The response to a proposed panel for the technology area of the International Communication Association conference suggests the precarious position of intersectional feminist considerations of the internet. A reviewer noted that “using feminist cultural theory to critique” touchscreens “is interesting enough,” but the individual was “not convinced this will speak to a broad subset” of the “membership.” Feminist studies have had a significant influence on film and television studies, in many cases becoming canonical texts and shifting critical questions and areas of research. However, feminist studies of internet technologies and cultural practices are still too often identified as peripheral, not especially interesting, and as unpleasant interventions. Feminist examinations of the internet and related technologies are seen as not enough, including not scholarly enough, and as excessively too much. This is especially the case when such analyses interrogate claims about the agentive aspects of the internet, question the behaviors of male participants, and positively consider LGBTQIA+ and women's online cultures.
Feminist internet studies scholars have correlated celebratory narratives about online technologies, men's purported escape from their bodies, and science fiction.1 Cyberpunk literature from the 1980s, including William Gibson's fiction, uses such gendered terms as “jacking in” to the network and describes erotically deploying women as avatars.2 These conceptions reappear in such venues as SIGGRAPH conferences, which feature recent work in computer graphics and interactive techniques. At the 2017 conference, a developer indicated that his virtual reality interface was based on the idea of a man wanting to touch a woman who did not want to be touched. Technologies and social practices support the idea that the internet and computers should provide heterosexual men with power over disinterested women and female representations. Utopian narratives about men leaving their bodies behind and claims that studies of identity and disenfranchisement are not needed, because everyone is supposed to be equally empowered online, have worked with some academic refusals of feminist, queer, and antiracist approaches.
It is at the site of these effacements of stereotyping and intolerance that the combination of feminist media studies and internet studies can provide critical methods, including questions about spectatorship, point of view, algorithmic identities, and the presumptions of code and computer terms. Foundational interrogations of the design and features of computers and internet sites include Anna Everett's questioning of how computer start-up messages once read “Pri Master Disk, Pri. Slave Disk, Sec. Master, Sec. Slave” and rendered a “digitally configured ‘master/slave’ relationship.”3 The depiction of empowered users as male, sign-up forms that only list binary gender options, and security questions that ask for your mother's maiden name produce participants, hierarchical gender structures, and heterosexuality and marriage mores.4
In the early 1990s, Susan C. Herring and other scholars started interrogating claims that the gender of online participants was imperceptible and that individuals were unconcerned about traditional identities and treated everyone equitably. Herring provides a history of early feminist writing about the internet and related technologies.5 Such texts and recent literature encourage me to propose that feminist internet studies scholars continue to be concerned about the displacement of gender as an arena of inquiry and the reproduction of normative identities and traditional notions of bodies online. These concerns connect feminist internet studies to broader feminist interests.
The relationship between bodies and technologies has been addressed in feminist literature, including Donna Haraway's feminist articulation of the cyborg.6 While Haraway's 1985 manifesto proposes an intersectional and collaborative socialist-feminist politics and way of revisioning community, heterosexual unions, and origin stories, the text is often employed in celebrating cyborgian connections with machines. Haraway proposes that individuals are experiencing border breakdowns as the purported distinctions between human and animal, animal-human and machine, and physical and nonphysical are breached. Technologists and mainstream authors may employ white heterosexual men's cyberpunk literature as frameworks, but Haraway references the antiracist, feminist, and queer science fiction writing of Octavia E. Butler and Samuel R. Delany.
Science fiction and other popular conceptions of the virtual, including the large number of interfaces promoted at SIGGRAPH, encourage theorizations of the relationship between material conditions and digital representations, who interfaces are designed for, narratives about bodily permissions and escape, and the labor of producing and supporting hardware and software. Anne Friedberg's considerations of the mobilized virtual gaze in the nineteenth century and more recent shopping experiences underscore the importance of feminist theories of the gaze and the array of technologies that have facilitated alternative worlds.7 While virtual reality designers emphasize control, Margaret Morse highlights the struggling bodies of people engaged with difficult and unclear virtual interfaces.8 New media is often imagined to be intuitive and its operations clear, but instructions and failures are displaced parts of these systems.
Julian Dibbell's 1993 article “A Rape in Cyberspace” offers a critical account about experiences of embodiment in the LambdaMOO programmable setting and how textual enactments of sexual violence affectively influence individuals.9 Articles on feminist news websites chronicle women's experiences with violent threats and having personal information posted online, which is known as doxing and is a continuation of the behaviors Dibbell chronicles. Jezebel writer Anna Merlan argues that so many women writers are “threatened online that it's spawning its own new type of journalism.”10 For instance, feminist journalist Amanda Hess chronicles a man's use of Twitter to inform her that he is going to rape and decapitate her.11 According to Sarah Sobieraj, harassers reference “women's bodies as leverage to intimidate, shame, and discredit” them.12 Emma A. Jane argues that there has been too little feminist research on such violent and oppressive practices while abusive domestic “partners and ex-partners are able to use the Internet to incite others to join their attacks.”13 Women's online engagements, as Hess notes, are “shaped, and too often limited, by the technology companies that host these threats,” the “enforcement officers who investigate them,” and the “popular commentators who dismiss them.” These arenas are “dominated by men” with little understanding of how women are harassed online.14 We need more feminist collectives to chronicle and counter these oppressive everyday experiences.
Cyberfeminist practices from the early 1990s offered more utopian accounts of women's internet engagements and found inspiration in the work of Haraway. The development of the term “cyberfeminism” has been credited to VNS Matrix, an Australian feminist art collective, and to the British theorist Sadie Plant. VNS Matrix's cyberfeminist manifesto includes labial imagery and re-envisions the ordinary correlation of art production with men.15 The manifesto appeared on billboards, was part of the LambdaMOO setting, and still circulates online. The manifesto playfully proposes that VNS Matrix makes art with its “cunt” and that the “clitoris is a direct line to the matrix.” This last line was picked up by Plant in her own writings and assertion that the internet and other technological sites have feminine qualities.16 The Old Boys Network, a German feminist collective, sponsored the related Cyberfeminist International Conference. According to the 1997 conference site, cyberfeminism “creates a space for women to invent, dissect and alter the trajectories of the new technological and information era.”17 In her critical survey of cyberfeminism, Susanna Paasonen underscores the disconnections between some cyberfeminist identifications and feminisms: “Cyberfeminist articulations emphasizing diversity and irony have not always been easy to combine with analyses of power and inequality.”18 Cyberfeminist-like interests, considerations of Black people's roles as early adopters, and representations of people of color were addressed in the 2004 and 2005 AfroGeek conferences supported by the Center for Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Haraway's influence is also underscored in Constance Penley and Andrew Ross's 1991 anthology Technoculture, which includes an interview with and article by Haraway as well as considerations of reproductive technologies, women's fan cultures, and cyberpunk.19 In a related manner, Theresa M. Senft's 1996 edited Women and Performance journal issue on sexuality and cyberspace employs feminist theory, including Haraway's conception of the cyborg.20 Senft resists narratives about liberating online gender performances and instead focuses on the ways technologies materialize and efface bodies, including cultural conceptions of the disabled and women. Senft's interest in researching the internet is correlated with her mother's illness and Senft's encouragement to “work with” the ventilator and “machine.”21 More recently, Anna Munster has theorized the “gaps, discontinuities or differentials between bodies and new media.”22 Each of these texts keeps the politics of the internet and other technologies and social practices in tension with the medicalization and representation of the body. Further elucidating these gaps, as well as the sticky ties of flesh to screen, can help us to theorize the ways we look at screens, produce and are produced by these settings, and are correlated with and reliant on mediation and the associated worlds.
The current state of feminist internet studies and its relationship to academic and technology fields suggests that research on convention cultures, including academic settings, is needed. So too are examinations of varied research methodologies and sites of investigation. Feminist media studies scholars might consider the ways humanities methodologies can be tactically deployed to consider the internet. N. Katherine Hayles's study of close, hyper, and machine reading demonstrates how textual analysis is produced in and can be used to analyze these settings.23 Anna Everett's critique of the hypertextual and digital pleasures of clicking, and the associated promises of power and plenitude, could be updated to address the tactile aspects of touch screen interfaces and how swipes function as methods of enticement and dismissal.24 The escalating doxing of feminists, people of color, and LGBTQIA+ folks in internet settings also encourages an address to how traditional beliefs and open communication strategies need to be rethought and counteracted by intersectional feminist collectives.