CyberFeminism \\ˈsī-bərˈfe-mə-ni-zəm \\ : A wave of thought, criticism, and art that emerged in the early 1990s, galvanizing a generation of feminists, before bursting along with the dot-com bubble. The term was coined simultaneously by the British cultural theorist Sadie Plant and the Australian art collective VNS Matrix in 1991, during the heady upwelling of cyberculture—that crucial moment in which the connective technology of the Internet was moving into the public sphere.
CyberFeminism looked and sounded like this, basically:
That’s the 1991 A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century, by VNS Matrix.
The CyberFeminists were techno-utopian thinkers who saw technology as a way to dissolve sex and gender divisions. Of course, they knew that the digital world, and the cultures emerging from it, speculative and otherwise, contained as many gendered power dynamics as the real world; the term “CyberFeminist” itself is partially a critique of the misogynistic overtones of cyberpunk literature in the 80s. Still, the CyberFeminists believed in the Internet as a tool of feminist liberation.
There was a lot to love on the web back then. Feminists emerging from a tradition of nonlinear writing and art practices saw potential in non-narrative hypertext as a medium, and feminist critics compared web connectivity to the consciousness-raising groups of 70s third-wave feminism, where women came together to discuss their similarities and differences. From Leonardo, MIT’s arts journal, in 1998: “the question is not one of dominance and control or of submission and surrender to machines; instead it is one of exploring alliances, affinities, and coevolutionary possibilities… between women and technology.”
A clear definition of CyberFeminism is almost impossible to pin down. In fact, at the 1997 First CyberFeminist International, the first proper CyberFeminist conference, attendees agreed not to define the term, instead collectively authoring 100 “Anti-Theses,” a laundry list of things which CyberFeminism was not. The list includes: not for sale, not postmodern, not a fashion statement, not a picnic, not a media hoax, not science fiction, and—my personal favorite—“not about boring toys for boring boys.”
Not boring indeed. For CyberFeminists, cyberspace was a sinuous alternate world ripe for creative experimentation. They made revolutionary CD-ROMs (like Linda Dement's "Cyberflesh Girlmonster") built web-based multimedia artworks, and tinkered with early Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) to worldbuild outside of cultural patriarchy, taking any form they pleased as they moved through the Internet seeking pleasure and knowledge. They even made video games. Most illustrious among them: All New Gen, another VNS Matrix project.
In All New Gen—seen above, in 1995, in a viewing kiosk at YYZ Gallery in Toronto—female “cybersluts” and “anarcho cyber-terrorists” hack into the databanks of Big Daddy Mainframe, an Oedipal embodiment of the techno-industrial complex, to sow the seeds of a New World Disorder and end the rule of phallic power.
Logging into All New Gen, the player is first asked: “What is your gender? Male, Female, Neither.” The only right answer is “Neither”—anything else will send the player into a loop that ends the game. Energy in All New Gen is measured in “G-slime;” in the battle against the Mainframe and his henchmen (“Circuit Boy, Streetfighter and other total dicks”), the player gets help from “mutant shero DNA Sluts.” Can you even imagine?
“Cyberspace has the potential,” explained the novelist Beryl Fletcher in an 1999 essay for CyberFeminism: Connectivity, Critique + Creativity, “to stretch imagination and language to the limit; it is a vast library of information, a gossip session, and a politically charged emotional landscape. In short, a perfect place for feminists.”
Or, as the scholar Donna Haraway wrote, more succinctly, in her seminal 1991 essay, A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century: “I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess.”
Of course, these techno-utopian expectations haven't exactly become our reality. CyberFeminist thinkers and artists had the Internet pegged as a surefire playground for female thought and expression, but being a woman online in 2014 comes with the same caveats and anxieties that have always accompanied being female in meatspace. Fears of being silenced, threatened, or bullied are as real in the digital realm as IRL. Women like the (sheroic) videogame critic Anita Sarkeesian are routinely harassed for simply pointing out that we can do better at representing women in the media wrapped around our technology.
And anonymity! Anonymity, which CyberFeminists championed as a method for transcending gender, is now a primary enabler of violently misogynistic language all over the web—in YouTube comments, on forums, and in the email inboxes and Twitter @replies of women with public opinions about technology. It’s not that the CyberFeminists failed. It’s that as the Venn diagrams of digital and real life have edged into near-complete overlap, the problems of the real world have become the problems of the digital world. The web is no longer a separate space; we are inseparable from the web.
VNS Matrix postcard, 1994. Left to Right:
Still, there is hope. As Virginia Barratt, a founding member of VNS Matrix, wrote in 2014, “cyberfeminism was a catalytic moment, a collective memetic mind-virus that mobilised geek girls everywhere and unleashed the blasphemic techno-porno code that made machines pleasurable and wet…as I watch pussy riot declining to be ‘clean and proper’ bodies in a most filthy way, i feel the morphing cyberg feminist lineage stretching through time and space.”
Quite literally, actually—next year, a “remix” of the VNS Matrix Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century will be sent into space as part of an art project called Forever Now.
Back here on Earth, powerful conversations about women, gender, power, and technology are happening all over the web. The platforms are different than the CyberFeminists anticipated. We don’t consciousness-raise through CD-ROMs, hang out as avatar Amazons in virtual worlds, or author non-narrative hyperlinked novels—instead, we share ideas in Facebook groups, launch online magazines, and deploy hashtags to try to bring issues to light.
It’s less countercultural, but we have a bigger audience than ever. And while touchstones of terribleness remain—the revelations of Jian Ghameshi’s abuse, Gamergate, Ray Rice punching his wife—at least we’re doing something with the attention shit brings to the fan: talking, educating, getting mad.
In the cultural aftermath of Gamergate, I’ve been holding onto CyberFeminism and its fruits as totems for a saner parallel world. It consoles me to see that while technology has always been gendered, the seeds of possibility have been there from the beginning. We can use technological tools to build the landscapes of our dreams, rather than to model the constructs of our existing reality. It’s not too late for us. While the past’s failed utopian aspirations demonstrate what could have been, they also show us what we could still become.
We need to remember CyberFeminism. We need draw VNS Matrix up from the depths and inject a little into our veins. It’s good medicine. These women’s voices—weird, angry, hilarious, and staunchly defiant of the (Big Daddy) Mainframe—are sorely missing from today’s many fractured conversations about feminism in online spaces. For every screed about “ethics in gaming journalism,” for every dismissal of women’s legitimate grievances about their portrayal in gaming or treatment in online comment sections, for every death threat or doxxing attempt lodged against a woman online, I long for the howling future cunts to come along and rattle some sense into the servers.
This story is part of a series on rediscovering feminist histories on the web. Read part two, "An Oral History of the First Cyberfeminists."