Friday, October 29, 2010

Andy Kaufman and the Cross Gender Avatar

Do you suppose anyone ever said 'I am comfortable with the Cathy character because she is the same gender as the person who created her. But Heathcliff is the opposite gender! Oooo I need to lie down I am so disturbed'? Was it ever considered a disgrace that Juliet never admitted to Romeo she was 'a man in RL' (remember that in Shakespeare's day only men were actors)? Uhhh no, because it is understood that a character need not be of the same race, age, gender, nationality, religious outlook etc etc as its creator. Nor is the creator obliged to stick to his or her 'true' identity. Mary Evans did not do anything wrong when she wrote under a male name, now did she? But in SL if a guy roleplays a female and does not go around telling everyone 'I am a man, really!' it is considered a crime or something. from a blog comment by Extropia DaSilva
I still get heat from time to time for being a female character created by a male author/performance artist. I guess it shouldn't be surprising that some people are uncomfortable, creeped-out or pissed off about the gray area I intentionally play in as an obviously fictional character who actively participates in a very real community.

It seems to me that those of us working in this area virtually are the digital descendants of Andy Kaufman who also lived in the no man's land between fact and fiction, life and theater.

I leave you with this short profanity-filled video clip. Remind you of anyone?


28 comments:

Mr. Crap Mariner said...

The concept behind SecondLie is also based on a Andy K. concept: Tony Clifton.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Clifton

-ls/cm

Miso Susanowa said...

No one ever thought Racoona Sheldon's gender was any barrier to her winning numerous awards for the science fiction of James Tiptree, Jr. (her pen name)

Dividni Shostakovich said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dividni Shostakovich said...

Goddammit Botgirl, and all this time I thought that your true self is a female SL being, who has a male avatar in the atom world. Now you're saying it's the other way around? I feel so betrayed!

Seriously, however, it'll surprise no-one that the sex-essentialism in SL derives from sex-essentialism in the atom world, which began in the Victorian era (see Foucault's "History of Sexuality"), but I'm sure was amplified by ideas of a "female nature" or a "female essence" adopted by some branches of feminism; identity politics; and homophobia. (I've seen examples of heterophobia, too.) In addition, for whatever reason, the SL environment encourages some people to create hyper-feminine and hyper-masculine avatars, far into the realm of physiological impossibility, if not outright monstrosity (alas, without any trace of irony or satire). Another peculiarity is that the animus against cross-gender avatars is mainly toward biological males -- I don't think I've ever seen it against biological females who have male avi. Logically speaking, the connection between digital and biological genitalia really ought to concern only people who intend to have sex with their lover in the atom world; if you plan to keep SL and RL separate, or not have sex in SL at all, why should it matter? And yet for most people it does: sex-essentialism at work.

[Previous comment removed due to misleading punctuation]

Botgirl Questi said...

Dividni: For sure! I think there is a lot of testosterone-fueled hyper-sexualism in the typical (or at least stereotypical) form of female avatars in Second Life.

I also agree with you about sex-essentialism. I think that one reason it's so cool to not know the gender of those we meet in Second Life is that it's a chance to observe that at play in our own body/mind.

Dividni Shostakovich said...

Actually, I'm not sure that hyper-femininized avis are mostly created by biological males: this belief could be part of the imbalanced "scandal" that some men have female avis. It's possible that a lot of them are in fact created by women, for the same reasons some guys create male avis whose shoulder width is almost equal to their height. I've gotten that impression from some of the "extreme female" avis I've seen, but who knows....

sororNishi said...

Yep, it just shows how important it is to play with these otherwise (nearly) taboo subjects. I have a male and a female avatar, so I'm sorted...:))

CronoCloud said...

I have some limited experience with a kind of text only virtual environment called...IRC :-)

This was a very geeky world were in some places it was demanded proof that female nicks were really "female". In the harsh vernacular it was sometimes said: tits or GTFO.

There were also places frequented by lesbians, where it was sometimes joked that you could identify those who were not born female by doing a /CTCP version, which shows client and OS. The joke says that the transwomen were the ones running Linux.

There were lesbians in such spaces that were NOT fond of transwomen at all because of experiences in not being told their female partner was once "male" There were others leaning in the FTM spectrum that would take out their own gender issues on the MTF's. They didn't want to admit to being TG themselves because that would mean admitting that they didn't want to be women and would not be considered a part of the "lesbian community of womyn" as some might say.

SL....is IRC with pictures.

Kranfel aka Kling said...

I love that comment!!

Actually I dont see any big difference between shapeshifting from female to male or vice versa in comparison to shapeshifting from "plain jane" to superhot "barbie" or "superman". Its a huge leap from your real you anyway and has nothing to do with reality.

I am one of those shapeshifters but the opposite of you Botgirl. I am a female irl but in virtual worlds I sometimes walk around as a male.

But everyone knows who I am and thats the problem for some people I think. "She doesnt seem to care what we think"?? Because if I had choose to do this secretly, no one had been able to spot me as a female, im pretty sure.

We think its easy to detect female or male gender by way of speaking but thats just not true. I have noticed that when experimenting with shapeshifting. And to me it doesnt matter. As long as we live our lives in virtual worlds why should it?

But as I am open with who I am i get my share of animosity from males. Females have never been negative but some males gets seriously disturbed by it. Even males that themselves cross gender in virtual worlds on regular basis....If i call them "cupcake" they sort of hits the roof(??) =))

Botgirl, why dont you and me go on a date and pisses them all off properly? ;)

Bamika Easterman said...

You go, girl thing!

Johnny said...

In written fiction or theatre there are clearly defined cultural boundaries that are understood by the creators and the audience; everyone has an idea where the author/actor ends and the character begins. In Second Life, and on the internet in general, things are a lot more fluid; often it is not clear that there is a performance going on at all. This ambiguity is one of the principle attractions of the medium of course, but it is unsurprising that people can sometimes become confused about issues of identity, and end up feeling they have been deceived.

It's like that fake autobiography A Million Little Pieces; James Frey argued that, in making stuff up, he had only done what authors always do, and if he had been upfront about it he might have been given more credit for what is actually a pretty good read. In the event though, he sold it to us as something it wasn't, his readers felt cheated, and the art was diminished.

There is a fine line between using playful uncertainty to creatively subvert the audience's expectations, and pissing people off by being dishonest with them.

Kranfel aka Kling said...

Johnny -

I understand that you mean that everyone that has an avatar that dont look like themselves irl is deceiving people. If you are overweight or likewise, your avatar should be that too.

If I engage myself in some sort of relationship with a male or female looking like a model, then i shall assume they look like that in their real life. Otherwise they are decieving me.

=)

Marie Wonka said...

I have known women playing males, men playing females, and everyone playing furries, tinies, bots, reflections, you name it. That's what makes living in a virutal world so much fun. You can be anything you wish and express yourself as you see fit.

Where I see the problem is when people treat virtual worlds as nothing but a 3D dating scene. They fall for another avatar only to find out that the person playing the avatar isn't the gender they'd prefer. Then they get all bent out of shape.

If you can manage to leave your prejudices at the door, and accept that anyone can be anything, you can have a lot of fun, regardless of which gender is on the other end of the keyboard.

Botgirl Questi said...

It's interesting how the question of gender eclipses all other factors in most discussions of variances between human and avatar form. Funny thing is, it is Botgirl's point of view as an embodied AI that has always been the defining psychological aspect of her character, not gender.

If you go back to the start of this blog and skim across the first year of posts, it will be very apparent that gender wasn't the issue that was being explored. The focus was on how virtual experience could shed light on the human condition.

While gender is not a central part of her internal psychology, it is certainly an essential aspect of what Prokofy called her "schtick." That's hard to deny since Botgirl has the female gender imbedded right in her name. But the form isn't used to explore what it's like to be female, but rather as an artistic device to explore what it's like for people to perceive an attractive female character while being reminded that the gender of the underlying human is unknown.

damnedgooddesign said...

I think that people's reactions are based fairly firmly in their own expectations. In the case of presented gender and second life, I find that people get upset more when there's a sexual or romantic context applied- even if it solely exists in the viewer's own head. (in essence, agreeing with Marie)

When that is not the case, I find people care very little past a mild curiosity as to what the person behind the keyboard "really" is.

Frankly, whatever people want to be is fine with me. It matters not at all what their typist is.

-AK

Scarp Godenot said...

Dividni Said: "In addition, for whatever reason, the SL environment encourages some people to create hyper-feminine and hyper-masculine avatars, far into the realm of physiological impossibility, if not outright monstrosity (alas, without any trace of irony or satire)"

Oh how true that is, Dividni. But the reason isn't sinister or disturbing at all to me. It is just roleplaying. Emphasis on the word Play. Remember how as children we roleplayed continuously and had a great time doing it? This is part of forming personality. And a very healthy part in my opinion.

Exploring other roles helps us understand them and gives a small glimpse into the mindspace of the people who occupy them. It widens our view and gives us empathy and understanding.

But most of all it is FUN. And not something we need to be even slightly apologetic about in my opinion.

Roleplaying unleashes creativity. And the creative can slide back and forth between any number of roles seamlessly, and without any harm to their psyche. And not only can they enjoy it, they can benefit from a widening of their own experience and worldview.

Virtual Worlds enable an ideal extension of life into a world of creative play. Wouldn't you have loved to be able to build anything and be anything you wanted to be when you were a child? I certainly would have. But why let this only be part of childhood? I contend that those who extend their openness far into their later lives, have a much more rich existence than those who freeze their personalities at early ages.

I myself regularly use alts of both genders in my experience of Second Life. I don't feel guilty about it and my experience is richer because of it.

So relax and lighten up, people. There are many manifestations of personality in any given person. Things are always in flux and openness to the world of change is, in my opinion, a rewarding way to live your life.

Scarp Godenot said...

Dividni Said: "In addition, for whatever reason, the SL environment encourages some people to create hyper-feminine and hyper-masculine avatars, far into the realm of physiological impossibility, if not outright monstrosity (alas, without any trace of irony or satire)"

Oh how true that is, Dividni. But the reason isn't sinister or disturbing at all to me. It is just roleplaying. Emphasis on the word Play. Remember how as children we roleplayed continuously and had a great time doing it? This is part of forming personality. And a very healthy part in my opinion.

Exploring other roles helps us understand them and gives a small glimpse into the mindspace of the people who occupy them. It widens our view and gives us empathy and understanding.

But most of all it is FUN. And not something we need to be even slightly apologetic about in my opinion.

Roleplaying unleashes creativity. And the creative can slide back and forth between any number of roles seamlessly, and without any harm to their psyche. And not only can they enjoy it, they can benefit from a widening of their own experience and worldview.

Virtual Worlds enable an ideal extension of life into a world of creative play. Wouldn't you have loved to be able to build anything and be anything you wanted to be when you were a child? I certainly would have. But why let this only be part of childhood? I contend that those who extend their openness far into their later lives, have a much more rich existence than those who freeze their personalities at early ages.

I myself regularly use alts of both genders in my experience of Second Life. I don't feel guilty about it and my experience is richer because of it.

So relax and lighten up, people. There are many manifestations of personality in any given person. Things are always in flux and openness to the world of change is, in my opinion, a rewarding way to live your life.

Scarp Godenot said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kranfel aka Kling said...

You nailed it Scarp! Love your comment =)

Prokofy said...

Extropia's rant is entirely misplaced, and fake, and a deliberate distraction.

Changing your gender in a virtual world is not "like fiction". It's not "a story". For some it might be "roleplay" but for others, a natural inclination.

Trying to pretend transgendering is "just a story" is one way of demeaning and belittling it so that you don't have to face condemnation by the more conservative and straight world. So you are merely playing into that construct.

As for Foucault and all that other deconstructionist blather, these sorts of faux French analyses never look at the basic functioning here of a power play. That's what it is really about.

A SL character is not a character in a novel. The reader of a novel doesn't "interact" -- he *reads*. He reads *a character* that does not change, unless, of course, the story is about changing, like "Measure for Measure".

The author makes characters the way they make a painting or a pie. It's an artifact. The reader can perceive it in different ways and have different subjective reactions, but the work of art generally remains a static thing (again, discounting silly mash-ups so celebrated by technocommunists).

Unlike a static novel with a flat character that is an artifact, a virtual world is about relationships, actual relationships, with real people, and real interactivity. A maker of a transgender female or male avatar will experience at least some percentage of people -- and maybe 100 percent of people -- perceiving his or her opposite-gender avatar as real, and behaving accordingly. That's not a novel; that's an exercise of will, and for those who use it to deceive and harm, an act of power.

"Botqirl" persists and persists in not looking at that power play. It would be one thing if he experimented for a day or a week or a month. It would be one thing if he had a male main and a female alt. But that's not what it was about. It was a deliberate project. A project of some duration. A project, as we come to hear more about it, not so much of subjective wish or inclination, but of *attempting to get other people to react*. That's why I don't like this shtick. That's why I call "foul".

Then killing off the character by suddenly revealing it, and pretending coquettishly that it's about experimentation and art and not power -- that's what I also find loathsome. That's why the entire botqirl "thang" in SL to me is suspect. It isn't what it appears, and it was deceptive by choice.

I really hate it when people keep claiming an act is about self-expresison, when it is at least as much about manipulation of other people.

Kranfel aka Kling said...

Prokofy dearest, I just cant see it as "manipulative". I think its just refreshing and I am impressed by Botgirls "project".

Maybee because to me it has never been important if its a man or a woman behind the avie...its a human being thats enough for me.

And if it was a dog, it should be ok too, cus I LOOOVE dogs. A cockroach? Naaah! :P

Kisses and hugs! :)

Botgirl Questi said...

Prokofy: So let me get this straight (pardon the pun), you believe:

- art and works of fiction should be static rather than technocommunist mash-ups;

- a project that intends to make people to react is inherently manipulative and foul;

- only genuinely transgendered people can ethically have a primary pseudonymous avatar of a different physical gender; however

- if you DO create a pseudonymous character of a different gender, it is loathsome to kill it off suddenly in the name of art.

Finally, I still can't understand about the power you keep attributing to me. What power do I have? The power to entertain? The power to persuade through reasoning? The power to shake up perception through artistic works? The power to have constructive dialogue with like minded men and women through blog comments and social networking threads?

Enquiring minds want to know!















-

Prokofy said...

You're not a literary person. So you take what is explained to you very geekily and very literally -- which isn't the same as being *literary* -- quite the opposite.

Literature is static in the sense that the author's character is what it is -- it's a character, an artifact. Unless it's some experimental theater or something with shape-shifting, but by and large, *literature* as opposed to the plastic arts is about characters that have a definition and shape. The author behind them isn't using them to interact with the reader himself; he's creating an integral work of fiction which becomes the reader's immersive world.

D.H. Lawrence isn't transgendering when he creates Lady Chatterly; he's merely creating a work of art.

An avatar necessarily isn't a work of art (although you like to pretend it is to upgrade the entire sordid escapade). Some avatar lives lived become works of art; some are more banal. An avatar isn't *by definition* art anymore than a paint brush is a work of art. But an avatar is not fiction, because an avatar, while fictional, interacts and is closer and more contiguous and a part of the human who created him. It really is different in kind and type than a fictional literary hero.

But it's impossible to have this sort of more subtle conversation with you because you can't hear it. You insist on reaching at what you see as fantastical or grotesque sayings and merely reiterating them like a monkey.

If you were paying attention to my posts, you'd see that the thing I really repudiate is the Gender Politburo like Kendra. I don't believe that only authentically transgendered people who physically have operations or who cross-dress in RL get to have TG avatars in SL. Nothing of the sort. But I will call out when I see the act of the m2f avatar one of a kind of violence to gender, dressed up as "experimentation," given the manipulation of others.

Certainly killing off a character one sustained like this is loathsome. Truly. A form of violence.

Botgirl Questi said...

Prokofy: You're right. I'm not a literary person. I am approaching the question of avatars as fictional characters from a perspective that is outside the bounds of traditional linear media. That's why in the past I've also brought up analogies such as Andy Kaufman, Sascha Baron Cohen, Tracy Ulman, ventriloquism, channeling, etc. and use the phrase "performance art" at times instead of just "art".

I agree with you that an avatar is not necessarily art. But I think that given my couple of years of videos, comics, virtual art exhibitions, etc., it woud be a very far stretch to say that my intention is to be a vehicle for art, even if you think it's bad art, or art promoting values that you don't subscribe to.

I think we probably have more commonality on core values than it seems. For instance, believe it or not, I consider myself to be a feminist in a not-politically-correct, Susie Bright kind of way, and my work often deconstructs sexist and patriarchal concepts.

Like you, I am also am frustrated by the difficulty in having a subtle conversation. The main problem is that we both are more often in zinging each other rather than genuinely trying to fairly examine the other's argument. We look for ways to spin the words and ideas to discredit them instead of looking for some basis of common ground to build upon. Even if that's just a means to get to a place where we can respectfully agree to disagree.

It's like the saying, "If you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail." I think we both tend to see each others sentences as potential opportunities to bring the hammer down rather than opportunities to engage in thoughtful dialoge.

I freely admit that my work is often designed to get people to react. But although my RL counterpart's identity was initially a secret, my intention to be a provocateur was always out in the open. I repeatedly hammered artistically on the impact of the uncertainty of identity both in my public work an in inworld conversations.

Finally, I am quite alive. Botgirl, that is. I don't know of any literary examples, but the idea of multiple levels of identity and disclosure have a long history in comics. The lost grace I recounted in a recent post preceded the public unveiling of my human counterpart's identity. And the intent was not to kill the character but actually to free it. And so far, it seems to be working. I'm free to be me. And it's okay if there are some people who can't suspend disbelieve anymore and enjoy it.

Raven Haalan said...

Andy is so classic. I lol'd.

On the topic of avatar personalities, My triplets have been in world for some time. My original AV is an irreverent redhead... I thought I was being novel at the time, lol.

I have learned from experience that, much like beauty, the relevance of the correlation of a psuedo-anonymous character to the real life typist is very much in the eye of the beholder.

For my own part, I choose to take the opportunity that Jaime, Binary and Raven give me to explore myself in various contexts - and keep that reasonably above board. (though I don't usually wave it around).

It took me awhile to find a comfort space with this alternate lifestyle (pardon the pun) but I've settled on ensuring all close friends know the score, and everyone else has clues to figure it out if they want to.

...but it is darned fun to double log and have Raven and Jaime squabble as siblings. (A very polite and cordial example is in the Feb 2010 Prim Perfect - A Tour of Tempura Island)

Methinks while one can decompose and reconstitute and over-inflate and toss stones at the philosophy and sociology of it all, it comes down to one thing in the end:

Are you being fair? Are you being human? Are you being a good friend, trustworthy and kind?

If not, learn, make adjustments. Do it differently. If you are, then all power to ya.

Vaneeesa said...

Botgrrl is me hero! Or is that heroine? I mostly try not to use gendered terms, so I'll say she's my hero.

Just like "Angelina Jolie is an actor."

"Actress," I believe, is the name of a salad dressing that was removed from the market because it was found to contain traces of mercury and other heavy metals.

I agree with Marie when she said the "problem" is peeps who think of Virtual Worlds as 3D FL Dating Services.

You see similar issues in 2D environments. Remember Friendster?

In case you forgot or are too young, The Onion did an amazing piece on Friendster:
http://www.theonion.com/video/internet-archaeologists-find-ruins-of-friendster-c,14389/

Anyway, peeps made "fictitious" profiles to play there, but since Friendster has aspirations of being a dating site, they didn't want to allow that, so they kicked off all the "Fakesters" much like Facebook kicks off avatars today. The difference being that Friendster only wanted users who could FL Date... whereas Facebook only wants users who can be FL Data Mined.

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell," is a pretty crappy way to run an FL organization... but it might not be a bad way to live in a Virtual World.

Botgrrl, she rocks! Yay! :))

Imnotgoing Sideways said...

My SL avatar resembles me 100%. It's my RL avatar that's the phony. (^_^)y

maria.trombly said...

Personally, I think it depends on the context. If you're planning to have an off-line relationship with someone -- whether for work or romance -- then you want to know approximately what the person looks like. I don't mind if there's a little more hair, or a little less paunch, on the avatar than in the five-year-old headshot on the dating site, which, in turn, has more hair and less paunch than the physical person.

So there's degrees of expected fidelity with avatars, and that are looser than with headshots.

But if the entire relationship is purely virtual -- for role playing, gaming, virtual training, in-world design services, building, etc... then the physical identity is irrelevant to me, except when it interferes with the virtual relationship.

So for example -- to pull something totally out of the air -- if someone is playing a big macho man in SL and the voice morph keeps slipping and you hear a delicate female voice, it kind of spoils the illusion.

-- Maria