"OK, here's my thing. One of the reasons I love ChickClick is because of the way everyone remains anonymous. I mean, we 'know' each other, but for the most part, we could walk by each other on the street and not notice a thing," posts Menacetosociety, a frequent visitor on the girl Website ChickClick.com. "The things I post here are personal. I write them here because I feel I can trust the fact that I'll be getting unbiased opinions on things I need advice on."
Menacetosociety (a chat room user name) is actually a 16-year old girl explaining why she spends so much time in the ChickClick chat rooms. A few minutes later, Celtic_princess responds, "I agree with your right to vent without someone exposing your identity. Everyone needs to vent to people who are willing to just listen to/read your ideas/thoughts/rants and offer up the best advice they can without judgment . . . that's been my experience with ChickClick . . . candid, honest feedback that empowers me with the knowledge that I'm not alone and gives me an avenue to dispense the knowledge I've gathered over the past 23 years."
ChickClick is one of thousands of Websites developed specifically to attract young women and girls, who are currently the fastest growing population on the Internet. According to a study released this summer by marketing researcher team Jupiter Communications/Media Metrix, the number of teen girls aged 12 to 17 who surf the Internet more than doubled from nearly two million in 1999 to 4.4 million in 2000. These numbers may provide relief for those worrying that the Web is simply another place where girls are getting systematically shut out. In fact, despite apparent pressures discouraging women from acquiring technical knowledge and the alarming persistence of gender gaps in many math and science oriented fields, teenage girls are finding the Web offers tremendous and unique opportunities for empowerment.
Because it was clear from the birth and subsequent development of the Internet in the 1980s that boys were surfing more than girls, women's groups launched a movement to integrate females online by creating Internet mentoring and support programs, computer training classes, and Websites catering to women's interests. Most Websites designed for young women combine an appeal to pop culture trends with themes of empowerment and education. Cybergrrl.com's popular Website features articles titled, "The Essential Computer Checklist," "Struggles of Single Parenthood," and "A Grrls Guide to Primetime TV."
Laurel Gilbert and Crystal Kile argue in their 1996 guide for women Internet users that making sure girls have access to technological advances is crucial for future gender equality. "The Internet can be a powerful tool for communication and for dissemination of information that can help women . . . in the struggle for self-determination," they argue. "The flip side of 'divide and conquer' is, of course, 'network and resist with every resource available to you.'"
For many of its younger female users, the Internet acts as Gilbert and Kile suggest. Over the past decade, the male-dominated Internet has become a tool for young women experimenting with their political and social identities. Girls navigating the Web have found that its unique set of characteristics provides a safe, autonomous space for those who feel alienated from their schools, families, or regional communities. Teenagers, often too self-conscious to risk non-conformity or uncensored self-expression, can participate freely in discussions, play games, visit controversial sites, and produce and publish art, music, online magazines, diaries, and ideas all without leaving the privacy of home or even revealing their true identities.
GameGirlz.com, one of the less glitzy sites, is aimed at "girl gamers" or girls who play the computer games often considered a male hobby. It brings girls into the gaming culture by offering game playing tips and technological advice alongside pro-girl editorials and interviews with female gamers. The site is part of a larger network of girl gaming Websites which allow girls, perhaps uniquely, to compete aggressively with boys without being hindered by dangers of physical risk or disadvantaged by differences in physical strength. In fact, girls can experiment on the Web in ways unimaginable in "real life," switching names and personalities, becoming assertive, flirtatious, flip, angry, and opinionated all within an environment they can control.
Much of the feminist activity existing online today, now popularly dubbed "Third Wave Feminism" or "Youth Feminism," partly evolved from by a group called the RiotGrrrls, started in 1992 by female punk rockers in response to the sexism they saw permeating punk culture. Using "Grrrl," a term coined by Bikini Kill singer/activist Kathleen Hanna to reclaim the word girl and inspire fans to think critically about the treatment of women within punk culture, the burgeoning movement articulated its demand to share the mosh pit in online artwork, music, creative writing, and discussion. Hundreds of RiotGrrrl chapters formed on the Internet and across the country, splicing punk culture with feminist consciousness and politics. The RiotGrrrl movement has helped produce a strong female Web presence. Loose affiliations of Internet groups and organizations raising feminist consciousness such as Femina.com, a resource database of feminist groups, CyberGrrls, and Web magazines/chat rooms gURL.com and Bust.com to name only a few, now provide space for girls to challenge cultural and consumer labels limiting their freedom.
These highly individualistic new approaches to feminism have spurred some angry debates among feminists, often seeming to pit one generation of women against the other. Many girls posting their views in female-dominated chat rooms consciously and unconsciously resist older feminist theory, rejecting much of it as outdated or irrelevant to their lives.
In debates hashed out this month on Bust.com, a 'zine (Web magazine) calling itself "the voice of the new girl order" chat room members argued over everything from feminism to lipstick shades, to the merits of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, to treatment for yeast infections. On Razzberry.com, a site devoted to women and girls discussion, teenage girls share their stories of eating disorders, abuse, and sexual discovery.
The "Third Wave" feminism represented by these Website discussions tries not just to break down barriers, it insists that women can get pleasure from sexuality, be comfortable with beauty, and enjoy consumer activities like shopping. The idea is to carve out space where women can have it all, both the popular culture and the alternative subculture experience. This directly challenges previous forms of feminism, explains MIT Comparative Media Professor Henry Jenkins, because the feminist philosophies articulated on the Internet "are all refusing and rejecting traditional labels and traditional patriarchy as well as the labels of 'Second Wave' feminism, a term generalizing the philosophies of baby-boom feminists like Gloria Steinem." He adds, "These movements do not want to be boxed in by politically correct categories anymore than they want to be boxed in by the restraints of a father-knows-best society."
Online feminist Web sites like Femina, CyberGrrls, and Bust appeal to those who do not want to associate with feminism because of the perception that feminists are a group of anti-male, anti-makeup, staunchly political bitches. RiotGrrrl and the sorts of groups it stimulated have thrown open a gateway to those who may never have previously wanted to call themselves feminists, allowing a more diverse group of women to participate.
Critics of Third Wave Feminism point out that many online forums engaging young women in political discussion do not make their way offline, into the "real world." If young feminism remains virtual, it does not hold real political and social institutions and people accountable to its demands. One woman I "met" in the Bust chat room who calls herself First Last, e-mailed me to explain some of the contradictions inherent in Internet activism:
We can see that feminist theory in the last 10 years has shifted into more of an academic discourse rather than into practical application, however being in the Bust Lounge can be a way to be, at least a little bit political. Though the reasons for being here are not in order to change every woman's life we're still part of a feminist group even if the reasons we're here are selfish and to save ourselves instead of the world.
Her comments underscore the complaints that new feminism is all about the personal, nothing to do with the political. But First Last maintains, like many young women I interviewed, that it is not really fair to compare Third Wave Internet activism to other forms of political activism.
Bust regular Chrystie Myketiak explains,
I think that the feminist online chatrooms illustrate that feminism is fluctuating and changing. The reason why I can't give up on this Third Wave is that it does attempt to be more inclusive to all, young-ish women, it's an easy read for almost everyone, whereas Second Wave Feminism [excludes] those outside of academia and thus it's limiting for how it can help "real" women with "real" problems.
MIT professor Henry Jenkins says the merits of girls' sub cultural Internet activities should be judged as much by the process as by the product.
Will there be concrete gains as a result of young women's online feminism? It remains to be seen. But we've taught daughters historically that they should not take up too much space, not make too much noise. And if they begin to feel and act as if it is okay to occupy space, to be competitive and aggressive and to assert their views, that surely will carry over into everyday life . . . That certainly allows women to regain or gain a sense of self-confidence that will be extremely powerful tools with enormous long term value for the next generation of women.
And female power and confidence has been a goal of feminism since its birth -- no matter which wave women are riding.