VR, Gender, and Sexism
As technology becomes more mainstream our understanding of it and its effects grows. This growth, however, doesn't happen without users and implementers asking questions. What is this technology? Is it useful or harmful? Does it work for everyone or just some. Oftentimes these questions, and the answers they reveal, reach the general public through popular media. In the article below we can read about one such example, in which a television show looks at whether VR is geared more towards male users. We think this is a great way to get more people involved in a conversation about emerging technologies. Enjoy!
“The Woman Behind the Clothes” Asks if VR is Unwittingly Sexist
In Freeform’s new series, The Bold Type we follow Jane, Kat, and Sutton who are three best friends navigating office politics and life at a fictional women’s magazine, Scarlet. The Bold Type is inspired by the adventures of real life Cosmopolitan magazine editor-in-chief, Joanna Coles.
The show has been tackling so many pertinent issues it’s hard to keep track of them all. One idea I found incredibly intriguing was brought up in episode 3 of season 1. “The Woman Behind the Clothes” asks the question, does VR give preferential treatment to the male experience?
At the beginning of the episode Kat, the Social Media Directer at Scarlet, is passionately striving to make virtual reality a new part of Scarlet’s social media brand. Her goal is to get readers excited and informed about the new tech in order to keep the magazine current and relevant. She’s convinced, as many are, that VR is the future.
However, Kat soon realizes during an in-house testing of the tech that there may be something off about how some of her female interns are responding to their VR experience. After one of the girls gets physically sick to her stomach, Kat calls the VR company who provided the gear to ask them if the reaction is normal. Their response: “Was [the female intern] currently menstruating?” Later, as the women are having their daily catch-up, Kat goes on to reveal in a conversation with Jane that there is research that suggests women are more susceptible to motion sickness when they’re on their periods.
“Apparently hormones play a part in how we interpret images,” Kat says.
“So VR is inadvertently sexist?” her friend asks.
“No, it’s ‘vertently’ sexist,” Kat replies. “They use technology that favors the male brain. Ergo, ‘vertenetly’ sexist.”
Because of her newfound discovery, Kat decides to write an article about her interns’ experience with VR and her personal reaction to how the VR company responded to it. She calls it “Hey VR Bros Don’t Forget About the Female Gaze.” After posting her article on Twitter Kat receives a slew of trolling responses, which quickly escalates to Kat receiving death threats and rape threats. Kat’s phone also gets hacked and her personal photos are posted on the internet.
Thankfully, female support and empowerment save the day in several different ways:
- Kat receives continuous encouragement from her boss to continue using VR to engage readers, to speak her mind, and recognize her inner strength.
- Kat also receives a tweet from the executive of a local VR company, Emily Ramos, who tweets her, “These guys came after me 2. We r not the only ones. Stay Safe.” Kat thanks her and replies by asking her if she would consider “…fighting back, but in a smart way.”
Cut to a video of a diverse group of women who work in tech and VR reading a series of appalling mean tweets with the last woman being Kat who says, “…there’s a human being on the other end of your tweet. So please, tweet with kindness.”
The episode ends with a meeting at Scarlet headquarters between Kat and Emily Ramos. Where Kat tells Emily that her VR company is the one she will be recommending to the Board of Directors for all of Scarlet Magazine’s VR needs. Kat goes on to say that Ramos VR is the perfect company for Scarlet to partner with because the tech is specifically tailored to women. Emily then hands Kat a a grey and pink VR headset, to which Kat remarks, “These are so much less bulky than the other ones.” As a fan of VR, I feel you girl.
I’m a petite woman with a small head, so wearing VR gear has always been a bit uncomfortable for me. To be fair, the technology is very new and I’m pretty sure VR headsets are uncomfortable for most people regardless of their gender and size. Perhaps there would be a greater rush to accommodate different size heads and faces if the majority of people in the tech world were women instead of men. According to a 2014 study conducted by the law firm Fenwick & West LLP only 11% percent of executive positions in Silicon Valley are held by women and a recent report by the Silicon Valley Bank stated that 68% of startups surveyed had no women on their board of directors at all. The graph below from the Fenwick & West LLP report shows a “percentage of companies with at least one woman director and distributions by number of women directors among the boards of companies in each group during 2014 proxy season.”
So maybe VR isn’t sexist outright, but the truth is that women can have a VERY different VR experience compared to men based on their hormone levels. Regardless of gender, anyone undergoing hormone therapy could also have a different or unpleasant experience. I believe that by shedding light on this issue The Bold Type has opened the door to having more conversations about how technology can unwittingly leave out various groups of people. Also, creating a narrative demonstrating ways in which women can approach an issue and be their own champions in solving those inequalities is an important step in the right direction and I commend The Bold Type for playing a role in that step forward.
**Featured image courtesy of Freeform owned by The Walt Disney Company, used under the Creative Commons license
Jessica Camille is an aspiring writer and performer living in L.A. Her passions include civil rights, chocolate chip cookies, and yoga. You can follow Jessica Camille on Instagram.