‘Cyberfeminism 2.0’ surveys new online landscape

BOWLING GREEN, O.— The world of cyberspace has changed significantly since 2004, when Dr. Radhika Gajjala wrote “Cyber Selves: Feminist Ethnographies of South Asian Women.” In that book, she revealed that while electronic communication had aided in globalization, it had not proved the hoped-for panacea for providing opportunity to women in disadvantaged areas of the world.

Today, with the explosion of social media and online gaming, Gajjala said, many in the new generation assume women now have equal status in the online world. “Could it really be true there’s no gender issue any more?” she wondered, which prompted her to reach out to other scholars to see what they were thinking.

“What are the power dynamics that work to undermine or empower women?” asked Gajjala, director the American Culture Studies Program and a faculty member in the School of Media and Communication.

Responses to that question are collected in “Cyberfeminism 2.0,” a book of essays edited by Gajjala and Yeon Ju Oh and published by Peter Lang Publishing as part of the Digital Formations series.

"One approach to cyberfeminism is concerned with providing physical access to Internet technology"

Gajjala and Oh pose the question of what it means to be a “cyberfeminist” now, more than a decade after feminists began exploring cyberspace with both utopian and dystopian visions and demanding material access and social intervention online as well as offline.

Several of the book’s contributors, like Oh, are or have been Gajjala’s doctoral students. Others, like Koen Leurs, come from as far away as The Netherlands. He writes about immigrant girls’ use of digital media for socialization.

“One approach to cyberfeminism is concerned with providing physical access to Internet technology,” Oh said. “Another looks at when women have access, but can they use it? Many older women don’t have the cultural or social capital that helps you utilize all the functions of Facebook.

“A third concept supposes you have the power and the agency to do what you want. But women are torn between the liberating power of Internet technology and the existing power structures of IT. Who are the designers? They are mostly young and male. Though subtle and invisible, there are still many problems of inequality.”

In sections titled “Rethinking the Discourse on Empowerment, “Technology, Gender and Agency,” and “In Search of Feminist Space Online,” the essayists make the case that there remains much to be done, both in the real and the virtual worlds.

“While cyberspace is no longer an explicitly male space, there is still marginalization of women, even violence, in virtual worlds, and women still need access to technology and to related jobs. We need more women programmers, for example,” said Gajjala.

A number of successes are featured. Dr. Jessie Daniels, an associate professor of emerging communication technology and media convergence practices at Governors State University, writes about the proliferation of women bloggers; blogging has been suggested as having an affinity with feminism and likened to a “21st century room of one’s own,” evoking Virginia Woolfe’s requirement for feminist consciousness. African women have widely used blogs to promote community and empowerment, for example.

Oh, who is from South Korea, has experience with Unnime, a longstanding online South Korean feminist community and “webzine,” which, in addition to academic feminist dialogue, seeks to solicit and share the perspectives on issues facing everyday women, creating a cyberspace for ordinary people.

Health is an issue concerning both genders, and the new Health 2.0 platform promoted by Google purports to be a way for patients, caregivers and medical professionals to collaborate. However, writes Marina Levina in “Our Data, Ourselves,” it also poses serious risks to personal privacy, potentially usurping personal power while promising more individual control.

A new phenomenon is the gaming mother and her gaming daughter. Genesis Downey, a faculty member at Owens Community College and Ph.D. candidate at BGSU, writes of her daughter’s online behavior and her choice of online identity in designing her avatar using available characteristics. “Girls have breast-size selection; boys do not,” she notes; the same pieces of clothing are also quite different for each. Girls must also negotiate an identity in online worlds, finding their place in an otherwise adult environment. Most often, those worlds are designed by males.

Dr. Rosalind Sibielski, an instructor in the theatre and film department and a “girls’ studies” scholar, writes about girls’ “DIY media production” through interaction with online versions of the “Twilight” saga. While applauding their hands-on approach, Sibielski is concerned at their unquestioning attitudes toward the values and representations of girls in the show.

Editing the collection was instructive, Oh said. “All the articles expanded my perspectives.”

 

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(Posted March 21, 2012 )