Next Steps

In preparing to write my lit review last week, I had the chance to re-read Mary Poovey’s article about the multiple public identities of Florence Nightingale. I was particularly taken with her argument that Nightingale’s agency over public perception of her identity quickly slipped from her grasp, as other people and groups appropriated and molded her image to their own benefit (198). With Poovey’s reading of Nightingale fresh in my mind, as I consider future scholarship in histories of gender and technology I’m drawn to the fertile ground that the Internet provides for discussions of agency over gender identity. As we learned through studying Gamergate and Reddit, online communities have proven their alarming ability to seize and manipulate control of an individual’s public perception, turning him/her from a hero to a villain (and maybe back again) within a few hours. I’m curious, though, how this issue is complicated by the fact that online personae are rarely an accurate perception of a person’s “true” identity to begin with. So in a sense, we surrender some control over our identities as soon as we “go online.” I’d love to see scholars (maybe one of DIG340’s very own!) grapple with these issues in the future.


Poovey, Mary. “A Housewifely Woman: The Social Construction of Florence Nightingale.” Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988. Web. 14 April 2016.

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ALL the Committees!

I thought the long list of caucuses formed by women in the early 70s on page 212 was fascinating, both because of their quantity and specificity (though Women’s Caucus of the American Association for the Advancement of Science really needs an anagram… WCotAAftAoS?) and also because their formation strikes me as a move to fight against the existing power structures by creating new ones, as if to say, “okay, if you won’t let us into your clubs, we’ll make our own!”

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Lit Review Topic

In a similar vein as our observation that scholars tend to focus on and idolize “exceptional” women in science, I want to explore academic fascination not just with the particularly talented, but the particularly odd: deviant, rule-breaking, or otherwise “abnormal” individuals. I will not limit my investigation to just women; rather, I aim to examine how and why the scholars we’ve read position atypical men and women alike as significant actors in the history of gender and science. I further hope to question the legitimacy and value of this focus, and its implications for the field. I will focus on our readings on Turing, Houdini, Ada Lovelace, and Sally Ride.

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The Language We Use => The Questions We Ask

Joining in on the chorus of responses to Julia’s post, I would add that I felt Schiebinger’s most compelling argument was that the language we use to talk about topics in science tends to direct future lines of questioning and research around that topic. She points, for example, to scientists’ tendency to invoke “narratives of courtship and marriage” (149) when discussing biological reproduction as a causal factor in the decision to “understand reproduction in bacteria, such as E. coli, through the lens of sex rather than other possible optics.” (149). In this case, as in the case of the ‘damsel in distress’ trope being applied to the roles of the sperm and egg in fertilization, and in countless other examples, the propagation of a particular narrative played a huge role in deciding the path of future scientific research.

Schiebinger’s argument was something of an eye-opener for me, because I’ll admit that I’ve tended to fall into the camp of people who would argue that the words, analogies, and metaphors we invoke bear little impact beyond the text they appear in. I think my skepticism stemmed from the fact that most writings I’ve encountered on the topic simply insist that language does indeed matter, then fail to provide any concrete evidence. Meanwhile, Schiebinger’s concrete anecdotes greatly strengthened her rhetoric, and clearly demonstrated that tropes and narratives within texts can seriously impact the future works of their readers. Her argument reminded me of Michelle Ellsworth presentation last Friday on her project “Preparation for the Obsolescence of the Y Chromosome,” which was borne several years ago out of Ellsworth’s interest in new research that seemed to suggest the gradual degradation of the male chromosome. That hypothesis, from what I gathered during the Q&A, has since been debunked. Still, the veracity of the research is irrelevant to Ellsworth’s project, which has since matured into a thoughtful, experimental exploration of gender, technology, and the future of both. What matters was that the research was published at all, that it made its way in front of Ellsworth’s attention, and that it inspired a line of questioning and introspection that she might otherwise never have considered.

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A few major themes

  1. Notions and expectations of “real” or “authentic” gender(ed) identities, e.g. “real” men, “real” women, “real” gamers, etc.
  2. Cycles that perpetuate gender biases, and the efforts we might make to interrupt these cycles. For example: Wikipedia’s silence on female artists is (partly) due to a small body of research on female artists, and this hole in Wikipedia also creates the illusion that there just aren’t that many female artists, continuing the cycle. People have fought to disrupt this system via edit-a-thons.
  3. The positioning of masculinity and femininity as adversarial and mutually exclusive, and the ways that this conflict manifests in technologies (for example: the creation and marketing of boys’ toys and girls’ toys but relatively few “gender-neutral” toys)
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Glass Ceilings Above Closed Doors

My head was swimming with statistics by the end of the Schiebinger reading, but her section on workplaces divisions between the sexes rung true to me. This is probably because I’ve seen these divides play out firsthand, when I worked for an auto dealership in Nashville last summer.

The auto industry is male-dominated, and men hold the monopoly over the stereotype of the sleazy car salesman. The only women at the dealership were in customer service or other secretary-type positions. My boss and I, who worked in web/graphic design, rarely interacted with the female employees.

Thus it was kind of a special occasion when a few times a month, a female employee at one of our business partners came into the dealership to meet with my boss. And here’s where things got sticky.

My boss’s office was directly next to the call center, where 8-10 phone conversations were always in progress at a given time. To hear someone talk in his office (or even just to hear yourself think), closing my boss’s door was a must. 95% of the time, this was a non-issue: my boss met almost exclusively with male employees. But as I mentioned earlier, every once in a while a female rep would come in to the dealership for a meeting.

He’s complained to me countless times about the difficulty of the situation. In this work environment it would be considered inappropriate for him to close his office door while a woman is in the room. Doing so would surely earn him a number of suspicious glances and suggestive comments from his co-workers. But leaving the door open to the clamor outside makes it incredibly difficult to have a productive meeting.

Not to mention, of course, that leaving the door open suggests to both parties and all onlookers that this businesswoman needs the protection being extended to her. It’s obviously tempting to say someone, either my boss or his female colleague, should just “make a stand” and close the door anyway, but it’s both difficult and risky to break the status quo when the stakes involve your source of income.

I’m not sure what the solution is. Though they may seem trivial or surface-level, these biases and divisions do a great deal to determine how men and women interact in the workplace. I get the feeling that closing these gaps will require a deeper systemic shift, unless a number of bold individuals prove willing to break the mold and withstand the heat.

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Ignorance is Bliss

Not until after walking through the deSouza and Syed exhibit did I notice the biographical plaque that explains that deSouza’s photographs are a contemporary response to Jacob Lawrence’s 1941 The Migration Series Granted, just being aware of this fact wouldn’t have enlightened my stroll through the exhibit much, since I know nothing about Lawrence or his 1941 piece. Without knowledge of its inspiration – or even that it had an inspiration – my time with the deSouza collection was a bit like watching the new Star Wars without having seen any of the others. The references were there, and in plain sight, but I was oblivious.

To some extent – I would even argue to a large extent – this doesn’t matter. Despite my ignorance of their place in a greater historical context, I was still able to enjoy and think critically on deSouza’s photographs. I still pondered, for example, the deliberate arrangement and grouping of the images, and still admired deSouza’s decision to position a cluster of nautical and natural images adjacent to a series of ones taken in the city, constructing a beautiful contrast between real and concrete jungles.

Still, these issues of authorial intent and subsurface historical contexts have consistently orbited near the center of this course, and they came up yet again in Martha Sandweiss’ preface to a collection of essays on photographs as historical and digital artifacts. Here, she offers that “the historian must be mindful of photographic intent, not because it provides the only way of interpreting an image, but because it provides one possible starting point for a more complicated reading.” (194). I agree, but I do think there is value to ‘blind’ readings, like mine today at the VAC, where the reader has little to no prior knowledge of a text’s creators and histories. In this blissfully ignorant state, we can read artifacts in isolation from the historical shadows they cast or sit beneath. As soon as we acquire context for a text, however, the two become inseparable, for better or for worse. It becomes difficult (maybe even impossible) to consider Alan Turing’s contributions to computer science or the war effort without also considering his celebrity, sexuality, and personal hardships. Likewise, I could not complete a second reading of deSouza’s photographs without now reflecting on how they pay homage to or critique The Migration Series. It’s up for debate, of course, whether or not this separation of artifact and context is even a worthwhile exercise. For now, I’ll just invert Sandweiss’ argument to suggest that even if it’s not the most informed or best way to interpret a text, it’s one possible (and possibly valuable) starting point.

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Throwing Stones at Glass Ceilings

Though I felt that Goyal’s alignment of gender stereotypes with the glass ceilings she describes was the weakest part of her article (“women tend to be more tender and nurturing [users] while men tend to be more abrasive users” [41] – huh?), I’m glad J.P. focused on this in his own post.  I agree with JP that “media identity” has both shaped and reinforced the so-called glass ceiling that sets an upper limit on women’s advancement in computing occupations. In fact, a suitable extension of Goyal’s article might be to look at other glass ceilings besides the ones within corporations, and how these work in tandem with the variety that Goyal focuses on.

For example, what are the glass ceilings looming over media representations of women in STEM fields? We’ve already looked at least one in class: the Barbie computer scientist book offers a rare portrait of a female programmer, but one with strict limitations on her skills and independence. Similarly, I can think of a handful of space movies and TV shows with female astronauts onboard, but hardly any with them in positions of leadership. A recent and much-needed exception to that trend would be last year’s The Martian, which had Jessica Chastain as Ares III’s mission commander.  In any case, it seems that just as we must work to shatter glass ceilings barring women’s advancement to top positions in computing and STEM fields, so too must we throw stones at the same barriers placed before fictional female scientists in the media.

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Creative Project Identification: Sexism in Hip Hop

I’m a pretty avid hip hop listener, but it can be difficult to justify my fandom when so many rap songs feature misogynist and sexist lyrics. A recent notable example is Kanye West’s new track “Famous,” in which he boldly declares:

“I feel like me and Taylor [Swift] might still have sex. Why? I made that bitch famous.”

I can think of a few songs that paint women in a better light (Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up” or Lupe Fiasco’s “Bitch Bad”), but these are typically one-offs, diamonds in the rough in a rapper’s repertoire.

Often, radio edits of explicit rap songs will “blank” out explicit words, or else replace the offending word with a different (and typically nonsensical) one. For example, the radio edit of Kendrick Lamar’s “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” censors the eponymous lyric to “Trick, don’t kill my vibe.” But in the case of more complicated lyrics, like the Kanye one above, a simple word swap or erasure won’t fix much. The rest of the lyric will remain intact, and the message is unchanged. What’s a radio censor to do?

For my project, I want to try my hand at editing a handful of these more complexly sexist lyrics to clean up their contents. For example, Kanye has another song from the same album titled “Real Friends,” so I might use bits from that track to alter the above lyric to:

“I feel like me and Taylor might still be friends. Why? We real famous.”

I’m still toying with how exactly this project will take shape, and which and how many songs I’ll edit, but I imagine that the final product will allow readers/users to compare the original with the “clean” versions. My project will thus be an exploration not just of sexism in hip hop, but also of the possibilities (and dangers) of digital censorship and remixing.

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