The word avatar stems from the eastern religion of Hinduism referring to different incarnations or embodiments of their gods. Merriam-Webster Dictionary cites a more current definition of avatar as; “An embodiment or personification, as of a principle, attitude, or view of life.”[i] The contemporary term of avatar is now used to describe the visual representations for on-line identities. Avatars may be a simple image to go along with an email profile or they can be complex renderings in digital art in virtual social worlds; that have life stories and distinctive personalities. Avatars are now constructions that visually convey our identity or the way we want others to perceive our identity. The semiotics of hair style, hair color and body type are all part of the attempt to shape an on line identity. The contemporary use of avatars offers freedom of expression to women but just as women are given the one chance to escape their physical embodiment, we find that popular avatars are images that reinforce unrealistic expectations of feminine appearance and reflect America’s limited definition of female beauty.
Popular Use of Popular Avatars
The phenomenon of cyber-space becoming an arena of socialization was taken past simple chat rooms when virtual worlds were constructed. Avatars took communicating on line to a new level by adding the opportunity of demonstrating one’s creativity through designing a unique visual representation and leaving the choice to people as to whether or not their avatar was an accurate representation. Avatars some times are close to someone’s real life appearance or they may chose to escape into an appearance unlike their own. The web site Second Life is the most popular web site used for creating avatars and for social interaction through avatars taking place. Users are called residents and much of the activity in Second Life is taken from real daily activities. Residents can construct interactive objects and have many options for enhancing the details of their virtual worlds.
The Semiotics of Virtual Identity
Users of virtual worlds, such as Second Life, construct their avatars with total freedom; unbound by their actual gender, sexual orientation or any other definition that has been placed upon them in the real physical world. Users can even choose to be more abstract and choose to use objects to represent themselves. So we must keep in mind that in the virtual world we are encountering people based solely on their avatar’s appearance; therefore, the semiotics of appearance become a code in the virtual world.
Arthur Asa Berger is a professor with different publications discussing semiotics. His book Signs in Contemporary Culture looks into his ideas of identity construction and what those elements of our appearance are actually saying to the outside world. The hair color of female avatars is always bold. Berger discusses the range of signifiers in regard to female hair color as being a “matter of atavistic attitudes involving light and darkness, equated with good and evil, which are at play here. Light hair becomes symbolic of goodness, innocence, and so on.”[ii] This rings true in the virtual world as well. The typically bold hair color of female avatars is a clear sign as to what that avatars personality is like. If hair were to have gentler hues of color, the signifiers of hair color would not be as clear.
As Berger said, hair color involves attitudes towards light and darkness. Hair color represents different incarnations of female identity but each color still has a variety of interpretations.
Blond Hair as a Signifier:
Innocence, stupidity, sunny disposition or vapid.
Black Hair as a Signifier:
Serious, wicked, black sheep, or mystical.
Red Hair Color as a Signifier:
Vibrant, feistiness, artistic or sexual.
Berger also notes how “signs change their meaning, are appropriated by different people all the time; so, interpreting signs is always a risky matter.”[iii]
Sign Closure and Sign Construction
During the development of an avatar, physical attributes are carefully chosen. Each physical feature is a sign that will convey the type of personality. One hopes that other people interpret all of the physical signs as planned. This is all a part of the processes that Berger defines a sign closure and sign construction. Sign closure is used to assess another person based upon learning what category you can put them in; if one states that they are goth to another person that person will assume that means that is melancholy, has facial piercings and wears all black. The process of sign construction goes in the opposite order; if we see someone with long black hair, facial piercing and a black flowing dress; we interpret this as a sign system for someone that is categorized as goth. When creating an avatar, a person is engaging in sign construction. One “can easily construct the image and select the proper signs to generate the proper image.”[iv]
Female Avatars in New Media Art
Avatars have entered into the new media art genre. Artists Evelin Stermitz and Kristine Schomaker are both exploring aspects of women’s relationships to their own bodies in different ways through creating avatars. Stermitz’s net art project entitled World of Female Avatars is defined on her site as a “project for expanded understanding of women and their relation to their body.”[v] The artist placed a public call on the internet to receive images of the female body with text commentary from women in order to create digital collages. When you enter the World of Female Avatars web site, we first encounter the most famous American female avatar; Barbie.
Stermitz captures different issues that women struggle concerning their own body; the images that are created are haunting, sad and affirmative. The text that Stermitz uses tells tales of gender issues, sexual abuse, declarations of independence and the joy of celebrating ones physical body. However, Stermitz captures the most commonly echoed emotion of American women with the image of a broken mirror reflecting a woman’s face as she cries. Stermitz uses the text;
“I know I’m supposed to love to worship my body as if it were a temple, but every day I wish I had a better one.”
This statement encapsulates how many American women do not feel that their physical appearance measures up to the standard of what they should look like. There is an expectation of female physical beauty that pervades our culture that is unrealistic.
Kristine Schomaker’s new media art ties in well with the World of Female Avatars project because she is grappling through the process of trying to find self acceptance with her physical appearance and echoes some of the same sentiments of Stermitz’s avatars.
Schomaker created the Gracie Kendall Project as an ongoing virtual reality project. When the artist created her avatar, Gracie Kendall, she chose her physical body type to be one that she feels that society would be more approving of and also one that she would be more comfortable with.
Schomaker documents her project in a video diary. In the first video entry we watch Schomaker candidly discusses how she has never been happy with her appearance, “I have never liked to see photographs of myself or to look in mirrors.”[vi]
She chose to keep certain physical attributes of herself when creating Gracie because they signify the parts of herself that she is comfortable with. Schomaker kept her blond hair but adopted a more sassy style for her avatar and she kept her glasses because they signify intelligence, which she places a high value on. Her project moves into a phase where Schomaker attempts to make herself more like Gracie. She documents the process on video as she gets a new hair style, attempts to be more socially outgoing and shops for a new wardrobe. It is Schomaker’s shopping trip that hits at the core of her issues; her body weight. The artist breaks down in tears when she cannot wear certain clothing. In the end Schomaker admits that she still isn’t comfortable with her physical body but continues to work with her avatar in different ways.
Schomaker’s Gracie is a traditional Second Life avatar who provides an outlet for Schomaker’s exploration of body acceptance. Her videos and blog that document her process are personal and candid; it is hard to not feel for her when you see her crying in the dressing room. It was supposed to be an empowering experience for Schomaker to live through Gracie but there seems to only be disappointment at the end of her journey and no resolution on Schomaker’s feelings of discomfort towards her physical self.
In contrast, Stermitz’s collaged avatars are more abstract in nature. The artist’s work offers a feminist commentary on the state of women’s relationships to their bodies. The text and avatars tackle the different aspects that can factor into a woman’s perceptions of herself. Stermitz’s goal is not to resolve all women’s body issues but to improve the awareness of all of the issues that are related to female body by giving women a creative platform to voice their feelings towards their body.
Typical Female Avatars
In searching the web for images of female avatars, it becomes apparent that this opportunity for self expression has gone awry.
The images above represent the typical images of avatars that are posted on the web. These images are not working to forge the path to accepting different ideas of beauty but play into American culture’s unrealistic standard of beauty. Common female avatars take the unrealistic expectation of beauty a step further by depicting exaggerated ideas beauty. The typical female avatar body type has a thin waist, curvy hips and enormous breasts. The proportions of their bodies are exaggerated and could not be the figure of a real woman. Just as Schomaker did not come to a place of self acceptance through her Gracie, I do not foresee other women finding freedom from their body issues by living through an avatar.
Potential Role of Avatars in Education
Christine Liao is an educator looking to bring new media into the classroom to raise student’s social conscience. In her essay Avatars, Second Life and New Media Art: The Challenge for Contemporary Art Education, Liao discusses the unrealistic images of avatars; “many of these 3D images create ideal, “beautiful” human figures. Students, typically, do not critically consider these images, and may not notice the attached meanings behind them. For example, these bodies are unreal and exaggerated and perpetuate particular dominant cultural narratives.”[vii]
The most important part of Liao’s research into avatars is that she shows how avatars that reinforce the unrealistic standard of beauty could be used in a more positive way; “art educators can develop curricula that explore these issues to help students think about the meanings behind avatar creation to generate a critical, social consciousness.” Liao’s concern goes past just women’s issues but her message of awareness is crucial. The process of creating an avatar should be creative and fun but it can become detrimental to ones perspective if there is the impression that this is the way that a female should look. It is even more harmful if a woman believes that she would be valued more by society if she were to look similar to popular avatars.
The current state of the avatar has seemed to backfire on women’s progress towards fostering better relationships with their own bodies. The virtual world could be a place where one could be valued based upon intelligence and substance. How odd that in the virtual world, where we in theory can escape physical embodiment, we continue to engage in the daily activity of presenting ourselves to be judged on our physical appearance. It is important that women take control of this issue by creating images that represent a vast array of physical appearances and cleverly use semiotics to visually representing the good things about us that people cannot see. If artists and everyday computer users continue to explore and to work with images of avatars, they could turn out to be a vehicle to breakdown the walls that form our narrow idea of feminine beauty.
[ii] Berger, Arthur Asa. Signs in Contemporary Culture: An Introduction of Semiotics. Salem, Wisconsin: Sheffield Publishing Company, 1984. Print, p. 99.
[iii] Berger, Arthur Asa. Signs in Contemporary Culture: An Introduction of Semiotics. Salem, Wisconsin: Sheffield Publishing Company, 1984. Print, p. 110.
[iv] Berger, Arthur Asa. Signs in Contemporary Culture: An Introduction of Semiotics. Salem, Wisconsin: Sheffield Publishing Company, 1984. Print, p. 115.
[v] Stermitz, Evelin. http://females.mur.at/main.html. Retrieved March 10th, 2013. Web.
[vi] Schomaker, Kristine. http://kristineschomaker.net/essays/. Retrieved March 23rd, 2013. Web.
[vii] Liao, Christine. Avatars, Second Life and New Media Art: The Challenge for Contemporary Art Education. Art Education. March 2008. Print. P. 91.