Interfacing Knowledge: New Paradigms for Computing in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences


March 8-10 2002, University of California Santa Barbara


Sexing the Interface: Gender, Sex and the Avatar


Sue-Ellen Case

Theatre, UC/Los Angeles

(all rights reserved)



In Dracula’s Legacy (Draculas Vermächtnis), Friedrich Kittler wittily deploys the elements in Bram Stoker’s Dracula to image the new relations between women and technology.[1]  For Kittler, Dracula illustrates the anxieties, possibilities, and repressive strategies that accompany women’s emerging role in the use of new technologies.  Two characters represent a simple bifurcation of women’s roles: Mina Murray, who knows stenography and the ways of the typewriter, and her friend Lucy Westenra, who is bitten by the vampire and thus confined by doctors and other men, who scrutinize her “hysterical” behavior. 

Mina Murray figures the secretaries who will transcribe patriarchal discourse throughout much of the century, transforming the individual writing or speaking of men into an objective script that can bind together the transactions of business and nation.[2]  She will enter the office, the work force, as an adjunct of men, in an unequal relation to their labor, social standing, and salary.  Mina will operate what Kittler, in a German agglutinate, terms the  “discoursemachineweapon” (Diskursmaschinengewehr), the Remington typewriter, developed and capitalized by the company that made weapons for the Civil War (29).  In the later twentieth century, Mina would represent not only the women at the keyboard, but also those women in Third World Special Economic Zones whose labor on the machine produces its internal parts.  They produce the “discourse machine” that bears the load of First World software designers, who are, for the most part, men.[3]  In sum, Mina signifies the gendered production of uneven power between men and women in the new techno-economy.  For the most part, women enable the transmission of the discourse, but they do not create it.

Meanwhile, back in the bedroom, Lucy Westenra has been suffering, or enjoying, nightly visits from Count Dracula. Her perforated body, exhibiting the tracks of his bites, along with her wanderings, “delusions,” and illicit lust bring her under the scrutiny of doctors and other “rational” men.  They attempt to confine her to the bed, or the divan, where she will serve as the object of psychoanalytic “truths” of the time concerning hysteria.[4]  The rational men huddle around her body, which is clothed in a revealing and suggestive peignoir.   Her misbehaving, induced by illicit penetration provides a rationale for the men to murder the “foreign” Count Dracula.[5]  Although it is important to bind these two roles together in order to fully understand how women have been situated in the world of emerging technologies, it is Lucy’s role that I would like to develop here as the precursor of the construction of the sign “woman,” within the new technologies. Her perforated body signifies the drive toward increasing interactive relations between machinic devices and corporeality.  She represents how images of women’s bodies are put to the uses of virtual penetration.

Between the user and the various machines of communication, analysis, and production, the screen stages their interactivity through images that have historically represented notions of identity, desire, and anxiety. [6]   Software design enables the play of images as functions of interactivity.  In order to do so, it necessarily borrows from the lexicon of familiar signs to represent the user and his or her actions in the cybersphere.  As the user finds her/himself more and more imbricated in the web of new technologies, an increasing need for some sign of location, or identity, is required to locate her/his functions.  The sign for “woman” serves to manage this interaction, lending appeal and allure to the functions.  As Kittler reminds us, this woman was first perceived as that sexy stenotypist, who first replicated men’s discourse on the machine.  Soon, her image began to be produced within the cultural imaginary to figure the interactive functions with machines as both seductive and threatening.  She appeared as a robot in films like Metropolis, or The Stepford Wives, which narrativized how her seductive qualities still required disciplining by the men she would serve. The sign system was up and running in its traditional semiotic production of the sign “woman,” but still required new management of her referents.  “Woman” was securely in the machine, but her referents were not yet fully absorbed by the new synergies of scientific, corporate, and social technologies.[7]  “Woman” would need to exit, completely, her referents to the “real” world in order to successfully marry into cybersociety.

Much of the discussion about avatars presumes a relationship between avatar and user, subjecting the dynamics to a scrutiny of identificatory processes and masquerade.  Utopic visions of a sphere where cross-gender identifications abound, alongside feminist warnings against any belief in the possibility of  “free” play within the gender regime.  Yet both sides would agree that the users are, somehow, performing versions of social identities and relationships in cyberspace.  Anterior notions of  “self,” volition, or agency, and clear, stable attributes of social organization are required for the backdrop behind this theater of avatars. As I have argued more fully in my book, The Domain-Matrix, many of these attributes are specific to an earlier form of capitalism and do not reflect the contemporary, corporate structuring of social relations.[8]  Given the corporate, commercial take-over of what was once considered to be private space and discourse, the referents of the sign system no longer reside in the kind of natural, or social environments which identificatory studies of the avatar presume.  Specifically in my study of the avatar, the signification of gender has less to do with promoting an identificatory process between user and avatar than as a way to promote the avatar onscreen.  In other words, avatars do not function as masks for users, but as brand names, or logos, competing in a commercial space. 

The digital diva is a representation of gender codes used to articulate the interface between that anterior sense of the private and the live with new, corporate virtual systems.  The diva is the hostess, so to speak, who promotes forms of interaction that seem familiar and enticing in the new cyberspace.  She is animating the interface —seduced and seducing the users to use the new products of corporate technology.

Rather than serving users as masks for their identificatory fantasies, avatars actually functions as forms of logos. In her brilliant study, No Logo, Naomi Klein offers a history of the rise of the corporate “branding” that ultimately produced the logo-centric surround of the new millennium.  She notes that “the first task of branding was to bestow proper names on generic goods, such as sugar, flour, soap, and cereal. . . Logos were tailored to evoke familiarity and folksiness” (6).  Enter Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima, and Old Grand Dad, who substituted for rice, flour, and whiskey.  As corporate branding became more sophisticated, actual people began to stand in for the logo, as well as the more cartoon characters.  By now, we are accustomed to make a product association with movie stars, or sports stars, as well as talking Chihuahuas and Bart Simpson.  The person-alized logos signify products, or the conglomerate behind products.  Magic Johnson means Nike and MacDonald’s can extend its referent through any number of toys that resemble familiar cartoon characters.   Klein further develops how logos are placed, within movies, novels, and other so-called cultural venues.  Situating the logo within civic and cultural spaces spawned what The Wall Street Journal identifies as the “experiential communication” industry, as Klein notes, “the phrase now used to encompass the staging of branded pieces of corporate performance art….” (12).

We now have branded hotels, theaters, theme parks, and even little villages.  The brands loop back into their own worlds through synergies of entertainment and products, creating, as Starbucks calls it, “a brand canopy” (148).  Brands, then, Klein argues, “are not products but ideas, attitudes, values, and experiences….the lines between corporate sponsors and sponsored culture have entirely disappeared” (30).  One might say, then, that avatars are the actors in “corporate performance art.”  The branded space is the space of cybersocieties.

            Gendered characterizations, particular those that are sexualized, have been promoted in this logo culture to create the logo, or in our case, the avatar as fetish.  To reverse Freud’s equation, the referents of sexual practices are made to serve as fetish object of product lines.  Jean Kilbourne, a scholar of advertising, emphasizes that the average person in the United States is bombarded by 3,000 ads per day (Ms. 55).  Kilbourne notes that many of these ads create what she terms a “synthetic sexuality” —one that designates a certain body type, gestural system, and fashion sense as sexy.  The referent is not sex, on the contrary, sex is the sign for the product line, or more, the corporation behind various product lines. Hyper-feminized avatars, then, circulate among the other logos, competing for focus, and acting out corporate and technological relations as seductive and even as sexual.  Their referent is not the user, but the corporate logos that are used to comprise the image of the avatar.

Astrid Deuber-Mankowsky has composed a sophisticated treatment of the avatar of Lara Croft, the protagonist of the computer game Tomb Raider, which illustrates how the sexified, powerful Lara stands in for corporate, technological success. In the narrative of the game, Lara appears as a “white,” upper-class, British archaeologist off on adventures in the Third World.  She is scantily-clad, but tough, with weapons and martial arts in her arsenal against the Other.  She is viewed from behind, suggesting that she represents, or works for, the game player.  Many feminist treatments of Lara replicate the traditional focus on the user’s identificatory processes, debating her subject/object status for the mostly male players, who both desire her and identify with her.  Deuber-Mankowky, however, argues that Lara Croft functions not as a character but as an ad.[9]   The composition and function of Lara serves to perform the imaging power of the 32-bit platform and the 3-D graphics card.   She is the sexy diva that attests to the imaging power of the Sony Play Station.  In other words, an avatar of a heterosexualized, white woman offers a ground for the imaging of the new convergence of filmic and digital possibilities that made the game Tomb Raider popular. Lara represents the high level of 3-D simulation that the successful upgrading of the computer platform and graphic card allowed in the construction of the game. Her whiteness and gender work together to create an alluring and powerful image of new technologies at work in the world.



Insofar as these gendered avatars conform to the fashions of womanhood and seductiveness, they refer to the corporations and their seductive qualities rather than to social relations in the “real” world.   “A new transcendental, universal, and, above all, consuming subject is offered as the model of future cyber-citizenship” (Gonzalez 48).  These avatars circulate in a special economic zone of privileged consumption, unmarred by considerations of labor and legal practices. 

Yet, even if gender and ethnic codes serve only as fragments of identificatory processes for the ever-distant users, they might be used to signal the conditions of those who are not invited into the ranks of the privileged.  Unfortunately, at this point, the sign for woman serves pretty much the same function of seductive hostess as in traditional uses, and ethnic markers seem a to signal “hip,” “young,” and hyper-gendered users on the make.  But what if users with more activist agendas began to people cyberspace with the images of the poor, the weak, and the disenfranchised?  What if the body types of the avatars did not match the requirements of young, thin, toned, Anglo avahunks, or digital divas?  What if they did not hang around chat rooms, but used them as sites to organize, to educate, and to radicalize?  What if they could imagine the “discoursemachineweapon,” as Kittler called it, as one of the most powerful tools available for intervention—turning it back onto the logos who would manage it?

            What would it take to make that happen? 


Works Cited:


Bornstein, Kate. Virtually Yours. In o solo homo. Eds. Holly Hughes and David Roman.  New York: Grove Press, 1998. 229-278.


Case, Sue-Ellen.  The Domain-Matrix: Performing  Lesbian at the end of Print Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.


Gonzalez, Jennifer. “The Appended Subject: Race and Identity as Digital Assemblage.” In Race in Cyberspace. Eds. Beth E. Kolko, Lisa Nakamura, Gilbert B. Rodman. New York and London: Routledge, 2000. 27-50.


Hanson, Ellis. “The Telephone and its Queerness.” Cruising the Performative. Eds.

Sue-Ellen Case, Philip Brett, Susan Leigh Foster. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.34-58.


Kittler, Friedrich. Draculas Vermächtnis. Leipzig: Reclam Verlag. 1993.


Klein, Naomi. No Logo. London: Flamingo, 2000.


Kolko, Beth. “Erasing @race: Going White in the (Inter)Face.” In Race in Cyberspace. 213-232.

Lott, Eric.  Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.   


Ms. Magazine.  Dec 2000/Jan 2001.


Nietzsche, Friedrich.  The Birth of Tragedy. Trans. Shaun Whiteside. New York: Penguin   Books, 1993.


Parrinder, Edward Geoffrey. Avatar and Incarnation. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1970.


Poster, Mark. The Mode of Information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.


     [1] Elsewhere, I have argued for the vampire as a figure for appearance of lesbians in the system of representation. I think the work there amplifies this article’s focus on gender rather than sexual practice. See “Tracking the Vampire,” in differences 3:2 (1991):1-20. 

     [2] Interestingly, Bram Stoker served as secretary to the eminent actor/manager Henry Irving. The term secretary derives from the Latin “keeper of secrets.” It had a more prestigious connotation for men in the Victorian era, when it suggested privy knowledge within the realm of public or governmental service. See The History of the Secretarial Profession on the official website of Professional

     [3] See Grant Kestler’s “Out of Sight Is Out of Mind: the Imaginary Space in Postindustrial Culture,” in Social Text 11:2 (Summer 1993):72-92.

     [4] Nina Auerbach, in Magi and Maidens: The Romance of the Victorian Freud, notes that Bram Stoker took part in the Society for Psychical Research in 1893, where he became acquainted with the notion of female hysteria. Critical Inquiry,8,290. In a chapter on “Victorian Mythmakers,” Auerbach suggests that Svengali, from DuMaurier’s novel Trilby, inspired Stoker’s Dracula. She compares an illustration of the unconscious Trilby on stage with the swooning figure of an  “hysterical” woman exhibited by Charcot. Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982. 15-34.

     [5] As we know, this practice persists today, with the taboo of illicit penetration providing a rationale for the murder of Matthew Shepard, among others. 

    [6] I am indebted to Jeff Nyhoff for this clarification in his sophisticated, yet-unpublished work on performing the interface.

     [7] For a discussion of the multiple uses of the term “technology,” see the introduction to Processed Lives: Gender and Technology in Everyday Life. Eds. Jennifer Terry and Melodie Calvert. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.1-19.

     [8] See, especially, the section entitled “Bringing Home the Meat,” which traces the commodification of social relations. 

    [9] Unfortunately, for some, Deuber-Mankowsky’s monograph is in German. Lara Croft: Modell,Medium,Cyberheldin;das virtuelle Geschlecht unde seine metaphysischen Tücken. Frankfurt:Suhrkamp, 2001.