Friday, September 14, 2007

I was an Online Female Impersonator

This is a blogging post I did a while ago in another venue, and I thought since it was a rainy Friday afternoon where I live, I thought I would revisit it.


When I first started using the internet back in my freshman year of college, I used to chat at this telnet site called Hotel. That was back in 1995 through 1997, so that was before most of the major instant messenger programs/services got off the ground. For the first 5 or 6 months of chatting, I was largely myself (because online we are all a little different than we are in real life) but part of the allure of the internet has always been the anonymity, and I thought it would be an interesting experiment to see things from a different perspective. There were many routes I could have taken, but in the end I decided I was going to see what it was like to be a woman online.

Part of it was arrogance, I admit. I wanted to know if I was a good enough writer to pull it off, and another part was simple curiosity. So it was that I assumed another identity and I became Marissa.

Now Marissa was an ordinary girl with sort of mundane roots. She was my age at the time, had an older brother and a younger sister, and worked at her parent's gas bar out in a hamlet outside of the town I lived in. I tried to avoid all the mistakes a lot of men trying to play women online make, and because in general, I was a good listener the previous six months, I had picked up a few things about how conversations flowed in that environment. Nothing was too over the top or extreme. She also had a boyfriend, a "fact" I thought I would be able to use if I got into too much trouble in the role and avoid some of the potential complications of someone becoming too enamored with my character. The thought I had in my head as I began was to try to maintain the "Person first, woman second" ethic, so I thought I was ready, but in retrospect, I was likely mistaken.

Within 5 minutes as Marissa at Hotel, someone had asked me about my bust size, which got the equivalent of a slap in the face from me, and I thought it must be a fluke, because I never acted like that in chat, and as a guy, well, no one would really ask me a question like that--but then it happened again, and from someone I knew as my real personality. It was like I was seeing their true colors for the first time. But I kept going with the experiment, because Marissa was becoming a more refined character, which made her a bit more interesting to play. Yes, there was still some harassment(if a received even a fraction of the inappropriate questions that a lot of real women received online, I am shocked women actually participated in chat at all). Now, I am not talking about a little flirting here, I am talking about full-on sexual advances, and I don't think I was putting out those vibes at all! I didn't bring up sex at all... I mean, I was talking about music with a group of people there, and some guy just whispered asking if I wanted to have a little bit of "private fun" with him. I politely declined... but still, I was left very uncomfortable.

I remember one time I was just chatting with some guy and everything was pleasant...

...and then he took off my shirt.

He hadn't even asked me if I wanted to cyber or anything. Absolutely no warning. And this was after I had played the BF card! It just happened. It was at that point I knew my little experiment should end. I went back to being myself full-time there, but after that my vision was colored by my experiences as Marissa, I knew there was all this other stuff going on under the surface and when I met the people who had out-and-out propositioned my feminine alter-ego, well, I had a hard time letting go. It wasn't a fun place to be anymore.

Looking back, do I regret being Marissa? Not really, because it gave me some much needed perspective... though I guess your mileage may vary with experience like that. Would I do it again? Probably not. I ended up feeling a little dirty after it was all said and done, mainly because of the outright dishonesty of playing that role.


Cold Cut Ten said...

This is the reason why I like to use sexless ambiguous nicks when on game forums. As a female member, you inevitably get unwanted attention from some jerks because of your gender. Or else it is pointed out to you during some discussion disagreements. There are always some assumptions made about females that are very difficult to shake off and becomes this extra unnecessary obstacle when trying to make a point.

In some cases, a guy can pass off certain points of argument when a woman cannot. Military matters and game tastes being some of the examples. And it annoys the hell out of me. Women must somehow prove that they aren't so 'girly' that they can't understand these things.

In general, it seems a whole lot better to have the community accept one as "one of the guys" before one should reveal one's gender if one chooses to do so.

I never have any problems passing off as a guy on a forum. :D

MC said...

Do you think that you haven't had problems playing a guy because your name presents itself as something that makes you a part of the "status quo" and thus, you aren't challenging the norms and prejudices of community?

I can think of some communities that as a guy I would be marginalized and my comments would perhaps be under greater scrutiny than if I had a gender neutral or feminine username. Let's just say I am not going to sign up at iVillage forums anytime soon, even though they do talk about issues which as a male of the species I would be able to give some perspective to the discussion

Cold Cut Ten said...

>>makes you a part of the "status quo" and thus, you aren't challenging the norms and prejudices of community?

Yeah I should think so.

I never had to lie. No one ever asks. Gender unspecified online characters are by default assumed to be male. At least on most techie / game / current affairs forums.

That is probably true the other way around in communities that are majority female and/or concerned with their matters. And in some places, like blog communities, people should know well enough not assume anything at all, although there is the ever popular assumption that one is American when one is competent in the English language.

MC said...

That is another thing that we share as non-Americans. ;)