Elsa Brisinger is a final year Philosophy BA student at KCL. Her work centers around the philosophy of language; investigating linguistic categories like slurs, lies, and bullshit stand at the core of her current research. In her spare time, Elsa enjoys spending time in her hometown Stockholm, or at the local cinema.
Could Virtual Reality (VR) and Feminism ever merge? If so, what would that look like? A groundbreaking student project led by three young women in Sweden proves that the answer to the question is yes. This article is about them. More specifically, it is about their joint project “Virtual Vagina” (VV).
Fredrika Larsson, Julia de Ruvo, and Anna Thofte are students at Berghs School of Communication in Stockholm, currently studying towards a degree in ‘Communication Design’. Last autumn, all students in the program were asked to create a ‘VR world’. The idea was not for the students to technically code or compute an actual simulation, but rather to come up with an idea, a concept, of an augmented reality experience. In the weeks leading up to the assignment, a handful of lectures and field trips took place, designed to aid and inspire the students in their subsequent projects. I asked Fredrika for more details about the context in which VV was born, this is what she said*:
“The task was simply to create this Virtual Reality world: there was no set theme, just a request for us to create and present an idea for a ‘VR experience’. We [me, Julia, Anna] were already pretty anti-VR due to the ‘dude-y’ vibe reflected in the lectures and talks. They were all led by men. There was this one time when we were gathered in this basement, and you could just tell that the boys present were excited about this type of technology for all the wrong reasons. It felt as if they truly thought they would save the world with their VR inventions.”
At one point, Fredrika used the Swedish expression “runkig” to describe the atmosphere in their VR classes; there is no suitable English translation at hand, but a made-up equivalent would be something like “jerk-off-y”. It brought to mind a Youtube clip I had watched a few days earlier, as part of my research on the topic. Or rather, it brought to mind one of the comments found in the field below it. The video focused predominantly on the surge of VR video games that emerged in the 90s, and the comment in question said: “Virtual Reality + Porn = no more need for girlfriends”**. The dude-y vibe Fredrika had mentioned, seemed all too familiar.
To be clear, I do not wish to argue that all things VR carry an aura of problematic masculinity. As only one of many examples available, VR is also used in medicine as an aid and cognitive training tool for patients with Alzheimer’s disease***. And not long ago we saw extraordinary numbers of smartphone owners go crazy over the Pokémon GO application; an interactive, kid friendly VR experience based on the Japanese franchise****. It is safe to say that VR qua discipline and phenomenon is – albeit generally – not necessarily ‘dude-y’.
Initially a joke, the trio pitched the idea of creating a VR experience set inside a vulva, with an interactive vagina wall to climb. It would act as a reaction against the predominantly masculine, heteronormative jargon on offer. But there were adjacent themes that emerged in their initial discussions; themes worthy of exploration and respect. For instance, the fact that neither of them could remember any valuable lessons taught in sexual education classes from school was worrisome. Cringey talks about the menstrual cycle, and even cringier demonstrations of how to roll a condom over a banana – many times taught by whichever science teacher had a spare hour – pretty much summed things up. They were memories of sex-ed as embarrassing as insignificant.
Another issue surfaced, this time targeting the vagina as an organ more specifically. In particular, the group was concerned about the widespread lack of accurate information regarding its anatomy and abilities. The idea of the vagina as a mystical, incomprehensible place lives and breeds in many societies, allowing harmful myths and assumptions to live on; Sweden is no exception. A virtual tour of the vagina, or – in Fredrika’s words – “virtual sex-ed”, seemed like an important product yet to be developed. The experience would give the subject a chance to learn about internal reproductive organs in a non-gendered, detailed, and pedagogically apt way. Needless to say, the initial joke soon developed into a project plan.
Still in the process of developing the concept, Fredrika tells me that the basic idea is one in which artistic means marry sexual education. The opening scene is a room in the style of an art gallery, with walls covered in different vaginas; one metallic, one furry, one sparkly etc. The subject is free to approach and enter any one of them, upon which the anatomy becomes clearer and information about its different parts available. Fredrika stresses the fact that she and her co-developers find it important to show that not all vaginas look the same. In other words, not only the quantity, but also the quality of education on the topic of female genitalia is under critique here. It matters that kids (and adults alike) are given trustworthy, inclusive information about the vagina.
My final question to Fredrika asked how – if at all – the trio seeks to illuminate or introduce a bond between VR and feminism through Virtual Vagina. I must admit that I initially struggled to find an appropriate way to phrase this query. On the one hand, it seemed highly relevant to ask; their project touches upon a number of topics that, at the very least, signal allegiance to feminist battles. An anti-patriarchal jargon certainly permeated the pitch. But on the other hand, I worried that my question would – somehow – put pressure on, or presume that, their project ought to have such an agenda: namely, to merge VR and feminism. Was I being unfair in my expectations that the project carries a feminist label? I asked the question anyways.
“We’ve always seen the project as feminist”, Fredrika replied. “The question, however, is whether we want to label it as that”. She told me about the worry that an overtly feminist project would meet unwanted reactions; reactions that might distract from the bigger project they seek to promote. I’m asked what I myself think about the term ‘feminist’. Answering that question turns out to be trickier than I thought. We pause for a second before Fredrika says, bluntly, that “either way, it all started with the three of us observing how many dudes there were in the lectures. Dudes all over the place. Single-sided presentations. We wanted our project to give the current demography of VR and technology a ‘f**k you’.”
I suspect they will succeed in their ambitions.
Virtual Vagina is by far the most exciting, artistic, feminist VR project I’ve come across.
* Telephone Interview between Elsa Brisinger and Fredrika Larsson, conducted 16/03/18
** “History of Virtual Reality – Reality Check”, GameSpot (2014) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43mA_ypfwKg
*** “Virtual Reality (VR) and Dementia (Alzheimer’s) Guide”, VU Dream, Mark Metry (2017) http://www.vudream.com/virtual-reality-vr-dementia-alzheimers-guide/
**** “Did Pokémon Go really change how marketers view augmented reality?”, The Drum, John McCarthy (2017) http://www.thedrum.com/news/2017/07/07/did-pokemon-go-really-change-how-marketers-view-augmented-reality
Picture credit: https://www.iotforall.com/6-creative-uses-of-virtual-reality/