Gender-Bending in Cyberspace

From Glen to Glenda and back again . . . is it possible?

| September/October 1998

Gender Section:

The Gender Blur
Where does biology end and society take over?

Drag Net
From glen to glenda and back it possible?

Indefinable Heroes
The ancient art of gender-bending

This time the revolution will be absolutely fabulous!

Excerpt: The GLAM Manifesto

PoMosexual Pioneer
What good is theory when you're not getting laid?

Gender Aptitude Test
Just WHO do you think you are?

Nowhere on earth is gender as fluid as it is in cyberspace. In the world of MUDs, or multiuser domains, players role-play and imagine, manipulating fantasy-based characters unbound by traditional gender hierarchies. In this complex, multilayered online universe, impersonation is the norm; players often pretend to be another gender or even invent new ones.

When I first logged on to a MUD, I named and described a character but forgot to give it a gender. I was struggling with the technical aspects of the MUD universe—the difference between various commands such as "saying" and "emoting," "paging" and "whispering"—and gender was the last thing on my mind. This rapidly changed when a male-presenting character named Jiffy asked me if I were "really an it." I experienced an unpleasurable sense of disorientation that immediately gave way to an unfamiliar sense of freedom.

When Jiffy's question appeared on my screen, I was standing in a room of LambdaMOO—one of the first very popular MUDs—filled with characters engaged in sexual banter, Animal House–style. The innuendos, double entendres, and leering invitations were scrolling by at a fast clip; I felt awkward, as if I were at a party I'd been invited to by mistake. It reminded me of kissing games in junior high, where it was both awful to be chosen and awful not to be chosen. Now, on the MUD, I had a new option: Playing a male might allow me to feel less out of place. People would expect me to make the first move, and I could choose not to. I could "lurk," stand on the sidelines and observe the action. Boys, after all, were not considered prudes if they were too cool to play kissing games. They were not categorized as wallflowers if they held back and didn't ask girls to dance. They could simply be shy in a manly way, cool, above it all.

Two days later I was back in the MUD. After I typed the command that joined me, in Boston, to the computer in California where the MUD resided, I discovered I'd lost my password. This meant I couldn't play my own character but had to log on as a guest. As such, I was assigned a color: magenta. As "Magenta_guest," I was again without gender. While I struggled with basic commands, other players were typing messages for all to see: "Magenta_guest gazes hot and enraptured at the approach of Fire_Eater." Again I was tempted to hide from the frat-party atmosphere by passing as a man.

Much later, when I did play a male character, I finally experienced the permission to move freely that I had always imagined to be men's birthright. Not only was I approached less frequently, but I found it easier to respond to unwanted overtures with aplomb, saying something like, "That's flattering, Ribald_Temptress, but I'm otherwise engaged." My sense of freedom didn't involve just a different attitude about sexual advances—which now seemed less threatening. As a woman, I have a hard time deflecting a request for conversation by asserting my own agenda. As a MUD male, doing so (nicely) seemed natural; it never struck me as dismissive or rude. In this way, I was learning about the construction of gender—and learning about myself.

It was easy to see that virtual gender-swapping teaches the first lesson of gender studies: the difference between sex as biology and gender as a social construct. When a man goes online as a woman, he soon finds that maintaining this fiction is difficult. To pass as a woman for any length of time requires understanding just how gender inflects speech, manner, and the interpretation of experience. Women attempting to pass as men face the same kind of challenge. One says: "It is not so easy. You have to think about it, to make up a life, a job, a set of reactions." Pavel Curtis, the founder of LambdaMOO, has observed that when a female-presenting character is called something like FabulousHotBabe, there's usually a real-life man behind the mask. Another experienced MUDder shares this piece of folklore: "If a female-presenting character's description of her beauty goes on for more than two paragraphs, [the player behind the character] is sure to be an ugly woman."

rock chew
9/10/2008 10:49:28 AM