Women’s Work: Undoing the Gender of (Digital) Media

Women’s Work: Undoing the Gender of (Digital) Media

By Dr. Katherine Nolan  


katherine-nolan-copyBurd of the Sorrows, 2015 used with permission ©katherinenolan

With the prevalence of technology in our everyday, it is easy to slip into a mode of thinking about digital media as instantly accessible and equally available to all. In addition to a privileging of a developing world perspective, which assumes access to media across country, class and race, such ideas ignore the gendering of media. While we use digital objects and consume their content daily, at times incessantly, what are the implicit (and explicit) codes that gender the media we use? What histories does this over-familiarity encourage us to forget? In an art context, how/can artists as authors undo the gender of digital media, and media more generally? 

 Media, the plural of medium which is defined as an “agency or means of doing something” is more than just a neutral carrier (Oxford Dictionaries, 2016); the medium is also a maker of meaning. The digital devices of our everyday – cameras, phones, laptops, ipods – are often thought of as new, but are of course developments of existing technologies and thus carry with them all kinds of ideologies, habitual usages permissions and codes that govern who is socio-culturally sanctioned to use them, in what way, and how their usage signifies. If I were to unpick an image of a 1980’s Wall Street banker speaking frantically into multiple phones or a war-time telephone exchange receptionist, typical usages of technology would unravel revealing gendered narratives, roles and systems of power, status and oppression. In the age of ‘multi-media’ many histories cross and intersect: with personal media devices we might draw upon legacies of photography, cinema, telecommunications, digital computing and so on.

The lens-based element of digital media alone is weighty with persistent dominant narratives, production industry biases, and consumption patterns that normatively govern gendered subjects’ relationships to the technology and its content. Many feminist critiques (Mulvey, Williams) of the still and moving image assert, not only a dominant narrative of male author/owner of the look and female model, through which viewpoint, subjectivity and power are masculinised; but that knowledge of our bodies, gender and access to power are produced and reproduced through technology. So despite, and perhaps because of our over-familiarity, the media we use everyday are far from politically neutral. 

In addition to a gendered gaze – which could also be said to be a legacy of other historical constructs of looking and being looked at, for instance art-historical modes – how are technological objects themselves gendered? That is their materiality as objects, their internal circuitry, their logic, their code, their construction, their operations and functions? Who is normatively permitted to access the understanding, knowledge and inner workings of media, the core of what makes the technology operate? These questions conjure normative gender binaries of man/mind/machine in opposition to woman/body/nature (Wajcman, 1991); as well as the idea of women as Mechanical Brides through the gendering of ‘important’ technology as male, while certain machines – the telephone, typewriter, washing machine and iron – pertain only to ‘women’s work’ (McLuhan, 1951; Lupton 1993). Yet if digital technology is so everyday how do such gender binaries persist?

A prevalent normative stereotype of technology as pertaining to the domain and governance of men, accompanies and supports ideas that men are logical, rational, scientific and women are emotional, illogical and adverse to rationality. This feminist critique of the masculinisation of reason can be traced as far back as Mary Wollenstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) which argued against the idea of reason as ‘naturally’ and exclusively male. A history particularly pertinent to this discussion is the conceptualisation and use of the photographic apparatus as a tool of scientific knowledge in the Nineteenth Century. Not only did the camera develop as a technology predominantly under the control of men, but thought of as a purveyor of truth it also operated to produce the masculinsed subject as one characterised by objectivity, rationality and reason. This is made even more striking in the use of the camera in the invention of hysteria as a woman’s disease (Didi-Huberman, 1982).

Neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot’s study of an apparent epidemic of hysteria in women in 19th-century Paris produced the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière (1876–1880); a compelling body of evidence that supported social ideas about women as fragile and emotionally volatile. This multi-volume publication contained reams of images of women in dramatic and spectacular bodily states: faces distorted into strange expressions; staring eyes; protruding tongues; figures wrestling with nightgowns and bedclothes; passive, fallen and strangely contorted bodies. The disturbance of hysteria was in attributed to the very condition of being female, the term derived from the Greek for uterus and Charcot’s supposition that it was caused by the ovaries sending hysterical impulses to other parts of the body via the spinal cord (Macey, 2000: 194). Now a much contested history by which this ‘women’s disease’ was invented, the images that were posited as evidence, constructed an iconography which continues to haunt the body as supposed proof of women’s as over-emotionality, and lack of reason.

The image as proof in Charcot’s Study was supported by the prevalent positivist premise that privileged sight as the purveyor of ontological knowledge: that is visibility equated to truth, and the camera conceptualised as indexical in nature and a direct recording of an objective reality (Baer, 2002). Charcot’s extensive use of the camera, and the power of his position as doctor to patient under observation, is not only an example of the dominant narrative of male author to female object of his mastering gaze; it demonstrates how male privilege has influenced understandings of the media itself; how the body marked female has come to signify the irrational, the emotional and the illogical, and how this is diametrically opposed to the logic, objectivity and reason of the technology as masculinsed. 

Charcot’s discourse of hysteria has left a striking visual record of women ‘becoming’ the cultural image of femininity; its’ legacy continues in the naturalised idea of women as fragile, emotionality volatile and melodramatic. Many of the visual and embodied tropes of hysteria persist: ‘fainting’ is perhaps the most iconic and enduring image of feminine hysteria. Ubiquitous modern references in popular cinema to the ultra-femininity of fragility and emotional volatility include Véra Clouzot in Les Diaboliques (1955), Marilyn Monroe in Niagara (1953) and Kim Basinger in Batman (1989). It is the particularly embodied nature of women’s relationship to the camera in this narrative of the camera as masculinised media, that is so striking and that has perhaps made it so enduring. This can be explored further by examining the role of the individual’s embodied, lived experience in the gendering of media, and in particular through concepts of the ‘I can’ and the ‘I can’t’ body through which gender expectations and narratives are internalised, self-governed and become ‘true’.

Iris Maron Young’s influential paper Throwing like a girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment, Motility and Spatiality (1977) addresses this from another perspective, examining normative social and cultural attitudes that women are not as capable at sports as men. As well as a populist idea, this seems to be borne out in the statistics of their participation (Bailey, Wellard, and Dismore, 2005). However Young asserts that this occurs not due to biological difference but that it is “in the process of growing up as a girl that the modalities of feminine bodily comportment, motility, and spatiality make their appearance” (Young, 1997:153). This gendering of spatiality is wide-reaching, persisting in stereotypical ideas that women are not good at reading maps, parking cars, designing buildings, making sculpture. What is striking is Young’s discussion of the change in girls attitudes to the capabilities of their bodies in puberty: she asserts that once girls start to become sexualised objects in the eyes of others and themselves, they develop a self-consciousness in their behaviours which starts to fulfil expectations about what girls and women, can and can’t do. They transform from having what Young terms an ‘I can’ body, to an ‘I can’t’ body: a body that doesn’t believe it can complete an intended action (because it is not permitted/expected to) which in turn leads a girl to to indeed ‘throw like a girl’. (Young, 1977)

Other evidence of this shift in girls ability or performance in puberty can be found in various masculinised fields, and work to maintain the status quo and the belief that men and women are ‘naturally’ good at certain things and bad at others. One such instance, that is particularly relevant to the discussion of digital media is the disparity between girls grades in mathematics and their under-representation in careers such as engineering that require maths as a core skill (Accenture, 2014). This is perhaps the force of the ‘I can’t’ body at play: according to dominant narratives, a body marked female is not supposed to be naturally, biologically and physically capable of tasks, subjects and professions that require logic and reason such as mathematics, electronics and coding. It is the rehearsing and performing of such gender expectations through the body that makes them bear such weight in our lived experiences, and allows them to persist in actions as ‘proof’ and ‘evidence’ of their inevitability; what Bonnie Mann refers to as an “ontological weight” can which works against our political, ethical and intellectual beliefs, that may be to the contrary (Mann, 2014: 1)

How then can we undo the gender of media? Within art practices we might ask how/can the gendering of media be renegotiated, challenged, provoked and twisted? The artworks in this exhibition /Glitch, challenge some prevalent ideas of what media women ‘should’ or ‘should not’ work with, confronting the spectre of the ‘I can’t’ body that threatens to steer a woman artist towards a more ‘natural’ medium. 

In the context of considering such histories it is provocative that an exhibition, that is the cornerstone of a digital media festival, is pre-dominantly of work by women artists. Even more so for the fact that the work was chosen thematically around the idea of risk and danger, and the artists then ‘just happened’ to be women working in what might be considered masculinised media. Recent debates raised by a high profile all-female exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery considered whether such shows are a necessary redress of “gender disparity in contemporary art” or a further ghettoization of ‘women’s work’ (Khomami, 2016). In the case of the work /Glitch there is a mix of aesthetic qualities in terms of what might traditionally be thought of as masculinised and feminised: heavy, industrial and dangerous materials exist against the ephemeral, light and intangible. This is a disruption (intentional or not) both of the gendering of the material qualities of media and of hard facts, of light and visibility, of things that can be read and not read, presenting instead a ‘smoke and mirrors’ effect. Women’s Work: Undoing the Gender of (Digital) Media

Dr. Katherine Nolan

This text is followed by a series of talks that raises further questions and debate on the these issues: Women’s Work: Undoing the gender of Media will take place as part of /Glitch on Saturday 4th of June from 2-4.30pm here at Rua Red. See www.ruared.ie for a full list of speakers.


Accenture (2014) Powering Economic Growth; Attracting More Young Women into Science and Technology.

Baer, U. (2002). Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Bailey, R., Wellard, I., and Dismore, H. (2005) Girls’ Participation in Physical Activities and Sports: Benefits, Patterns, Influences and Ways Forward. Canterbury Christ Church University College, U.K for the World Health Organisation.

Bournville, D. M. and Regnard, P. (1976–1980). Iconographie Photographique de la Salpêtrière. Aux Bureaux du Progress Medical, V Adrien Delahaye and Co., Paris. 

Didi-Huberman, G. (2003). Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière. MIT Press, Massachusetts and London (first published 1982).

Khomami, N. (2016). ‘Saatchi Gallery to show its first all-female art exhibition’, in The Guardian (online), January 6, 2016. (accessed 06.01.16).

Lupton, E. (1993). Mechanical Brides: Folklore of Industrial Man. Smithsonian Institute and Princeton Architectural Press, New York.

Mann, B. (2014). Sovereign Masculinity: Gender Lessons from the War on Terror. Oxford University Press, New York

Macey, D. (2000). (ed.) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory. Penguin, London, New York, Toronto, New Delhi

“Medium” (2016) Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford Univesity Press. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/medium (accessed 23.05.16)

McLuhan, M. (2008). Mechanical Bride: The Folklore of Industrial Man. Gingko Press, Berkeley, California (first published 1951).

Mulvey, L. (1989). Visual and Other Pleasures. Macmillan, London. 

Wajcman, J. (1991). Feminism Confronts Technology. Polity, Cambridge.

Young , I. M. (1977) Throwing like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality in Human Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2, 1980, pp. 137-156.

Williams, L. (1990). Power, Pleasure and “The Frenzy of the Visible. Pandora Press, London.

every-now-and-then-i-fall-apart-copyEvery Now and Then I Fall Apart, 2015,  used with permission ©katherinenolan

Dr. Katherine Nolan is a contemporary artist working primarily in video, photography and performance. She is also a curator with MART, Livestock & Dublin Live Art Festival, and a lecturer in Digital Media at the Institute of Technology in Blanchardstown. Exploring tensions between the experiential and spectacular body, the artist turns a ‘trivial’ and ‘frivolous’ fixation with herself as image into a critical weapon, seeking to unravel narcissism and twist its clichéd terms. She employs strategies of pleasure, humour, complicity, resistance and intervention, seeking to disrupt taken for granted cultural significations and trouble social agreements She has performed and exhibited internationally in Europe, America and Asia. Recently at LACDA Los Angeles, Supermarket Art Fair Stockholm and the Freud Museum, London.  She currently lives and works in Dublin.

at-the-edge-2012-copyAt the Edge, 2012, used with permission ©katherinenolan

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