Cyberwomen: Redefining the Internet With A Feminine Perspective
Loretta Kemsley

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Electronic networks, such as the Internet, have become the catalyst for dimensional transformation, revolutionizing our concepts of time and space, undermining national boundaries, and altering the traditional patterns of human relationships. This is especially significant for women. The potential implications of dramatic social, political, and economic change can lend a supercharged boost to the goals of historic feminist struggles.

The elements which will affect the outcome of this reformation are the typical patterns of gender interaction, the elastic capabilities of digital artistry, and new interpretations of the most basic components in electronic communications and language. Feminist theory is expanding and stretching these traditional concepts into new directions which were not previously anticipated. These elusive twists are beginning to have a global impact beyond the borders of cyberspace--changes so profound that there is the possibility of culture shock as women's cyberspace experiences reverberate in real life.

The role of women in cyberspace slithers and changes, depending upon the media presenting the image. The modern incarnation of Pandora, powerful bitch/goddess, is popular in novels, such as William Gibson's *Neuromancer,* and films, such as Melanie Griffith's role in *Cherry 2000.* Both fantasies are sexy, aloof, and tough; women to be feared as they wield their evil through technological power. Their opposite is portrayed in populist television broadcasts and newspaper articles of women as victims of cyberstalkers, rapists, and pornographic Web sites. Reducing the portrayal of women to little more than their erotic value denies the reality of their multi-dimensional impact. Paterson asserted:

C yberfeminism as a philosophy has the potential to create a poetic, passionate, political identity and unity without relying on the logic and language of exclusion or appropriation. It offers a route for reconstructing feminist politics through theory and practice with a focus on the implications of new technology rather than on factors which are divisive. It rejects the trend toward carefully crafted descriptions of people which rely on more than a few adjectives. At issue is not whether a woman can be accurately described as a lesbian-separatist, pacifist, woman of colour, but rather, whether we can recognize and address the personal and political impact which new electronic technologies and media have on daily life. New electronic technologies are currently utilized to manipulate and define our experiences. Cyberfeminism does not accept as inevitable current applications of new technologies which impose and maintain specific cultural, political and sexual stereotypes. Empowerment of women in the field of new electronic media can only result from the demystification of technology, and the appropriation of access to these tools.

Gibson is credited with having introduced the word "cyberspace" into popular culture in his novel, *Neuromancer* (1984), defining it as a "consensual hallucination." Cyberspace is dissolving more than the conventional concepts of time and space. Individuals and cultures are suffering a crisis of identity as traditional gender related mores shift and reform as fast as the flickering images upon the computer screen. It is the new magic circle upon which the practitioner of illusions can perform brilliantly. Virtual Reality (VR) and cyberspace are the technologies for living vicariously, and women are increasingly successful when they step inside the circle. Cyberfeminists are creating their own reality filled with newly constructed identities and ways of being in the world. Reshaping each other and redefining themselves, they are also reclaiming new electronic technologies for all women.

Paterson commented: "Through Virtual Reality, deconstruction of gender is entering the realm of pop culture, and this link with new electronic technology has implications for the philosophy of cyberfeminism. . . .The proof of the impact of such technologies (which have stretched and twisted our understanding of time and space as well as the limitations of our vulnerable, physical, human bodies) may be measured by the paranoia which they have inspired. Cyberspace has become a fertile breeding ground for multiple personalities, flaming, electronic stalking and gender-bending at the very least. The body, in virtual space, is no mere user interface; VR offers the chance to trade in, remodel, or even leave behind the physical nature with which we are, in reality, burdened."

Some questions are beguiling. Should our bodies end at the skin or include, at best, other beings encapsulated by skin? The consequence of taking seriously the imagery of cyborgs, as a marriage of flesh and machine, is a profound change in our evaluation of gender-driven identities. For women, intense pleasure in skill, machine skill, ceases to be a sin, and instead becomes an aspect of embodiment. Until now, female embodiment seemed to be given, organic, necessary; it seemed to mean skill in mothering and its metaphoric extensions. Cyborgs might be considered as a partial, fluid, and intermittent aspect of sex and sexual embodiment. Gender might not be global identity after all. (Haraway 1991)

Cultural convergence, often described as a merging of art and technology, is also occurring on a cultural level and offering opportunities to break out of prescribed roles. With cyberfeminism, more than gender is up for grabs. Women's experiences have long been denied or undervalued, as have attempts to move away from patriarchal contexts. Paterson (1997) commented, "Transgressing order and linear organization of information, cyberfeminists recognize the opportunity to redefine 'reality,' on our terms and in our interest and realize that the electronic communications infrastructure or 'matrix' may be the ideal instrument for a new breed of feminists to pick up and play."

Ironically, it is the chaos of the Web that allows women to achieve the power to define it to their own satisfaction. Braidotti noted an increased ability for artistic liberty in information technology. The strict separation between the technical and the creative has been blurred by digital images and the skills required by computer-aided design. "The new alliance between the previously segregated domains of the technical and the artistic marks a contemporary version of the post-humanistic reconstruction of a techno-culture whose aesthetics is equal to its technological sophistication."

Identity is made intelligible through the art of self-performance. The idea of "self" in this realm is no longer fixed, having become as nimble as the imagination, unstable and infinitely "morphable." Identity, no matter how concrete the experience, is always constructed, never innate (McAdams, 1996). Sofoulis (1995) noted, "Women artists in technological media demonstrate that ambivalence and critical distance allow new technologies to be creatively appropriated for purposes, projects and meanings quite other than those for which they are designed, perhaps quite other than the agendas followed by people who feel entirely at home in these media."

The role of women in cyberspace will hinge not only upon the potential of the Internet, but also on the uses women make of it. It can easily be marginalized by discourse of an inherently negative relationship between women and technology or the success of sexual harassment as a means of limiting women's participation in this formerly male-oriented domain. If women focus on the drawbacks and problems, their contributions are in danger of being ignored. Women's reluctance to enter a sphere that can become just another forum where women are dominated, harassed, or ignored as serious participants, is definitely understandable. Even so, women can not afford to simply give up or dismiss the Internet as a male-centered technology based on male values. (Mallon 1997)

As a forum for the growth of feminist culture, the Internet offers great potential and allows production via feminist principles of communication. However, considering the differences in access between women and men, combined with experiences of censorship and intimidation, the Internet cannot be viewed as the ultimate means to a feminist utopia. Although it is not a completely democratic sphere of communication, the Internet is still of major importance to the future of women's empowerment and allows for creative communication strategies. (Mallon 1997)

With its strong potential for generating wealth and power, cyberspace is not only where the future of commerce, entertainment, and education are headed; it is where new communities are being formed which will shape the future in each of these areas. Women need not wait to be invited. Realizing they no longer have to wait for the patriarchies and the power structures to allow access, women are creating their own structures of importance and relevancy. The Internet has become a catalyst of networking power. No longer asking if they can join the game, women have routed themselves around men and started their own game. (Glasscock 1996)

Women can go on functioning "as if" Woman were still their location, but they are not limited to it as a fixed or compulsory standard. They can treat femininity as an option: a set of available poses, costumes rich in history and social power relations. In cyberspace, they can simultaneously assert and deconstruct Woman as a signifying practice, thus creating the new by revisiting and burning up the old. Braidotti recognized this potential for confusing upheaval and its effects upon society as a whole. "We rather need more complexity, multiplicity, simultaneity, and we need to rethink gender, class and race in the pursuit of these multiple, complex differences. We also need gentleness, compassion and humour to pull through the ruptures and raptures of our times."

References for Further Reading

Loretta Kemsley is the president of Women Artists and Writers International, which publishes "Moondance: Celebrating Creative Women.". She is an award-winning journalist, an independent writer/editor, and a coach in the art of writing. Her past credits include editor-in-chief of "The Free Spirit" and "Minority Employment News," and a judge for Outreach International Romance Writers, "1998 Award of Excellence in Unpublished Romance Fiction Contest, Single Title Category" and Inscription's "Silence" poetry contest. In addition, she teaches online courses at the Center for Creative Growth, sponsored by Women Artists and Writers International and conducts writing workshops for Inkspot. Ms. Kemsley was named "The Advantage Woman 1998," by The Business Woman's Advantage. Her short story, "When Hobos Have Reasons" won the American Kennel Club (AKC) 1999 Fiction contest and will appear in their publication in May.

E-mail Ms. Kemsley at

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