Sharon Cumberland’s “Private Uses of Cyberspace: Women, Desire, and Fan Culture” examines the importance of gender roles and identification in a variety of fan fiction communities. The chapter suffers from Cumberland’s obsession over her inability to assert the factuality of her evidence and her desire to quantify and categorize the readers and writers within these communities.
Cumberland first asserts that it is the anonymity in fan fiction communities that allows readers and writers to “explore feelings and ideas that were considered risky or inappropriate for women in the past” (261). She concludes that women in these communities are liberated as readers, writers, and fans because they can conceal aspects of their identity owing to obstacles such as their “race, gender, age, appearance, and economic status” (262).
Cumberland then insists that the anonymity of these groups is a “problem for scholars” (262). Women are able to “conceal their real life identities” and therefore there is no way for her to verify for other scholars that those she has corresponded with are their “true” selves (263). It seems to me that her inability to verify “how many of these writers are women” and “how many are heterosexual, lesbians, married, single, mothers, etc” (263) is a positive phenomenon, not a negative one as she presents it.
Cumberland points repeatedly to a “vice” in which the anonymous nature of these communities is both liberating and limiting. The limitations involve potential difficulties for observers and outsiders who desire to examine the group voyeuristically and collect qualitative data that members do not wish to provide. Cumberland even goes as far as to say “until new conventions or new technologies emerge to address this issue, a certain amount of unscholarly faith in the good will of cybercitizens is required for the study of the internet” (263). The emphasis should instead be placed on the researcher to respect the anonymous nature of the internet communities. Cumberland’s perspective has an underlying desire to not just quantify, but verify and even expose. This is in addition to her desire to understand the culture by attempting to classify authors, readers and characters using definitions of top/bottom, masculine/feminine and gay/straight/bi that lack almost any fluidity. Community members have the right to present us with any identity they wish as it is their ability to dictate their own norms around identity that gives them personal and therefore sexual freedom.
Cumberland, Sharon. “Private Uses of Cyberspace: Women Desire, and Fan Culture.” Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition. Eds. David Thornburn and Henry Jenkins. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2004. 261-279. Print.