Cyberfeminism as feminist theory and practice has grown out of an emergent use of digital media and new communication technologies. The concept was used for the first time by Australian artists’ group VNS Matrix in their Cyberfeminist manifesto for the 21st century (1991), and soon after by British cultural theorist Sadie Plant. Cyberfeminism refers to a wide range of feminist practices, ranging from high theory to political techno-art, science fiction writing, game design, and activism. Cyberfeminist projects can usually be mapped in relation to two intersecting axes, one running between “theoretical” and “practicebased” cyberfeminism, the other between “third wave” and “second wave” feminism.
Theoretically oriented cyberfeminism, aligned with third wave feminism, operates primarily on a sophisticated theoretical level of feminist theory and technoscience studies, in relation to which feminist historian of science Donna Haraway’s (1991) cyborg is an emblematic figure. But in contrast to the use of the cyborg in, for example, mainstream science fiction as an illustration of hardened masculinity, Haraway uses the cyborg to represent transcendence of dichotomies such as mind/body, organism/machine, culture/nature, civilized/primitive, and, centrally, man/woman, implying movement toward a society where gender has ceased to matter, or at least matters differently.
Another strand of the theory-driven, cyberfeminist paradigm is inspired by thinkers such as Sandy Stone and Sadie Plant, who have envisioned the Internet as a realm of re-embodiment, and/or a space in which a feminist utopia could be realized. Stone (1995) uses her transsexual body as an argument in the area of political transgressions. According to Stone, cyberspace is a place in which the unexpected compositions of the cross-dressed or transgender body are the norm. Through the ever-present possibility of radical performance and play with gender and identity online, the problematic position of the transgendered body can potentially be turned into a starting point. Even though cyberspace provides environments where, momentarily, bodies can be virtually altered, Stone simultaneously highlights all the skills and requirements that are necessary for online participation.
Plant (1997), in turn, suggests a cyberfeminism in which there is an intimate and maybe even subversive element between women and machines. Her main argument is that women in the shadow of male culture have been the ones who did the groundbreaking work: from the very first computer program to the latest incarnation of virtual reality. She argues that in typing as well as telecommunicating women have, through their bodies, provided the male world with a living interface with machines. Her idea is that women have been the machine parts in a male culture, by reproducing both the species and the communication. When machines get more autonomous, women go the same way, and between them a sexually charged alliance is developed.
In contrast to cyberfeminists such as Stone and Plant, who emphasize that the use of new communication technologies carries utopian and emancipatory potential, feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti (1996) argues for a “cyberfeminism with a difference” and points at the risks for women in buying into the notion of cyberspace as a place for subversive identity performances, freed from the limitations of the physical body. According to Braidotti, rather than liberating women, this repeats the Cartesian fallacy of separating mind from body. The dream of getting rid of the body reflects an understanding of masculinity as abstraction and of men as physically disconnected and independent, which, she argues, is being remapped onto cyberspace discourses.
Between the poles of third wave feminism and practice-based cyberfeminism, there is the online equivalent of feminist groups like Guerilla Girls and Riot Grrrls. In the field of artistic practice and with considerable ironical force, “grrrls” have come together transnationally to join in the fight over representation. Braidotti defines their position in terms of “the politics of the parody,” which points at the irony of treating femininity as a set of multiple options to play with. This online politics takes shape among grrrls on the web through a mixture of putting up active resistance, having fun, and doing it all their own way. They are the bad girls, smart, and proud of having tech skills, guiding other women online to express, empower, and encode themselves.
In a similar location on the cyberfeminist map to that of the online grrrls, there is the Australian artists’ group VNS Matrix, shuttling between art, politics, and theory through strategies of irony, parody, and appropriation of sexual obscenities. Even if VNS Matrix shares with Plant the idea of technology as feminine and sexual, they have used quite literal efforts to contaminate technology with corporeality. Sentences like “The clitoris is a direct line to the matrix,” from their manifesto, have not only been interpreted as bad girls talking dirty, but can also be seen as female appropriation of computer technologies that traditionally have been viewed as belonging to a masculine domain.
Positioned between the poles of second wave feminism and practice-based cyberfeminism, there is another kind of cyberfeminism with significant awareness of information inequality, searching to network between women worldwide to create special women’s spaces of resistance online. One such formation is an alliance between UNESCO and the Society for International Development called “Women Working on the Net.” This project considers how to expand online opportunities from women in academic, activist, and professional circles in industrial countries to other women, particularly in developing countries. If theoretically oriented cyberfeminism has been critiqued for excluding women who do not belong to the inner circle of white, western, middleclass, theoretical cyberfeminists, this version of the cyberfeminist movement seeks to integrate women of many different ethnicities and cultures.
- Braidotti, R. (1994). Nomadic subjects: Embodiment and sexual difference in contemporary feminist theory. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Braidotti, R. (1996). Cyberfeminism with a difference. At www.let.ruu.nl/womens_studies/rosi/braidot1.htm, accessed September 12, 2006.
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- VNS Matrix (1991). Cyberfeminist manifesto for the 21st century. At www.obn.org/reading_room/manifestos/html/cyberfeminist.html, accessed July 17, 2007.
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