The MW files: The ID about ID

(First published in Man’s World, I have no idea when, but it became the first in a series of columns called ID, which was loosely about cyberspace. Back in those days, when we accessed the Net one byte at a time through modems with significant personality disorders, cyberspace was the new frontier. Oh, nostalgia.)

In cyberspace, no one can hear you sigh. I’ve been hanging around this books-and-authors chatroom for the last few months. For the last half an hour or so, I’ve been rapping with a bunch of people from all around the world, with a sizeable chunk of Indians thrown in, discussing the point at which a writer’s persona begins to loom larger in the public eye than his work. It’s an interesting discussion, one that refutes the popular conception that chatrooms are dedicated to the god of banality.

Unfortunately, that’s when Arun (not his real name) catches up with me. He sends me a private message that’s rude, explicit and extremely inappropriate; I cut him off. This happens several times over until I alert my co-readers in the room; they flame him, he gets out of there. And logs back on two minutes later under a new identity. The waltz starts up all over again until I get fed up and log off.Arun picked up on me a couple of months ago when I was in a similar chatroom. He made remarks about my username (identifiably female), made a couple of suggestions, was brushed off–and came back. Since then, the man’s been chasing me all over the Net. He’s something of an extreme case, admittedly; most Net users with clearly female handles do pick up the odd weirdo online, but most of the guys who proposition you tend to leave you alone if its made clear to them that cybersex is not on the agenda. Not so Arun, however, and a few others like him, and he’s forced me to take drastic steps.

About a fortnight ago, fed up with the regular propositioning, I’d reported him to the webmasters of three different chatrooms. He was warned off and ultimately shut down, but he came back. Under a different identity. And now, I have a problem.The logical thing to do is also peculiarly difficult–if I ditch my present username and log back in under a gender-neutral monicker, chances are that Arun and his ilk won’t find me. It also means that I have to re-introduce myself to the hundred-odd people who’ve become friends and sounding boards over the space of the last year. We’ve met in chatrooms and on bulletin boards, we’ve discussed books, music, cyberspace itself, jobs, pets, life partners. In the consensual hallucination, to use William Gibson’s phrase, that is the world wide web, we form a farflung community of sorts.

There are two questions niggling at me as I resignedly go through the steps of creating a masculine ID for myself. One is simple enough: will I still be able to connect? Will my friends still know me for what I am? The other is trickier. For most of my cyberlife, I’ve been the same person online as off-modem. Who do I become now that I’m not myself?

Damage control kicks in, aided by a fair degree of self-deception: I try and keep my masculine profile more or less the same, kidding myself that the only thing that’s changed is the gender. It’s not an unusual ploy: many of the women I know online do opt for gender-neutral or overtly masculine names in an attempt to keep the sexual harassment down. But it’s still subtly different from the way these things work in the real world. The absence of visual cues, the lack of an identifiably male baritone, the rituals of body language–all these make Victoria’s transformation into Victor, Mohini’s changeover into Mohan, deceptively easy.

In the real world, check out these two examples from the movies. Remember the scene in Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves where Hood meets Maid Marian? Disguised as a swordsman, she engages him in battle, giving herself away by emitting an extremely feminine gasp when he scores a hit. Recognition follows, and with it, assimilation: from this point on, Maid Marian’s fighting skills take a backseat to more feminine attributes, and of course none of that fine fencing is of any use when Robin rescues her in swashbuckling style from the evil designs of the Sheriff. In Boys Don’t Cry, where the female protagonist’s successful impersonation of a boy is punished by her male “friends”, who rape her by way of underlining a woman’s true place in the scheme of things, and then kill her.

It’s okay, in other words, for a woman to seek a male identity by way of shelter–it’s not okay for her to subvert that identity by assuming it for any other reason except self-defence.Barely a few weeks into my search for safety on the web, the complexities and ironies are beginning to stack up. Informing all the members of our informal books group is a technical impossibility, aside from the fact that it may have tipped Arun off, so I take it on a case-by-case basis.

The real difference is more subtle: as the weeks go by, there’s a change in the way people in these chatrooms respond to me. Even those who know who I am respond to the male username in odd ways: they’re more willing to engage me in critical discussion, more willing to argue the point forcefully, more willing to get into an open wrangle. It’s even more complex when the discussions veer from literature or music to the personal: increasingly, I’m being treated as a man, increasingly, I’m beginning to realise that my more “feminine” responses are seen as a display of laudable sensitivity, of openmindedness, or as simply disturbing. I often forget who’s in the know and who isn’t, which leads to sitcom situations, as when men confess that they’re oddly drawn to me, or when women tell me that I seem to understand the way they think. I’m very quick to tell them the truth–when I realise what’s going on, that is. Once, it leads to serious trouble when a man with whom I’ve been discussing gender issues for over an hour flames into absolute rage when he realises I’m a woman. One of his pet theses is that women are inferior thinkers, and he is so incensed at having treated me as an intellectual equal that he proceeds to spew venom whenever he comes across me for the next week or so.

The only people who treat me more or less the same are the ones who, for cultural reasons, do not clue in to the gender significance of my new username–like the old handle, it’s gender-neutral to them. In other words, I haven’t come up with a solution at all–I’ve merely opened up a whole new can of worms. To make matters worse, there are times when I come out of a Net session and have to reorient myself along the right gender lines. My online persona and my offline persona are beginning to merge, and who knows what dreadful phoenix will rise from the ashes of both?

There is hope, of sorts; a discussion group on gender identity reassures me that my problem doesn’t lie in having crossed the gender line–it lies in my discomfort with multiple personae. I’ll get used to it, they tell me cheerfully, and not to worry about the side effects. The theory behind this is simple: genuine victims of multiple personality disorder suffer because their different personae do not “talk” to one another. People who create different personalities for themselves online, on the other hand, are in touch with their diverse selves all the time, so no problem.

It’s like participating in role-playing games–in the end, you benefit from getting in touch, to use Americanspeak, with your “masculine” side, or your “feminine” side, or your “warrior” self, or your “serf” self. Whatever. That’s wonderfully reassuring, but it merely adds new worries to the old cauldron. I can’t help wondering: what if the woman in me sues for divorce on grounds of irretrievable breakdown of the relationship between her and my masculine side? What if my inner warrior decides to beat the shit out of my inner serf? Life was a helluva lot simpler when there was just one of me and I didn’t have to be introduced to him, her or it.

Nilanjana S Roy

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