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  • Rethinking the F Word:A Review of Activist Art on the Internet
  • Mary Flanagan (bio) and Suyin Looui (bio)

In an era when new technology and media increasingly infiltrate all facets of our lives, and progress on gender, racial, and other forms of equity appears excruciatingly slow, now seems a critical time to examine new technologies and their potential value for feminist activism. Since its public emergence in the late 1980s, the internet has been simultaneously criticized as oppressive and heralded as empowering for different communities. In this review, we will examine some of the emerging forms that feminist activist art is taking in relation to the internet and consider how technology has contributed to the goals of feminist artists and activists.

It is important to contextualize this review by considering the conflicted term "cyberfeminism" (Braidotti 1996; Gajjala 1999; Sollfrank 2002). Since the mid-1990s, the term cyberfeminism has been used to investigate the ways in which technology, especially new media and internet technology, and gender interact. Cyberfeminists investigate the celebratory yet contradictory nature of new technologies and work to determine methods of appropriation, intervention, or parallel practice to insert women's issues into the dominant technology discourse. While many women working with technology have regarded this term suspiciously, feminist activist artist Faith Wilding pointed to the possibilities and optimism inherent within it. In her influential article, "Where is Feminism in Cyberfeminism?" Wilding asserts that "cyberfeminists have the chance to create new formations of feminist theory and practice which address the complex new social conditions created by global technologies" (1998). Prominent feminist theorist Rosi Braidotti noted that a central aim of cyberfeminism was the breakdown and disintegration of contemporary gender boundaries (1996).

Cyberfeminism as a liberatory ideal has not yet achieved its potential, in part because of larger societal pressures surrounding the information technology fields. If a fundamental aim of cyberfeminism is to change and reorganize social and political realities by engaging technology to address gender issues, little progress has been achieved for women. In the United States, for instance, the dearth of women, especially women of color, in computer science and technology studies and professions has been described by researchers as a social justice issue (Wardle, Martin, and Clarke 2004). Female enrollment in information technology academic areas continues to decline, and the current gender imbalance in computing and new technology areas such as game and software development, hinders progress for women in social equity, equal access, and empowerment [End Page 181] (AAUW 2000; Margolis and Fisher 2001). And unfortunately, counter to cyberfeminist calls to appropriate technological resources for women, research shows that women, especially those from racial and ethnic minority groups, continue to veer away from software design studies; the number of women pursuing computer science degrees has declined considerably in the last twenty years (Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities 2000). Black and Hispanic Americans represent less than 10 percent of the computer systems analysts and computer scientists working in the field and less than 10 percent of programmers (U.S. Department of Commerce 2002). The inequities that result are troubling, especially at a time when computers have become central to most disciplines, and when computer games are emerging as a dominant medium. A similar challenge exists in the United Kingdom within technological fields such as the computer gaming industry; Natalie Hanman notes that women are on the "gaming" sidelines in play and employment, constituting only 17 percent of the games industry workforce (2005). As noted by many industry insiders, the vast majority of technology companies that produce games do not target women or people of color as players (Koster 2006; Slagle 2004). Cyberfeminist critiques of computer gaming, then, continue to remain relevant without new models to replace them (Flanagan 1999; Kennedy 2002; Schleiner 2001).

Given the dire state of the commercial context, one could ask, "Where are the cyberfeminists?" Have the idealistic views of early cyberfeminists had any impact on work created by artists on the internet today? In this review, we attempt to respond to this challenging question. Together we examine five websites, highlighting specific art works that utilize the internet to demonstrate how a variety of artists and artist's groups from around...


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pp. 181-200
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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