On gender identity and empathy

June 30, 2013 at 9:30 am | Posted in Opinions, Politics | 2 Comments

Those of you who’ve come here from Twitter will know that I use as my avatar a picture of Nurse Ratched from the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Some of you might also have read my “about” page here and realised that I’m not actually a mental health nurse, nor am I a woman, and nor am I quite that evil.

Most casual Twitter followers and repliers, however, are not that observant – Or maybe just not that invested; it seems to me that Twitter mostly relies less on engaging with a personality (apart from certain celebrities), more on responding to what’s been said right here, right now. I could write an essay on communication theory and why innocently intended tweets can still lead to a huge amount of butt-hurt and whining from people who are far too delicate to survive on the internet, but I’ll do that another day.

I’m increasingly finding that even amongst those like me who choose to remain anonymous, the trend is to either pick a gender-neutral avatar, or to pick one that is of the tweeter’s own gender – You can often tell by the self-descriptions, or by following links to blogs. This seems (in my experience, and I can’t back this up with data) to be a particular feature of anonymous male tweeters; there’s something that stops men in particular from using avatars of the opposite sex. I wonder if that’s a subconscious acknowledgement of gender privilege. Honestly, I don’t know, but it’s interesting.

Anyway, my point is that the vast majority of people who read my tweets probably presume I’m a woman, and many of them respond in ways that they mistakenly think are appropriate to that. You probably won’t read a lot of those responses, because a lot of it is in DMs, and because I block the offending tweeters as soon as I see them. And I call them “offending” tweeters for good reasons.

It’s fascinating to be regularly mistaken for a woman. Really, it is. Working as I do in a female dominated profession, with mostly female bosses, I had no idea how much people condescend to women. There’s a steady stream of “darlings”, and “sweethearts”, and “cupcakes” – You read that right. I have, without irony, been addressed as “cupcakes”. I’ve had my (very qualified, thoroughly educated, highly experienced) thoughts and ideas questioned and dismissed by lay-persons (lay men, obviously) solely because they thought that I was a woman and that therefore my thinking was inferior to their man-thoughts. I regularly experience overt flirtation and sexually inappropriate messages (because all nurses are like Barbara Windsor in Carry On Matron, clearly).

The Angry Nurse is not my first anonymous online persona. I wrote for and moderated Unreasonable Faith as Custador, with a male avatar, for about four years. I had far, far more readers there than I do either here or on Twitter – At its peak, UF clocked over a quarter of a million unique hits per week, and my posts tended to be popular. Conversely, I have less than 250 Twitter followers and less than fifty people per week currently read this blog. The only thing that has changed other than my pseudonym is the gender of the avatar I’m using. Out of the millions of people who read what I wrote as Custador, only one of them was ever sexually inappropriate, belittled my ideas because of my gender, or felt the need to address me with titles like “cupcake”. For completeness, that one was a self-described “radical feminist” who took extreme offense when I questioned whether regularly posting photos of herself on the internet dressing as a schoolgirl and then stripping to graphic nude, was really a feminist thing to do (note: I did not slut-shame her or question her right to do so, only her association of it with feminism).

Conversely, as The Angry Nurse, behind a female mask, I have had perhaps a few thousand people read my ideas over the course of about six months. And the issues I’ve described above have occurred dozens of times. It’s like background radiation pervading the environment of my discussions, and to me, it’s fascinating. But I can escape it whenever I want to, because regardless of my picture of Nurse Ratched, I’m not a woman. I can have my male privilege back at the press of a button. I keep reminding myself that actual women are not so fortunate.

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  1. Never dawned on me you were a woman! Why would it?

    • It shouldn’t be relevant, I agree.

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