What can apps tell us about gender stereotypes? A lot, actually.
The ePad Femme is an Android tablet that has a certain pride in the obviousness of its limitations, hoping they will make the device more appealing to women by stripping away all the functionality that might put them off.
The default screen features a stunningly narrow number of apps drawn from the gender stereotypes about women's interests that seem to have been retrieved from the days of 1950s social propaganda. There are apps for perfume, shopping lists, recipes, yoga, and a clothing size converter. The layout is designed to simplify what manufacturer Eurostar claims are the difficulties of downloading new apps by pre-tailoring it around the specific set of needs of a woman overwhelmed by skirt sizes in all the countries she is whisking off to for yoga retreats.
Such narrowness seems to go against the idea of a tablet as a multipurpose device, which lures users with its potential to make everything doable in any place and time. There is no shortage of narrow-use touchscreen devices in the world, from portable game consoles to the automated ticket kiosks at movie theaters.
One of the unexpected pleasures of technology is the ability to simulate identities for ourselves out of consumption alone.
Yet what seems to offend is ePad Femme's attribution of its limits to femininity. It is as bizarre as if movie theaters used two lines based on gender, with the women's line leading to a ticket counter with an actual person based on the presumption that females are more social, while the hyper-rational, machine-loving men's line leading to a computer terminal. The ideas are familiar but it's alarming to think someone might use them as the basis for anything real.
Part of the power of pervasive gender stereotypes is that we choose them for ourselves. Mobile phone users are evenly split between male and female and yet there are all sorts of data points that suggest men and women use the devices in different ways. Writing in Wired, Christina Bonnington cites Flurry Analytics data that shows men are significantly more likely to download apps and games with sports or automotive content, while women seek out catalog apps like Coffee Table and Catalog Spree. Women were also more likely to download health- and fitness-related apps, while men were significantly more likely to load up on finance, business, and news.
One of the unexpected pleasures of technology is the ability to simulate identities for ourselves out of consumption alone. Yet, we tend to prefer technologies to seem as neutral as possible, hiding their limitations in carefully coercive options lists, hoping users won't want to adjust something not meant to be adjusted. We don’t want stereotypes to be false, we just want to come to them through our own choosing.
Earlier this year a study from the University of Rochester reaffirmed the idea that gender distinctions are not psychological inevitabilities: "There are not two distinct genders, but instead there are linear gradations of variables associated with sex, such as masculinity or intimacy, all of which are continuous."
It is not surprising that many of the most attention-getting uses of computer-driven communication have played with this fuzziness in distinguishing the masculine from the feminine. MTV, building off filmmaker Nev Schulman’s documentary, has sloganized the entire phenomenon with Catfish, its show about debunking online romances, often driven by a person pretending to be the opposite gender. Meanwhile, Photoshop jokers have found absurdist humor in swapping faces between hetero couples. An app called Face Craze! has also picked up on this phenomenon by allowing users to morph their own face into a number of different male and female models to achieve the same dysmorphic effect. Chatroulette has likewise been a vibrant arena for jokes and experiments with gender play, using the artifice of the medium to reinforce the most superficial elements of sex.
These technological blurrings could free us from our attachment to gender signifiers, reminding us that all choices made from free will are available to men and women in equal proportion. It does not make one a man to have Chatroulette sex with a woman, it only goes so far as to make one a human being to look at a computer and think about how it could be used in a sex fantasy. Yet we still end up choosing all of these dull and artificial gender signifiers on our own.
And if some brave soul wants to dilute the borders of their own gender stereotype by furtively downloading a yoga guide or a fabric catalog, the neutrality structure of the tablet and computer phone make that contravention an act of simple commerce, a gesture that leaves everything outside the tablet just as it was before.
This is the sickness of our time, unwavering faith in the fact that we can define ourselves through choosing what to consume. There’s an app for that, a show for your kind of people, a Twitter persona that discusses stories you’d like—choose them, they’re waiting for you. It’s not that we won’t ultimately cooperate with the standards for what is manly and womanly that have been set before us, we only want to preserve the dignified illusion that we could chose not to, even though we never will.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.