The DEW Lab

Variable Patriarchy

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In the bevy of articles and books on the Wonders of the Internet™ one aspect seems to have become a mainstay of academic interest: the variability of words (or signifiers). A good measure of this hype comes from the simple fact that for centuries the printed word was fixed, locked in place by the printing press as static variable. However, in a word processor or on a web page, the variables become fluid and are subject to dynamic, global (i.e. system-wide) changes. You can see this by changing the ‘Style’ in Word document or altering a variable through Chrome’s console; the document dynamically reflects the altered variable (a red font instantly becomes blue).
Now, we’ve been told that this will have resounding implications (for some, this is a ‘bad thing’ and for some a ‘great thing’). And yet in the 20+ years since this debate kicked off it’s rather difficult to point to specific implications—largely because we exist in the midst of the change we wish to observe. And that’s why I think there’s a subtle genius to Danielle Sucher’s ‘Jailbreak the Patriarchy’ Chrome extension.

This plug-in swaps gender specific pronouns, seamlessly replacing ‘he’ with ‘she,’ ‘businessman’ with ‘businesswoman,’ etc. throughout your browsing experience. Some will likely dismiss this relatively simple script as a gimmick and move on. And that’s really unfortunate for them because Sucher’s plug-in is the kind of web-enabled tool that allows us to see what’s implicit (and therefore overlooked) in traditional print, namely the arbitrary nature of a fixed, immutable signifier. What’s more, ‘Jailbreak the Patriarchy’ not only exemplifies the rather arbitrary gender-roles at work in mainstream media coverage, it also makes (culturally) static variables dynamic.

For a case study has put together a choice series of trial runs with some interesting results. Personally, I found running the script rather fun when applied to the National Post’s resident troll Christie Blatchford and her article ‘Toronto, City of Sissies.’ But as an avid gamer I’ve gotten the most out of the extension buy running it on videogame blogs. An article on infidelity and videogames was particularly interesting as the author described how the game Katherine enabled the author to come clean about her own infidelity with a past boyfriend. The article itself isn’t particularly rife with insights once gender-swapped, but the switch did expose some distinct cultural norms at work in the comments section (specifically, those norms surrounding male and female infidelity).

It’s worth noting that  if ‘Jailbreak’ is enabled, the swap happens instantaneously (unlike other similar projects, such as In fact, in several serendipitous moments I’ve read gender-specific statements only to reflexively check to see if the plug-in is still on. More often than not the plug-in was in fact off , exposing my own biases. But, more importantly, the mere act of thinking of gender as a toggle-switch radically redefines how we approach the subject, perhaps even marking a shift from gender as a static variable to a flickering variable or signifier.

In this respect videogames themselves (rather than simply games-journalism) offer an interesting example as they are digital texts that range from gender-neutral to obscenely exploitative and stereotypical. For the former, Mass Effect comes to mind as players can choose either a male or female protagonist, an option which precludes the use of gender-specific pronouns in the spoken dialogue, and thus creating a non-specific gender for the main character in verbal exchanges (this is achieved by simply refer to the main character by his/her surname, Shepherd). Then there’s titles like The Witcher, a critically acclaimed game that, should the player choose, allows one to have sex with various female characters and afterwards collect an erotically-drawn playing card to commemorate the act.


* Not pictured, Geralt The Witcher

Although gender-swapping a multimedia text such as The Witcher would be fun, it’s not exactly feasible and in fact it’s not necessary. Utilizing ‘Jailbreak the Patriarchy’ once in awhile demonstrates that the extension is a heuristic tool that enables a form of pattern-recognition, offering insight into the way women and men are characterized in your daily browsing. It’s subtle and seamless but rife with insight, and not just for gender but a whole host of variables we assume to be static but which are in fact fluid. That’s pretty exciting stuff to pull out of a browser plug-in but it’s also been a long time in the making.

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