Technofeminism and its Discontents: Rape jokes, Reddit, and the iRevolution

*trigger warning (this article mentions rape and sexual violence)

Since beginning to conceive of a ‘digitizing of the humanities’ within the scope of this social media project, I have developed a hungry curiosity for the relationship that technology has with the construction of gender.

Initially my approach to conceptualizing the place of feminism in social media spheres, was the formulation of the idea that marginalized populations could utilize these digital tools as ones of resistance; that the Internet and it’s technological objects remained a part of an unchartered digital frontier of which feminist ideologies could thrive and populate.

the revolution will be hashtagged

[The image is of a street in Montreal, crowded with protestors, One woman in a red bandana is leaning over the side of a building, waving a red flag.]

While this may be true, reflecting on how we have witnessed these tools used for organizing political protests and massive revolutions in many nations in the past year, from Egypt to Wisconsin, and most recently students in Montreal, as evidence, one of our project’s recent interviews pointed out a glaring gap in how I was approaching thinking about these tools and spaces.

Zizi Papacharassi, scholar and prominent commentator on the social and political consequences of new media technologies, spoke to the inherent masculinity present in the design of technologies that remains largely unrecognized and uncorrected. She pointed me to the work of Judy Wacjman, who is responsible for the term ‘technofeminism‘.

Rather than questioning the science itself, as Wacjman states, we remedy with equal opportunity policies, placing hope in the process of overcoming. In “Feminism Confronts Technology“, work published over two decades ago, she illuminates the force of masculinity in technology with examples that are still effective, much as we speak to this digital age as something quite new and unformed.

Growing up with two younger brothers, I can easily relate to her use of the example of the marketing of toys and video games along gendered lines. Imagery of boys seen playing the video games that are violent conjures a positive and affirming response to video game technology for boys, while creating frustration for girls who may attempt to approach them. Those toys have become iPhones, iPads; sleek, fetishized objects designed with masculinity in mind.

Wacjman goes on to link this cultural production to post-secondary education, pointing out that “at this stage the harassment [of girls] takes the form of obscene computer mail or print-outs of nude women. Women students in computer science at MIT found this problem so pervasive that they organized a special committee to deal with it” (153).

[The image is of an orange kitten in a hooded sweater, with the text 'u gonna get raped' as the caption.]

In 2012 on the Internet today, more prolific than pictures of kittens, are jokes about rape. Message forum handles, memes, webcomics; the use of flash imagery used to communicate violent misogyny is vast – a hyper-evolution of Wacjman’s example of inappropriate email forwards.

The community represented on our pixelated screens is informed by the patriarchal society that produces it. The notion that “the technological enterprise has developed as a distinctly masculine realm may be largely a reflection of the male domination of all powerful public institutions, rather than something specific to the male spirit” (140).

In a recent article on a controversial thread on Reddit concerning rape, the Huffington Post assessed the site as a vast, largely unregulated, decentralized and self-described ‘front page of the Internet’, capable of sheltering perpetrators of actual rape with anonymity.

The topic of sexual violence on the Internet has been in high propensity in recent weeks, after Cookies for Breakfast chose to blog about an incident involving comedian Daniel Tosh, one of many male comedians known to make jokes about rape. Since the surfacing of the original post, many prominent blogs (Jezebel, medea la maga)  have taken up the topic, and debate has proliferated online in various social media spheres.

Tosh says he was joking. Comedians make rape jokes every day, so why is this one getting so much attention? Because Tosh was more than “just kidding.” He was angry. His “joke” was reactive to the so-called heckler who called him out in front of an audience. He used humor to cut her down, to remind her of own vulnerability, to emphasize who was in control. – Elissa Bassist

For years, I have witnessed dialogues online that argue free speech versus hate speech – someone publishes, in whatever capacity, something racist, sexist, homophobic, or a cocktail of many oppressions, and is then called out, only to have the offender defend their right to say what they want. Reddit is one of many such forums, wherein it took less than a minute for me to find a mention of rape:

[The image is a comic depicting a belaboured rape joke, describing violent assault, using the excuse of a woman's clothing as the punch line.]

In a sharp reminder to not get carried away with our transcendent musings while working on the social media project, Sara Humphreys points out the “need to remember that program storage and object technology underpins everything [we] do on the net; this is all encoded and operates in very specific ways that make us think we are making choices.” Perhaps a study into the gendering of HTML and CSS is in order? Or the ways in which Adobe markets its products with “sexy” images of young women?

The digital world has become another site of the ongoing production of, at times violent, gender domination narratives.

Building on the philosophies of sci-fi-minist Donna Haraway, Wacjman defines the term technofeminism as a strategic engagement with technoscience, which, rather than opposing or celebrating it, negotiates the networks of sociotechnology from within, and suggests that it is only by bridging the gap between materiality and metaphor – the dichotomy between the technical and the social – that we can move forward.

Papacharassi and Wacjman both situate a technofeminist deconstruction of digital media at the core of their discursive perspectives on our digital future, promoting not simply a resistance that responds to (take for example, SRS Fempire: a subreddit response to oppressive dialogues online), but looking to the place of production, and engaging a rewriting of.

Educational institutions are indeed as well sites of patriarchally influenced gender construction. However, it is possible to imagine how the changing face of the university to adapt to our digital future could progressively work to challenge and change who it is produced for. The conceptualization of the new humanities is one that can be imagined to infuse critical thinking into a site of cultural production it is presently being deemed as inferior to; the morphing of the disposable humanities to the digital humanities – a necessarily feminist project.