Gender & Second Life

Mistero Hifeng on Dalsgaard (moderate)

I followed some Koinup photos yesterday to the art of Mistero Hifeng on Dalsgaard. I know I’ve seen his work before, and enjoyed it, but these pieces are even better than I remember.

One thing I should mention, in case you start to wonder (because I did), is that he is not depressed. I asked him – in fact, I asked him a couple times if he was sure about that. It’s OK, therefore, to appreciate the seemingly dark aspects of these pieces without starting to worry about his state of mind. :)

As proof he gave me a link to his real life photos which are also fantastic. He has a shop and gallery on this island as well, and I encourage you to check them out.

Mistero Hifeng on Dalsgaard (moderate)

You’ll notice that I referred to Mistero as “he” in that first paragraph. This is a lazy assumption on my part, because I really have no idea if the person is male or female. It’s certainly not relevant in this context, and in Second Life it’s a waste of time to speculate.

I’m always getting gender wrong – I’ll casually use “he” and find out I should have said “she”, or make the mistake in reverse and use “she” when I shouldn’t. It’s not like we have an abundance of obvious clues – in addition to all the gender switching that takes place, there are a lot of asexual and androgynous avatars. You can’t be really sure unless you’ve spoken to them in voice (assuming no tricks are used) and I get frustrated having to think about it.

Apart from those intimate occasions, when it might be important to know what kinds of dangly bits the other person has, does it matter?

Mistero Hifeng on Dalsgaard (moderate)

I’ve been thinking about gender, and third person pronouns, in the context of our world because of one of the books I read on my “break”. In addition to John Scalzi’s Lock In (which will be a comfortable read for SL Residents), I want to strongly recommend that you read Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.

The novel has won a lot of awards and, in my opinion, deserves them. I had read a number of comments on it before I actually got hold of the book, and most of them talked about how she deals with gender. It’s not part of the plot, just an intriguing component of the world she builds.

The protagonist comes from a culture where gender isn’t an important part of life. Oh people have preferences when it comes to sex, but their language and culture don’t differentiate between men and women. For almost the entire story the only third person pronoun used is “she”. When our hero is speaking with people of a different culture/language she has to spend time identifying a person’s sex and then consciously use the “correct” words.

This has been problematic for many readers. However, I expected that my modern/liberal/progressive/feminist brain would have no issues. It still took me a number of chapters to get used to it.

Mistero Hifeng on Dalsgaard (moderate)

It would be great if the culture we build inworld had the same kind of approach to gender as the Radch do in the book. Our problem is language. The only non-gender specific pronoun we have (it) also dehumanizes the person, so I can’t start using that.

It is possible to make my posts gender neutral, and I have consciously done that sometimes when I got nervous about not knowing what the truth was. I forget frequently though and I just make assumptions. Often, because of my early upbringing I think, I just assume it’s a “he”. When I was growing up, anybody who deserved admiration or respect was male (doctors/lawyers etc., were automatically assumed to be a he).

I could just start using s/he as the default and that would be more politically correct. There’s nothing wrong with it apart from its awkwardness.

I suspect, though, that I will overlook the issue and continue to just arbitrarily use the two predominant pronouns indiscriminately. I apologize if I offend anybody doing that, but honestly those little bits of anatomy are rarely as important as what you do and who you are. Second Life proves that everyday.

Mistero Hifeng on Dalsgaard (moderate)
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22 Comments

  1. The problem with being gender neutral is that it implies readers are indifferent to gender. I’d guess that there are times when gender *is* irrelevant – “My lawyer kept me out of jail,” and never mind whether said lawyer is male or female – but other times when gender is very much relevant. Many women prefer female doctors, or to be pawed by female TSA agents. Most people, whether gay or straight, have preferences for the gender of romantic partners.

    It’s odd that in other areas of life we make a fetish out of celebrating diversity, but some want to pretend as though gender differences are unimportant. Well, vive la difference, I say. And long live gendered pronouns!

    Reply
  2. LOL if it’s important then it should be noted :) If I’m talking about people because they created something I like, it’s rarely relevant.
    And I did say that intimate encounters would be a place where people would care about the differences. :p
    Reading the book really did bring the issue home to me.

    Reply
  3. great post and pics :)

    Reply
  4. I have toyed with editing writings to alternate between male and female pronouns. Makes for confusing reading until your mind gives up and goes with it :)

    Reply
  5. Not all language have gendered pronouns — Finnish, for example. Personally, when I write, I dodge the issue by using plurals whenever possible.

    Reply
  6. there you go :)

    Reply
  7. ediebeatscancer

     /  November 3, 2014

    How about we substitute the gender neutral “they” instead Seems simple enough and gets us out of the conundrum.

    Reply
  8. They has been used as a neuter single pronoun for centuries, interestingly enough. I think it’s confusing for a lot of people, though.

    I tend to default to “she” when I’m unsure (consciously chosen, as a push back against he as default) unless I believe the individual is trans gender, in which case the cost for getting it wrong rises and I use they. I’m fond of xe and xir and the like, but I don’t think they’re broadly enough known to gain traction. One of the books I read used himmer and hisser, but it’s not my favorite configuration. When I created a language, I used sie and there wasn’t a gendered third person at all; this was ages before I ran into most of the thought about gender and pronouns.

    For a while one of the blogs I read did some work on trying to identify and unpack our implicit gendered ideas, and I play with it now and then in places where gender doesn’t seem to be obviously marked. I’m sometimes startled at my assumptions and how right/wrong they often are.

    Weirdly, I get irritated when people misgender me even now, but a chunk of that is because I don’t perceive myself as being particularly subtle in my gender markers. I also tend to read people off of gender markers, but those can be inaccurate as well, so I may need to rethink that end of things.

    Reply
  9. Interestingly, Japanese genders the first person pronouns (which aren’t quite pronouns as they’re used in English) which allows both for subtleties in how people present themselves, and subversions where people use pronouns not meant for their gender.

    Reply
  10. Japanese is very good for subtly (and not so) putting people in their place with pronouns/honorifics – I remember first learning the difference in french between tu and vous and then realizing the multiples thereof in Japanese.

    Also – I get “Sir”ed a lot in both lives, so I’m used to being misidentified :)

    Reply
  11. A Couple of things to say. First of all, with virtual world avatars, a person is ALWAYS the gender they present to me in SL regardless if I know it is an alt of someone I know well of the other gender.. If they are androgynous on purpose, then they shouldn’t be offended by being seen either way, as that is how THEY set it up.

    Next, I’ll have to admit to being somewhat disappointed by Ancillary Justice. Maybe because there was as much hype about it as any sci fi book in recent memory. It did have a great setup and some excellent ideas regarding artificial intelligence and what constitutes a self as well as the gender issues you mention. That said, the ending was very disappointing as I started to realize this wasn’t written as a stand alone work but as part of a series, and this meant it really couldn’t go where it wanted to go, at least not until several more bestsellers have been made. So I see that as a very cynical choice. What is best about the greatest of the book series is that each book stands alone on its own. Like Dune for example. The first one is complete.

    -Scarp Godenot

    Reply
  12. Joey1058

     /  November 7, 2014

    The first time I ran into the issue of gender neutrality was in a website called OrionsArm.com. But it was not just male/female, but bio/mech as well. The preference in much of this site is “hir”, “zir”, “ze’, and the like. We live in an age where now people are dropping labels to more closely identify themselves with their avatars. Gender is a default world necessity. Digitally, not so much. It’s like the requirement of avatars needing surnames in SL. We need them, why, again?

    Reply
  13. I love this post.

    Reply
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