The gendered blindfold of immersive VR

What I really want is a head mounted display (HMD) that allows the user to switch seamlessly between looking at the VR environment and the real world. My reasons goes beyond the cool factor, convenience, safety, or the flexibility of a multi-use VR/AR goggle. I want this because I think more girls and women will want to try VR if they can more easily control what they view and who views them.

Last week I went to a rural high school to give the kids and their teachers a try of the Oculus Rift. More boys than girls arrived to have a go and it was only the girls who looked at the HMD and said, ‘How embarrassing!’

I have heard this expression from girls on a number of occasions. Not all girls, just some –  but only girls and never boys. During the VR School project, a minority of girls expressed embarrassment about putting on the HMD and trying out immersive VR. Certainly HMDs are not pretty in the conventional sense, but the main issue appeared to be the possibility that their classmates would look at them and that they would be subject to ridicule. It took encouragement by myself and the teacher, and demonstrating that their classmates couldn’t really see them in certain parts of VR room, to persuade the girls to give VR a try. Once they did, they loved it.

The initial embarrassment of some girls to the HMD got me thinking about gender and immersive VR.

A little while ago, I was in a university cafeteria where there was a stall set up to allow students and staff to try a HTC Vive. The stall was manned (literally only by men) and the line to try the equipment consisted entirely of men with one woman looking on. Men enthusiastically played with the technology, talking about it with their friends. Over the hour I sat there, I didn’t observe any women volunteering to give the Vive a go.

So why are some girls and women reluctant to try immersive VR? Certainly, masculinised technology spaces deter women (the prominent absence of women in the field of computer science attests to this). Feminist theory suggests that girls and women, across cultures, have been socialised into being vigilant about their activity in and use of communal and public space. Girls and women experience a heightened psychological and embodied sense of awareness – of being looked at, evaluated and potentially objectified by men. This objectification through surveillance is called the male gaze.

Clarke encapsulates the effects of the male gaze when she says, ‘women are taught that their bodies are always visible and available for judgement by an unknown male watcher and this surveillance is a reflection of sexist social power structures which aim to control and subordinate women.’  Girls and women are taught that to be ‘proper’ and safe in public they must be fully aware of who is around them, who might be looking at them and that they should take up as little space as possible, without spectacle.  Girls and women normalise themselves through the gaze of others (especially males but also females). Females who ignore or defy the gaze risk being labelled as deviant and may be subject to symbolic, verbal and, in extreme cases, physical violence. This is exemplified in the way women are thought to bring violence upon themselves because they did not act with due caution in public and/or were dressed ‘like that’.

In her seminal work on female embodiment, I.M. Young observes the differences in bodily comportment between boys and girls. She uses the action of throwing to illustrate the effect of gender norms on embodiment. Girls generally do not bring their whole bodies into the motion of throwing the way boys do, instead remaining relatively immobile except for their arms, and even in throwing their arms are not usually fully extended. Emphasised femininity,  requires that girls and women do not take up too much space especially in public and they are socialised to remain constricted and circumspect in their movement.

Putting on a HMD is like being blindfolded to the outside world.

In a communal place like a classroom or a public place like a cafeteria, this can interrupt the deeply socialised capacity of girls and women to monitor the gaze of others and ensure that the norms of ‘proper’ feminine behaviour are being enacted. For some girls and women, the potential embodied pleasure of moving and interacting freely in virtual space is subordinated by a fear of humiliating themselves, of appearing less feminine in their movements, and of making an embarrassing spectacle of themselves that others can gaze upon. This is a real fear; people in immersive VR can spontaneously react and interact in ways that are sometimes strange and often humorous to watch. However, it is also a gendered fear that affects the opportunities available to girls and women.

Part of the answer lies in giving girls more access to immersive technologies so that they feel comfortable in trying these out to build a sense of mastery. In the VR School project, girls were far less likely than boys to have tried immersive VR and this suggests that schools have a role addressing access to new technology in gender-inclusive ways.

Some questions remain –

  • Why do some girls and women experience VR embarrassment while others do not?
  • Can immersive VR experiences and spaces be developed in ways that alleviate the embarrassment of girls and women so that they can fully enjoy immersive experiences?
  • Can we work towards design solution which allow girls and women to maintain their sense of integrity and safety when using a HMD?
  • And, most importantly, how can we all ramp up our efforts to challenge the male gaze and sexist notions of emphasised femininity so that girls and women can truly enjoy a full range of life opportunities, including experiencing new technology in all their wonder?


Photo: sadaft_trollop, Blindfolded in red (cropped),

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