It’s Complicated: Gender and Virtual Reality

In “Flesh Made Word: Sex, Text and the Virtual Body,” Shannon McRae gives another take on the now clichéd notion of how the Internet or virtual reality can reshape our perceptions of our identities. McRae particularly trains his sights on gender:

If boys can be girls and straights can be queers and dykes can be fags and two lesbian lovers can turn out to both be men in real life, then “straight” or “queer,” “male” or “female” become unreliable as markers of identity. It is not so much that gender roles or sexual preferences actually change as that cross-gender role play troubles the link between gender and desire, from which we, usually unquestioningly, construct our identities as sexual beings. Gender becomes a verb, not a noun, a position to occupy rather than a fixed role. (79-80)

Of course, the now also commonplace response would be to point how the same phenomenon is already operative even in non-virtual reality, with the Internet or virtual reality only intensifying this loss of borders in gender categories. Then again, things are not as they seem:

[T]he free experimentation with gender roles that virtual reality allows accomplishes nothing but reinforcement of those roles… In order to enact “female” and hope to attract partners, one must not only assume the pronouns, but craft a description that falls within the realm of what is considered attractive. Most people do not stretch their imaginations much beyond the usual categorizations. Voluptuous breasts, slim waists, flowing hair, etc. proliferate as quickly in virtual reality as in any Barbie Doll factory. (81) ■


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