Theory in a Digital Age: A Project of English 483 Students, Coastal Carolina University

Gender in the Virtual World


In the virtual world there is no physical body to manifest, and in many platforms, there isn’t even a representation of a body beyond a hyperlinked username. It is for this reason and the impossibility of physical sexuality that the body and more specifically the gender of an individual become vestigial to a virtual community. Avatars nearly always have an option to select one's gender and some offer significant customization which is consequential to the spectralization of gender in the virtual world, where the physical form is negligible, and one’s gender can manifest however they see fit.  

    For example, there is a virtual community called Second Life which uses 3D graphics and extensive customization options to allow users the opportunity to build a “second life” for themselves as they wish is. Users are able to live lives outside of their physical “real life” and manifest themselves as avatars different from who they are physically. Micha Cardenas explores this idea in her article Becoming Dragon: A Transversal Technology Study. Cardenas claims that virtual worlds like Second Life, which have highly customizable avatars, function as a type of prototyping, especially for individuals like herself who identify as being transgendered. Physical gender transitions are expensive, extensive, time-consuming, and life altering and consequently need to be approached with the utmost certainty, but that kind of certainty is hard to achieve in a world with a strict gender binary. By using resources like Second Life, people who defy gender norms and expectations are able to virtually exist in a way that best suits their identity and try out a virtual transition as a means of battling body dysmorphia before making any commitments to physically transitioning°.

The virtual also satisfies the social dynamic of understanding gender changes and fluidity. Cardenas states that on websites like Seconds Life “one feels the moment of being "seen" by another. This is an essential part of becoming, the moment of social interaction and feedback when one's conception of one's self is others.” Transgendered users are able to not only try their new body on as a prototype for themselves but as a prototype for society. They’re able to conceptualize how the world will treat them as- say for example- a woman compared to what they know from being treated as a man all their life. This is crucial to the prototyping process and elevates the “realness” of transitioning in the virtual world°.

Gender has no functionality in the virtual sphere, especially since the physical form is removed. On websites where there is no avatar or profile, gender is something that is assumed and applied through pronouns, but it has no visual component. On websites where there are profile pictures or avatars, gender can be manipulated in the way that it is presented. People are frequently hyper-feminizing or hyper-masculinizing themselves, presenting themselves as androgynous to better suit their gender identity, and using avatars different from their assigned gender. Regardless of how gender is being manipulated, online audiences have no way of knowing the “truth” of a user’s physical form. The virtual world shows gender for the immaterial socially constructed concept that it is by removing the physicality of a person. This contributes to the spectralization of gender; it makes gender less substantive than it has been historical, and more of a suggestion in the virtual world where exists only as a vestige of the physical body operating the computer.


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