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.