Jenny, Whitney, and I were talking on Twitter about Jenny’s recent post on the gender politics of a Microsoft Windows 8 Surface TV advertisement. I want to recap that conversation because it sets up some interesting questions about the relationship between contemporary gender politics and contemporary technology: If Jenny’s post described the gendering of technological devices, how do these attitudes toward technology in turn inform our judgments of human women? How do gendered evaluations of digital media frame our attitudes toward women, especially insofar as women use and are represented in digital media?
Jenny identifies two competing concepts of femininity at work in the ad. “The Windows 8 tablet,” she argues, “is penetrable, easy to display, easy to use, easy to manipulate, cheap to own.” This easiness is, in the context of the ad, a selling point, an “advantage,” as Jenny puts it. Siri, on the other hand, is “undesirable in her waning capacity to be penetrated, used, manipulated, displayed, and owned.”
I think this gendering is racialized and classed. Siri, the more expensive, more tastefully-designed (i.e., “prettier”) device, is inaccessible to most red-blooded users (men), men who work for a living, men of action. Siri is untouchable but you can put your paws all over her darker, cheaper analog. Yeah, darker. They make black iPads (I own one), but here Siri appears in white; you could even argue her voice ‘reads’ white. So the ad pits the high-class white frigid beauty against the cheaper, more colorful (black and turquoise), penetrable (by USB) and satisfying Surface.
Traditionally, virginal Siri would be valued more than “easy” Surface. However, as Jenny mentions in her initial post, ideals about femininity are changing: for example, “strong is the new skinny.” We don’t want women who are passive and fragile–we want them to “lean in,” to take charge of themselves and their sexuality. “Real” women aren’t blank slates, and Siri is more or less a tabula rasa. Surface, however, is like the Gaga, Ke$ha, or perhaps even Miley of tablet computing–easy, bold, unafraid to get down to the dirty work, perhaps a little wild and over the top. But all this character is acceptable because it’s in service of somebody else’s pleasure and/or profit. Surface may be a girl gone wild, but we don’t want her to go so wild that she gives us a BSOD.
So the Surface advertisement applies contemporary gender ideals to digital technology. But how do these same attitudes impact women, particularly the women who use this tech?
Traditionally, women’s behavior is regulated through virgin/whore dichotomy: “good” women are pure, abstinent, even frigid; “bad” women are used, appetitive, unruly. But this ideal is changing. We used to idealize feminine purity because women were treated, in patriarchy, like private property. As various IP scholars have argued, private property, conventionally construed, could only be used “exclusively”: if I eat this apple on the counter, that excludes the possibility of you eating it. Similarly, it was thought once one man “used” a woman, she was effectively used up; others could use her, but they’d be consuming a second-rate, degraded product. But, of course, digital property is non-exclusive: I can listen to an mp3, and so can you, and so can anyone else. My use doesn’t exclude or degrade your use. Post-feminist society thinks of women and women’s sexuality in similar terms: men’s/patriarchy’s use of women is non-exclusive.
We don’t expect women to be sexually or technologically “pure” anymore. (Similarly, we expect white women to “cut loose” a bit, Eat-Pray-Love-style, augmenting their whiteness with a bit of colorful, exotic otherness.) If they abstain–from sex, from social media use, from posting pics and selfies–then we can’t get any value or enjoyment from them, we can’t use them for our own pleasure and profit. So we actually expect women to seek out (and perhaps even enjoy, or at least perform enjoyment) sexual and technological self-expression.* But, of course, not too much and not of the wrong kind. Sexually assertive women are acceptable, but only if their sexual expression can be enjoyed by men/patriarchy. Similarly, we expect women to expose themselves on social media, but only to the extent that their expression is consumable in normative terms and amplifies men’s/patriarchy’s profit and pleasure. Women who appear on digital media in ways that are thought to be excessive are effective slut-shamed and victim-blamed. “Good” women don’t protect their purity; they carefully manage their availability. And this availability is not just about looks, it’s about interface and user experience. We don’t want pretty, we want fun. (And, as a side note, this is perhaps one reason why the idea of feminist killjoying is gaining so much traction.) “Bad” women have too much fun, and are thus seen as no fun. They’re bent on enjoying themselves, and this often frustrates our attempts to use them as vehicles for our own entertainment. So, in the era of non-exclusive property, the virgin/whore dichotomy mutates into a fun/killjoy one.
* Women with lots of privilege can abstain from trading on their sexual and social media capital, because they have other capital to leverage. For racially, sexually, socioeconomically, and otherwise precarious women, such exposure might come at too high an opportunity cost.
Robin is on Twitter (@doctaj), but she might not be too much fun.
Elizabethe Payne — October 5, 2013
Very interesting. Will be teaching this next week in my Goodgirls, Sluts & Dykes class.
In Their Words » Cyborgology — October 5, 2013
[...] “Surface, however, is like the Gaga, Ke$ha, or perhaps even Miley of tablet computing” [...]
ArtSmart Consult — October 5, 2013
What if surface is a guy?
Em — October 9, 2013
Interesting read. I find it pretty sad that women are expected to expose themselves via social media, selfies, etc., esp. in a sexual manner. There are plenty of women who are uncomfortable with showing themselves off, but that doesn't make them any less "enjoyable" than those who do. It's just their preference. The same deal with women who expose themselves excessively and are slut-shamed, victim-blamed, or considered "not fun" as a result.
But, what makes this even more sad is that, from what I've seen (and keep in mind I seldom use social media, so I may be completely off about this), this isn't so much the case with men as it is with women. I'm not saying this expectation does not apply to men, just that such an issue isn't seen as often. There are men who will expose themselves as much, if not more than some of the slut-shamed women or vice versa, yet they do not get called out for it. Of course, I'm not saying they should, as two wrongs don't make a right. What I'm trying to say is that if men do not have to put up with this expectation as much as women, then why should women be subjected to such? Obviously, giving genders and gender stereotypes to technologies can affect peoples' expectations of those genders, so perhaps such should be fixed. That being said, I can see issues with this. Gender equality isn't something easily attainable, so it may take a long time (or never) before this sort of issue gets resolved.
Emily — October 9, 2013
It seems kind of like a three-step forward, two-step back thing to me. We're getting past the idea that the 'use' of women is exclusive, and that their value doesn't diminish with 'use,' but there's still the idea that they DO have value, to men, that men are allowed to utilize. We've just shifted the virgin/whore dichotomy a little. It's a shift in the right direction, I think - that women aren't a blank slate to be painted upon, but people, with their own colors and unique oddities - but it seems like the step forward has just been absorbed to be used against women...
Ell The Man — October 9, 2013
This is a very interesting way of interpreting the "gender" of technological tools. It never crossed my mind that there might be such distinct connections from technology to actual women. I wonder if companies think about this/how much they think about this, and what their underlying intentions might be beyond the obvious. In my Ethics class we have been learning about respecting people and privacy, and it causes me to wonder if giving technology a gender is really ethical or does it just create false conceptions about how it is designed to interact.