Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Gender Binary

Written Wednesday, 22 November

Gender Binary

In Second Life, you can be whatever you want to be. A leprechaun? Sure. There was one at the Wingo Lounge last night, and St. Patrick’s Day is months away. Snoopy? Yes, you can be Snoopy, complete with companion yellow bird. The Goodyear blimp? Certainly. A vampire? No problem.

A basic identity choice in SL, however, and to my knowledge the only appearance-related setting with binary constraints, is gender. There are but two options-- male and female. You can change the choice at any time (and it’s interesting to see your avatar morph when you do), but there’s no third alternative and no gender opt-out. Even transgender avatars must have either M or F selected.

There’s no requirement that your avatar’s name or sex match your own. Real-life males can check the female shape and choose a traditionally female name for their avatar and walk the SL streets as women, and real-life females can choose a male name and gender. This may even be a part of the charm of SL, as it allows gender role play that would be difficult or impossible in real life. It’s interesting how few profiles give you information about the individual’s real life; perhaps one reason for this is a high percentage of virtual gender changes.

There’s no absolute way to tell if the person with whom you’re chatting is “really” a man or a woman. I’ve no real idea, for instance, whether the Tasmanian avatar who has been confiding with me about her relationships with male avs puts on panties every morning or tighty whities, or if my college-aged friend’s male av looks anything like or is even the same sex as the real-life human at the keyboard. That guy acting like a macho jerk in the welcome area, talking about the size of his penis (and you know he’s so new he hasn’t yet managed to acquire one) just might be a woman enjoying a freedom to swagger she finds difficult in her real life.

That said, it’s possible to make educated guesses about the person at the controls. Some female avs just act like guys, or, rather, I should say, they perform SL as highly sexualized stereotypes of women with predictably hyperfeminine appearances and behaviors; they are prototypical male fantasies. And yes, some women play their avs and even their first lives in such a way, but men commonly perform “female” in this way.

With some avs, it’s hard to nail the gender down, or perhaps I should say they perform their SL genders so seamlessly that it’s easy to convince oneself they’re a member of that gender in RL. Some SL women are male, but they play their avatars in a truly feminine way. Their interests, choice of words, and appearance just say “female,” at least to me. And ditto with male avs. And yet I know in my heart that that shy young man from Texas is really a guy.

Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa

Considering the issues I’ve had with gender in my own life, I should have been more sensitive than I have been about gender in SL. I’m thinking in particular of some remarks I made a couple of weeks ago while listening to a live concert and simultaneously IMing a friend who was also at the concert. She’s a beautiful woman in SL, sweet, smart, sophisticated, witty and charming, and genuinely feminine in the ways she interacts with me and others.

I’d been plagued by advances from male avs, and I’m afraid I went on a bit of a tear. I was telling her I could tell when I was interacting with male-controlled avatars and saying disparaging things about the ways some female avs behave in SL.

At some point in my rant I thought I detected a frowny face-- you know, :(-- in one of her IMs. I’m not sure that’s what I saw, for her message quickly scrolled out of sight as I continued to gender bash, or even if her IM was in response to something I said-- but I realized with a start what an ass I was being. I was making generalizations about half the SL population. I was being a sexist. Me, a lifelong feminist.

My realization set me to thinking, and I spent some time picking my way through the whole SL gender thing. It didn’t take me long to realize I had been guilty not only of sexism, but of insensitivity toward my friend. What if the human controlling her av is actually male? How my words must have cut! Damn, but I deserved that frowny face, and worse. I’m just glad I didn’t lose a friendship because of my rude and shocking tirade.

My meditation made me realize that first-life genders don’t matter when it comes to SL. That is, what happens in SL stays in SL-- unless we want it otherwise. Until we take it to our first lives, avatars are just avatars, and their genders are their genders, unconnected with whatever primate is manipulating the camera controls. If that person wants to share their first life, they can do so in the First Life section of their Profile. If they choose not to do so, their “real” gender is none of my business, or anyone else’s.


Photo: Three SL women enjoy the view in Lothlorien.

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