Virtual Sex: The Female Body in Digital Art
Claudia Hart and Claudia Herbst
Issue #72, February 2005
The 1990s was a decade marked by an unprecedented economic boom that was also rich in feminist inquiry into technology and gender. Cyberfeminists have investigated the question of sexual difference in our technologically inspired era; gender and identity, their representation and misrepresentation, have been the frequent topic of inquiry. The bursting of the proverbial economic bubble has caused not only disenchantment with technology-based companies but has also coincided with a decline in critical inquiry into how technology informs the representation of gender, and the female in particular. We would like to call for an urgent revisiting of the virtual female, her origins, meanings, and by implication, what she foretells for the future of women.
While the economic boom has lost its force, the technologies used to create a new iconography of the technologically enhanced female are proliferating, becoming less expensive and therefore far more accessible. At the same time, virtual females make more and more appearances in magazines, on television, and in computer games, also inspiring non-technological representations of women such as in Hollywood movies.
Amidst the 'irrational exuberance', to borrow Federal Reserve Chairman Allan Greenspan's term describing the market's responses to a burgeoning technology, and amidst the notion of a newfound equality purportedly supported by nascent technologies, a historical context that is adverse to the advancement of women's status and equality has been obscured. As the exuberance and the dust that has been stirred up by technological development have settled, we can begin to see more clearly. Our gaze extends towards the militaristic roots of much of today's technologies and, further, to the source of much of the Western world's misogynist tendencies, at the dawn of the early Christian church.
From its onset, the Christian church and technological innovation have shared a symbiotic relationship, their respective strands, tightly interwoven throughout two thousand years of history. Beginning with the era of Charlemagne, who implemented the Rome's adoption of Christianity, the interests of church and state has been one of mutuality. Undoubtedly, the advance of technology, due to its significant role in furthering militaristic goals, has served to spread religious ideologies. New technological arts were first cultivated programmatically in the Christian monasteries, which were the seats of learning and which were instrumental in the foundation of our current educational system.
As David Noble argues in A World Without Women: The Christian Clerical Culture of Western Science, the militarization of the church led to its masculinization, and therefore to the exclusion of women from the ranks of power within, as well as outside of, consecrated church grounds. It is the goal of this paper to elucidate that Christian values still pervade technological research and color its visual manifestations, particularly in relation to the virtual female. In fact, many of the advents marking the milestones of the interwoven histories of religion and technology have had adverse effects for women and the rendering of female sexuality in particular; their very intertwining that have resulted in some of its iconographic peculiarities.
At this juncture that we would like to introduce the virtual female in her early glory, a representation collapsing certain masculinized ideologies of both Church and military: that of the mass-media gaming figure Lara Croft (figure 1.1).
Croft is a popular avatar, the heroine of Tomb Raider, and a best-selling first-person shooter game, called so because the players view the action from a first-person perspective, clearly a source of identification. Developed in 1996 for the Sony Playstation, the first of the dedicated 3D gaming units, Lara was known for her giant breasts and twin revolvers (figure 1.3.). Recast in 2001 as Hollywood blockbuster starring Angelina Jolie, an actress known for playing the "new woman" type – one who is both sexy and self-empowered – Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was reviewed in the New York Times as James Bond reincarnated, insinuating a suave seducer also possessing remarkable combat capabilities. Herein lies the first glimmer of the paradigm governing the digital female, but in virtual rendition altogether lacking Jolie's Bond-like self irony: a seductive, devilish temptress of phenomenally dangerous proportions. She is the femme fatale incarnate.
Although the Christian Church has informed Western representations of the female since its inception it is at a particular historical juncture – the Carolingian era between the 10th and 13th centuries – where the militaristic interests of a nascent European state, implementing Christianity, came to bear on a monastic milieu where technology and technological education developed. In Eunuchs For the Kingdom of Heaven, Uta Ranke Heinemann, a female Catholic theologian subsequently expelled by the Church for her feminist ideology, links the shifting tides of misogynist Christian dogma directly to the role of a celibate male priesthood. Heinemann calls the 13th century "the golden age of theology—and peak of misogynistic slander." Like Heinemann, the historian David Noble identifies the Middle Ages, and specifically the Carolingian era, with the emergence of a significant cultural ideology, namely, the identification of technology with the Christian concept of transcendence:
The dynamic project of Western technology, the defining mark of modernity, is actually medieval in origin and spirit...(and) emerges uniquely in the European Middle Ages...Technology had come to be identified with transcendence, implicated as never before in the Christian idea of redemption...Over time, technology came to be identified more closely with both lost perfection and the possibility of renewed perfection, and the advance of the (technological) arts took on a new significance, not only as evidence of grace, but as a means of preparation for, and a sure sign of, imminent salvation. (The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention, pp. 10-13)
Noble ties the impulse behind the development of technology to a need for redemption from original sin, Eve's offering of temptation in the form of an apple, and mankind's ensuing fall from grace. Women, responsible for original sin were banned from monasteries where technological invention flourished and where celibate men could create a new and ostensibly perfect world because it was without women.
A concurrent surge in technological development occurred in Franciscan monasteries during the time of Charlemagne who, by adopting Christianity as the state religion, consolidated the interests of the state with that of the expanding Christian tide. At this time, a boom in technological research in Franciscan monastic culture was connected to their millenarianist belief that the end of the world was near and that paradise on earth would soon arrive – a belief that fueled the Crusades and the technological expansion that ensued from developing weaponry.
From the crusades to atomic weaponry, the impulse behind technological development has been one of purification and annihilation. As Noble has traced the trajectory of what he calls the "technologies of transcendence" through the history of atomic weaponry, space exploration, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering, so too can we extend it through our contemporary techno-culture. A frequently cited example in today's link between technology and the military is "Arpanet," the first version of the Internet, conceived of by Robert Taylor, a NASA scientist who became director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). Its purpose was post apocalyptic: to define a means of communication between remote locations in the event of nuclear warfare. As is still the developmental strategy of the US military, technological innovation was thrown to the open commercial market in the form of a "request for proposals," ultimately subsidizing consumer product development and the burgeoning of such corporate giants such as IBM and Microsoft.
The dynamic exchange established by the Internet between commercial and industrial development can further be seen in the case of the computer gaming industry, its graphics technologies originally developed for the purpose of military simulations. Today, advances are made in the commercial gaming world and then appropriated by the military. An example is the story of There, a multiplayer online world. Different from other simulation games, There is realistic, with human characters. Responding to another military request for proposals, its creator has recently modified There to allow soldiers from around the world to train in one single virtual environment, landing Forterra, the gaming company that created it, a multi-million dollar U.S. Army contract to build a war simulator for training soldiers to fight insurgents in urban settings.
The writer and critic Bruce Sterling has, in his history of military training simulations, described "Simulate Before You Build" as "a daring ax-stroke at the very tap-root of the Cold War-era military-industrial complex." At this writing, after the Iraq war again proved the military might of the US high-tech army, a new game, Full Spectrum Warrior developed by the Institute for Creative Technologies in Marina Del Rey, California has just been released as a 3D simulation game for Microsoft's dedicated game unit Xbox. Developed together with the US Army, Full Spectrum Warrior is a commercial variant of Full Spectrum Command, a military simulation used to train soldiers in the strategies of military operations in urban terrain.
More significantly, 3D Virtual Reality simulations, the same technology used to create the shooter games, are the same games that feature deadly and seductive virtual females such as Lara Croft. The same gaming industry, one that works hand in hand with the U.S. military, also sets the face of the virtual female. Like Full Spectrum Warrior, the game BloodRayne, for instance, was designed for Xbox. Its main female protagonist by the same name, emerges from a masculinized culture where women still find themselves marginalized – the iconography of the virtual female is one generated not by women but by men and a male-dominated high-end technology industry. BloodRayne, along with the virtual character Luba Licious, the protagonist of the "adult" game Leisure Suit Larry also released for Xbox in 2004, was featured as centerfold in the October 2004 issue of Playboy magazine (figure 1.4.).
Like others of her kind, the virtual BloodRayne eerily embodies the values of a monastic and still millenarianist techno-culture; she is a vampirish she-devil, a vampy temptress and militaristic action figure combined. Characters such as BloodRayne, who have been touted for the female empowerment they purportedly represent, are but an amalgamate of Christian millenarianist values, an identification of woman as perfidious temptress, combined with military technology (figure 1.5.).
It comes as no surprise that women still find themselves marginalized in such a technological culture. But techno-culture is not monolithic: the need to differentiate between so called high and low-end technologies cannot be overstated. While many of us know women Internet designers, whose mastery of HTML and Flash programming languages are a requirement of their trade, Internet technology is also one that has been culturally integrated and accepted. No longer the cutting edge, or – in techno-lingua – having passed from the high-end to the more user-friendly low end, the Internet as a cultural site has broadened inclusively. During its initial high-end days, however, this terrain was almost exclusively male. (As professors of 3D animation we estimate the relation of male to female students at roughly 85-90%; in the industry sectors of advanced technologies the male ratio tends to be even higher.)
Feminists have commented on the fact that the control of virtual environments is far from gender balanced. Rosanne Stone writes, "Many of the engineers currently debating the form and nature of cyberspace are the young Turks of computer engineering, men in their late teens and twenties, and they are preoccupied with the things with which post-pubescent men have always been preoccupied. This rather steamy group will generate the codes and descriptors by which bodies in cyberspace are represented." The rendering of female sexuality by a male-dominated industry evokes the homosocial clerical culture of the early Christian church that has delineated female sexuality for two millennia, a delineation that was all but conducive to women's equal social standing. Scholars, notably Ranke-Heinemann, have cogently illustrated how, in the early centuries of the first millennium, the notion of celibacy as an ideal, and the negativism towards sexual desires in a broader sense, turned into negativism towards women.
At first glance, the evoking of sexual desires for which, according to Stone, the largely male architects of cyberspace find an outlet in technology appears to be in disaccord with the celibate clerical culture of the Christian church. Yet the technological milieu described by Stone is also monastic, another world without women. It is perhaps a lack of contact with the opposite sex – in fact its very inability to make contact – that is characteristic of this homosocial community, hence its colloquial identification as a social group as "nerds" and "geeks." A certain parallel between the thwarted desires of the engineers of cyberspace and celibate clerical culture seems all but coincidental. It is precisely the attitude towards sex and sexuality that links the male-dominated cultures of the early Christian church, a culture that sought to execrate female sexuality, to that of the twenty-first century digital technologies, a culture that has spawned the image of the ostentatiously eroticized virtual female.
What is at stake for women in the thrill and frill seeking imagery that emanates from the male culture that upholds cyberspace and that colors the world far beyond its virtual boundaries is the delineation of female sexuality – a sexuality that today, just as it was two millennia ago, is defined by men (figure 1.6. and 1.7.). That the technologically mediated delineation of female sexuality is but virtual may lead us to dismiss its significance. Yet, such dismissal would be tantamount to dismissing the impact the image of the Virgin Mary has had on female upbringing. In her feminist critique of the Catholic Church, Mary Daly draws from Simone De Beauvoir who comments:
"For the first time in history the mother kneels before her son; she freely accepts her inferiority. This is the supreme masculine victory, consummated in the cult of the Virgin – it is the rehabilitation of woman through the accomplishment of her defeat."
Technology supplies a lens through which the body and sexual difference are visualized and thus understood. Cyberfeminists have repeatedly commented that the technologies that are applied in the creation of visuals offer more than sleek representations. In Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women, Anne Balsamo, for example, writes, "What is becoming increasingly clear in encounters with virtual reality applications is that visualization technologies no longer simply mimic or represent reality – they virtually recreate it." Similarly, in Reload: Rethinking Women and Cyberculture Mary Flanagan notes that the world of 3D imaging through which we experience the virtual body is often perceived not as a representation but as it really is. As state of the art visualization technologies are predominantly in male hands so, arguably, is our notion of female sexuality.
That women's reality is inextricably interconnected to the image of her sexuality is elucidated by the Christian ideal of woman: she is chaste and pure. The denial of her desire, and thus the denial of her voice, generates the type of silence that we so often find is the seed for oppression. Although feminists have duly noted the role of the Catholic church in the oppression of women, what thus far has not been addressed is that the tie that binds an archaic attitude towards female sexuality to a novel, technologically mediated iconography of female sexuality is one of misogyny and the belief that woman, fueled by her supposedly inherently salacious ways, is to blame for the stain of original sin. According to this biblical doctrine, woman's seductiveness is culpable for mankind's fall from grace. As a consequence of her culpability, women were expelled from the clerical culture and the powers it embodied, from the monastic learning centers that soon brought forth the European university system, which later gave birth to the modern sciences. Based on literal interpretations of the bible, the fathers of the church perceived of women as nothing less than weak, feeble liars, as witches and heretics, as the "devil's gateway," as embodying the "foul plague of carnal contagion." In the forcefully cultivated absence of the female, the homosocial clerical culture would undo woman's sinful work: technology, as Nobel demonstrates, was and is to be the saving instrument applied in restoring man's divine likeness.
Although on the surface the image of the virginal and the virtual female are at odds – one is presented as remarkably modest, pure, and void of sexual desires, the other as grotesquely eroticized and aggressive – in either incarnation of the female, the rendering of her sexuality appears to be the essence of what and who she is. As though guided by an ecclesiastical reading of female sexuality, the virtual female is recurrently represented as a lustful menace, enticing her audience to join her depraved world of eternal flames. Over and over again, the virtual female is depicted as the transgressive incarnation of sex and demise (figure 1.8).
We may consider in this light the depiction of BloodRayne as featured on the cover of the special "Girls of Gaming" issue of Play magazine (figure 1.9). Conflating seduction with threat, she was described there as "dead sexy," and represented before a diabolic curtain of fire, making direct eye contact with the viewer. She replaces Croft as the femme fatale, even more evil and dangerous, a seductress with blades for hands, both castrating and phallic.
Interestingly, the language used to describe BloodRayne is mostly technical, avoiding direct reference to the iconography of the imagery used to represent her or its symbolism:
BloodRayne can now use horizontal and vertical poles to her advantage in a number of creative ways... she can climb vertical poles to evade her enemies and shoot down at them from a higher vantage point... We plan to use normal mapping to make veins, muscles and details stand out and look more realistic.... the combo system in BloodRayne 2 will function similar to systems in the fighting genre... this new system goes along way toward making combat more precise and...much deeper than they previously were...
In Digital Beauties (2001), published by Taschen, respected for their contemporary art publications, we can find similar deadly seductresses. "Women Dressed to Kill," is a chapter portraying 3D imagery by Daniel Scott Murray (figure 2.0.).
Murray's character, dressed in black, also makes direct eye contact, evoking a female vampire. She is more realistic, but as the chapter heading implies, her erotic appeal has the power to annihilate. Nevertheless, as with BloodRayne, the language used to describe these digital beauties is strangely technical and formalistic:
Daniel Scott Murray('s)... characters display a mix of techniques that gives his artwork an intriguing style...his images are created on an Athlon 1Ghz Thunderbird, running 256 MB of RAM on a Win2000 Pro platform with a color/contrast corrected monitor with a 32 bit color display.
A similar aesthetic also pervades an animation by Steven Stahlberg, a well-known and widely admired hero to 3D animation students. In 1998, Stahlberg's image of a female straddling a machine (figure 2.1.) received an Honorary Mention by Ars Electronica, the premiere festival of advanced digital art known for its critical and theoretical bias.
It took an art rather than a technology journalist to make note of the caricature-like erotic imagery used to represent the virtual woman and to avoid a purely formalist description. In his review of the 1998 Ars Electronica Festival catalog, critic Christopher Penrose writes:
The most hilarious statement is the politically correct complaint about the overwhelming representation of male academic composers in the Computer Music category. Such a complaint is blatantly hypocritical: just browse through CyberArts 98 and you can find amazingly contra-feminist works such as Steven Stahlberg's Virtual Actress Move Test. Steven's 3D modeled blonde bimbo is clad in a bikini and is strapped to a Tron-like cycle/rocket, in reverse crotch-rocket orientation. She is lying prone on the cycle with her large breasts realistically smashed against the ribbed seat, and her ass acutely raised; her position blatantly suggests that she is being fucked by the cycle. There is also what appears to be a machine-gun or "laser-turret" mounted above her ass. Furthermore, her head seems to be uncomfortably wedged between two rods and her hands bound, suggesting that this woman might actually be trapped inside this rape rocket against her will. Is this animation at its best?
In cyberspace, women's sexuality is portrayed as a weapon; her eroticism spells doom. Nearly two thousand years after female sexuality came to be identified with the stain of original sin and with man's demise, the female is once again rendered as sinful temptress, she again embodies the 'devil's gateway' (figure 2.2. and 2.3.). The continuation of a clerical, misogynist ideology that formerly found its ultimate expression in the genocide of the witch-hunts, the virtual female is placed amidst unparalleled violence. Formerly, the church tolerated celibate women, because, as Noble points out, celibate women were categorized as "spiritual males." In other words, in their perceived assimilation of masculinity, an assimilation that was feasible only by the denial of her sexuality, women's status was elevated. Again today, the virtual female gains on credibility as she is masculinized. She is worthy of respect as she exhibits and adheres to male-identified behavior.
By representing woman as a masculinized technological warrior who is also a tempting and devilish force, the virtual female represents a regression, specifically a medieval one, which is a literalization of millenarianist anxiety (figure 2.4.). In this way, the so-called new woman, the Lara Croft-like warrior/seductress as embodied in the game's film version by the living actress Angelina Jolie is neither "new" nor truly "woman." Instead, inspired by the male-dominated technological and militaristic culture of our era, a culture emanating from the monastic culture of the Middle Ages, she magnifies those values prophesized in an earlier epoch, which were most certainly self-fulfilling.
Claudia Hart is a visual artist and writer who began her professional practice in the late eighties as a critic and reviews editor at Artforum magazine. She then turned to painting and multimedia installation, showing her work in Europe and the U.S. for ten years before turning to digital animation. She now teaches 3D animation at Sarah Lawrence College and Pratt Institute, and shows her Maya-platform work, most recently at the Exploratorium Museum in San Francisco.
Claudia Herbst is an Associate Professor at the Department of Computer Graphics and Interactive Media at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn. She has published internationally on the topics of gender and technology. Most recently, Herbst contributed to the anthology Action Chicks, ed. Sherrie Innes (Palgrave Mcmillan, 2004).