Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style
"Getting naked in the virtual world — more women than men show flesh!", ABC News breathlessly reported recently, citing research by
Canadian academic Matthieu Guitton, who was totally amazed to discover
that female Second Life avatars tend to bare a lot of skin, you guys.
That's supposed to be surprising news -- but it's actually just the
latest evidence that most major media outlets and a lot of academics
don't know much about virtual worlds. It's not exactly like ABC is a stranger to women baring skin themselves. The picture above, a parody of a different but no less popular set of housewives, is by celebrated SL photographer James Schwarz, and it illustrates my biggest issue with this article beautifully.
This point is probably painfully obvious to most NWN readers, but in case ABC News or would-be virtual world researchers are still confused, let me explain:
I've got a lot of problems with this article, to be perfectly honest. That it describes men who use female avatars as "25-year-old men living in their parents’ basements" when we know most of them are more likely to be middle-aged and own those basements themselves is one. That it uses a picture someone took of a monitor displaying SL (as though it's 1994 or something and screenshots are even a remote challenge) is another. The most outrageously expensive outfits can easily set you back far more than a buck, free penises are plentiful, and the mention of shopping at "a facsimile of American Apparel", who closed their SL store about 4 years ago, makes this article feel like an unpublished remnant from the SL media boom that ABC News forgot about in a drawer somewhere until rediscovering it during post-Holiday desk tidying. But these are all pretty inconsequential compared to the real issue in this article that has me rolling my eyes whenever I even glance in its direction.
This article is pitching this information as though most female avatars showing "25 to 49 percent of their flesh" means that all the women in SL are running around naked and debauched, but let's take a moment put these numbers into perspective: In James' picture above, I'd say all those women are baring 25% or higher of their flesh, and the three on the right are definitely approaching or surpassing the 49% mark. Are they wearing anything particularly scandalous? Not really. Are they wearing exactly the kinds of clothes you see women wearing everywhere in the media? Totally. That's what makes James' parody pic work so well, it's so close to the real thing down to the wardrobe. Compare it to promotional posters for ABC's own Desperate Housewives and you'll still find it very similar.
Just look around. Open a magazine and check out some ads. I'm pretty sure the last time I saw a woman in an ad wearing long pants and a sensible shirt, it was because they were selling long pants and sensible shirts. Why are most male avatars keeping "between 75 to 100 percent of their bodies covered"? Well riddle me this, Batman: When was the last time you saw an actor walk the red carpet in a sheer gauzy tux? Or maybe even without a shirt, so his jacket reveals a deep-V of his bare chest? Now, answer the same question about an actress in a red carpet dress and I doubt you'll have to look back farther than a few months.
Skin is fashionable for women, even when its not trying to be outright provocative. Fashionable shorts for women seem to get shorter and shorter, while mens get longer and longer. I can name more than a dozen specific kinds of womens clothing or cuts of clothing that were made to bare skin (Tube tops, mini-skirts, micro-minis, camisoles, crop-tops, etc.) but for men I can only come up with a handful (shorts, tank tops..?) There's no strapless top equivalent for men, but there are infinite variations of it for women. Fashion is practically designed around women baring skin to varying degrees, while for men it's much more binary--either clothed or unclothed. That's just the way things are, and it's not news.
So why only bare that skin in virtual worlds and not in reality as well? Well, ABC News and Guitton have some bizarre explanations, but I have one of my own, and it has little to do with avoiding consequences for "ripping your clothes off", "'[collecting] information' via skin contact" (WTF?), or "the female need for 'tactile interaction'" (Double WTF?)
In reality, exposing skin is not always a good idea for many different reasons. Minidresses aren't appropriate at the office, nor are they terribly practical when you're chasing around a couple kids at home or when it's freezing cold outside. More to the point, many women aren't comfortable enough with their real bodies to bare as much as our idols do--and even if they are it's not always safe to do so.
Of course there is a segment of both male-operated female avatars and female-operated avatars baring it all for the sake of titillation, but attributing this data to that alone fails to address one of the most important things about virtual worlds; they are very open, low-risk environments to experiment and explore preferences and identities in. When all the real-life barriers I mentioned are taken down and women are given a body that they can conform to their ideal in a matter of minutes, it shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that most women are just emulating the images that surround them.Tweet
Iris Ophelia (Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.