Week 9 — Theories of Media and Technology

This week, I enjoyed exploring the Cyborg Manifesto and looking into the history of feminism and the different perspectives introduced within society. One of the theorists whose work I’m most familiar with is Judith Butler. I’ve written on their analysis regarding gender performativity many times and have applied that theory to a few media works.

What I find most insightful regarding the gender performativity theory is the amount of effort that goes into creating these binaries of male and female. Gender comes down to performance; there is no gender, as gender is a social construct, but social structures are built to maintain these dominant ideologies and perspectives on what should be. One of the first examples I can think of is how gender is prescribed to you before you are born. There’s sort of an obsession with gender reveal parties, and then there’s pink rooms, or blue rooms, etc. All of those things are part of this whole idea of performativity. This also begs the question, if gender is biologically a fact, why do we feel the need to perform our gender? There’s just so much effort that goes into doing so. But it also shows how difficult it is to defy what is considered to be the norm. Since institutions have been built with this ideology and values of gender, it’s hard to go against those perspectives because it would require structural overhauls.

I think there has been progress in defying the norms. We now see that there are gender-neutral clothing and other institutions are also changing and recognizing the influence they have on these problematic values. I think it’s also important to note the role designers play in perpetuating these dominant ideologies that negatively affect society. Designers themself may not necessarily agree with these views, but in my opinion, your design also becomes a reflection of you and your values. So, even if you’re working for some organization, and you don’t necessarily agree with what they’re perpetuating, by participating in that project, I believe you also share those values by way of your design. Because designers have such an essential role in literally maintaining or breaking down societal structures, we must use this practice for the greater human good, in my opinion. I guess then there becomes this issue of what to choose. As we’ve seen with the history of feminism, there have been various movements with various perspectives. Even today, those who identify as feminists carry different views on things such as what feminism is, whether a woman is biological or if it’s behavioral, transgender women, and many other topics. The question becomes, if there are so many varying perspectives, how does a designer choose. And I’d say it’s essential to recognize that regardless of the views, if we can agree that these institutions perpetuate harmful ideologies, then it’s up to us to speak out through design. Obviously, maybe consider your ideologies, but while also keeping in mind whether those ideologies harm others and how your design will, in turn, bring light to the issue or harm people.

To follow up on another exciting point mentioned throughout the readings was regarding this idea of associating cyborgs with genders. This point also plays to the perspective I was sharing above regarding designers’ role in perpetuating certain ideologies. If you think about personal assistive devices, most of them, the default is usually a woman’s voice. There have been some interesting studies on how these devices portray a submissive figure who then becomes a victim of men’s rage. I’ve also read studies that sort of look at how men respond to these devices when the voice of the cyborg is a woman. Sometimes when let’s say someone gets angry that the assistive device didn’t respond correctly, the study shows how one might react in a way that’s similar to how they react to the women in their life. But more importantly, this notion of assistive devices automatically being a woman perpetuates certain ideologies about women’s role in society, one that is to assist others with their every desire. Extremely problematic, but yet, it remains the default for most digital assistive devices. The question here is whether something like this should have a gender, but we can also clearly see the negative stereotypes associated here. I think Judith Butler would argue that these technologies help perpetuate these ideas of performing gender. And these technologies also perform gender themselves. As a designer, here’s one case where I think it would be beneficial to acknowledge how this is harmful to society and design differently. For one, we shouldn’t be associating technology with genders.

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