To sum it all up…

Overall my experience on Meez was somewhat confusing and even contradictory at points. I would describe it at different times as creepy, infuriating and  frustrating, but also hopeful.
The “creepy,” “ick” factor for my personal Meez experience came about, I think, for a few different reasons. First, there was the issue of my age. Looking back, part of me wishes I had created an avatar for Second Life solely because it caters to a more adult audience. I think that the experience would have been more interesting to me in many ways, but more importantly, I think I would have felt more comfortable immersing myself with the cyber environment and interacting with other avatars. In class, Angela mentioned her own hesitance to connect with other avatars. I felt much the same way (I stuck mainly to observation as opposed to direct interaction), but for different reasons. Generally speaking, I am much more gregarious in “real life” than I was on Meez. When meeting new people face to face, I tend to feel much more comfortable revealing things about myself and having things revealed to me. The age difference and lack of transparency involved in Meez created a sense of uncertainty and “ickyness” that I couldn’t get past. I just felt like I was watching underage cyber-foreplay the whole time. Which, you know, is fine. I had a sex life at that age, but seeing it as an adult-aged fly on the wall was…weird. And it felt somehow dishonest and voyeuristic. Now, it’s entirely possible that the same thing could weird me out in Second Life; after all, I would have no way of knowing if the other avatars were actually adults (or actually anything else, for that matter). Who knows. Frankly, I am too lazy to download that crap and figure it out.
Besides me somewhat creeped out, I was also at times angered and frustrated by the things I saw on Meez. As a feminist and anti-racist, I was particularly troubled by the ways in which the site was being used to perpetuate damaging racist and sexist ideologies. From the avatar-creation process, to the various “hoods,” to the many sad-looking girl avatars grinding away on some digital boy at a cyber pool party, it seemed to me that the problems in Meez land are not all that different from the problems in our real world. Of course, this made me angry, but it also made me confused. I had a hard time seeing what was fun about the whole undertaking. I guess not everyone seeks out a site like Meez for escapism, but I couldn’t see the virtue in putting time and effort into a replication of the everyday problems we face…
In spite of this frustration and confusion, I did have moments of hope throughout my Meez experience. For one thing, I was glad to see that the users on Meez clearly valued self-expression. While this expression might have been somewhat limited by the context and choices available on the site, many users found a way around it. I especially loved the discussions I saw on the various forums, where many queer-positive sentiments were expressed and reinforced.
All in all, I am glad that Meez exists and that some users are finding ways to use this online tool for self-expression and maybe even liberation. When all was said and done, I came to view Meez as a tool–useful for some things and some people in some places, but by no means a solution for everything or everyone. It’s not for me, but I’m glad it’s there for someone.

Identity on Meez

One of the commonalities that I have found across the different categories of identity on Meez is that the virtual world replicates in many ways the problematic categories of gender, race, and sexuality that we see and experience in our day to day lives. I saw this with the pressure on female bodies to adhere to strict weight and appearance standards, the troubling racialization of spaces, and the compulsory nature of heterosexual interactions in social interactions on Meez (with a few notable exceptions). These commonalities, coupled with the ways in which “real” identities blur with “virtual” ones (remember those posts of real pictures and identifying information by young teens?), it has become obvious to me that virtual worlds like Meez are not in fact totally separate from real life. In other words, what at first looks like escapism or entertainment is actually yet another site where the reproduction of culture and ideology (hegemony) takes place.

Relative to identity more generally, I found that Meez had some commonalities with the real world because of the ways in which consumerism and commodification become viable means of identification. First, it is important to note that Meez culture puts a great emphasis on “uniqueness,” which to me read more like “weirdness.” I think that part of the reason for this emphasis is the opportunity that is offered in virtual spaces for us to dress or otherwise present ourselves in ways that are not socially acceptable in our everyday lives. For example, nudity. Some Second Lifers have mentioned in class the prevalence of nudity in their virtual experiences, and I have been somewhat surprised by the provocative nature of Meez, a site which caters primarily to young teens.

Also, there is a strong presence of “alternative” identity expression on Meez, sometimes in the form of what used to be called “Goth” when I was a teenager. Do they still call it that?

In visiting a weird cemetery-themed room, I came across the predictable Vampire-looking avatars, but I also saw this awesome guy who was mostly naked with a green afro and Flava-Flav horns.

All of the “freedom of expression” on Meez gives the impression of uniqueness, perhaps even of some kind of virtual liberation whereby young teens are allowed to be their “real” selves in ways that are constrained in their real lives. However, I would contend that this free expression is tied to systems of consumption, much as our modes of identification are in “real” life.

Exhibit A:

I found it very telling that the “Meez Maker” is NOT located under “Meez Nation,” but instead under “shop.” The implication is that you “make” yourself by what you buy, what you consume. This is a pattern that also emerged relative to the specific categories of identity (remember the 75 rainbow items that one might buy to express gayness or clown pride?).

We do this in our lives as well. Consider the iPod ad:

As this ad demonstrates, buying an iPod is not just buying a device for playing music. It says something about you as an individual that can’t be said by buying a similar mp3 player. You are hip. You are cool. You are fun. You have an iPod.

More importantly, this ad sends a message about where identity is located. In every one of these ads, the distinguishing features of the person’s face are obscured. In fact, the only things you can see are the accessories and adorning objects that this person uses to decorate his or herself. In summation: we as individuals are defined and identified relative to our patterns of consumption. We literally buy our identities.

What about on your virtual world or on your real life? Can you think of an example of how you “bought” identity?

Sexuality on Meez

So, obviously this far I have been somewhat disappointed by my experience on Meez. I have felt that the site unnecessarily constrains options for personal expression relative to issues like race and gender, and it feels mostly like a site devoted to commercialism and the reproduction of ideologies (to be fair, just like nearly every website out there). However, when I started to look for the ways in which Meez approaches sexuality, I did find SOME pleasant surprises.

First, the bad news…

Mary Rogers writes in our text, “As they enter their teenage years, if not before, most heterosexual females begin putting a boy or young man at the center of their lives” (71). Along with this prioritization of male attention comes assertion of “feminine credibility” via “…the size and shape of their bodies, the range and contents of their wardrobes, the styling of their hair, and the making up of their faces” (71). As soon as I read this I thought, “OMFG MARY ROGERS HAS A MEEZ ACCOUNT!” Basically, thse aspects of feminine credibility match up perfectly with the process of Meez creation, whereby one’s avatar is tailored in each of these ways to reflect a specific expression of gender and sexuality (often commensurate and/or conflated features of identity). As expected, lady Meez frequently adhere to the heteronormative code of femininity and sexuality.

I saw this firsthand at a pool party:

As you can see, most interactions were of a sexually-charged, heterosexual nature. This particular pool party was made up almost entirely of male-female pairs flirting with one another (except for me, standing awkwardly in my sweater-dress-swimsuit next to the weird chick who just kept dancing seductively by herself). A good example of the heteronormativity that pervades Meez is the interaction between “Mr. Yeah” and “Ms. U Cute” (right side of picture). In a matter of three minutes (I am not exaggerating), they met, flirted, “started dating,” and agreed to meet up “in her room.” Imaginary sex is THE BEST KIND!!!! Thankfully, most couple just danced while fully-clothed in a pool. Fully-clothed sex is THE SAFEST KIND!!!

I kid. But for real, there was some dangerous, real, sexualized behavior going on in Meez-land. Exhibit A:

In the 13-15 year-old forum, a chat space set up for younger users, some of the users started a “photo thread” in which they posted actual photos (some of a sexual-ish nature) and identifying info about themselves. I altered this screen capture to protect the innocent, because even I felt a little creepy looking at it and posting it. I really wanted to call her parent or guardian. WHERE ARE THEY WHEN SHE’S DOING THINGS LIKE THIS??

Another thread got more explicitly sexual (still in the 13-15 forum):

This girl posted her real name and real picture, obviously looking to “mingle” with whatever boy or girl came her way. Ick. That shit really creeped me out. This is like an episode of “To Catch a Predator.”

Ok, so that was weird. BUT, I did find it kind of cool that this thirteen-year-old was able to openly identify as bisexual to her (online) peers. That would not have happened when I was thirteen. Bright side? (Nope, can’t get over my pedophile fears…)

Creepy stuff aside, I did find that the Meez universe was more queer-friendly than I anticipated. A search for “rainbow” on the Meez Maker turned up seventy-five items:

Okay, so some are clearly targeting the ever-important “clown demographic,” but those rainbow lips could come in VERY handy for kissing some cyber-dykes! Note to self…

I was even happier about another forum that I found:

Hard to read on here, but the post asked fellow Meez-users if they felt that same-sex couples would make suitable parents. This particular user was in favor of same-sex parenting I read all three pages of responses, just waiting for the serious homophobe bomb to drop. Instead, I found a bunch of open-minded, well-adjusted young people talking about sexuality in some surprisingly nuanced ways. I was also glad to see some users identifying as openly gay or trans. I liked this guy in particular because he is funny:

In summation, there was more good stuff than I thought there would be. Do my findings match what you saw on Meez? Or did you see some displays of virtual gay-bashing/homophobia? If you are on another virtual site, do you find that it is as queer-friendly as Meez?

Gender on Meez

In class last week, one of the questions that we discussed related to the ways in which gender is policed or enforced in our virtual worlds. I thought about that question as I visited Meez Land this week.

First, there is this pesky business of gender identity. Upon signing up for Meez and creating an avatar, you are asked to select the gender of your avatar. Of course, the only choices are male and female.  I guess I would have been extra-double-triple surprised if they had offered any kind of trans option, but the Women’s Studies person in me always tries to hold out hope and higher standards…

I am perhaps more troubled by the ways in which particular expressions of femininity were enforced by the site. For example, the body size and shape of my avatar was determined by a very narrow selection:

A couple of things here. First, “plus-sized Penny” looks like the so-called “plus-size” models that Vogue interviews every year for their “shape issue.” That is to say, she doesn’t look that “plus-sized” at all. On a site that caters primarily to teenagers (and let’s be real, probably a bunch of impressionable adolescents), I find it kind of troubling that they are reinforcing the notion that women and girls have to be a certain size and shape to fall within the acceptable bounds of femininity.

Also—“Pregnant Polly?” Really? I guess part of me thinks it’s cool that you could have your avatar be “with child” at the same time you are in “real life,” but again, this site seems to be frequented primarily by teenagers…and I’m not sure what kind of message that sends.

As far as appearance goes, I think the site had some good looks to choose from. That said, the “default” setting for a female avatar is uber-feminine—hair! Make-up! Cute clothes! Shoes! Yayyyyyy! My girlfriend, whose gender expression is “butcher” than mine, also made an avatar on Meez. She found that the clothing and hair options were somewhat limited even for her soft-butch look, and it took her awhile to figure out how to get the make-up off her Meez (of course, the default was a face-full!). Also, many of the “gender-deviant” options had a hefty price tag, while there were plenty of gender-normative options for free.

Still, you gotta love that they made bald an option! I’ve always wanted to shave my head; maybe I’ll try it virtually…

All in all, I wasn’t too upset by the options for gender expression on Meez. I was actually more upset by the persistent advertizing, especially this really annoying one that kept popping up on the side of my screen:

It features Patti Stanger, the ever-annoying Millionaire Matchmaker. If you don’t know her work, check it out—she spends most of her time telling women how they don’t look good enough or act nice enough (re: submissive enough) to land a millionaire husband. Seriously, if you are ever feeling TOO GOOD about the state of humanity, just turn on her show. You can thank me later.

Why was I bothered by this? Well, obviously because I stand the woman. But also, the website is obviously targeting its female users for marketing that they believe will appeal to that demographic. Not only does this not “appeal” to me, it also is evidence of the tiny boxes that advertisers (and sites like Meez) like to put their consumers in, often on the basis of identity. When those ads don’t appeal to us or reflect our experiences, we may feel alienated or like failures at femininity (or masculinity, as the case may be).

Also, gotta love the Tampax ads!!!

What about you? Did you notice any “gendered” ads on the website you selected? If not, what about the creation of your avatar? Do you feel that your virtual world requires uber masculine and extra feminine gender expression?

Race on Meez

When first entering the Meez universe, it seems a veritable multicultural cyber-heaven. At the opening page, a Meez user is greeted with an image of many variously raced and styled avatars. Everybody is welcomed in Meez land: white, Black, Asian, Latino…and whatever that grey thing with wings is…

I found that most of the website-generated content read like a college admissions brochure—they made sure to get somebody of every shade up in that bitch. It is an effective PR strategy; as a new user, I was inclined to buy into this website as a virtual safe space for diversity. For starters, they have much better color selections than the leading cosmetics lines:

However, even the seeming variety of their selections belies the white privilege that I found throughout the site. Take the image above: what is the default skin shade? White. The same was true in other parts of the “Meez Maker” as well.

In the Meez universe, white is the standard. Whiteness is portrayed as both the ideal and the neutral, the perfect and the default. That is to say, whiteness goes unmarked in the Meez-making process. To make a Meez “of color” is to divert from the norm. Whiteness is never marked, never questioned—and that, my friends, is white privilege. BTW, what exactly are “sophisticated features”???

This idea of “whiteness as default” (and arguably middle-class and heterosexual as default) also rang true in the virtual spaces on Meez. When a user creates a room on Meez, that room is placed by default in “Burbia,” or the virtual suburbs.

“Burbia,” like white skin, is the norm or the standard of living for Meez avatars. As in the “real world,” Meez virtual spaces are racialized and classed so that suburbia is perceived as the ideal living space for all. To be fair, I suppose most Meez users are probably from suburbia themselves, so perhaps this is just clever target marketing on the part of the site’s creators.

Burbia isn’t the only racialized space on Meez; we also have “Hell’s Kitchen.” That’s where you go if you’re “searching for a party” or “feeling rebellious.”

I also found that Hell’s Kitchen is home to rapper 50 Cent’s recording studio and lounge. Oh, and lots of graffiti. While it doesn’t say explicitly anywhere that these spaces are racially segregated (and I did find Meez of all colors in both areas), this only serves to perpetuate the idea that certain types of people stay in certain types of places. It essentializes the life experiences of everyone (including white folks), erasing our many differences in the interests of shoving us into tiny raced (or gendered, or classed, etc) boxes.

Am I just being cynical? Yeah, probably. I guess it’s true that these are just  reflections of the real world. But then, what fun is that? Why sit in your room and go online to some virtual world that has all the same stupid problems as this one? I’m not sure I get it.

On the bright side, there were a few cases I found in which “white” wasn’t the default setting…

Nice stereotypes!

Question: Did you observe similar racialized stereotypes and spaces in your virtual world? What about “whiteness as default”–does your virtual world treat whiteness as the norm?

My Meez

My Meez

When I started this project, I initially thought that I would select Second Life. However, I was intrigued by my first impression of Meez; it seemed user-friendly enough for me to grasp it quickly as a beginner, but I found the emphasis on “creativity” and “self-expression” (or downright weirdness) among experienced Meez(es?) piqued my curiosity. What would be the reception to varying expressions of race, gender and sexuality in such an ostensibly open-minded virtual world? Both the cynic and the idealist in me wanted to find out.

So, this is my Meez. I might change her a bit later, but my initial avatar creation experience mostly entailed making an avatar that looked something like me. The difficulties in that seemingly simple endeavor already speak somewhat to the difficulties I anticipate in this virtual world. That is to say, what first might appear to be a space of free-play is in actuality just another set of norms. Is Meez a more flexible universe than our own when it comes to issues of identity politics? That remains to be seen…

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