Gender and New Media

Mia Consalvo. The Handbook of Gender and Communication. Editor: Bonnie J Dow & Julia T Wood. Sage Publication. 2006.

The term new media is ambiguous and relative—what was new in the early 1990s (World Wide Web pages, for example) became mundane and accepted within a decade and was quickly replaced by newer new media such as digital video recorders and Weblogs. Moreover, many new technologies (or media) fail to take the path predicted for them in their use or future development (Marvin, 1988). They may not even be thought of as media or communication technologies at all—as was the case with electricity. Such problems can also make researchers working in this area feel that they are pursuing a moving target and struggling to keep up with the latest trends.

What remains constant across those developments are the theoretically informed questions that researchers ask about them through the lens of what we already know. This can lead to newer theories and the refinement of existing ones, but in any case it leads to a more contextualized understanding. In this chapter, I focus on the role of gender in the production, texts, and use of new media. I focus on studies that examine the Internet and uses of it (Web sites, home pages, Weblogs, newsgroups, and other applications), digital games, and cell phones. While there are certainly other forms of new media that warrant discussion, these are the major research areas. I also examine theories that relate to new media/new technology and gender such as cybertheory, cyborg theory, and the social shaping/construction of technology.

Studying the intersections of gender and new media research is critical to the advancement of the field of gender and communication generally.

In popular media, new technologies are often promoted with wild optimism. For example, early hype about the Internet promised a virtual world with a frictionless economy that could revolutionize democracy, education, politics, communication, and entertainment. Alternatively, new media can evoke panic and fear, as video game arcades did in the early 1980s. More recently, violent games such as Manhunt and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, have inspired calls for regulation and censorship. Yet, informed questions and critiques based on gender are missing from much of this public discourse. How does gender shape these new media products? How is it represented within them? What role does gender play in who has access and who does not? Does it even make a difference? Research in this area answers such urgent questions while new media researchers often pursue similar sounding yet quite distinct areas of investigation. For example, some studies examine differences between men and women in their uses of new media, while others investigate the construction of masculine and feminine activities and artifacts in online environments. Although sometimes these approaches overlap, we should keep in mind that there is an important difference between the two foci.

In my own research I have been concerned with several things: how women have used new media technologies in particular instances; how popular media have portrayed such technologies in relation to gender and gendered uses; and how the structure of media industries has formed workplaces that are gendered. My research has been mainly qualitative and informed by feminist theory, theories of the social shaping/construction of technology, and of political economy of media. Quantitative as well as humanistic/critical research, however, figure importantly in the study of new media as well. Other researchers have explored these areas from different disciplinary perspectives—psychology, sociology, political science, rhetoric, and anthropology, to name a few.

Most researchers working in this area are open to varying theoretical and methodological perspectives and approaches, but one of their most important concerns is how to adequately survey or sample the vast quantities of information that appear and disappear daily. Developing reliable methodological techniques to sample or gather data is a challenge. Given the rapid development and innovative uses of new media, researchers must also struggle to find the most current research on a topic. Increasingly, much of that information is found online, in Web-based journals, conference proceedings, and published private research, as citations in this chapter indicate. Many researchers have raised concerns about the privacy of individuals when online. Should posts to a message board about breast cancer, for example, be treated as public or private? Should the researcher ask permission to gather data and thus potentially alter the data that are gathered? How will the researcher know when enough data have been sampled or that the topic of interest is not some small anomaly in a wider pool? While I will not be exploring methods explicitly in this chapter, I will point out problems with methods in some research.

Boiling down the central research questions in this area is difficult, as the field is constantly evolving. One crucial question concerns how gender matters or comes to matter in new media. Perhaps one of the largest achievements of early gender researchers studying new media was to assert that gender did matter, thus challenging the early rhetoric that new media such as the Internet created a space where bodies (including their relative genders, races, classes, sexual identities, and so on) could be easily left behind. Early Internet researchers such as Herring (1992, 1996) made convincing arguments that this was not the case, and much more complicated work needed to be done to determine the many ways that gender did matter for the Internet and new media generally. This chapter explores that research, critiquing and contextualizing it, summing up what we have learned in the past 15 years, and pointing to the urgent questions that we should begin asking in the next decade.

Major Theories of Gender and New Media

The theories covered here include the social shaping/construction of technology, identity theory, and embodiment and related body theory, which constitute the dominant approaches of researchers in this area. After a detailed examination of theories, I highlight another, feminist political economy, which I argue should be more widely used to better understand certain processes, such as the makeup, regulation, and competition of new media companies and the information economy generally. Finally, I conclude the section with an assessment of the current state of theory development. In the following discussion, note that many researchers in this area use the terms new technology and new media somewhat interchangeably when referencing the Internet, computers, computer games, cell phones, and similar devices and software. Although the terms do not always overlap, here they are used in tandem to discuss any type of digital communications/entertainment device or software.

Social Shaping/Construction of Technology

Wajcman (1991) and Cockburn and Ormrod (1993) have provided major conceptual advances in understanding how technology is constantly shaped and reshaped by societies and cultures. Rather than seeing technology as a neutral tool to be given value through use, Wajcman has argued that technologies have particular biases, with certain uses and users preferred above others. Those uses can be reconfigured, given enough user time and demand. And those technologies typically are gendered in some way, with information technologies traditionally being masculine. Wajcman argues that the creation of new technologies (or new media) is usually considered to be a masculine job, while consumption can vary based on early design considerations. For example, the microwave was originally developed by men, targeted as a masculine device (marketed to men), and sold in electronics aisles alongside stereos and other electronic components. When that market failed to materialize, the gender of the microwave was switched, and it was sold next to kitchen appliances, becoming feminized.

Researchers have examined the construction, representation, and use of new media to see how gender plays a part in shaping them. For example, Springer (1996) argues that even though cyborgs have been conceptualized in some arenas as human-machine hybrids that may confuse traditional boundaries (an argument I’ll expand on shortly in relation to Haraway and cyborgs), many popular representations have instead tended to portray a violent masculinity for cyborg identity (p. 99). Springer believes that this is because of “contemporary discourses that cling to nineteenth-century notions about technology, sexual difference, and gender roles in order to resist the transformations brought about by the new postmodern social order” (p. 100). Balsamo (1996) echoes those concerns:

Contemporary discourses of technology rely on a logic of binary gender identity as an underlying organizational framework. This underlying structure both enables and constrains our engagement with new technologies. In many cases, the primary effect of this technological engagement is the reproduction of a traditional logic of binary gender-identity which significantly limits the revisionary potential of new technologies. (pp. 9-10)

Balsamo concludes that while new technologies (and by extension new media) may offer the opportunity for transformation and rising above current bodily limitations, such possibilities are often illusory, and these technologies usually reinscribe typically gendered norms of appearance and behavior.

As I discuss in the section on current research, such theorization about the social construction of technology has been adopted and integrated by new media researchers as they have examined how the Internet and video games have been gendered and how that process is negotiated and shaped over time (Consalvo, 2002; Kendall, 2002; Paasonen, 2002; Spender, 1995).

Theories of Online Identity

Theorization about identity formation and maintenance in relation to new media exploded in the mid-1990s in response to early theorizing about the Internet which suggested it was a place where identity could be unfixed from bodily limitations (Rheingold, 1993). Feminists and gender theorists quickly refuted such claims both through empirical research and alternative theorization about the Internet and new media technologies (Herring, 1992; Stone, 1996).

They argued that gender was present in newsgroups, Listservs, Web pages, and computer games, sometimes in disturbing and sexist ways (Brail, 1996; Clerc, 1996; Miller, 1995). Some scholars argued that gender performance was present online (as well as involved in the construction of new media) and needed to be further studied (Turkle, 1995), while others believed that behaviors gendered feminine were ideally suited to and would soon take control of new media (Plant, 1997). Many of those arguing from the natural empowerment of women approach were labeled part of the cyberfeminist movement, but that movement also had members who took the more liberal feminist view that women and girls needed to be taught about new media in order to take control of powerful new technologies (Spender, 1995). After the collapse of the Internet economy in the late 1990s, cyberfeminism faded from view as a major theoretical and practical movement.

Other theorists such as Turkle (1995) and Stone (1996) believed that new media could be a site for identity play and exploration, with the construction (and reconstruction) of gender to be worked out and experimented with both online and in places such as computer games. Scholars later challenged that carefree approach to identity play, arguing that gender (and race) experimentation online often resulted in the reiteration of stereotypes common in other places (Nakamura, 2000; Paasonen, 2002). Paasonen (2002), for example, explored women’s construction of personal Web sites and questioned their use of feminized images as at odds with the alleged freedom to be bodiless online. She concluded that while individuals may play with aspects of gender when using new media, doing so is not about creating new or alternate identities but is a more limited form of play that is more akin to trying on different masks or personas. Likewise, others researchers have determined that gender is persistently tied to identity online through linguistic cues (Herring, 1992), construction of Web pages and Weblogs (Herring, Kouper, Scheidt, & Wright, 2004; Stern, 2004), and personal interests (Oksman, 2002; Tiernan, 2002). While researchers do not believe that individuals are permanently and indelibly stuck with a particular identity, the consensus that gender performances in new media are difficult to radically change echoes Butler’s (1993) belief that gender may be a performance but that it is not easy to change or to take on and off at will.

Most researchers would agree that gender cannot be completely set aside or ignored through new media use, but scholars in this field have had less to say about other axes of identity. Important work has been done on sexual identity construction (Bryson, 2004; Case, 1996; Poster, 2002) in relation to the Internet, the role of racial stereotypes online and in computer games (Kolko, 2000; Nakamura, 2000; Ow, 2000), and some work has been dedicated to class (Bird & Jorgenson, 2002). However, there is little that ties these areas together to create a larger theory about gender and identity formation. Although some valuable work comes out of research about the digital divide (Clark, 2003), much of the rest is tied to access and skills, rather than more deeply related to identity formation or expression. Theory in this area is developing and robust, yet more could be done to integrate research about gender and new media use to other axes of identity.

Embodiment and Body Theory

Early work dealing with embodiment, gender, and new media revolved around virtual reality and the figure of the cyborg, while more recent theory has focused on computer game use and notions of place and space. As a form of new media, virtual reality (VR) has not fulfilled the promises of proponents from the early 1990s (Lanier & Biocca, 1992; Rheingold, 1993). Rhetoric about VR sounded an optimistic note about the future uses of the technology, including the creation of virtual worlds for play, work, education, and general living. However, the reality never really surmounted problems involved with the technology, including the bulkiness of interface devices (and the inability to miniaturize or surpass those devices), the huge expenses involved, and the lack of a profitable application for the medium. While VR has had some success in medicine and in specialized arcade machines, the commercial mass market potential has either faded or remains in the future.

Regardless, early attention to VR promised it to be a disembodied space (much like the Internet) with greater capabilities for motion, sensation, and experiences. Early gender theorists, however, critiqued that simplified view on the grounds that VR did not actually eliminate the body, privileged sight over other senses, encouraged a masculine view of the world, and perpetuated a Cartesian-like mind/body split that falsely believed gender could become irrelevant (Balsamo, 1996; Kramarae, 1995). These critiques can be easily transferred to the Internet and online digital games. These technologies have also been hyped as allowing for a disembodied user that can easily inhabit any position desired.

As scholars have demonstrated, however, the body is not so easily left behind. Balsamo (1996), for example, questions whether new media technologies, while seemingly liberating in their rhetoric, actually mask regressive ideas about gender and its proper expression. Theorists have tied new media use firmly to bodily relations through the metaphor of the cyborg made famous by Haraway (1985). She argued that the rapid developments of technoscience demand that feminists acknowledge the potential power of technology and claim it for their own use. They must become cyborgs, which resist dualisms such as male/female and machine/human. Haraway’s manifesto also critiqued the Cartesian dualism found in new media hype, and sought a ground that did not view the construction and use of new technologies as solely about masculine pleasures and opportunities. Haraway’s vision has resulted in an avalanche of related theorization exploring the possibilities and limits of the cyborg for its impact on gender among other things (Consalvo, 2004c; Hcks, 2002; Springer, 1996; Wajcman, 2004). More recently, theorists interested in embodiment have begun exploring women’s and men’s uses of new media more empirically, trying to see how practice fits with (or alters) theory.

For example, researchers interested in young adult creations of Web home pages (Stern, 2002, 2004) and Weblogs (Herring et al., 2004) have found that the body is often inscribed in online spaces—talked about and discussed—and made real through discourse rather than elided or glossed over. This process also has been explored in studies of computer game use as well as in the design of digital games. Taylor (2003) has done extensive studies of online game players and has found that gender is a significant factor in understanding their approaches to in-game characters or avatars. For women in particular, the hypersexualization of avatars in the game Everquest can cause a disconnection between player and avatar. Identification of player with in-game character is then made more difficult, and for some potential players the leap is sometimes too great to make (Royse, Lee, Baasanjav, Hopson, & Consalvo, in press). In such spaces, embodiment is still key, even if the body being considered is imaginary.

Last, the role of space and place has attracted attention by gender scholars as they study gendered spaces to determine their benefits and/or drawbacks. Although not a project focused particularly on gender, Baym’s (2000) examination of the newsgroup (rats) has been used as a model for understanding how various groups sustain community online, particularly with regard to differences in gender, race, age, or other identity markers. More recently, Gustafson (2002) examined the terms of service for three online sites geared toward women—iVillage, Oxygen, and She found that the sites constructed gender in similar ways, with generic stereotypical assumptions about women’s interests and the appropriate design strategies. The failure of those sites in the past several years validates gender scholars’ arguments that women’s experiences cannot be captured by such watered-down offerings. Clerc (1996), Cumberland (2002), Poster (2002), and Tiernan (2002) have studied gendered spaces online, either those created in response to a particular interest, such as that of women Vietnam veterans (Tiernan, 2002), or as places where gender differences contributed to a breakdown in communication (Clerc, 1996). Such research reaffirms the belief that gender does matter online as well as in more narrow spaces such as digital games and cannot be shrugged off or simplistically designed in or out.

Gaps in Theoretical Approaches

The majority of work done about gender and new media has drawn on theories of the social shaping/construction of technology and on theories of identity. Researchers working outside communication fields also draw on their own disciplinary paradigms, although many do come back to these central approaches. My work has also fallen into line with these approaches. I have studied (Consalvo, 2002) how women were discursively constructed in early media representations about the Internet as well as how identity is related in particular ways to enjoyment of digital games (Royse et al., in press). However, these are not the only ways to approach the topic, and they cannot get at every aspect of new media that relates to gender.

One theoretical tradition that needs to be brought into the study of gender and new media is feminist political economy. As researchers working in that area have argued, scholars in the West (in particular) have been reluctant to go beyond representations and uses to consider ownership structures and how these shape the future of the information economy (Riordan, 2002). McChesney (2000) has provided a much-needed critique of mass media and new media ownership, but little to no scholarship explores how those structures relate to gender.

One area ripe for study is the digital games industry. With growing economic power and increasing numbers of women playing games (Entertainment Software Association (ESA), 2006), there are now louder calls for a greater representation of women in the industry’s workforce. Yet, the gender ratio in the industry hovers around 90/10 male/female workers. An analysis of the gendered roots of the industry—the rise of genres, the increasing pressure for visual realism, rising costs and the related fear of risks—all mask gendered decisions and assumptions about players, the projected market, and the interests of producers themselves (Consalvo, 2004a, 2004b). Political economy theory with gender as a central component must be applied to new media if we are to expand our understandings of these phenomena beyond representation and use.

Emphases in Gender and New Media Research

In addition to the broader theoretical advancements in gender and new media, certain themes have dominated research over the past decade. I have broken these down into categories that serve to tie together bodies of work addressing the same conceptual issues. They include studies of virtual community, exploration of the split (or lack thereof) between online and offline activity, the design of new media, differential use patterns, and the gendering of new technologies. I address each in turn.

Gender and Virtual Community

Much of the earliest work concerned the possible creation of virtual communities or virtual cultures. Baym’s (2000) study of a newsgroup (mentioned above) was among these. Orgad (2004) and Lennie, Grace, Daws, and Simpson (1999) have studied how online spaces can serve the particular gendered needs and interests of individuals and how gender can be invoked to demand access as needed. For example, Orgad (2004) explored the formation of online support groups for victims and survivors of breast cancer. She found that women were the predominant users of such sites, and gendered forms of use occurred, such as a tendency to favor cooperative, supportive forms of communication.

Scholars also have investigated the gendered structure of the community metaphor for the Internet. For example, Millar (1998) critically analyzed the rhetoric of Wired magazine for its attempts to create a new digital ideology that was distinctively “hypermacho.” Through the use of profiles of great men in Internet history and the marshalling of the cowboy and new frontier mythos in describing the future of Internet use, Wired, she argues, is gendering the structure of the Internet to be masculine in tone and appearance and hypermacho at that—not the technogeek of days past. Miller (1995) argues that although the Internet was made popular with masculine metaphors of a lawless society where only the brave would care to go, the coming of women and children to cyberspace meant that it must be cleaned up for those perceived as too weak to defend themselves. Warnick (1999) echoes those assertions, arguing that persuasive appeals to get women online ironically may have served to marginalize or exclude them because of the types of rhetoric used. I argue (2002) that the claim for women and children to be protected online was merely a secondary strategy in order to establish a safe space for commerce. Women are still the primary purchasers, and they must be made to feel safe online; otherwise, businesses would set up shop and just as quickly go out of business. Although more macro- than micro-oriented, such studies of the Internet at large are important to understanding how the Internet has been defined and redefined as embodying or giving rise to particular types of community in different times for various strategic reasons.

More recently, attention has shifted to tracing connections between online activity and life offline to determine which activities online are unique and which are extensions. Likewise, the role of the Internet in allowing communities to form online and then have real world influence and organization has gained attention, such as queer sites that allow gays and lesbians more information and support (Nip, 2004).

Gender and Online/Offline Crossovers

Although many studies begin by examining media use in isolation, more researchers are widening the scope of analysis to gain a better understanding of how new media use is contextualized/integrated in a person’s daily life. Although not focusing on gender, Wellman and Hampton (1999) and Leander and McKim (2003) argue that Internet use is not an isolated activity, and should be studied in tandem with the real-life concerns and interests of users. Likewise, early research by Gould and Lerman (1998) found that on the AOL site NetGirl, participants were constantly negotiating aspects of offline and online activity, particularly as they related to ideas about bodies and identities.

More recently, Bird and Jorgenson (2002) studied the introduction of computers into working-class family life in rural Florida as part of a grant project to give at-risk children access. According to the terms of the grant, children receiving the computers were to use them for a set period daily for math and reading exercises, and a parent was required to upload test scores to the child’s teacher. Rather than focus exclusively on the children’s use, Bird and Jorgenson examined how the computer affected family life—who took responsibility for seeing that children used it (almost always mothers); who used it otherwise; and how those uses often were at odds with the expected (middle-class) uses of computers and the Internet. Such studies give us a much better picture of how gender operates in specific situations, here related to class and computer use, and how new media are not isolated technology but can become welcome, hostile, or ambivalent additions to a family household.

Nip (2004) sought to determine exactly how much online and offline activity crossed over in her study of the bulletin board and women’s group Queer Sisters, located in Hong Kong.

The bulletin board community pursued goals and held norms very different from those of the Queer Sisters. Participation on the bulletin board increased sense of belonging to and participation in the Queer Sisters, but the increase is affected by differences in goals and norms between the two communities and differences in logic of action between the two realms. (p. 421)

Nip concludes that although there is some overlap in the two groups online and offline, there does not need to be complete coherence for the groups to function successfully (p. 424). Studies such as this give us a better idea of how communities function online, and how online/offline migrations can shift the focus of groups, or create entirely new forms of them.

Gender and Production/Design

One area receiving increasing attention is how gender is a factor in the production and design of new media. It is not to be confused with a political economic approach to new media, however, because scholars working on production/design analysis are interested in the gendering of work and the workforce, as well as the gendering of design decisions affecting computer games and Web sites.

Turkle (1995) conducted some of the earliest and most influential work done in this area in the 1980s and early 1990s. She determined that there were two predominant approaches to working with and programming computers—a hard and a soft approach. Although not explicitly tying those styles to gender, she believed the hard style was more top-down, rule-based, and usually appealed more often to men (p. 51). The soft style, which drew more women, was a more bottom-up approach that attempted to solve problems “on the fly” rather than plan everything in advance with rigid structures (pp. 51-54). That explanation helped researchers understand how computer science and related fields were often gendered masculine (American Association of University Women, 2000).

That concern for how production processes are gendered led to studies that have investigated why women working in IT fields define their work as less technical than men’s (Dorer, 2002) and how hacker culture has come to be seen as masculine and overwhelmingly male (Håpnes & S⊘rensen, 1995). In addition, researchers concerned with the production process have studied how various elements of design help construct or deemphasize gendered spaces.

Not all of the interesting work being done in this area comes from scholarly sources. Blogs by industry professionals often provide valuable insights and careful analyses of how gender gets inscribed—sometimes unintentionally—in new media design. The Red Polka Dot blog (, 2004) contains a perceptive critique of the rise of prefabricated design templates for Web site/blog/new media use that are sold as embodying a feminine style. The blog writer carefully examines that claim and the templates being offered, pointing to how gender is being made visible in stereotypical ways (feminine styles often include pastel colors, flowing shapes, and certain font styles) and being devalued as well.

The process of gendering other new media in the design phase is also under study. The use of cell phones is becoming heavily gendered, much as the original telephone was (Frissen, 2000; Rakow, 1992). The careful marketing of those devices to girls and women and the development of cell phone jewelry also make clear how gendering can be seized upon by corporations to help sell a product. Likewise, the gendering of computer games as masculine products created by a masculine industry also is gaining attention (Consalvo, 2004a; Davies, 2002).

In summary, researchers are actively investigating new media forms to see how gender is both willfully as well as unconsciously being worked into the design of products and services with results that can restrict, open, value, or devalue various types of access and use.

Gender and Differential Use Patterns

Perhaps overlooked in more detailed analyses of production, consumption, and texts is a more basic concern—that of use. Because new media are constantly evolving, with fluctuations in types of services, price points, rising technology standards, and many other factors, even simple use or nonuse can be difficult to measure. However, researchers have managed to track some figures over time to determine how new media diffuse across populations as well as how types of use can and do change over time.

The use of cell phones has typically been tied to gender, with early research showing that men and boys were more likely to own a cell phone and be more proficient in using them (Ling, 1999). More recently, researchers have found there are more mobile phone connections than landline phone subscriptions worldwide and that the numbers of male and female subscribers have evened out (Rice & Katz, 2003).

During the early 1990s, when Internet use was beginning to diffuse into the general population in the West, estimates showed that only 5% to 10% of users were women (Consalvo, 2002). That situation changed rapidly however, and women have now surpassed men as the dominant percentage of users (Herring et al., 2004). The Pew project has found that both genders use the Internet for many daily activities of life, although men are “more likely than women to use the Internet more for information gathering and entertainment,” while women are “more likely than men to use the Internet to communicate” (Fallows, 2004). Seniors comprise one of the fastest growing groups of Internet users according to Riggs (2004), and racial barriers are shrinking as well (Rice & Katz, 2003). One of the last remaining differences is in urban and suburban versus rural users—there are still fewer rural users, and they are far more likely to have a slower connection, such as dialup rather than broadband (Bell, Reddy, & Rainie, 2004).

Gender differences can be pronounced in the use of digital games but can also be unstable. Over the past several years, the Entertainment Software Association has claimed that the proportion of women and girls playing games has been rising—to currently about 39% (ESA, 2004). Gender differences are more pronounced when more detailed data are considered. For example, estimates are that only 15% of console players are women, but more women play computer games (Vance, 2004). Great attention has recently been paid to the rising number of adult women (including those 40+) who play online games—particularly in the “casual games” markets developed by AOLGames, Pogo, MSN, and YahooGames (Goodale, 2004). Adult women online spend considerable amounts of time playing, but more young adult men than young adult women report more time spent gaming overall (Jones, 2003). In relation to gender, then, use of digital games is not precise, and is likely to keep fluctuating.

The Gendering of New Technologies

Along with the social shaping approach, researchers are investigating how new technologies become gendered through use, production, and other avenues. They are also interested in how such media become identified with a particular gender or how gendering can change over time through various innovations or shifts in use. In this section, I focus on the gendering of blogs, and the uses and popular representations of PCs and the Internet.

Weblogs, or blogs, are a relatively new form of Internet site that has become popular due in part to politically themed blogs that have received extensive news attention. As Herring et al. (2004) report, most of the sites reported on in popular media, and those generally cited as the most well-known, are news filter blogs that are updated frequently, have many links to articles and other information, and offer some commentary on the links or topics of interest. Those sites also are typically run by men. To determine if they are representative of the blog universe, Herring and colleagues conducted a random sample and studied them for gender and age of owner and type of blog. Their results indicate that an equal number are written by males and by females, although females tend to write more of the journal-style blog that resembles a diary. They conclude:

Public commentators on Weblogs, including many bloggers themselves, collude in reproducing gender and age-based hierarchy in the blogosphere, demonstrating once again that even an open access technology—and high hopes for its use—cannot guarantee equitable outcomes in a society that continues to embrace hierarchical values. (n. p.)

Cassidy (2001) examines marketing discourses of the 1990s and how sellers addressed women in order to sell more computers for home use. Cassidy found that the discourse “undermines the computer’s utopian promises for women Material placement of the machine cannot surmount the home’s gendered spatial divisions” (p. 60). Although Cassidy does suggest that home use can destabilize traditional work divisions in the home, ultimately the discourse returns women’s work almost exclusively to the private sphere.

Although popular media can attempt to gender the use of new media, individuals must also either accept that characterization or attempt to find their own definition of acceptable and appropriate use. To determine how new media are gendered through domestic use, van Zoonen and Aalberts (2002) studied how young Dutch couples prioritized their differential uses of the home computer and Internet with their television use. They found that couples fell into several categories, including nontraditional, traditional, and negotiated uses. Overall, they discovered “many households in which the computer and Internet were used in deliberation and were made part of the common culture of the couple” (p. 307). Those research findings indicate that individuals take an active role in negotiating new media use and that use is still being deliberated as traditionally and nontraditionally gendered.


This chapter has reviewed the major theoretical approaches taken and some of the more recent research done studying gender as it is expressed, constructed, and deconstructed in new media. What it indicates is that just as gender is a difficult concept to contain, so too is new media. I have generally conflated the research into two main areas of new media: the Internet and digital games. These are the dominant strands of current research, although some additional work mentioned here studies cell phones and computer use generally. In this conclusion, I comment briefly on how cultural factors might have influenced which theory and research foci do (and do not) receive attention from scholars, and I then indicate useful directions for research.

Influence of Cultural Factors

As with many other types of gender research and theory, much of it on new media is concerned with women and girls and then generalized to gender as a conceptual term. Some work is upfront about studying the experiences of women and/or girls, but gender is often code for female. Part of the reason for that may be the strong traditions in gender theory of such conflation and the continual mixing of feminist and gender theories as ways to approach studying men and women as sexed beings. That slippage, however, can still be problematic, as it means we continue to associate gender with female or feminine without much critical reflection.

Gender research, however, has been quite influential in new media studies partly because it was an early focus. Books and articles exploring the construction of gender online and exposing the numbers of women using or not using the Internet began appearing in the mid-1990s, just as popular attention was exploding. And because many new media are targeted initially to men, created by men, or both, the inclusion of women and girls becomes a catalyzing agent. Thus, scholars have quickly taken up the study of why women and girls undersubscribe and how or where they are making contributions.

Yet why do we see this kind of gender and new media research? In part, the answer is related to the standpoint of academic researchers, who by and large are middle class, highly educated, and often white. Early research was quite celebratory, it then became more cautionary, and now it is more attentive to the context of daily life. We are seeing more attention to working-class and poor users of new media, and researchers taking alternate perspectives into account. But as with early feminist research, class, race, and age biases all can play a part in who is privileged to speak and who is not.

The research has been dominated by the Western world. The successful penetration of mobile phones in Asia and the spread of high-speed Internet connections in South Korea and Japan mean that more global accounts of new media use and production will take place, but that is just getting under way. As with the Internet itself, the dominant language of research has become English, so researchers limited to knowing another language will be shut out of contributing to and learning from most theory and research in the field.


More investigation into the ways in which masculinity is part of new media use is critical to gain a better understanding of how masculinity is negotiated around digital game play, blog authoring, and cell phone use. Currently we know little about such areas. Additionally, how identity markers such as class, age, and race intersect with masculinity has been largely ignored, except when in surface analyses of phenomena such as the digital divide.

Additionally, we need more global study and more resulting comparative analyses of gendered uses worldwide. Western uses are often regarded as the de facto standards, with researchers measuring other uses as either meeting or more often failing to meet uses that are always contextual, culturally based, and changing over time. Related to that, more sharing of research across language boundaries is a necessity if we are to gain from the knowledge work that has already been done.

There have been many analyses of popular representations and individual uses, and they are certainly important to understanding new media. However, more sustained attention to the political and economic structures of new media is critical, especially if we can determine how those structures are gendered or how they come to define gender in particular ways. More policy analysis is crucial for moving research in this area beyond understanding and explanation to engagement with public policy and toward changing some of the uses, structures and systems we see and recognize as flawed. Those omissions are partly a result of academic biases in America, where communication and new media studies do not have political economy as a strong component, as they do in Canada and Europe.

Research in this area is exciting and conceptually challenging. As currently new media such as the Internet become commonplace and better understood, we will always have newer media to draw from—new practices found on the Internet, new technological devices, or new combinations of such forms. As this discussion indicates, such new developments always have implications for gender and thus deserve the continued scrutiny of researchers.