The Gender Blur
GLAM I Am
Gender Aptitude Test
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."
Case, a 34-year-old industrial designer who is happily married to a coworker, told me that he currently plays on several MUDs as a female character. When I ask whether MUDding ever causes him emotional pain, he says, "Yes, but also the kind of learning that comes from hard times.
I'm having pain in my playing now, he continues. "The woman I'm playing in MedievalMUSH [her name is Mairead] is having an interesting relationship with a fellow. Mairead is a lawyer. It costs so much to go to law school that it has to be paid for by a corporation or a noble house. A man she met and fell in love with was a nobleman. He paid for her law school. He bought my contract. [Note that Case slips into the first person here.] Now he wants to marry me, although I'm a commoner. I finally said yes. I try to talk to him about the fact that I'm essentially his property. He says, "Oh no, no, no . . . We'll pick you up, set you on your feet, the whole world is open to you.
"But every time I assert myself, I get pushed down. It's an incredibly psychologically damaging thing to do to a person. And the very thing that he liked about her—that she was independent, strong, said what was on her mind—it is all being bled out of her."
Case looks at me with a wry smile and sighs, "A woman's life."
Case has played Mairead for nearly a year, but even a brief experience playing a character of another gender can be evocative. William James said that philosophy is the art of imagining alternatives. Virtual communities can test philosophy about gender issues via action; it's a form of consciousness-raising. For example, on many MUDs, offering technical assistance has become a common way in which male characters "purchase" female attention, analogous to picking up the check at a real-life dinner. In real life, our expectations about sex roles (who offers help, who buys dinner, who brews the coffee) can become so ingrained that we no longer notice them. On MUDs, expectations are expressed in visible textual actions, widely witnessed and openly discussed.
When men playing females are plied with unrequested offers of help on MUDs, they often remark that such chivalries communicate a belief in female incompetence. When women play males on MUDs and realize that they are no longer being offered help, some say those offers of help may well have led them to believe they needed it. As a woman, "first you ask for help because you think it will be expedient," says a college sophomore, "then you realize that you aren't developing the skills to figure things out for yourself."
Shakespeare used the evocative nature of gender-swapping as a plot device for reframing and reconsidering personal and political choices. As You Like It is a classic example: The comedy uses gender-swapping to reveal identity and increase the complexity of relationships. In the play, Rosalind, the duke's daughter, is exiled from the court of her uncle Frederick, who has usurped her father's throne. Frederick's daughter, Rosalind's cousin Celia, flees with Rosalind to the magical forest of Arden. When Rosalind remarks that they might be in danger because "beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold," Celia suggests that they rub dirt on their faces and wear drab clothing, a tactic—becoming unattractive—that often allows women greater social ease. Rosalind takes the idea a step further: They will dress as men.
The disguise is both physical ("A gallant curtle-ax on my thigh, / A boar spear at my thigh") and emotional ("and—in my heart, / Lie there what hidden women's fear there will").
Rosalind does not endorse an essential difference betwen men and women; rather, she suggests that men routinely adopt the same kind of pose she is now choosing. Biological men have to construct male gender just as biological women have to construct female gender. By making themselves unattractive, Rosalind and Celia end up less feminine; they deconstruct their female gender. Both posing as men and deconstructing femininity are games that female MUDders play.
In addition to virtual cross-dressing and creating character descriptions that deconstruct gender, MUDders swap genders as double agents. That is, men play women pretending to be men, and women play men pretending to be women. Shakespeare's characters play these games as well. When Rosalind flees Frederick's court, she is in love with Orlando. In the forest of Arden, disguised as the boy Ganymede, she encounters Orlando, himself lovesick for Rosalind. As Ganymede, Rosalind says she will try to cure Orlando of his love by playing Rosalind, pointing out the flaws of femininity as she does so. In current stagings, Rosalind usually is played by a woman who, at this point in the play, pretends to be a man who pretends to be a woman.
When Rosalind/Ganymede and Orlando meet "man to man," they are able to speak easily, free of the courtly conventions that constrain communications between men and women. In this way, the play suggests that donning a mask—adopting a persona—can be a step toward a deeper truth. This is also how MUDders regard their experiences as virtual selves.
One young woman, Zoe, describes her virtual experience: "I played a man for two years. As a man, I could be firm and people would think I was a great wizard. As a woman, drawing the line and standing firm has always made me feel like a bitch, and, actually, I feel that people saw me as one, too. As a man, I was liberated from all that. I learned from my mistakes. I got better at being firm but not rigid. I practiced, safe from criticism."
What Zoe's and Case's stories have in common is that a virtual gender swap gave them a greater sense of their emotional range. There was a chance to discover, as Rosalind and Orlando did in the Forest of Arden, that for both sexes, gender is constructed.
Having literally written our gender-swapping online personae into existence, they can be a kind of Rorschach. We can use them to become more aware of what we project into everyday life, and the ways those projections affect others. This means that we can use the virtual to reflect constructively on the real.
Indeed, in my experience, life in cyberspace can provide very serious play. We take it lightly at our risk. And in my research I have found that people who cultivate an awareness of what stands behind the screen personae they craft do best in using virtual experience for personal transformation. Those who make the most of their life on the screen come to it in a spirit of self-reflection.
Sherry Turkle is a professor of the sociology of science at MIT and a licensed clinical psychologist. She is author of Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (Simon and Schuster, 1995).