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Transforming Gender Identity through the Internet

Transforming Gender Identity through the Internet

When one thinks of the internet it’s hard not to imagine the many ways in which gender is not involved. When you log on and surf the net you are constantly bombarded by gender messages. Visual stimulus such as pictures and words make up the bulk of gender messages as they are easily transformed to suit the user. The internet relies heavily on using profile pictures and screen names to categorize and identify people. “Focusing on the gendered implications of access not only allows us to widen the spectrum of social actors who participate and partake in the information infrastructure, but can also lead us to consider some of the unanticipated consequences of new technologies” (Shade, 90). In this way the internet provides the average individual the power and place to constantly transform their gender identity.

Because people are naturally social beings that crave interaction, the internet provides many with an alternative source of social self-expression, allowing escape from the daily scrutiny which urges people to conform to stereotypical gender roles. In this way the gender of individuals online is truly ambiguous. Since one cannot see everyone who is online, there is always a strong possibility the “he” one thinks’ they are talking to can actually be a “she.” Popular forms of social conversation take many shapes over the internet including internet dating. The goal of internet dating is similar to real life dating with two individuals meeting, sharing conversation, getting to know one another and then taking steps toward a serious committed monogamous relationship or parting ways and trying again with someone else. But what really goes on with internet dating? How are most people basing their decisions on selecting a mate with such a wide variety to choose from? The answer is the average person will always base their first decision on finding a potential dating partner from another person’s user profile picture. “Online daters looked for verification of age by looking at clothing style, hairstyle and projected lifestyle in individuals’ photographs” (Whitty and Joinson, 76). The seduction of a picture can reassure a person of someone’s gender. In this way people can use the internet to live out an alternative life. They can surround themselves with people of their own choosing or specifically attract certain types of people through their photograph. This is done regardless if a person really “fits” the image they portray on the internet.

MySpace also focuses strongly on user pictures to convey gender as the picture is the main form of broadcasting emotions and sexual allure from across cyberspace. Young children, teenagers, and adults take pictures facing bathroom mirrors, wearing sexy clothing, or with certain poses to attain a certain look for their profile. This highly though of image corresponds to their gender in more ways than one. The photo is a testament to the individual’s gender identity on MySpace. By frequently changing the photo most people assume that the person is who they say they are. This gives free reign to people to “create” their own gender identity and live through it. There is nothing stopping a thirty two year old man from creating a MySpace profile, calling himself by a girl’s name, and posting pictures of an unknown model to assure other’s he is female.

The internet has also allowed people to change or hide their gender in whatever what they see fit with only the use of words. People have been trained from society to only place people into a “male” or “female” category. The internet muddle’s this approach with usernames that can present one thing and represent another. This environment results with user screen name’s becoming gendered whether consciously or not. For instance, when a person IM’s you with a screen name of “SexyXOXOKittyLuv” the automatic assumption of many would be to categorize this user as female. Taking a closer look at the word usage will yield the answer or why. First, both the word usage of “XOXO,” translated as hugs and kisses, along with the word “kitty” are both stereotypical feminine words. Although we have no way of knowing for sure the user’s gender, most people will automatically categorized this particular person as female. Once again the internet allowed this user to create their gender by choosing this specific username .

What prompted me to pick my topic was, as a frequent computer user, I found it fascinating to know that the identity I portray online is entirely up to me. Image after image on the internet provides a massive overload of gender based on photos, user names and other forms of media. “Two sexes are not enough to describe the variety found among human beings. People many want to break these rules but fear what will happen if they do. They are not ‘deliberately’ lying, but their choices about how they present themselves are constrained by social rules, especially rules about gender” (Holmes, 32 & 52). The individuals who do defy the social norm of two genders are met with hostility, confusion, and even ostracism. Spending hours on the internet exposes people to gender Identities that are arbitrarily created everyday on the internet and are mostly met without any criticism because the line of reality is blurred so strongly. Since gender can be one of the biggest factors in portraying to another just who you are. “Individuals have to create their own ways to live, including decisions about gender roles” (Holmes, 122). The internet is important because it allows the creation of gender identities in an alternative social environment. Even more importantly this environment provides people with the final say in who they wish to be.

Works Cited

Holmes, Mary. Gender and Everyday Life. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Shade, Leslie Regan. Gender & Community in the Social Construction of the Internet. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2002.

Whitty, Monica T., and Adam N. Joinson. Truth, Lies and Trust on the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2009.

2 Responses
  1. February 26, 2009

    I was trying to think of ways you might relate this paper to the issues we discussed in the first few weeks of class. You might think about the relationship between a man portraying himself as a woman online and a male transsexual. In what ways is gender identity about physical appearance vs. an individual’s conception of him or herself? Or is there something different going on when a woman plays a man online than there is when a woman chooses to live life as a man? Is portraying a different gender identity online a way of trying out an alternative without choosing to go through a physical process? Or is portraying a different gender identity online a way of subverting the gender binary by showcasing aspects of yourself that are of the opposite gender?

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