence of an idea that gender benders are repressing their queerness and using the avatar as an outlet. As part of Wright’s online survey of gender benders, she asked male participants if they believed there was any correlation between homosexuality and playing as a woman. 60 percent of her respondents stated that there was no correlation, and another 15 percent suggested that for some individuals there might be a relationship but not for them. None of the participants agreed with the statement that those who play female characters are by default homosexual (Wright online). Although this presents a favorable view of the possibilities of alternative gender performances in Second Life, this sentiment is not shared by the larger community of those who do not gender bend.
The popularity of correlating homosexuality with gender bending and the negative perception of both is evidence of the compulsory heterosexuality that Second Life promotes. Second Life is designed for a two-gender system and specifically a heterosexual one. Users only have an initial choice between a male or female body, which can only be changed by spending a significant amount of time and energy to develop a new gendered body. Individuals who choose to portray a genderless being, a category that is not legible according to current societal understandings of gender, face discrimination, as evidenced by one resident’s experience:
Raven told me that when she first started SL, she attempted to have a character with indefinable gender that caused quite a stir wherever she went. According to her, this caused great confusion with people that she ran into who demanded to know if she was male or female. She said that she received many threats from other residents and had since, retired the avatar, never to be resurrected again. (Woods 89)
Additionally, Second Life’s program is specifically designed to promote heterosexuality. Objects and certain actions that require two people, such as dancing, can be completed by clicking on a ball. In all instances, the balls are color coded with a pink “F” for female or blue “M” for male. By clicking on the blue ball, the avatar begins to follow what the programmer considered the heteronormative gender role for men; in the example of dancing the male avatar begins to lead the female in a dance. The heteronormative design of Second Life is one possible reason why a majority of men continue to perform the hegemonic masculinity. It takes conscious effort to stop enacting harmful behaviors and when the entire system reinforces ideas of dominant, heterosexual masculinity there is little incentive to change. Another reason for men portraying dominant modes of masculinity is the fear of ridicule. Wright’s survey found that 40 percent of gender benders were insulted because of their online gender performance. One respondent writes “my friends find it very curious that I always pick female characters, and regard me suspiciously when it comes up” (Wright online). Although Second Life may be proclaimed to be an open space for self-expression and opportunity, this openness is limited to heteronormative practices in most of the virtual world.
Some theorists have also expressed concern about the work that gender benders attempt to do. In Cybertypes, Lisa Nakamura explores specifically how gender and racial “passing” online is a form of identity tourism that allows users to perform as the “other.” Nakamura found “the afterimages of identity that users were creating by adopting personae other than their own online as often as not participated in stereotyped notions of gender and race” (13). She regards this performance of “other” as problematic because it relies on stereotypes of races and women in order to reinforce the hegemonic distribution of power. Often as gender benders reject the dominant forms of masculinity that they found limiting they continue to reify the equivalent hegemonic femininities that similarly demonstrate a particular understanding of the female body, acceptable behaviors, and compulsory heterosexuality.
In spite of presenting an interesting and necessary perspective on how virtual communities continue to produce images of discrimination, Nakamura’s perspective on gender passing focuses on the problems, not the potential, of such an experience. It does not take into account the important work that gender bending individuals are doing in order to question, explore, and subvert the hegemony and power structures that are present in their own gender. Specifically, men who gender bend are taking the first step towards expanding the binary construction of gender by embracing gender identities other than the hegemonic form of online hyper-masculinity. Although the gender benders may sometimes present their female personae in ways that stereotype and sexualize women, they also develop a new awareness about the cultural constitution and artificiality of gender roles. One male player wrote about his new understanding of sex discrimination, “As I got to see how the rest of Norrath [an online RPG] treats males and females, I came to realize that, try as I might, I don't treat men and women equally in RL [real life] myself” (Yee online). The lessons and experiences had on online for both men and women have the potential to make changes in the real world that can deconstruct the binary gender system and allow for greater expression for all. Spending time as the “Other” can allow for greater understanding between the genders. One female gender bender recalls her experiences as a man, stating “I used to think men had it easy! Now I know they have issues too; they are socialized to be more independent and not ask for help. That has to be tough” (Yee online).
Although this ability to experience “Other-ness” has the potential to make positive changes, it is also extremely important to realize that hours spent online in the virtual body of a woman is not the same as experiencing real drag or life as a woman. The physical body, due to its limited ability to be controlled or modified, can mark the body in a harmful way that allows the real person no recourse for change. While online, the advanced level of personalization available for the body can aid the user in circumventing this helplessness, and may result in a renewed sense of control over others’ perceptions of the online self, a luxury available in a limited form in the non-virtual world. This distinction between online and “real life” experience is a boundary that must be continuously negotiated as the first and second life become more linked.
When I began this research, Second Life was booming. Linden Labs boasted new users every day, and the Second Life economy was considered to be one of the strongest in the world. Since then, the online space has seen a decline in new registrations to approximately 11,000 new users per day as well as a decrease in the average number of users to 44,000 people online at one time (“SL Metrics”). Linden Labs announced it would be laying off 30% of its work force (Kawamoto 2010). Many of the stores and universities that inhabited Second Life have vacated their virtual spaces. The decreases that some bloggers have identified as the signs of a dying Second Life may signal the end of the virtual world. And yet, Second Life persists because of the 34 million registered residents and 1 million users who are still active (“SL Metrics”). These residents continue to form a community of play by interacting with other users, making decisions about the future of Second Life, and engaging in the relationships, economic system, and experiences that initially propelled Second Life to mainstream attention. As far as online gaming goes, even if Second Life is declining, it still has a substantial core of users who are still actively participating. And it’s a fair assumption, based on the data collected by Yee, Roberts and Parks, and others that a significant number of those users are participating in gender play such as gender bending.
Gender bending is not a solution on its own to ending sexism, gender discrimination, or the binary gender system. As Balsamo and Nakamura note, there are some negative associations with gender bending, namely that when men may reify racial and gender stereotypes when they adopt an alternate persona. This problem may be partially alleviated by the decline in the Second Life user base. New users were initially attracted to Second life for it’s tourist potential to be someone or something they were not in “real” life, so the casual user could adopt gendered or raced identities without any permanent attachment to their portrayal. Now that the hype has subsided, it may be that the remaining users feel a more enduring commitment to their online identities and may not reify harmful stereotypes. Another problem facing gender benders is that other users consider gender bending to be deceitful, and alternative gender performances may not receive the same positive reception from other users as they would from feminist scholars. However, gender bending represents a first step in the process to deconstructing the constricting and problematic gender performances in online spaces.
Gender bending offers users a chance for users to take charge of their identity through the construction of an avatar body and persona. By making obvious the decisions behind what a particular body and performance requires, gender bending denaturalizes assumptions about gender that seem inherent in physical bodies. Users who create an avatar with a different gender are aware of gender’s constructed nature; they must “do” gender as it is not immediately apparent. The stereotypes and assumptions about what it means to be a woman or a man in online and off-line spaces are revealed as what they are: cultural constructions. Even though often gender performances online default to representations of hegemonic masculinity and femininity with no alternative to the binary gender system, there still exists the possibility of gender play. Users can use gender bending to explore aspects of their identity and sexuality that may not be acceptable according to hegemonic and heteronormative expectations of men and women. While gender bending in Second Life does not present a solution to issues of sexism or limiting gender performances in online or offline spaces, it is a form of play that should be encouraged. As Pearce’s understanding of play reminds us, the interactions of users engaging in play is valuable for Perhaps through gender play, the constructed nature of gender performances may become more apparent to users in online and offline spaces. 



  • 1. “Multi-User Dungeons” are online multiplayer worlds that combine role-playing games, quest based narratives, and social interaction in a text-based environment.
  • 2. A “MUD Object Oriented” is similar to a MUD but allows users to change the server for all users.
  • 3. Winder details the harassment of one Second Life avatar who did choose to use a wheelchair in his online interactions.



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Kaitlin Clinnin is a PhD student in Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies at the Ohio State University. She earned her Master’s degree in English from Virginia Tech. Her research interests center on the intersection of composition pedagogy, learning communities, and modes of education delivery. She was recently part of the instructional team for the Writing II: Rhetorical Composing Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) offered through Ohio State and Coursera. 


© 2013 Kaitlin Clinnin, used by permission

Technoculture Volume 3 (2013)