Last week I attended an excellent conference: Girls and Digital Culture at Kings College London. It ran in parallel with London Fashion week at the Courtauld Institute next door. The august pictures of Kings College famous alumni that front the Kings campus on the Strand provided a backdrop to a stream of fashionistas wearing impossible shoes.
The conference and Fashion week told the same story: gender divisions and extreme masculinity and femininity are happy and well in both the ‘real world’ as well as that produced by digital culture.
Lisa Nakamura from the University of Michigan made a keynote presentation that used evidence from online games sites to argue that digital culture was one of the main environments where young men learned to perform a particular kind of extreme misogynistic masculinity. She introduced us to the concept of ‘trash talk’ in online gaming. Lisa described how trash talk was the significant discourse in online gaming and the insults and taunts were directed at anyone who did not fit a white male stereotype of a games player. The insults were highly sexist, and, she argued, learned by boys as an appropriate form of masculine behaviour. Learning to do it well gave a player ‘rhetorical capital’. Women and others who join the games culture find it very hard to challenge the use of trash talk – even though they are the focus of insults, because – they are told- this is the indigenous culture of whatever game is being played and they have to learn to operate in this culture if they want to join the game.
Users deny that it is a discourse with meaning, they say it is simply procedural, and so deny that they are behaving in a racist or sexist manner. This trash talk is not restricted to online gaming but permeates the whole web. For example while images of breast feeding mothers are censored by Face Book , the same site refuses to remove rape ‘jokes’
Lisa recommended a blog posting by John Scalzi: ‘Straight White Male the Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is’ as a way of explaining structural gender discrimination in the ‘real world’ through the analogy with online gaming structures. It’s a very nice piece and I recommend it. It also reminds me that the flow of influence between the ‘real world’ and the ‘virtual world’ goes both ways.
In the real world we re-create hyper-femininity and wear those impossible shoes that we once only saw on Second Life avatars.