Jude Elund is a lecturer at Edith Cowan University, Perth, Australia. She lectures in cultural studies, communication and new media, specialising in the social uses of technology as well as its political, philosophical and cultural implications. She is in the final stages of PhD study, finalising a thesis analysing the framing, representational and spatial practices of gendered and sexual identities within Second Life spaces. The current work investigating representations of the female body in Second Life is derived from this work.
Volume 27, November 2012
The internet and its applications hold the potential for re-embodying oneself as detached from the constraints of the corporeal world. For feminists, as well as other marginalised groups, this holds the possibility of reifying power and agency through the screen as physical attributes and vulnerabilities subside. Some theorists, such as Donna Haraway, have envisaged a world of the cyborg or transhuman where patriarchal structures dissolve in a fluidity of expression and hybridity within the techno-environment. However, such emancipatory potential of the internet has not yet become actualised and questions abound regarding the chasm between theory and practice. The three-dimensional world of Second Life (SL) highlights this disjuncture – as an economically viable platform that largely recreates Western culture it is illuminating in the evaluation of gendered and sexual expression in view of the ingrained cultural constraints on the individual. This paper discusses some of these contemporary issues in framing the female body in relation to non-normative sexuality within the SL platform. It takes the form of a comparison of two SL female-only spaces (Eden and Greek Gold) and, in doing so, elucidates some of the key issues in the representation of the female body as both gendered and sexual. The site of Eden largely represents the female body as feminine and often hyper-feminised, whilst the space of Greek Gold shows far greater variance in the depictions of the female body over a spectrum from feminine to masculine. Furthermore, the body as sexual subject is shown as understood principally in relation to heterosexuality and the male body; as discussed in relation to Greek Gold, even subversive representations are often understood through the gender binary and hetero-sexuality. What both sites ultimately demonstrate is a continued perseverance to understand the female, particularly the sexually non-normative body, as defined through hetero-patriarchal relations of power, agency and desire.
The environment of SL is one where any individual (allowing for hardware access and capability) can create a representational embodiment of themselves to interact with others real-time. This feature of choice, alongside the anonymity granted in the environment, allows for individuals to experiment with various guises of their identity such as bodily form and sexuality. Second Life is less of a game and more of a real-time visually-premised meeting space, where users interact, liaise and conduct business. It is possible to own virtual land and make virtual objects, including the ability to make virtual money which can be converted to real US dollars. In many ways SL is similar to corporeal life, in that “the virtual world is like a masquerade of ‘the real’ and also functions as a laboratory for the development of digital, robotic, and artificial intelligence processes that may be commonplace later in our century” (Dethridge, 2009, p. 263). As posited by Sermon and Gould (2011, p. 15), as well as Lisa Dethridge, virtual environments are “new forms of social narrative” whereby participants continually reconfigure their identity and ways of being in the world. Central to these individual narratives is the avatar, or personalised representation that is normally humanoid in appearance. Avatars can range from the default selections given during the sign-up process of SL, to those that are highly customised and reminiscent of fantasy creatures. The avatar, or avatars (it is possible for users to have more than one), are the principle means of expression in the SL environment. For users, the extent of investment into the platform can be measured in the personalisation of their avatar. As explained by Tom Boellstorff, avatars are “not just abstract anchors of virtual perspective; they (are) the modality through which residents experienced virtual selfhood” (Boellstorff, 2008, p. 129).
Studies by Yee and Bailenson (2009) suggest an avatar’s appearance is the primary indicator for how they are received by others, as well as the way they interact and communicate. This phenomenon is experienced within SL as well as generally throughout the internet. According to Sermon and Gould “it would appear that the majority of Second Life users have chosen to accentuate the sexual signifiers of the perfect body’ (Sermon & Gould, 2011, p. 17). It is this particular reducability of the self to gendered expression, and therefore sexual agent, that is the premise of this study, and in so doing extending the observations made regarding gender distinctions in the virtual realm. The two spaces under consideration have been chosen because they show a marked contrast in embodied gender, in addition to their relative popularity within SL - both regions feature highly on SL’s destination guide ("Gay Destinations," 2012). Despite both sites being female-only spaces that are explicitly advertised to lesbian and bisexual females, there is a distinct separation in terms of bodily performance within the regions. Avatar representation on Eden is generally heteronormative, whilst bodies on Greek Gold range from feminine to androgynous to highly masculine, yet all within the framing of ‘female’ as an identifying characteristic. It is this identification with gendered identity that frames the subsequent discussion, specifically the disjuncture between biological sex characteristics and a performed gender that continue to pervade societal expectations of gender conformity.
Both feminism and queer theory are utilised as complimentary discourses in the acknowledgement that “such categories or forms of living are interrelated and at specific points for particular political and social reasons one may be more important in framing life and demanding political action than the other” (McLaughlin, Casey, & Richardson, 2006, p. 4). There are a number of reasons for using both theories interchangeably, and as suggested by McLaughlin et al., at times one theory is better suited to the political outcomes and framing practices of various social and cultural phenomena. On the space of Greek Gold for instance, queer theory is used to discuss the fluidity of the gendered subject as well as the need for disassociating the sexual subject from rigid gender categories, specifically in relation to understanding desire and identity in butch-femme relationships. However, feminism is also used to discuss agency within the space due to the implications of the commodification of the female body, as well as the female as a gendered subject more generally. Furthermore, Diane Richardson states that “(a) primary focus for feminist writers has been on how (hetero)sexuality is related to the maintenance of male domination and gender hierarchies, whereas within queer theory attention has been on the ways in which ‘heteronormativity’ functions to privilege and sustain heterosexuality and exclude sexual ‘others’” (Richardson, 2006, p. 37). It is the aim of this work to throw some light on both ideas, so that heterosexuality and gender are critiqued in view of male domination, female sexuality and capitalism, and that heteronormativity and the queer subject are discussed through the tropes of deviance, subversion and the new conservatism of queer.
In view of these theories, the body is seen as both a performed object disassociated from any underlying truth as well as a political object through which power relations and discourse are performed and understood. The principal method for analysis within the spaces is that of textual and discourse analysis as applied to representational bodies on the screen. Physical codes, including appearance, movement and behaviour are central to the perceptions of gender and sexuality in society, where the body “is a powerful symbolic form, a surface on which the central rules, hierarchies, and even metaphysical commitments of a culture are inscribed and thus reinforced through the concrete language of the body” (Bordo, 1997, p. 90). The concept that gender codification is culturally constructed is argued further by Judith Butler, explaining that “even if the sexes appear to be unproblematically binary in their morphology and constitution... there is no reason to assume that genders ought also to remain as two” (Butler, 1999, p. 8). In addition, Butler also views the basis of sex division and differentiation as a construction, and “as the effect of the apparatus of cultural construction designated by gender” (p. 11). From this perspective, gender and sexuality in their traditional conceptions, can be viewed as performance, where “gender inscribes the fantasy of a true, stable gender identity on the surface of the body, which simultaneously naturalises the normative fiction of heterosexual coherence” (Sunden, 2003, p. 53). However, the dominant culture has effects on identity construction and maintenance in cyberspace. Robins suggests that identities “are composable in so far as the constraints of the real world and real-world body are overcome in the artificial domain” (1996, p. 138), which may be no easy task in consideration of how ingrained many social and cultural constraints are inscribed on the body and its usage. For example, in the SL platform, there is an assumption that an online user is either male or female (there are no options for intersex, or no-sex, upon signing up). Options for joining onto various games, social networks and virtual worlds have it as a requirement that one sign on as a predetermined gender. This compartmentalises male and female roles before one even enters the world for which they have signed up to, undermining the ability to fluidly embody an ungendered, transgendered or gender ambiguous identity.
The performance of femininity is often aligned with both consumption and bodily adornment practices that emphasise sexual availability and attractiveness. There are four key areas within the site of Eden that spatially conceive the space as hedonistic, youthful and highly sexual: the beach signals an implicit approval to the naked, or near-naked, form of the body; the shops, where one can purchase various clothing for their avatar epitomises the consumerist ideal, reinforce bodily representation and an inscribed objectification; the dance-club further reinforces this ideal through themed nights and events such as ‘Naughty N Nice’, ‘Desperados’ and ‘Vampire Night’ that underpin the site’s hedonistic appeal; and the castle, which is the only structure on Eden that has secluded, private spaces, giving the assumption of a more intimate and sexual space than the other locations. Inside the castle is a smaller dance floor with dance-poles, as well as private rooms with animations that engage avatars in sexual activity. These are inherently patriarchal constructs that reinforce the male gaze through female sexual performance.
This continuation of normative spatial representation extends to avatar representation where the appearance, and performance, of avatars on Eden also takes a heteronormative function: that of the feminine. The absence of androgyny, or gendered difference, on Eden is a particular phenomenon that comes under question in a self-defined female space specifically marketed to “lesbian and bi girls” ("Eden," 2011). If you were unaware upon arrival that it was designated as space for non-normative sexuality, you could be forgiven for mistaking it for a heterosexual space. The male gaze is inscribed throughout the environment, as well as in the appearance and performance of the avatars. The normative appearance of avatars on Eden is of a sexualised appearance: avatars wear few clothes revealing much of their skin, emphasising curvaceous and youthful figures. In addition, most avatars have long hair and reflect a RL heteronormativity of form. Although it is possible, as part of a postmodern and subjective account of the gaze, for a female to embody a masculine object position in her looking, the saturation and ubiquity of femininity as the dominant construct detract from any sense of a variety of choice in performance. This construction of gender is indicative of the heteronormative practice of keeping femininity and masculinity apart, diluting the potential for queer expression as multitudinous. It is ultimately this absence of choice that limits identity expression that is so necessary in spaces designed and utilised by those of subjugated groups.
In the apparent absence of males, the male gaze becomes inscribed through the normativity of feminine expression as well as the commodification and sexualisation of the female body. The gaze is reified through the screen, as a pleasure in looking and as part of the narrative gaze as described in the formative work of Laura Mulvey (1975). Mulvey’s focus is on psychoanalysis and cinematic structure but her point that “(i)n their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (p. 62) is highly relevant for the screen space of Eden. This implied gaze is directly linked to the notion of voyeurism - the visual nature of the internet and 3D virtual environments implicitly encourage passive viewing as well as the ability to explore taboos and fetishes. The relative anonymity of the internet further emboldens users to engage in behaviours that they may have previously been reluctant to entertain. Unlike stalking or pathological voyeurism however, SL users participate knowing the potential of the gaze and often display reciprocal voyeuristic behaviour. On Eden, voyeurism is enacted through the patriarchal gaze and female desire as subsumed within the exoticisation of female to female interaction. Voyeurism has become a normative activity in relation to visual culture, however the gender implications have remained uncontested in view of the Freudian assumption of anxiety and control:
Critiques that presuppose these two categories (normative and pathological) fail to see, for instance, how reality television shows, twenty-four-hour Webcam internet sites, and other examples of the voyeurism popular culture has so effortlessly adopted as an autobiographical adjective often re-enact the very gender anxieties identified, and reproduced, by psychoanalysis, while blindly pathologizing threats to normative heterosexuality and heterosexual marriage. (Metzl, 2004, p. 419)
Taken in the above context, voyeurism on Eden is largely normative through its re-construction of the girl-on-girl scenes reminiscent of mainstream heterosexual pornography. Importantly, these scenes reinscribe feminine performance to that which is defined through and by male desire.
There are three major spaces on Eden that allow and reinforce practices of looking: the dance club, the castle, and the shops. The club has a stage that features the DJ and often has the ‘Eden Sisters’ (the managers of the space) overlooking the dance floor. Dancers utilise animations that enable their avatar to dance in sexualised formations, so that the club visually represents a space of seduction, akin to the club scenes in mainstream music videos. It is not unusual to see avatars in embrace on the middle of the dance floor, drawing attention to their sexual display. Performance is monitored by the ‘Eden Sisters’ who are situated above the dance floor, looking down in tacit approval of the ‘action’ below. In addition, avatars not on the dance floor are often situated on its outside, encircling the space of performance with their collective gaze.
The castle offers an even more sexualised space. As the only enclosed space on Eden, it signifies a site of seclusion and subversive encounters that are too risqué for viewing in the open environment. Congruent with this suggestion, is the interior of the castle itself: darkened rooms, a smaller more intimate dance floor equipped with dance pole, erotic pictures adorning the walls, and couches with animations for kissing and cuddling make-up the decor of the main entrance hall. In addition, the castle has various smaller, private rooms equipped with beds and animations for sexual intimacy. The castle is clichéd with sexual imagery. The possible sexual performances, as allowed through avatar animations in the castle’s spaces, are complicit with the expectation of female-to-female sexual interaction of hetero-normative media. Although the castle has the appearance of seclusion, this is more suggestion than fact; it is possible to view all spaces of the castle at any time. This is possible due to the open access of the spaces, and also due to the capability of the viewing toggle (part of the camera feature) of SL’s interface. As a result, privacy is not possible, suggesting that voyeurism may not only be tolerated, but implicitly encouraged.
Even in the less sexualised spaces of Eden, there is a voyeuristic element that underscores all appearances and interactions. Eden’s shops feature highly feminised representations, with a particular emphasis on clothes and accessories (including avatar skins) that accent taut, youthful bodies. Femininity is stressed through bodily contours, clothing shapes and the prominence given to displaying the sexualised features of breasts, legs and bottoms that are so often the feature in advertising and pornography (these are often emphasised past the scope of average female biological capacity).
Such representations of the avatar reinforce the commodity value of the body as an extension of real-world desires for bodily perfection and sexuality as invested in the female body. It is unsurprising, given the foundations of SL community being based on its economy, that bodily representations reinforce those on offer in the highly commoditised industries of raunch culture (Williams, 1999) that permeate mass culture in capitalist societies. The female body is commodity; it is displayed to be looked at, to be desired, and to be accessed for pleasure, which holds true even in depiction of lesbian or bisexual female bodies.
Despite being a space for only female avatars, the majority mode of female expression on Eden has found to be that of a sexualised, and generally feminised, appearance. Therefore it is argued that Eden is analogous to many mainstream representations of a fetishized female to female sexuality, and ultimately undermines the performance of alternate gender embodiment whilst reinforcing prevailing patriarchal assumptions of female appearance, performance and sexuality. This is illuminated in those issues of the space that can erode the foundations of the site as a useful, safe and tolerant space for all lesbian and bisexual girls. Such issues are intrinsically related to the representation of the feminine norm, and the internalisation of the gaze:
Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object- and most particularly and object of vision: a sight. (Berger, 1972, p. 47)
For these reasons Eden may be problematic for queer females in terms of identity and expression, and instead of being a space of sexual freedom may become an extension of their sexual identity multiplicity as practiced in RL spaces. There are alternate viewing positions, as the critiques to Mulvey’s and Berger’s work address, that position the female as powerful in a position where she looks upon others and holds power in being looked upon particularly as a non-heterosexual subject (see Evans & Gamman, 1995). However, it is the contention here, that such a position is ultimately marginalised by the dominance of the fetishized spectacle of the erotic female.
Feminised representations of lesbianism are seen as less threatening and symptomatic of what Barbara Creed defines as the ‘narcissistic lesbian body’ where “the other woman symbolise(s) her own reflection” (1995, p. 100). The threat of the narcissistic body, unlike the masculine lesbian body, is overturned through depictions of femininity, and instead becomes ambiguous and desirable:
The narcissistic femme lesbian, however, almost always adopts an ambiguous position in relation to the gaze of the camera/spectator. She is on display, her pose actively designed to lure the gaze; the crucial difference is, however, that the spectator is shut out from her world. He may look but not enter. Images of the lesbian double are designed to appeal to the voyeuristic desires of the male spectator. (B. Creed, 1995, p. 100)
In a crucial departure from Creed’s assertion that “he may look but not enter” is the availability of the lesbian body in 3D virtual environments where it is possible for a biologically gendered male to embody a female avatar and so ultimately enter “her world”. Such infiltration can have a profound negative impact on culture for spaces that are set up for the usage by marginalised identities. The effects of such infiltration and gender-swapping can have real psychological effects on users, such as the case reported by Mandy Dorfler who married an individual in SL that she thought was female:
Too often women are violated by men in SL. Men come to women only areas and use a female avatar to cause troubl (sic) emotionally and in other ways. This is a form of cyber rape… I married what a thought was a German girl. Spent a fortune on the wedding and other things then "she" confessed to being a rl male. (Dorfler, 2010)
Although it has been proposed that SL should introduce voluntary gender verification to limit lesbian spaces being infiltrated by RL males, this is not current policy in-world, so the possibility of males embodying female avatars is an on-going issue. Dorfler states that such deception happens “often” in SL given anecdotal accounts; however, it is difficult to verify this with any certainty. What remains is a very real potential for CL males to frequent female-only spaces for sexual, or other, purposes which can have very unsettling consequences for lesbian/queer females wanting to use such spaces for community or identity expression.
In contrast to Eden, there is a variety of female embodiment on Greek Gold. Alongside the welcome notes and advertising that emphasize acceptance of butches and bois (masculine avatars are often referred to as butches or bois on the island), such representation is easy to find with many avatars appearing androgynous. There is a fluidity of form throughout the space from the very feminine to the very masculine, with some avatars even having the appearance of trans-genderedness. As shown in the below image, highly masculinised representation is welcome on Greek Gold, including an almost entirely male appearance. In addition, the avatar is wearing ‘pasties’ (plasters over the nipples) that conform to the “no nudity” regulation of the space. This example is representative of the complexities of the masculine female residing outside of female norms, including that of the modest portrayal of the body.
Avatars such as this illuminate the paradox of masculinity in a queer, especially female-only, environment. Although maleness itself is disallowed in the form of RL males, the appropriation of masculine qualities is seen as virtuous; subverting the patriarch by queering it. Also, many instances of highly masculinised avatars do not have the appearance of heterosexual males; they seem to lie on a continuum of androgyny through a queer idiosyncratic appearance. For instance, the avatar shown above embodies markers of queerness, particularly that of the gay male. The lifted singlet, muscular but slim bodily frame, highly ripped jeans, lithe jaw-line and fashionable quiff work together to inscribe a queerness upon the body, and which may be readily deciphered by those in and of the gay/lesbian and queer community. Whereas such representation may cause confusion in a heterosexual environment, there is little ambiguity in a queer space whereby such markers are easily understood and interpreted. The fluidity of masculine through to feminine performance on Greek Gold illustrates the detachment of an assumed naturalised gender, in terms of biological sex characteristics, from the very conditions of biology and nature. Consequentially, sexual preference is also removed from any type of natural identification and causation; attraction and intimate interaction on Greek Gold is formed under the presumption of femaleness, however the gender category of female is destabilised through various performances of androgyny and masculinity undermining the assumed femininity as ‘naturally’ ascribed to the female. Both gender and sexuality then, are reconstructed as separate, albeit related, modalities of performance under the prevailing assumption of fluidity that dissolves the binaries associated with biology and nature.
If the biological sex of individuals behind the avatars is assumed to be female, then the variance of gender performance and sexuality as seen on Greek Gold can be assumed to belong to various categories of femaleness. Interaction and attraction are presumed entirely female regardless of the appearance or visual modality of the embodied avatar that is represented on the screen. The diversity that is present on is evidence of the need to view gender as a fluid state which is far more complex in scope than is generally accepted. The very ideas that are perpetuated around masculinised females wanting to be men are entirely subverted through the functionality and capabilities of screen embodiment; there would be no point in embodying an androgynous or highly masculinised female in an environment where one is free to embody a physique of their own desire. If one wished to be male or to delineate oneself to the binary structure of essentialised gender, the various regions of SL would provide enough scope to do so. Instead, within the space of Greek Gold, there are many individuals who embody female avatars that are either androgynous or masculine which actively subverts the gender binary of mainstream culture. Females within this space do not wish to be men, rather it can be assumed that they acknowledge their femaleness (in terms of a gendered identification) in addition to destabilising the very conditions that this gender identification is founded upon, namely the historical, cultural and political categorisations of behaviour and performance.What further undermines the gender binary, as well as many of the assumptions about female inversion and a presumed transgendered identity for masculinised females, is the sexual dynamics of butch and femme. Butch/femme desire reveals the complexities of identification within the category female and, rather than reinforcing a performance of heterosexual desire as argued by many feminists in the 1970s, it in fact subverts the foundations of normative desire and practice.
Judith Roof contends that by rejecting “the oppressive patterns of heterosexual relations”, where heterosexual relations are assumed to be the basis of butch/femme desire, “it overvalued a gender essentialism that in the end only reified the very system it wished to critique” (1998, p. 27). In addition to the various movements that have led to a reformulation of sexual and gender identity categorisation, such as trans, intersex, and SM identities, the butch/femme identification has, since its rejection by 1970s feminists, achieved recognition as a destabiliser of normative gender and sexual roles. However, and as acknowledged by Roof, Halberstam and Eves, the butch-femme is still considered transgressive in mainstream society as both threatening to the established patriarch and as politically regressive by some feminists and conservatives. For instance Eves, in discussing lesbian presentation and aesthetics summaries the issue of appearing non-heteronormative:
Negative stereotypes about lesbians in contemporary popular culture have included assumptions about the way that lesbians look and why. The stereotypical image has been butch, and the assumptions have been shaped by discourses of inversion, so that an active sexual desire for women has been seen as necessarily masculine. (2004, p. 493)
There still remains a prevailing attitude that androgynous through to masculine females, particularly lesbians who do not identify as femme, are deviant to the point of inviting violence or threatening behaviour, and a non-participation in mainstream society.
As evidenced through the virtual embodiment of a masculine, but female form, masculinity is removed from its referent to maleness and a reduction to biological sex as a determination of gender performativity. In her analysis of the corporeal stone butch identity, Halberstam critiques the suggestion that butch-femme desire is a role-play of heterosexual relationships, where “role players were seen as insecure, immature or unevolved” (1998, p. 131). Instead, the butch and femme represent an attachment to their preferred gender performativity as experienced in behaviour, appearance and a preferred desire towards an opposing gender performativity. It is required, as argued through Halberstam’s work, that gender is seen as separate from sexuality, which in turn is necessarily separate from biological sex. This inadequacy of the dominant cultural language is further illustrated in conceptions of desire within butch-femme relationships, that have often been essentialised in view of the prevailing discourse of gender and sex binaries and the presumption of inversion.Joan Nestle, a self-identifying femme, explains that the butch-femme partnership draws on the political subject position of the lesbian in the 1950’s and rejects the notion of heterosexual coupling mimicry:
Butch-fem relationships, as I experienced them, were complex erotic and social statements, not phony heterosexual replicas. They were filled with a deeply lesbian language of stance, dress, gesture, love, courage, and autonomy. In the 1950s particularly, butch-fem couples were the front-line warriors against sexual bigotry. Because they were so visibly obvious, they suffered the brunt of street violence. The irony of social change has made a radical, sexual, political statement of the 1950s appear today as a reactionary, non-feminist experience. (1982, p. 542)
Writing in the 1980s, Nestle often felt defensive because of her femme appearance which was read by many feminists at the time as a victimised embodiment of the conditions of the patriarch rather than a reification of those conditions. Clare Hemmings suggests that butch-femme desire can be read by the way that it offers a repudiation of heterosexual culture; that it is a conscious choice of cultural repudiation in conjunction with an unconscious sexual-object choice, and that this desire necessarily operates on the conscious level for both lesbian, as well as bisexual, femmes: “What I want to suggest is that a bisexual femme’s unconscious repudiation constitutes her as a sexual subject, and that her conscious repudiation constitutes her as a cultural subject” (1998, p. 100). So, within the butch-femme identification, there is a desire and sexual attraction that can be categorised along the feminine-masculine continuum which is below the level of conscious choice, and although that desire may be gendered it should not be reduced simply to a biological sex categorisation. In conjunction with unconscious desire, there is a conscious level of attraction that works at the site of culture. The cultural site of desire is where the butch-femme comes into its own, and is where performativity and attraction work at a level of complexity so as to queer the established conditions of heterosexuality. In describing her own experience as a femme, Nestle argues for an acknowledgement of context within the interplay of butch-femme:
Make-up, high heels, skirts, revealing clothes, even certain ways of holding the body are read as capitulation to patriarchal control of women’s bodies. An accurate critique, if a woman feels uncomfortable or forced to present herself this way, but this is not what I am doing when I feel sexually powerful and want to share it with other women. Fems are women who have made choices, but we need to be able to read between the cultural lines to appreciate their strength. Lesbians should be mistresses of discrepancies, knowing that resistance lies in the change of context. (1982, p. 545)
It can be said that the very subversiveness of the desire between both the subject and object positions is what makes the butch-femme such an enduring site of pleasure for both the butch and the femme. Pleasure is at the site of subversion, or the queering of subject/object interaction and sexual practice, so that gender and sexuality are reified contextually within the interplay of both positions.
The absence of masculine form on Eden can be linked to the disapproval for females, including lesbians, to assume power. This can be attributed to the great social contention that if a female performs masculinity she wishes to, in fact, be a man. This Freudian conception (inversion) pathologises expressions of androgyny and butch performance to the extent that it is a subject position feared more than effeminate men, as displayed in the great absences of female masculine performance in mass culture. According to Halberstam this is because the masculine “has been reserved for people with male bodies and has been actively denied to people with female bodies” (1998, p. 269) and is attributable to the retention and reservation of power. The potential threat of androgynous and masculine femaleness can be read as the uncertainty of a masculine essence as a male-only attribute. If “(m)asculinity in this society inevitably conjures up notions of power and legitimacy and privilege” (Halberstam, 1998, p. 2), then the destabilisation of the discrete attachment of masculinity to male undermines the power, legitimacy and privilege afforded to men by virtue of their biological sex. Instances where masculinity is not seen as a discrete and necessary attachment to maleness, such as in the case of androgyny or female masculinity, are ultimately threatening to the established order of society. More so than feminised depictions of lesbianism which can be seen as only mildly threatening to gender assumptions as well as included within the boundaries of male fantasy, the masculine lesbian body is highly deviant and dangerous:
Although... deviant tendencies are present in the female body, it is the ideological function of the lesbian body to warn the ‘normal’ woman about the dangers of undoing or rejecting her own bodily socialisation. This is why the culture points with most hypocritical concern at the mannish lesbian, the butch lesbian, while deliberately ignoring the femme lesbian, the woman whose body in no way presents itself to the straight world as different or deviant. (Barbara Creed, 1995, p. 101)
So often pathologised as a pseudo-male, the masculine lesbian subject is continually included within the boundaries of the binary sex system of culture. It is this assumption that makes a site such as Greek Gold so powerful in the refutation of the system. Representations of maleness on SL, as it can be argued with many virtual representations of gender, are all pseudo-male. When one embodies a male avatar, that avatar has no biological sex. It is gender performed as an extension of the culture and performative assumptions of the individual behind the representation.Eden however maintains the hetero-normative model of performance for female sexual expression; there is no inversion of gendered agency and no destabilisation of the masculine/feminine dichotomy. Furthermore, the space is questionable as queer due to the homogeneity of form. It may even be seen as intimidating for those looking to seek out a space for community of difference that is a departure from their corporeal experience. What Eden does provide however, is an extension of the commodity-value of sex and sexuality that may be used by either males (in deception) or females, straight or otherwise, who seek an exoticised sexual experience. It is unsurprising that the economic basis of SL produces replicates in form of mass consumerist ideals, because it is essentially an extension onto the screen of the hyperreal portrayals of sex and the body viewed in other media forms and by the pornographic industry:
We do not all share the economic and ideological power needed to promote particular sexual performances, body images and definitions of sexuality, and to profit from them. It is evident that a particular gender and sexuality hierarchy continues to exist on various levels by the mainstream pornography industry estimated to be an 8 billion dollar a year industry (Juffer 1998) to as much as 13 billion (Cornell 2000). For instance, mainstream straight sex and mainstream lesbian sex are created and promoted in very specific ways by the pornography industry, instilling in the minds of many what “women” look like and how they perform sexually. (Corsianos, 2007, p. 864)
In fact, Eden could be said to be an extension of lesbian pornographic practices that are aimed at the male, rather than female, viewer and so reinforce “women’s position within a phallogocentric symbolic system” (Williams, 1999, p. 138). As part of the capitalist and commoditised nature of SL, Eden plays into the consumerist sex models of mainstream mass consumption that can be bought into by any gender or sexuality. Lisa Diamond argues that the pervasiveness of hetero-flexibility “can have the effect of trivializing and depoliticizing same sex sexuality by portraying it as a fashionable ‘add on’ to otherwise conventional heterosexuality”, and that “such images implicitly convey that the most desirable and acceptable form of female–female sexuality is that which pleases and plays to the heterosexual male gaze” (2005, p. 105). As made explicit by Diamond, such representations of femininity within queer boundaries can have a positive effect in showing the diversity of the queer female form. However, this becomes problematic when it is the only depiction of female queerness, as it reinforces a heteronormativity and desire that is inextricably linked to the male gaze. Furthermore, “it presents girl-on-girl action as exciting, fun, but, crucially, as entirely unthreatening to heterosexuality”(Evans & Gamman, 1995, p. 153). This exoticisation of female to female sexuality is an extension of the framing of heterosexist desire and eroticism that bases the pleasure at the site of the gaze and the objectification of the feminine body. It appears as an extension of the controlling and surveying mechanisms of the visual; a replication in form of the ‘right’ way to display the erotic female body.
The two spaces of Eden and Greek Gold show the female body as continually conceived through male desire. This is most obvious on Eden where the female subject is very similar to the depictions of mass Western culture which imposes the body as the principal signifier of worth and value, where highly sexualised signification of the female body inscribes the male viewer even in his physical and temporal absence. Female identity then becomes subsumed into hetero-patriarchal discourse so that images and representations conform to an acceptable standard - rather than being a fluid and open space of identity expression, Eden proves to be a space of heteronormative presentation of the female body. The case of Eden highlights the contradictions between the wider acceptance of alternative sexualities and the homogeneity of form that disavows certain ways of being. This maintains that varied and non-normative sexual practices are acceptable as long as this sexuality is enacted in the most palatable form as conceived by the male viewer. Principally, there is a limiting of a female queer identity to a feminised and/or heteronormative expression; the reduction of queer sexuality to that of novelty; tensions between lesbian and bisexual identity; the ‘infiltration’ of queer space by both heterosexual females and RL males embodying female avatars; and the reading of sexuality of the site as heterosexual pornography that elicits the male gaze. The patriarchal fantasy of Eden itself as a concept, in all of its connotations from Biblical narrative to contemporary fantasy, reaffirms the feminine as a subject of sexual desire, potential deviance and in need of containment. This positioning of the female subject is reworked however, within the space of Greek Gold which illustrates the oppositional power of the fluidly gendered subject. This reification occurs through the interplay of object-subject positions which both interrupt and counteract the polemical understanding of gendered positions, sexual conformity and their associated normative behaviours. This performance of gender is also a critique of the post-gendered utopian future whereby gender is assumed as redundant. Significantly, within both spaces, there is a desire to embody gendered and sexual positions as an extension of the corporeal that, in doing so, reaffirms the visual culture of late-capitalism.
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