The Feminized Digital Body (On Consent and Gender Policing)
Abstract: This essay centers around the distinction of gender expression/gender policing within a digital space. Through an examination of the Vocaloid software and the avatars that accompany it, the essay takes a broader exploration about digital representation and the agency around that representation. The piece specifically looks at the ways in which the source and production of the software enforce the manipulation of the female Vocaloid, Hatsune Miku.
Furthermore, topics of agency and the production of gender are considered to help form the concept of the “Feminized Digital Body” – the cornerstone of the paper. As defined throughout the piece, this theory describes a form of gendering that occurs on a digital avatar. To contrast, the paper also looks at the “Digitized Feminine Body.” A concept that centers around consensual gender expression and the role of a female-bodied person and her strive towards being a digital avatar. The goal of the paper is to draw conclusions about digitality and how social structures, like gender, translate from physical realms to online spaces.
“No hideous clowns or trickster spirits appear in the RL [Real Life] version of the incident, no voodoo dolls or wizard guns, indeed no rape at all as any RL court of law has yet defined it … Whatever physical interaction occurred consisted of a mingling of electronic signals sent from sites spread out between New York City and Melbourne, Australia.”
Julian Dibbell (A Rape in Cyberspace)
When the internet was first coming into existence, people expected a utopia. The rhetoric around digital space often frames it as a fresh start for social structures – a blank space for our culture to restart on all the wrongs it has written. It’s thought that because online spaces are accessible, the power relations that exist in real life don’t exist there. In reality, this is not the case. More so, we’re experiencing a translation of our existing social structures to an online setting. The real opportunity of digitality is not to exist outside our foundational power dynamics, but rather it is that we can witness how such a translation occurs and thus, make distinctions about both physical and digital cultures. As Lisa Nakamura puts it, “The Net is, like other media, a reflection of the cultural imagination. It is a hybrid medium that is collectively authored, synchronous, interactive, and subject to constant revision” (530). When Jonathan Sterne wrote about the history of the vocoder in MP3: The Meaning of a Format, he left out a contemporary cultural product in his analysis. Vocaloid software – a line of voice synthesizers, is a direct product of the history postvocoder that has impacted some ways that music is both created and listened to. As Sterne writes, “Vocoders reproduced speech by modeling the mechanism of speech” (106-107). The first Vocaloid project started in 2000 and in a similar history, it was created to reproduce a singer’s or voice actor’s real voice.
The individual will work in a studio to produce a range of different sounds, reading scripts in different tones and pitches. This software is then used to produce original songs by inputting the lyrics and melody into the program. Although the technology was originally not intended for commercial use, the interest from producers and musicians was enough to make Vocaloid into a commercial product. Now, the Vocaloids are sold individually by “singer” and used popularly in the music industry. Some musicians have used the software for features or back up vocals on songs, however, the most famous use of the Vocaloids are when they become their own icons, mostly in Japan.
Michel Chion writes about a figure in film – the acousmetre, which is represented through sound without any on-screen visual source. For Chion, this figure exists neither inside nor outside the film. In Chion’s words:
We may define it as neither inside nor outside the image. It is not inside, because the image of the voice’s source—the body, the mouth—is not included. Nor is it outside, since it is not clearly positioned offscreen in an imaginary “wing,” like a master of ceremonies or a witness, and it is implicated in the action, constantly about to be part of it. (Chion 129)
As a result of the invisible world in which it lives, the acousmetre has powers, granted by the context of film. The powers include being all-seeing, being omnipresent, and being omnipotent. In addition, the power of the Vocaloid’s invisibility, is the empty space left for creation. Rather than being defined in the limitations of an artist’s physical appearance or personality, the Vocaloid leaves a void to be filled – a fabricated clean slate. Now, the question becomes: who is given the power to fill the void? With a human artist, although agency and consent is always up for question, there are limitations to what can be altered in professional image. For example, although it is possible for a label to heavily pressure its artist to change his or her hairstyle, it wouldn’t exactly be possible for the record label to change the artist’s height or other genetic features. Even more so, record labels have never been in a position to just obtain a voice and completely form a physical manifestation of the voice.
Essentially, the power of the acousmetre is given to the production companies of Hatsune Miku and the other Vocaloid singers. With that power, Hatsune Miku will participate in any song, video, or performance that they wish her to. Now, the vocoder and Vocaloid shared trait of dehumanization needs to be reexamined through this context of power and its relationship to agency and consent. Let’s turn to Technology Transformation: The Anime Cyberbabe by Michelle Tung for a closer look at the significance of the feminized anime character, or what she calls The Anime Cyberbabe. As Tung puts it, “The Anime Cyberbabe… is an icon, an embodiment of an idea, and moreover, an ideal to both the creator and the viewer” (Tung 23). Hatsune Miku is an ideal, especially for the creators. A Choose Your Own Adventure. A BuildABear. A MMORPG character. Examples of this are in the carefully crafted appearance and list of qualities that are chosen for Miku. For example, the fact they made Miku a Virgo might speak to the place of purity and “the virgin” in pop culture. In addition, her age is extremely significant when thinking about the blank canvas that she serves. An intentional infantilization of a character that is to be presented to a realm that openly sexualizes animated female characters. For the viewer, they are given what they are always given, the unattainable, yet consumable, fantasy: “[w]hat happens is the reworking of mundane concerns into a perfect plastic world, a fabricated projection of true to life needs and desires onto an imaginary utopian canvas. The result: a fantasy that sells by adapting reality” (Tung 23). As an extension of the acousmetre, the viewer also attains more power than they usually would within their relationship to a human artist: the ability to create images, adventures, or origins for this character that has nothing set in stone. They fill in the blanks of this character and thus, create a richer experience for other fans. In an economic sense, they are participating in the production of capital by being active in the fan culture, creating a reciprocal between producer and viewer.
The idea of consent is a the key idea for analysis when considering the conception, production, and installation with the feminized digital body, which, for the purposes of this paper, will be defined as an animated character that is put into a specifically female gender context, typically to promote economic capital. The consent of a feminized digital body to be potentially manipulated or sexualized to the will of a creator is a consent that doesn’t exist. With Hatsune Miku, we can find some evidence of this in her lyrics. From a song titled, “Sweet Devil” Miku sings about her feminized presentation explicitly in some of the lines: “I’m showing too much of my chest? But you like it this way, don’t you?” “Comb your fingers through my hair and pat my head, calling me a good girl.” “You can be a bit more forceful I’m diving straight into your chest!” Through these lyrics we can see submission. We can see hesitant sexuality. We can see gender policing in the most archetypal form of Japanese femininity. Of course, this a problem with no direct solution. Unless we consider a future with a high level of artificial intelligence, consent will never exist for any Vocaloid. In fact, it should be argued that this type of power relationship is comparable to a type of cyber rape. In the article “A Rape in Cyberspace” by Julian Dibbell, we are introduced to a situation in which an assault and manipulation occurred on LambdaMOO, a text based roleplaying site from the 90s. Users would enter commands for their own characters in different settings, entirely in text. With something called a “voodoo doll” program, a user was able to manipulate the actions of another character’s words – basically controlling the actions of their avatar.
It’s essential that a critical lens is present when examining this case. Too easily could one analyze this with undermining the experiences of the victims, and swiftly attempt to distinguish a binary between reality and the digital. Dibbell interviewed one of the victims, “[she] would confide to me that…posttraumatic tears were streaming down her face — a reallife fact that should suffice to prove that the words’ emotional content was no mere fiction” (Dibbell.) The fact is that the binary between physical space and cyberspace is less concrete than is thought. It’s encouraged to think critically about any use of the word rape for academic gain. Although, I hope part of that critique can be used to consider the use of the word and its intention when discussing digital bodies as opposed to “real bodies.”
Rape confines bodies. In the case of the Vocaloid, it’s forcing matter into a feminized digital body – similar to the voodoll program of LambdaMOO. It’s the separation and manipulation of a voice, originally sourced from a human body, but completely reconstructed for the purposes of a producer. The result is the erasure of the human source – for Hatsune Miku, that would be Saki Fujita, the body that houses her voice. The type of objectification the feminized digital body goes through is surprisingly humanizing.The connotation of the word humanization is entirely inappropriate for the context, but with a rethinking of the word, it fits well. In fact, the relationship between objectification and humanization through the Vocaloid is rather unique and complex. It’s objectification is entirely related to the humanizing aspect of it’s performance.
To consider the feminized digital body fully, we must also consider a situation of potential consent regarding the feminine expression during performance, in addition to a more obvious relationship between voice and body– while still remaining digital. To put it in direct opposition, we’ll call this figure the digitized feminine body. As an example of this figure, let’s look more into other types of pop music. The musician QT, who is known for her song “Hey QT,” is the perfect example of the digitized feminine body. First, QT is the performance project of the artist Hayden Dunham, who approached the producers A.G. Cook and Sophie, with the idea of her song. She wanted a song that marketed an energy drink with the same name, which it would repeat consistently throughout the song. QT sings in her own edited vocals that have a synthetic higher pitch. It’s unlikely the voice of the song actually belongs to Dunham herself (the song is in a British accent while Dunham is American), but it’s clear that QT is actively performing as a passive body. During an interview, given in Fact Magazine, QT is asked about the relationship between her persona and the producers (A.G. Cook and Sophie): “As your producers, do they also sculpt you in some fashion?” To which QT responded: “No, I pretty much told them what I was after… heavy repetition of the word ‘QT’ for marketing purposes and an uplifting club sensation to back it up” (QT). In later interviews, QT answers questions with heavily embellished statements, but it seems here that she is being somewhat realistic in her answers. In fact, in another part of the interview, she brings attention to the semi-fictitious nature of the project and the reason why Cook was appealing to her, “I love how he creates these seemingly synthetic identities – working with his collaborators to distill them into concise pop products…” Obviously, we can never be certain as to the amount of agency an artist will have in their career, but QT vocalizes her ability as much as any other artist does. In terms of the song itself, during all of her performances, she doesn’t try to hide her lipsyncing, and in one particular performance, she plays the song behind a DJ set without even singing along.
Although we don’t get many clues behind the scenes, during the process of production for both the song and and identity, QT appears to be the lead creator. It seems that QT was the source for this project, and with her power, she chooses passivity. As her career progresses, there is a shift from a performer to a performance. Once again, we must look at the acousmetre for an analysis of QT. Similarly to Hatsune Miku, QT has somewhat of a separation between voice and body. Operating under the assumption that it is fact the voice of Hayden Dunham, the depth in which QT operates as a lip syncer creates a parallel to Vocaloid performances and thus, creates a further parallel to the acousmetre. In this case, however, QT could also fall under another film figure provided by Chion – an antithesis to the acousmetre. “The counterpart to the notyetseen voice is the body that has not yet spoken” (Chion 23). This character, although Chion doesn’t go into much detail, is similar to the acousmetre in terms of afforded power.
As a contrast to Hatsune Miku and the humanized objectification that takes place during her production and performance, we see a different type of objectification with QT. A self identified and self elicited objectification with QT, something that seems paradoxical. With Miku, the producers spent time forming a detailed description to make the avatar more appealing and human. With QT, she spends time trying to perfect her performance as a void of a performer.
If we think of feminization as a problem, it seems the power of the body is the answer, at least on the surface. Although, there seems to be another difference that separates the feminized digital and the digitized feminine in the examples of Miku and QT – that would be the activity of their machineness. While QT strives to demonstrate her machineness, Miku attempts to hide it. Although the production of the digital body is so connected to the rhetoric around the finished product, the digital body has a sense of virginity and permanence that the human body does not. We must be wary of presentations that embody Japanese archetypal femininity for they have a strong history of identity tourism. Within old chat rooms and text based forums, one could find performances of Asian female identities. According to Lisa Nakamura’s research, these accounts tended to be run by white American men. Nakamura writes that when “users extend their identity tourism across both race and gender, it is possible to observe a double appropriation… to exploit and reify the Asian woman as submissive, docile, and a sexual plaything” (527). It’s imperative to be critical when a feminized digital body such as Hatsune Miku doesn’t age or change in construction. Especially when the production and employment of a feminized digital body is entirely tied to capital gain. In addition, it’s worth having a further discussion about QT’s whiteness and the privilege to elect docility. From this research, we have a foundation to discuss the crumbling dichotomy of the natural and the synthetic. At what point will we understand digitality as a form of being? At what point will we see the significance of power dynamics online? At what point can we discuss the reality of digital bodies?
Chion, Michel, Claudia Gorbman, and Walter Murch. Audio vision: Sound on Screen . New York: Columbia UP, 1994. Print.
Dibbell, Julian. “A Rape in Cyberspace.” Http://www.juliandibbell.com/ Http://www.juliandibbell.com/, Dec. 1993. Web. Nov.Dec. 2015.
Lea, Tom. “Hey QT!” FACT Magazine Music News New Music . FACT Magazine, 9 Sept. 2014. Web. Nov.Dec. 2015.
Nakamura, Lisa. “HeadHunting on the Internet: Identity Tourism, Avatars, and Racial Passing in Textual and Graphic Chat Spaces.” Popular Culture: A Reader. Ed. Raiford Guins and Omayra Zaragoza. Cruz. London: SAGE Publications, 2005. N. pag. Print.
Sterne, Jonathan. MP3: The Meaning of a Format . Durham: Duke UP, 2012. Print.
Tung, Michelle. “Technology Transformation : The Anime Cyberbabe.” (Book, 2001) WorldCat.org . N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Jan. 2016.
Ryan Khosravi is a writer and podcast producer who lives in Queens, NY. His work ranges from topics of race and gender to video games and web culture, with a particular focus in how they all intersect. He has a B.A. in Culture and Media from Eugene Lang College.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.