Thursday, September 18, 2008

Review of Cyberfeminism in Northern Lights: Digital Media and Gender in a Nordic Context

This review will be coming out in a few months and once it does I'm not supposed to publish it elsewhere for a year! So here's a sneak preview...

Malin Sveningsson Elm & Jenny Sundén (Eds.) (2007). Cyberfeminism in Northern Lights: Digital Media and Gender in a Nordic Context. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. isbn: 9781847180896. UK: £34.99 US: $69.99 295 pages

Malin Sveningsson Elm and Jenny Sundén launch this collection with the claim that other research on gender and digital media has been US and UK-centric, taking the experiences of people in those countries as universal and ignoring differences in the construction of gender and in the actual living conditions of men and women in other countries. As they point out, this blinkered view of gender and technology, and of cyber-feminism in particular, parallels the development of feminism itself. It is discouraging to think that the realization of a narrow view in the general case did not prevent a similar error in subsequent cyber-feminist studies, but this book offers a good example of the work needed to clarify our understanding. Further gaps the authors seek to fill are in providing a more critical view of technology and most importantly, solid empirical research on the intersections of gender and digital media.

The ten chapters are divided into three parts: “Sexualities, Bodies and Desire,” Gender Identities, Performance, and Presentation of Self,” and “Gendered Computing and Computer Use.” The cohesion even within sections is a bit loose because the editors aimed to include research from each of the Scandinavian countries, scrupulously avoiding the essentialism they critique. One common theme though is the ways discourse around gender and technology tends to make some users and practices visible and others invisible, and the way it constructs some users and practices as normal or positive, while others are placed firmly in a deviant or negative category. Because, as argued in the introduction, both gender and technology are socially constructed, understanding these discursive practices is essential to understanding the ways men and women perceive and use technology.

In Part One, Jenny Sunden considers “intersectionality,” which

has come to stand for research that explores the ways in which power relations, constituted in and through socio-cultural categories, such as gender, sexuality, race, and class, co-construct one another in multiple ways (32)

and how it may be applied to the study of technology and cyber-culture. This chapter serves to further illustrate the need for country specific work because by definition, an intersectionalist approach would be based in this specificity.

The next two chapters by Susanna Pasonen and Janne C.H. Bromseth are even more specific. Chapter Two explores what Finnish online pornography reveals about definitions of some sexual practices as good and others as less good. Passonen draws our attention past the usual critique of heternormativity to point out that pornography has been largely ignored by Nordic internet researchers because it is part of less good sexual practices, and that further, porn is inaccurately perceived as homogenous, thus making some sexual practices invisible and inaccessible to discussion or study. Chapter Three follows a debate that occurred in an online lesbian and feminist community over who counted as a “real” lesbian, demonstrating that in online communities as in offline, “hegemonies of identity, gender,and sexuality are also reproduced (93).” In particular, Bromseth teases out the discursive practices of online gender construction, and the ways this is shaped by the Scandinavian context which is characterized by (among other things) steady government promotion of equal rights, and a less adversarial relationship between men and women than found in studies of online culture in the US.

Part Two offers three studies of gender performance in online communities, some in which the performance is explicitly stated to be opposing stereotypes, and others in which representations of gender roles are conscious, but aimed at other purposes, such as what is believed to be historically accurate. These chapters are valuable in the way they document the actual practices of online community members, and in the close readings they offer of websites. For example, Sveningsson Elm's study of Lunarstorm in Chapter Four illuminates the interaction between users, culturally bound gender stereotypes, and the hetero-normative design of the social networking site. Particularly interesting are the analyses of what information is included or excluded from personal pages, which often point toward stereotypes that are unconsciously fulfilled by the creator.

Charlotte Kroløkke studies players of the Danish online game Powerbabes in Chapter Five; in this game all characters are female, but players are both male and female. As Kroløkke finds, they find ways to co-opt the games affordances and both feminist agency and cultural production can be seen. In the last chapter of the section, Six, Åsberg and Axelsson analyze the websites of several Swedish historical reenactment groups, finding that in some cases a display of female confidence and agency expressed through the pride in intricate details of costume and assertive poses for the camera. But perhaps most striking here was the realization that in many cases women were the ones behind the digital cameras and creating the websites.

Finally in the last section, four chapters focus on gendered use of computers themselves. AnnBritt Enochsson studied how Swedish boys and girls used the internet to determine what differences and similarities were present. She found that while boys and girls spent about the same amount of time online (182), and often might engage in similar activities(188), these activities were described differently by the media, in the structure of research studies, and in the accounts of users themselves(184, 190), suggesting the differences have more to do with culturally bound expectations of boys and girls, men and women, than with the actual computer use itself.

Chapter Eight offers a history of computer adoption and appropriation in Norway, from 1980-2000. Hilde Corneliussen teases out the discourse used to promote computer use and create a consumer market, and also reveals how this discourse depended on a highly gendered rhetorical frame. She identifies discursive practices that have favored boys and men: women who were highly competent were ignored if they weren't programmers, while men who did not use computers tended to regard that as a valid choice rather than a personal failure and so presented themselves as potential users, rather than non-users (215). Again it seems that the biggest differences may be in the way we talk about computers and gender.

In Chapter Nine, a study of gender and surveillance technology in Iceland first argues that "if men predominate in engineering and the production of technologies," ... they may "focus on problems of primary interest to males (226)." If women do have different preferences in the way they use technology, then male dominance may be self-replicating. The analysis of surveillance technology also revealed that because the division of labor is highly gendered, men and women were observed in very different ways that usually led to women feeling more powerless and anxious (237-238).

The section concludes with a chapter exploring women in programming culture in Sweden, a culture which Fatima Jonsson argues is neither as misogynistic nor as male dominated as in the US and UK. In a thorough literature review, Jonsson demonstrates that hostility toward women is clearly visible in some hacking cultures, and that research on computer culture more generally tends to reinforce it's image as a boy's club, but that women have been active and that some computer subcultures are more welcoming (250). Though Swedish hacker cultures share much with its US and UK counterparts, the differences suggest it is worth further study.

Finally, the book ends with Anne Scott Sørensen's essay on feminist and Nordic approaches to digital media and cyberculture. She reiterates the opening arguments about the state of cyberfeminism, and proposes a new framework for feminist action through incorporating "third-wave feminism, the performative turn and cyberfeminism (265)." In particular Sørensen calls for including the concept of transversality, the recognition of one's own position and shift to others, or transverse in order to recognize commonalities (269). This closing essay goes on to review each of the preceding chapters to identify points in common as well as significant differences, enacting the approach Sørensen urges we all follow.

The value of this collection is far greater than the worth of each essay--those will be of primary interest to individual scholars working on related research. But the book as a whole, by allowing comparison of gender dynamics around technology in numerous contexts reveals things that have been invisible until now. The way we speak about how men and women use technology, the way research questions are framed, the way users describe their own activities, all of these discursive practices are shown to have a profound impact on our perceptions of how men and women use technology and of the technology itself. In raising these issues and revealing our blind spots, Cyberfeminism in Norther Lights makes an invaluable contribution to research on both gender and technology.

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