*This is part of a series. Please be sure to read the Introduction before continuing below.
I. The Set Up
In my Digital Rhetorics class a few weeks ago we were given the opportunity to create avatars, whether in bitmoji or cartoonify. I was so excited because about a year ago I saw a friend’s bitmoji and was like, I totally want that for myself. Why don’t I have one yet. Serious fomo. In visual form:
So I set to making my bitmoji and, even though we were supposed to be silently making them, I began to consult my classmate-neighbor for her opinions. I would often question her suggestions (that’s what my skin color looks like to you?) and I became conflicted in making “simple” choices about my eyebrow shape, ear placement, permanent make-up.
I knew I wanted to highlight my eyes because they are pretty large in offline life, and after I decided that the choices I was being offered (what’s with the the passive voice? I have no idea who was offering me said choices. Programmers?) were limiting (despite having probably 20-something choices for skin color), I started thinking about what I wanted myself to look like, or rather, what I hope other people are seeing when they see me. So I added glasses because even though I don’t always wear glasses in offline life I thought they look cute and kind of cool. And I’m into scarves so I added one of those as well.
When I was done my classmate-neighbor expressed her affirmations even when I wondered, is this what I look like? Is this what other people think I look like? Then she leaned over and said, “so your bitmoji kind of looks like Sarah Palin.”
When we were debriefing as a whole-class I was discussing another image I had pulled and saying I didn’t think I would actually say those words in that way in offline life and a classmate said, “yes you would!” I started to think
do I even know myself?!
Later that night I sent a group text to my college roommates with my new bitmoji and my best friend responded, “your bitmoji is totally cute, but it looks nothing like you!”
Okay, sensing a pattern here: what it is about my bitmoji that makes it not look like me even though I tried to get each separate piece to look like me? Do the parts just not add up to the whole? And then I think I hit it: my bitmoji doesn’t look Asian. Why doesn’t my bitmoji look Asian? What is it about my offline face that looks Asian? And why couldn’t I get this “look” online?
II. Some Background
At the same time we were making bitmoji and discussing “authenticity and identity” in class and what those terms mean in online and offline spaces (again with the defining of terms) I was reading (by coincidence) an article in The Atlantic about Second Life.
The article has pictures of Second Lifers and their avatars and I was struck by the choices individuals made in selecting their online bodies. The narrative we most hear about our online bodies compared to our offline ones is that our offline ones are our idealized versions:
I mean, this isn’t a new concept. If we have an imaginative space where we can create a new us, why not create idealized versions of ourselves, that don’t get old, or fat, or, wait, what other adjectives can I put in here that help reinforce our ever-evolving standards of female beauty? There are limits about this self based on social ideas of the “ideal”—I’m not sure if we’re talking Platonic forms here—but also real advantages: the article details a woman with limited mobility as a result of multiple sclerosis who gains full use of her legs in online life, a man with Down Syndrome in offline life has the option about when to reveal his diagnosis to other avatars, an option he doesn’t have in offline life. So we can exist in a space where we can hide the features of our identity that others judge.
So that judgment doesn’t go away because we’re online, as the horrifically troubling parts of avatar creation show us. One woman, who is Black in offline life, made herself a “California blonde” in Second Life and expressed the “freedom” she felt at not having “to come off nice and articulate, right away…” Our online identities don’t eliminate the prejudices we have in offline life. Why did we ever think they would? In fact, this woman has created an online identity where she can pass, completely eliminating the parts of her identity influenced by her race and ethnicity. As the article’s author Leslie Jamison writes, the
“preponderance of slender white bodies, most of them outfitted with the props of the leisure class, simply re-inscribe the same skewed ideals—and the same sense of ‘whiteness’ as invisible default—that sustain the unequal playing field in the first place.”
Interestingly, while I couldn’t get my bitmoji to look Asian, one of my White male classmates shared that his bitmoji looked just like him—and we all agreed. Why could he look like him and why couldn’t I look like me? What choices were presented to him that I didn’t have? How does our digital world dictate and inscribe the identities we present there?
III. The Interviews
You’ve read a lot of what I have to say. Please follow the link to the prezi to see and hear how my interviewees responded.