Perceptions of women online are stuck in the Dark Ages

We have a real obsession with labels in our society. We like to put people into nice little boxes and categories, so we can package them, pop them on a mental shelf, and not worry about them. And we tend to do this far more with women than with men. The ancient literary trope of “maiden, mother, crone” seems to be alive and kicking online. And I, for one, am sick of it.

A literary metaphor for representations of the female online may seem a little academic, but I believe this has serious ramifications in the real world. The internet is essentially a modern literary realm. The profiles we have online — be they websites, blogs, social media profiles — are representations of self, created primarily through words (with a few pictures thrown in for good measure). We are constructing our identities, often on a daily basis. We make choices, constantly, without really giving them a lot of consideration. What pages we “like”, what links we share, what we write in our bio, which issues we comment on.

I believe that while the internet is supposedly a democratic medium, women are — whether through peer pressure, or their own choice — grouped into the three ancient stereotypes of women, while men move freely through a myriad of identities. If you don’t believe me, read a little further. Chances are that most of the women you know could be lumped into one of the three descriptors.

Ok, so maiden has moved rather more into the realm of, to use that highly debated word, “slut”. It’s been estimated that 12 percent of the internet is porn. As Caitlin Moran points out in “How to be a Woman“, “this is clearly as unhappy and detrimental to women’s collective peace of mind as it would be if 12 percent of images of men on the internet were of them having their heads horrifically blown off by alien laser guns, or being lowered down a well, full of Nazi sharks, crying”.

Neither she nor I are against porn as a concept, but the sheer harsh proliferation of it, and the nature of the imagery of women involved, makes me very sad. And that’s not even counting the, for want of a better term, “non-porn” which involves scantily clad women or attempts to lure us to the porn. Beyond that, the single women of my acquaintance are far more likely to have profile pictures or avatars of their cleavage, them in bikinis, or other sexy poses than the single men of my acquaintance. “Being sexy” is a clearly acceptable attribute for a woman to promote online.

And that might work for some, who are sexy, who say screw it, I might as well use this to my advantage. Again, I am not opposed to being sexy. I appreciate it. But I worry when sexy becomes “sex object”. When a woman becomes not a woman who is “sexy and funny and” but a “sexy woman”. Other terms for maiden these days are “chicks” and “girls”.

And so to the mothers. Or, as tech writers love to call them, “mommybloggers“. The term actually makes me grind my teeth, which any mommyblogger worth their salt would tell you is a bad idea.

Every couple of months people write about how “the moms” have “taken over” some aspect of the internet — recently, the moms took over Google+, apparently. I don’t have anything against moms. Or bloggers. I am always the former and occasionally the latter. But we would never classify fathers online with such a simple sweeping phrase. On all the social networks, the mothers gather, and any passing remark about your children sees you being classified by several people as such. When did mothers become a class of human to the exclusion of all else?

Firstly, isn’t that a tad bloody insulting to all the fathers out there? All those “mom and me” or “mom’s circle” groups and networks — why are we perpetuating the belief that parenting is purely a mother’s domain? It seems these days it’s no longer “children should be seen and not heard”.

Instead it’s become “children should be seen in cute photographs but not really heard about”. The separation of children from mainstream society, and the separation of the “mom” part of an identity from the rest of a woman’s identity is frankly unhealthy. Again, I’m bloody proud to be a mom, but I would be grateful if I were given the same allowances as men that go gaga over their offspring every so often: that it is one element of my identity, not an all-encompassing-full-time-at-the-exclusion-of-all-else job description.

Other terms for moms? Nope. That’s part of the problem.

The third female stereotype is a little harder to grasp. Ah, the crone. Or, to put it another way, the bitchy, gripey, moany, sarcastic, and generally pretty darn fun persona that women who are neither maidens nor mothers frequently assume.

Although technically connected with age, there are several women in their twenties to take it upon themselves to be crones. This is an attitude which comes naturally to several women. We are a little cynical about the world. We like to be a little “one of the lads”, throw around some sarcasm. Ooh, look how much I’m saying “we” and identifying with this persona. There’s a darker side though. Once you’ve established yourself in this mould, it’s hard to have soft, silly moments. Hard to make serious comment on serious issues without being viewed as that nastier side of the crone — the harridan. The line between funny bitchy and sad bitchy is a fine line indeed.

So what exactly is my problem again? My problem is that most women I know have elements of all the above. As indeed do most men. My problem is that while men can just be themselves online, women, whether through their own volition, perceived peer pressure, or just communal laziness, tend to settle into one of the personas above.

I am a maiden, mother, and crone. Frequently all at the same time. I’m also a geek, a thespian, a pedant, a couch potato, and a million other things besides. And that’s all just one woman. Imagine, if we start exploding these stereotypes, what we might become?

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