Cyberfeminism: Rooted in breaking the binary & reclaiming space

By | July 10, 2020
Cyberfeminism: Rooted in breaking the binary

Cyberfeminism intends to empower women by making them assured while reclaiming space around them as it is another extension of the feminist theory and practice. Beginning from the premise that women have the right to social, political and economic equality and the fact that feminist theory and practice is essential in exposing and disrupting the sexist, racist, heterosexist, classist, and ableist underpinnings of patriarchal constructions which undermine the goal of lived equality for women, we move on to extending this truth to cyberspace and technology. 

Introduction

A definite characteristic of cyberfeminism is its propagation of coalitions based on affinities of interest rather than on categorical identities such as gender, class, and race.[2] These affinities of interest could be a joint commitment to equality and social change or address any other issue. These lines of affinities are supposed to develop through attraction, combination, and relation carved out of and in spite of difference.[3]

It is argued by Donna Haraway that there is no one natural factor that binds women together as ‘women’. One may be docile or assertive, have different sexual orientations and preferences, maybe a trans woman or not, may want to have and raise children or may prefer it otherwise, so on and so forth and moreover it is this compartmentalizing of women and men that have led to the former being categorized as the inferior sex.  The emancipation of women from the constraining grasp of society would only occur upon the destruction of the mainstream categorical identities of men and women.[4]

Origin of the movement and its important events

Cyberfeminism can be traced back to 1983 when the feminist theorist Donna Haraway wrote A Cyborg Manifesto. Her essay was about a creature that was part human and part machine and was called the Cyborg. The Cyborg was a creature that would challenge racial and patriarchal biases. This iconic essay implored every feminist to code themselves as a Cyborg who was so appropriate a tool to disrupt patriarchal norms that it was an idea of a new world order.[5]

In the 1980s, computer technology was mostly seen as a tool for men. It was seen as something created by men, for men. Cyberfeminists wanted to escape gender online and live in a post-patriarchal world. They wanted to use cyberspace to ‘hack the code of patriarchy.[6]

The impression of Haraway’s cyborg had reached others and soon there were people conceptualizing the existence of a different world that was inhabited by different people.

Octavia Butler was an African American science fiction (sci-fi) writer who wrote a trilogy called ‘Her Xenogenesis Trilogy’ which was based on a post-apocalyptic world where aliens were neither male nor female, existed and practiced gene trading. These aliens believed in inter-species breeding.[7]

In 1992, a women’s collective called the VNS Matrix from South Australia identified themselves as Cyberfeminists. They coded games and created avatars as a way to critique the macho landscape of the early web. They also wrote The Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century as their homage to Haraway.[8]

The text was displayed on 18 feet long billboards all across Australia. It had powerful language and illustrations. This group also developed a game called All New Gen. It was a comment upon the pornographic and sexist elements of the gaming world.

Along with artists and gamers, writers in this movement also began to surface. The British theorist Sadie Plant launched a project to restore the legacy of women in technology, whose roles had been historically overlooked in preference for their male peers. Zeroes and Ones (1997) was a book written by her that championed a math genius named Ada Lovelace who happens to be the disputed mother of computer programming known to have created the first-ever algorithm in 1843.[9]

Cyberfeminism was becoming a huge group of female thinkers, coders, and media artists who were linking up online at a very fast pace. In 1997, The First Cyberfeminist International was organized by a Berlin collective, satirically named the Old Boys Network. This event brought together 38 women from 12 different countries at Documenta X in Kassel in Germany. In this event, the programmers and artists produced a provocative anti-manifesto called ‘100 anti-thesis of Cyberfeminism’.[10]

A critique of the movement

The initial cyberfeminists viewed cyberspace as a paradigm that was very different from any other social forum. They viewed it as an arena, that was not laden with dichotomies of the gender, hierarchies of the races, or pedestalization of the ‘able’ over the disabled.

It was conceptualized as an arena where your identity could be molded in various ways and where the rules of social life as they existed in society were non-existent and therefore the undoing of years of conditioning was perhaps not required in order to live and exist respectfully. The fluidity of identity in the online world was a gateway to disrupt the system of mainstream identities that regard women as inferior beings than her counterpart, the man.[11]

However, the critique of this belief is that cyberspace is occupied by individuals from real space. These individuals are bound to apply the stereotypes and prejudices that they have known and grown with,  in cyberspace as well. The hegemonies and hierarchies of the realspace are bound to infect and spread to cyberspace.[12]

It could be because of the ubiquity of the dichotomy of two genders or because of the ubiquity of the superiority of the white race.[13] Since we live in a world where normalcy is associated with acknowledging only two genders as legitimate and an underlying belief that the white race is superior to all other races, we carry this knowledge with us and project it in all forums for social interaction, including cyberspace.

Faith Wilding, a prominent feminist from the 1970s has also brought forth this critique of the movement. She addressed the unrealistic optimism of assuming the internet as a categorically liberated space and said that the internet is not a utopia of non-gender. She said that the cyberfeminists had failed to interrogate the biases entrenched in cyberspace.

She also said that breaking norms would not by itself change the status quo unless active steps were taken to empower and include the disadvantaged victims of intersectional discrimination. She pointed out that while cyberfeminism presented itself as inclusive, its writings assumed a readership that was educated, white, upper-middle-class, English speaking, culturally sophisticated.[14]

There was nothing in the cyberfeminist writings or activities to cater to the intersectional discrimination that occurs because of a woman’s race and color, or religion and physical disability. It does not cater to women who have experienced exclusion by virtue of factors additional to gender.[15] Cyberfeminists had failed to create a space that allowed for a plurality of voices within the feminist movement.

Cyberfeminism and Pornography

The debate on pornography in this context has been refreshingly different. While one side argues that pornography harms women and their bid for equality because it is based on the premise that women are sexually subservient to men and that it propagates the social myth that women take pleasure in being abused and subordinated by men.[16] For all these reasons, pornography should be regarded as inherently harmful for the feminist movement according to this side.

However, the other side supports the existence of pornography stating that it could now be used by women to engineering a world that is conducive to female sexuality as opposed to one that only catered to male sexuality. With women entrepreneurs that produce, direct, and act in their own productions, a power shift from the male-dominated world of pornography where women are almost always subjugated, is very likely. With women in control of the camera and their own depiction, it is reasonable to presume that the power to control the manner in which female sexuality is depicted can also be controlled and dictated.[17]

It has been argued that an internal subversion of pornography, rather than an attack from the outside, maybe more effective as a feminist strategy as it would challenge prevailing patriarchal constructions of women from within the paradigm itself and provide for an alternative.

Such pornography can depict the use of condoms and respect between two partners and create a counter-narrative in terms of describing sexual behaviour.[18] Moreover, this side believes that feminism should clear the space for women to explore their sexuality and not create barriers to obstruct that exploration.[19]

Cyberfeminism and the 21st Century

  • The first decade of this century witnessed the tryst of feminism with biotechnology. Paul B. Preciado, the trans-feminist philosopher is known to have deconstructed gender through methods such as hormone use. Preciado argues that gender is not a natural order but something we can hack and eventually code. In his text, Testo Junkie’, Preciado records his unsanctioned use of testosterone as both performance and political activism.[20]
  • It is also pertinent to mention Xenofeminists, who are a gender-abolitionist collective founded in 2014 that advocates for ‘gender-hacking’. They believe that the only way to ensure that gender is not forced upon anyone and gender-identification and self-expression are preserved is by making sex hormones available to all. They address their issues with the present-day pharmaceutical system of production which is known to protect and regulate hormone access. Xenofeminists envision a world where there is an accelerated explosion of genders.[21]

While cyberfeminism takes a slightly different shade of feminism, owing to its origins; it is interesting to note how feminism has bloomed on the internet. The internet is used to network feminists across the globe and to propagate feminist views and tackle misogynistic views. It is also increasingly being used to find comfort in each other’s lived experiences and has become a platform on which women have come together to relate to each other and support each other in their life choices.

Feminism on the internet today – Conclusion

While scholars have recorded three waves of feminism, it is pertinent to note that feminism in 2020 cannot be seen without the added factor of the presence of the internet. It is seen that feminists on the internet have taken up tasks like body positivity, self-care, and creating a sense of community. Centred around owning up to what teenage girls were shamed for i.e. makeup, dressing up, being cute, etc., women on the internet take up space to reclaim their right to bodily comfort and choice in its true sense.[22]

While the second and third wave of feminists are often shown to capture the stage and normalize it for a girl to scream and roar, this generation of feminists find empowerment in challenging everything that made them feel uncomfortable about being themselves. It rings a bell so to say, as one individual who has travelled a long and arduous journey of calling people out and putting up a brave front, returns home to reclaim it.

Women may and should find empowerment in whatever way of living they may choose and modern-day social media like Instagram and Tumblr promotes a community for precisely this kind of encouragement.


[1] Jane Bailey & Adrienne Telford, What’s So Cyber about It: Reflections on Cyberfeminism Contribution to Legal Studies, 19 Can. J. Women & L. 243 (2007).

[2] Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Donna Haraway, ed., Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991).

[3] Chela Sandoval, “Cyborg Feminism and the Methodology of the Oppressed,” in Chris Gray, ed., The Cyborg Handbook (New York: Routledge, 1995)

[4] The Cybercultures Reader, eds. David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy, London: Routledge, 2000

[5] Supra note 2

[6] Izabella Scott, A Brief History of Cyberfeminism, ARTSY.NET, Available Here

[7] Tucker, Jeffrey A. “‘The Human Contradiction’: Identity And/as Essence in Octavia E. Butler’s ‘Xenogenesis’ Trilogy.” The Yearbook of English Studies 37, no. 2 (2007): 164-81. Accessed May 20, 2020.

[8] Neue Kraft Neues Werk, “Zeroes + one + one: Sadie Plant, Terre Thaemlits and Chris Korda,” XTRA Interview (2002)

[9]  Sadie Plant, Zeroes and Ones (London, UK: Fourth Estate, 1997).

[10] Supra, note 1

[11] Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1995)

[12] Supra note 1

[13] Charles R. Lawrence III, If He Hollers Let Him Go: Regulating Racist Speech on Campus, 1990 Duke Law Journal 431-483 (1990), Available Here

[14] Faith Wilding, Where Is the Feminism in Cyberfeminism?

[15] Catharine A. MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987).

[16] Catharine A. MacKinnon, Only Words (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[17] Kimberlianne Podlas, “Mistresses of Their Domain: How Female Entrepreneurs in Cyberporn Are Initiating a Gender Power Shift” (2000) 3 CyberPsychology and Behavior 847

[18] Drucilla Cornell, The Imaginary Domain: Abortion, Pornography, and Sexual Harassment (New York: Routledge, 1995). See also Candida Royalle, “Porn in the USA,” in Drucilla Cornell, ed., Feminism and Pornography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 540

[19] Drucilla Cornell, “Pornography’s Temptation,” in Drucilla Cornell, ed., Feminism and Pornography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 551 at 554.

[20] PRECIADO, B., & BENDERSON, B. (2013). Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era. New York, The Feminist Press at CUNY.

[21] supra, note 3

[22] Text Lone Gamble, In Defence of Tumblr Feminism, DAZED, Available Here


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