Feminist Theory and CMC 24-Hour Exam (I)

It is a common assumption that studying gender online is more problematic
than studying gender face-to-face because the researcher will never know if
his or her participants are "really" women or "really" men. Using
poststructuralist theories of gender, problematize the authentication
impulse and set forth the working theory of gender you will use in your
research. How does your working theory of gender affect your research
design and the way in which you plan to operationalize gender in your

In online environments, by which I mean chat rooms, instant messenger, message boards, and weblogs, it is commonplace to not necessarily take interlocutors at face value. On feminist discussion boards, for example, men sometimes try to get women to talk about sex, particularly lesbian sex, and in discussion spaces for people with disabilities, amputee fetishists occasionally enter the discussion posing as disabled persons. There is also, of course, the much-feared pedophile posing as a child or teenager, attempting to obtain the contact information and location of potential victims. Such posing does and will continue to take place, but in these online spaces, many of the interlocutors are who they claim to be and speak from identity categories continuous with those they claim (and are interpellated into) in the face-to-face, "real world." Thus, online identity has been a problematic in internet research from its inception, as one much-debated question in qualitative internet research1 is whether researchers are studying texts or people. Especially for researchers who want to do ethnographies of online spaces, redefining traditional notions of identity, community, and space becomes crucial to the feasibility and legitimacy of the research. Many scholars, most notably Turkle (1995), Stone (1995), and Hine (2000), have argued that it is not useful to attempt to verify the identities of internet users or to defend constantly charges that research participants might not be who they say they are. Instead, they argue, it is better to show that in online spaces, identity is constructed in communities with certain norms, and identity is based on conversations and credibility established in those conversations; as such, only the community decides whether or not they accept the user as a woman, a disabled person, or the like. Turkle (1995) and Stone (1995) use postmodern theories, which problematize the humanist subject, to show that online, as in face-to-face interaction, identity is shifting, fluid, de-centered, and multiple; identity is a series of fictions and serious textual play.

Given this body of theory and research in which scholars have already thought through the issues involved in online identity and arrived at a theoretical stance, the authentication impulse to match face-to-face and online identity would no longer seem to be a problem. However, I would argue that the authentication impulse is still an issue for internet researchers for two reasons: first, we still encounter well-publicized identity hoaxes; and second, disciplinary boundaries often prevent theories of online identity from being read and discussed among those who do not do internet research. In this essay, I will explore these two reasons internet researchers -- especially feminist internet researchers -- need to continue theorizing online identity. I will show the practical ways some feminist internet researchers have determined the gender of users and, using my own research as an illustrative case, argue that a well-articulated theory of online identity grounded in feminist theory is useful and necessary for studying and interpreting gender online.

Why the Authentication Impulse Lingers

Most contemporary scholars in postmodernity have a sophisticated understanding of identity and the self as multiple, constructed, and not prediscursive, but like most people, scholars do not want to be deceived or made to feel foolish. However, when elaborate hoaxes are exposed, internet users -- and sometimes also internet researchers -- can become more suspicious of the personae they encounter online. I will review three such hoaxes, all of which center on gender in some way and, I would argue, call for a feminist theory of interpreting online identity. Perhaps the most famous hoax is the case of the "cross-dressing psychiatrist" (Stone, 1995, p. 67-81), a New York psychiatrist named Sanford Lewin, who was a participant under the username "Doctor" in the CompuServe chat environment in 1982. After having a conversation with a woman who had assumed he was also a woman, Lewin decided to change his username to "Julie Graham" and interact with people as a woman. Julie was a neuropsychologist who had been in a bad automobile accident. Her injuries had left her disfigured, paralyzed, and no longer able to speak or work. She smoked marijuana and was a bisexual atheist (Lewin did not use drugs and was a conservative Jew). Julie formed close relationships with several of the CompuServe users, providing therapy and advice when they needed it. Eventually, however, users began to get suspicious of Julie; she talked about going on trips and giving papers at conferences, but she would never meet other CompuServe users face-to-face. Finally, Lewin confessed to a few CompuServe users that Julie wasn't real. While the users valued the advice and help "Julie" had given them, even if Julie really was Lewin, they felt emotionally violated and betrayed.

In spring 2002, users of the message boards on Ms. magazine's web site learned that Lynne, a longtime member of the community, had had sexual reassignment surgery. Lynne was in her fifties, worked in information technology but had once been a therapist for the military. She identified as a radical feminist and claimed to have lived for several years in a lesbian separatist commune. She was a passionate advocate for the need for women-born-women-only (that is, women born female who self-identify as women) space, both physical and online, and she attended the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival every year, an event known for its women-born-women-only policy. Lynne was among numerous Ms. boards users who critiqued transgender politics on the basis that they hurt women-born-women, often citing the case of Kimberly Nixon, a transwoman who sued the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter on grounds of sexual discrimination after having been told she could not work there because she lacked the necessary life experience to counsel women who had been raped. Radical feminists, including Lynne, argued that even though it could be claimed that Nixon was discriminated against, it was wrong to take much-needed funding from a women's shelter (although to be fair, Nixon might have taken the money from the settlement and given it right back to the shelter; I'm not sure). Lynne participated in discussions about breasts, vaginas, and menstruation, and everyone assumed that she was speaking as one who had grown up female, until several Ms. boards posters, myself included, received an email from someone claiming to know Lynne. This person said that Lynne had had sexual reassignment surgery in the 1960s and had been lying to all of us about who she really was. I thought the claim was absurd but decided that even if it were true, it didn't change my high regard for Lynne. The Ms. boards were a hostile place for transwomen, and besides, Lynne did not consider herself a transwoman. After much demand for answers, Lynne admitted that she had had sexual reassignment surgery, but insisted that she had been born a woman, even though this was the case. Lynne's outing resulted in hurt feelings all around: some posters were angry and tried to make Lynne leave the boards, taunting her about the penis she used to have and telling her viciously that she'd never be a woman, some expressed feelings of violation similar to those experienced by Julie's friends, and Lynne herself was devastated.

The third hoax was exposed in June of this year. From September 11, 2001 to June 8, 2004, Layne Johnson, a 27-year-old woman in Minnesota, kept a weblog called "Plain Layne." The weblog was read by about 5000 people per day and had been featured on "best weblogs" lists. Readers regularly posted comments under Layne's posts, reacting to the vivid stories of events in her life. Layne wrote about being raped, an experience that contributed to her coming out as a lesbian. She got engaged to a woman, but the relationship ended because her partner was tired of Layne's writing about her for all to see. Layne later started a relationship with a woman from work, which also ended badly. Layne wrote about meeting her birth parents, her job in information technology working for a large corporation, and her active sex life. After Layne took down her weblog without warning on June 9, 2004, readers started to get suspicious and began trying to find out more personal details about Layne. Blogger Mitch Berg claimed to know who Plain Layne really was and started to compare the details of this man's life to Layne's, and they were too compellingly similar to ignore (Sorgatz, 2004). Plain Layne turned out to be Odin Soli, a 35-year-old man who lives in Woodbury, Minnesota with his wife and two children and works as a lawyer. In an interview, he claimed that Plain Layne was simply an experiment in "creative interactive fiction" (Sorgatz, 2004). When readers emailed Layne with questions or posted comments, Soli's character had to evolve, to state her opinions, to provide more detail about her life. Again, this hoax aroused suspicion among some bloggers and others who happened to hear the story. The question is again raised: How do you know if anyone is who she says she is online? Other hoaxes have taken place, but I highlight these three because they are in some way related to gender presentation and call gender into question. In two cases, a man is posing as a woman, and in one, a woman who has had sexual reassignment surgery is allowing the community to believe she has not had the surgery, which, to the radical and second wave feminists in the community, prevents her from being a woman born woman. As I stated earlier, in internet studies and studies in computer-mediated communication, theorists have arrived at the rough consensus that identity -- whether online or not -- is multiple and shifting, that it's "personae all the way down" with no authentic self (Stone, 1995, p. 81). Most ethnographers of online communities argue that possible deception is not reason enough not to study groups of people (women, African Americans, white men) on the Internet. However, scholars in other disciplines sometimes look askance at internet research because you don't, in fact, ever really know if someone is who she says she is. Sure, identity is fluid and partial, and the way I present myself online is not a completely accurate representation of me, but sometimes internet users purposefully create identities that are different from their face-to-face identities in most respects. Admittedly, my claim that scholars who do not do internet research are concerned about authentication of identity is only based on conversations I have had with colleagues in various disciplines, including Women's Studies, about my work, but such conversations have convinced me of the need for not only a theory of online identity as has been set forth by Turkle, Stone, Hine, and others, but a feminist theory of interpreting gender online.

Interpreting Gender Online: The Need for Feminist Theory

When interpreting gender online, the interpretation will almost always be based only on textual play: what the writer says about himself or herself and any images or other information he or she may post. Previous theory of online identity must be remembered; indeed, online personae are just that, personae, and several personae can reside in the same body. Elaborate hoaxes will continue to take place and be exposed periodically, and I am not arguing that the theory of gender I will use in my internet research is in any way a safeguard that will keep researchers from getting taken in by a fictional character. My aim is simply to articulate the theoretical underpinnings that inform why I will interpret specific textual and visual cues as one gender category or another.

In my discipline, which I take to be an overlapping blend of rhetoric, composition studies, and technical communication, most of the research that has been done on gender and computer-mediated communication has been classroom research, such as how female and male students behave in online class discussions; therefore, researchers have been able to interact with participants both online and face-to-face. Other scholars, sometimes using the theories of Cixous, Kristeva, and Irigaray, have engaged in inquiry into hypertextual forms themselves, arguing that hypertext does not follow the traditional, masculine, linear form of argument and that collaborative hypertexts decenter masculine notions of authorship and textual authority. Still other scholars have critiqued the gendered cultural tradition out of which computer technology emerges, pointing out the exclusion of women from math, the sciences, and technological production. In most cases, women have not been encouraged to play with technology, e.g. computer games, and as a result, women can sometimes feel alienated from the computer, and women's computer access may be limited in this way.

For the most part, in rhetorical studies, interpreting gender online using only textual and visual cues has not been a central theme in feminist research of computer-mediated communication, although I would not make that claim for feminist research of computer-mediated communication in other disciplines. When researchers in rhetorical studies interpret gender online, they do so on the practical basis of self-identification. In their study of gender and weblogs, Herring, Kouper, Scheidt, & Wright (2004) clearly explain how they classified bloggers as men or women:

Gender of blog authors was determined by names, graphical representations (if present), and the content of the blog entries (e.g., reference to “my husband” resulted in a “female” gender classification, assuming other indicators were consistent). Age of blog authors was determined by information explicitly provided by the authors (e.g., in profiles) or inferred from the content of the blog entries (e.g., reference to attending high school resulted in a “teen” age classification). The gender of the blog author was evident in 94%, and the age of the author in 90%, of the blogs in the combined samples.

Herring et al. acknowledge gender norms and how bloggers present a particular gender online, but they do not discuss specific feminist theories that inform their interpretation; in other words, they do not provide a theoretical rationale of their norm-influenced interpretive choices.

Rickly (1999), in her study of discussions in four writing classes on a synchronous electronic discussion network, opted to use the Bem Sex Role Inventory (see Appendix A) to study gender in computer-mediated communication. Using textual analysis, primarily word counts, Rickly found that as a whole, students participate in electronic discussions more than traditional oral discussions, but that students who tested masculine in the Bem Sex Role Inventory participated more in the electronic environment than the students who tested feminine. Rickly argues for using the BSRI instead of testing on the basis of biological sex because “[t]he field, as a whole seems to embrace social construction; we need to look beyond standard measures of biological sex, then, to measures of socially constructed gender if we are to gain an accurate view into what occurs in the classroom” (p. 138).

Comstock (2001), in her study of grrrl zines, approaches gender from a third wave feminist perspective, carefully pointing out that she is not using the term "women" (or grrrls) to mean one group with common attributes, which often is hegemonic, taking white middle-class women's agendas and experiences to be the norm. Comstock elides the question of interpreting gender; rather than stating her theoretical assumptions about gender, she only writes that she is not using the term "women" to mean one set of attributes, and she seems to rely on self-identification only as a gender indicator, which, I would argue, is somewhat problematic. Comstock is interested in grrrl zine authorship, which helps young women to participate in a public sphere and which "is often articulated at the site of the traumatized, adolescent female body" and embodied in narratives of abuse and body image (2001, p. 388). The authors of these zines write from their bodily experiences, but the connection between the physical body and its gendered stylizations remains unarticulated.

In a study I did of gender and blogging communities in 2002 and early 2003, I interpreted the gender of bloggers using textual and visual cues in an approach similar to Herring et al.'s, but as I was studying a community called Blog Sisters, I also invoked community norms:

[The site administrators of Blog Sisters have] no way to verify whether their members are biologically female. When someone wants to join Blog Sisters, he or she writes an email to Elaine Frankonis, the president of Blog Sisters, and Frankonis and possibly other founding members of Blog Sisters, such as Jeneane Sessum, look at that person’s blog and decide if that person will be accepted as a woman by the community. If one is a member of Blog Sisters, or a blogger presenting as a woman at least eighteen years of age, I am considering that person a woman.

At the time of the study, I was using a common-sense, pragmatic approach to gender online, based mostly on my experiences in online communities. Gurak (2001), in developing her idea of cyberliteracy, emphasizes the need to become critical readers of the ways people communicate online, paying special attention to sarcasm, satire, and potential dishonesty in presentation. In feminist communities, for example, users become finely attuned to the ways in which new users talk about sex and pornography in case the new users are men trying to manipulate the women into talking about sex. A colleague of mine who studies disability online says that disability fetishists who join online communities for people with disabilities will ask questions such as, "How do you get undressed at night?" and members of the community will be quick to question the new member's authenticity as a disabled person. While community norms and textual and visual cues are a practical way to ascertain gender online, I see a need to connect these online gender norms to feminist theory. The concepts I have found the most helpful are performativity and seriality.

Performativity and Seriality

In my dissertation, I will be studying gender as it applies to weblogs kept by mothers. I am interested in the ways these bloggers use weblogs to form networks; as Comstock (2001) argues, grrrl zine networks act as "subaltern counterpublics," and I would argue that mothers' weblogs do the same. These bloggers engage in discussions on an array of topics, including breastfeeding, adoption, infertility, schooling (and homeschooling and unschooling), child custody battles, reproductive rights, parental leave policies, and the role of parenting in culture and public policy. They are, obviously, speaking about their experiences as parents. Scott (1991) problematizes the notion of experience by showing the tendency on the part of historians to use experience as evidence in their studies, a practice which naturalizes, or reifies, discursively-produced identities such as gay, lesbian, woman, Black, and transgender. Such histories of difference “take as self-evident the identities of those whose experience is being documented and thus naturalize their difference” (p. 777). I hope that by foregrounding of the historical and discursive construction of “mother” in Western culture, I will be able to avoid the mistake of reifying the category. In my project, I intend to problematize "women's experience," particularly mothers' experience, and instead foreground that discursive formations produced the category "woman," and the category "mother" with all its implications, and I want to highlight that the experiences of mothers, including those of never feeling like a good-enough mother, isolation, depression, and fatigue, are the devastating effects of such constructions.

While I see value in the current approaches to interpreting gender online in my field -- the practical approach of looking for textual and visual cues, the reliance on self-identification, and the use of the Bem Sex Role Inventory to determine the masculine and feminine attributes of participants, I find that none of these approaches sufficiently foregrounds the discursive construction of the category "woman." To get to the discursive formations that produced the categories "woman" and "mother," I plan to rely heavily on Butler's theory of performativity, which characterizes gender as the repeated stylizations of the body. Butler claims that neither gender nor sex is natural; they are only naturalized through repetition and people's belief in the correct performance of their designated sex and gender: their designated term in the man/woman binary. Butler argues that there is no authentic, innate man or woman behind or before the entry into culture, society, and language and that we can only know the physical body through language. She locates the "girling" and "boying" of subjects in a culture with powerful heterosexual norms. "Compulsory heterosexuality," Butler posits, "often presumes that there is first a sex that is expressed through a gender and then through a sexuality," and she suggests that "it may now be necessary fully to invert and displace that operation of thought" (1991, p. 28-29). Biological sex is treated as an origin, and heterosexuality is assumed to be natural because it is based on biological sex. Instead, Butler argues, sex and gender are effects of heteronormativity: ways the heterosexual norm legitimates itself (1991, p. 29). The operation of gender is persuasively illustrated in Butler's theory of performativity, and in my research, I will foreground this operation as the apparatus that produces gender and all its norms and posturings, including what one sees online and interprets as feminine: feminine names, self-identification as woman, feminine imagery (e.g. pastel colors, drawings and/or photographs of bodies with makeup, feminine hairstyles, and feminine clothes. For examples, see Appendix B).

Performativity provides a viable theoretical rationale for interpreting the gender of the individual blogger, but I agree with many feminist theorists that politically, it is necessary to be able to think about women as a group in some sense in order to make claims "about the way social life is and ought to be" (Young, 1994, p. 717). I will be considering women, specifically mothers, as a group in my research. Speaking about women as a group with common experience, oppressions, and attributes, of course, carries with it several problems. First, conceptualizing women as a group can be normative and exclusionary, often taking white, heterosexual, middle-class women's concerns and experiences as the norm and excluding lesbians, women of color, and working-class women. Such a conceptualization can also take women as a prediscursive, "already constituted group," lead to a view of all women as "equally powerless and oppressed victims," and perpetuate the creation of other homogenous categories such as "Third World women" (Mohanty, 1991, cited in Young, 1994, p. 715). Young's theory of gender as seriality has been helpful to me in my thinking about mothers as a series. Young bases her theory of seriality on Sartre's distinction between group and series. A group is composed of members who consciously identify as part of the group -- people who make an "'ethical' choice" to "avow the category" (Butler, 1991, p. 16). Members of a series, by contrast, "are united passively by the objects around which their actions are oriented or by the objectified results of the material effects of the actions of the others" (Young, 1991, p. 724). Mothers, then, are a series by virtue of the fact that they are a part of the "milieu of action" associated with childrearing: the domestic setting, with children, children's toys, clothes, bottles, diapers, and other "practico-inert objects." In blogging communities, bloggers usually identify themselves as members of a group by joining blog rings and linking to other blogs by self-identified mothers who write about parenting. However, I am beginning to realize how important a role the notion of gender as series will play in my research design.

Conclusion: Operationalizing Gender in My Research Design

Young emphasizes that, from the point of view of social practices and objects, anyone can be in a particular series; the members of a series are interchangeable. Anyone in the childrearing environment -- the practico-inert reality of mothers -- can be considered part of the series. The point I wish to make is this: Parent is not just an identitarian category; it is also a job. To revisit Butler momentarily, when an infant is gendered, he or she is brought into discursive norms of heterosexuality and expected to style his or her body in the manner that befits his or her gender. However, materialist feminism would emphasize the role of the division of labor in this operation: Ebert (1992) points out that when a girl is girled, to use Butler's terms, she is assigned a role in the labor system of enforced heterosexuality; specifically, she is expected to do the work meted out to women in a system of kinship, including cooking, cleaning, and childrearing. Although she may choose not to engage in such work, the norm is still present.

The matter of labor will be important in my research design, as I am studying the weblogs of the people who do the work of raising children. Because of this, I think that Ebert's theory of "resistance postmodernism" will be relevant in my research Resistance postmodernism "contends that textuality and difference -- the relation of signifier and signified -- are themselves the site of social conflict and struggle" (Ebert, 1993, p. 17). The sign "is always situated in the socio-economic and power relations of a specific social formation," and "the prevailing ideology and social contradictions (arising from labor relations) insist on a particular signified" (Ebert, 1993, p. 17). Given the insights of Young and Ebert, I will operationalize gender in my research by focusing on the work parents do in their practico-inert realities. Therefore, I plan to include weblogs by fathers, especially stay-at-home fathers, in my research, as they're doing the labor traditionally associated with mothers. Because they are mothers if one takes the category "mother" as a series, my categorization of men as "mothers" does not require men to identify as mothers or to have breasts or vaginas.

Appendix A: Bem Sex Role Inventory

(from http://www.neiu.edu/~tschuepf/bsri.html)

  1. self reliant
  2. yielding
  3. helpful
  4. defends own beliefs
  5. cheerful
  6. moody
  7. independent
  8. shy
  9. conscientious
  10. athletic
  11. affectionate
  12. theatrical
  13. assertive
  14. flatterable
  15. happy
  16. strong personality
  17. loyal
  18. unpredictable
  19. forceful
  20. feminine
  21. reliable
  22. analytical
  23. sympathetic
  24. jealous
  25. leadership ability
  26. sensitive to other's needs
  27. truthful
  28. willing to take risks
  29. understanding
  30. secretive
  31. makes decisions easily
  32. compassionate
  33. sincere
  34. self-sufficient
  35. eager to soothe hurt feelings
  36. conceited
  37. dominant
  38. soft spoken
  39. likable
  40. masculine
  41. warm
  42. solemn
  43. willing to take a stand
  44. tender
  45. friendly
  46. aggressive
  47. gullible
  48. inefficient
  49. acts as a leader
  50. childlike
  51. adaptable
  52. individualistic
  53. does not use harsh language
  54. unsystematic
  55. competitive
  56. loves children
  57. tactful
  58. ambitious
  59. gentle
  60. conventional

Appendix B: Banner Images from Weblogs

From Zoot (http://www.imthezoot.com/index.php):

blond woman in front of TV with remote

From Feministe (http://feministe.us/blog/):

madonna and child


Butler, J. (1991). Imitation and gender insubordination. In D. Fuss (Ed.), Inside/out: Lesbian theories/gay theories (pp. 13-31). New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1999). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. Tenth anniversary ed. New York: Routledge.

Comstock, M. (2001). Grrrl zine networks: Re-composing spaces of authority, gender, and culture. JAC, 21, 386-409.

Ebert, T.L. (1992). The matter of materialism. In D. Morton (Ed.), The material queer: A lesbigay cultural studies reader. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Ebert, T.L. (1993). Ludic feminism, the body, performance, and labor: Bringing materialism back into feminist cultural studies. Cultural Critique, 23, 5-50.

Gurak, L.J. (2001). Cyberliteracy: Navigating the Internet with awareness. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Herring, S.C., Kouper, I., Scheidt, L.A., & Wright, E.L. (2004). Women and children last: The discursive construction of weblogs. In L.J. Gurak, S. Antonijevic, L. Johnson, C. Ratliff, & J. Reyman (Eds.), Into the blogosphere: Rhetoric, community, and culture of weblogs. Retrieved August 13, 2004, from

Hine, C. (2000). Virtual ethnography. London: Sage.

Naples, N.A. (2003). Feminism and method: Ethnography, discourse analysis, and activist research. New York: Routledge.

Rickly, R. (1999). The gender gap in computers and composition research: must boys be boys? Computers and Composition, 16, 121-140.

Scott, J.W. (1991). The evidence of experience. Critical Inquiry, 17, 773-797.

Sorgatz, R. (2004, June 29). Girl, interrupted. Retrieved August 14, 2004, from

Stone, A.R. (1995). The war of desire and technology at the close of the mechanical age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Young, I.M. (1994). Gender as seriality: Thinking about women as a social collective. Signs, 19, 713-738.