Gender-swapping occurs when an individual of one gender self-presents as a member of another gender. As you probably know, gender is a social construct that provides guidelines for how we expect people of a certain biological sex to behave. For example, men are expected to be masculine and thus strong and women to be feminine and thus compassionate. Such expectations are reinforced throughout our lives, so when we encounter someone who seemingly violates these stereotypes, we can be frustrated by the inconsistency. Several years ago, Saturday Night Live featured a character called Pat, and the confusion over whether Pat’s name and behaviors were indicative of a man or a woman revealed how obsessed we are with gender.
Research has indicated that when people gender-swap (and more typically than not it is men portraying women), they tend to adopt the same rigid gender roles that their culture has come to expect. As such, masculine avatars devote a great deal of attention to, and will eagerly come to the aid of, female avatars. The perpetuation of stereotypical responses to gender such as this may explain why when someone is exposed for gender-swapping, others can respond with disbelief, confusion, or anger.
Reports of gender-swapping, and the anxieties that accompany it and other forms of misrepresentation, may yet prove to be overly exaggerated. According to research reported by Diane Schiano (1999), most people in online forums act as idealized versions of themselves (rather than markedly distinct individuals), and the majority of MUD participants maintain only one character. In fact, she found that participants experienced “an awareness of social pressure to maintain the authenticity and accountability afforded by a single primary identity.” Such a finding corroborates survey results among people making presentations of self through personal Web sites. Approximately 67% of those responding to the survey reported that they do not feel it is appropriate for anyone to misrepresent themselves online (Buten, 1996). Interestingly, 91% agreed that they accurately represented themselves on their own home pages. Such research clearly suggests that although experimentation with identity is possible, it is neither encouraged nor the norm for the presentation of self.