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ChrisR266 On February - 18 - 2011
The gender of countries in the French language...

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Well, the time has come to ask, since I have been unable to discern an answer on my own.  I have conducted some serious literature review over the last few months and can find no relevant studies on the matter.  So when I find myself banging my head against the virtual wall, I realize it is  a subject for which I need to seek guidance.  So I turn to you my friends, because you are the people I respect in this virtual world.

It’s a failing, I admit.  I’m not one to own up to weakness in such a public manner, but this question has vexed me for well over a year now, and I am curious beyond all modesty.

How do we discern gender (or sex, depending on your intellectual orientation) from the avatar one uses or the screen name one chooses?  I ask because I have learned over the last two years that the combination of my screen name and the avatars I choose to use somehow seem to stump other on-line friends and respondents about my sex, and a whole bunch of other things.

I use what most would consider a sex-neutral screen name:  ChrisR266.  I use it consistently from place to place I roam on the world wide web so those who may pay attention to screen names might realize that it is really me they are encountering on a site where we might not have encountered each other before.  I am blessed or cursed with the name “Chris.”  My baptismal and given first name is longer, but “Chris” is what all who have mattered in my life know me by.  I detest other versions and perversions of my full name, so I chose at an early age to stick with Chris.  Chris I am.

Chris is one of those interesting appellations to the extent that it is sex (or gender) neutral.  When you are addressing a Chris, you only know what sex the person is if you are speaking to the person live–like “Pat,” we would consider the name gender or sex neutral.  In fact, the most popular college textbook on basic Interpersonal Communication (The Interpersonal Communication Book by DeVito) uses the names Pat and Chris in all theoretical conversations constructed to illustrate concepts and theories discussed in the text.  It is fascinating to read these theoretical conversations, because as DeVito constructs them, it is almost impossible to discern which speaker, Pat or Chris, is male or female.

I raise the issue because in my experience, almost no one I have interacted with on line assumes me to be the sex I am.  Even after informing people I have interacted with at length, they have difficulty retaining my sex and addressing me appropriately.  It has made for some hilarious conversational situations, but it has also made me consider at length the unspoken assumptions that operate for all of us at deep cultural levels.

When I think of this issue, my mind always wanders to a wonderful essay written by Julia Copeland in 1999, entitled “The Parable of the Crayon:”  http://2011sye402.pbworks.com/f/The-Parable-of-the-Crayon-(2).doc I encourage you to read it.  The essay is short, but powerful, and her words remind us that our culture teaches us many “default assumptions” about the way things are supposed to be, who rates in the world, and how we process ideas and experience based on those assumptions.

“Parable of the Crayon”  is relevant here, because it goads all of us to ask some important questions: Am I obligated to use an avatar that informs people by inference that I might be male or female?  Should I write in a specific way so people can tell immediately who I am and then of course infer what I might be thinking?  Are we rightly or wrongly indoctrinated to a masculine or feminine style that hinders us from seeing people and their ideas in a more objective and fair light?  Is there a written style that we connote male or female?  And why the hell is it that I can ALWAYS tell when a poster here, at HP, or on almost any other site is male or female?  Oddly, despite what I think are my clearly distinguishable posts, 99% of the respondents who chose to use identifiers get my sex wrong?

I have more questions, of course.  But I think the few I pose here are a healthy start.  I think it’s time we spend a bit of our time thinking about the deep assumptions that organize our cultural world.  I became very sensitive to this issue when I realized what I was saying to commenters that I flagged at HuffPost.  I always felt the need to inform commenters that I was flagging them and WHY.  One evening, I realized that I was qualifying my flag in a particular way:  “I know you are a dude because no woman would make a comment so crass.”  It was crystal clear to me then, as it is to me now.  And, I suspect, it is crystal clear to you, too.

Ironically, the world wide web (or the internet, whatever you prefer) has created an interesting paradox.  It authorizes people to speak their minds on a variety of things.  At the same time, it also allows people to be anonymous and thus unaccountable for the words they speak.   As lack of accountability for words spoken seems to be a significant issue in our public dialogue, it might well be the time to ponder the role of virtual interaction in public dialogue.

Just my four cents (inflation, of course).

Written by ChrisR266

Professor of Communication. Have been teaching for 30 years. Interest areas are in Contemporary Rhetoric--Popular and Political; Sport and Fandom; Television and New Media. Married with grown children. Ahhhh. Am a true "bleeding heart" liberal.

319 Responses so far.

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  1. ghsts says:

    This is a paraphrase of a comment I tried to post at HP{{spit}} perhaps to you, that was deleted by mods.

    Whenever I see a avatar with a hot chic I assume it’s a obese white guy siting in his tighty-whities, if I see an older gentleman I assume it’s a 14 year old neocon in a suit and tie, if I see cartoon it’s a soccer mom and most importantly I couldn’t care less. Take them at their word, this is a debate class. I went back to school for a BS and was older than most student’s parents, was required to take a gender studies class and was floored at how sexist the kids really were, some things never change.

  2. cyrano1 says:

    Thanks for writing about our Av choices! I chose mine using a photo of my macaw Cyrano, who has been a member of the household for over 30 years, and who runs the joint. The pun quality, in being able to have my long nosed beaked one speak for me, was irresistible.

  3. Redemption Song II says:

    Interesting post…on the one hand, gender seems to be “voiced” even behind avatars; on the other hand, I’ve often, much to my surprised, been mistaken for a man. And so it goes.

    Regarding the screen name, the lyrics of “Redemption Song” is one of my favorites…and “II” after I deleted my HuffPo account to avoid posting while helping my son with school. I chose the Lauryn Hill cover because one of my favorite albums is “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”, because until I had my little guy I wore my hair in the most fantastic twists (I now have a “mom bun” ;0), because I’m a firm believer that the media has too few faces of color, and because I’m a black female and don’t want to be represented as anything other.

    Not exactly exciting or informative, but there it is.

    Cheers, dears.

  4. PocketWatch says:

    Since everyone’s sharing, I will reveal a little about my SN choice. The picture, of course, is me, taken in my office from the laptop’s camera. I love hats, since I’m bald (I think of it as my hair just sort of slid down to my face…) and I have many, but that panama is one of my summer favorites.

    Anyway, PocketWatch.. my real initials are PW, and my handle back when CB radios were popular (handy when you drive 100K a year for your job)was Pinball Wizard. So, when I started in AOL chatrooms eons ago, back just after the Earth’s crust cooled, I wanted a handle that kept the pattern. I’m also sort of old-fashioned in many ways, and own a pocket watch or two, mainly for when I go hunting, so, I became PocketWatchQQ. The QQ part was graphic. They look like two eyes looking down to the side in some typefaces, as in “I’m watching you!” I shortened it for HP {[spit!]}, and kept it for here.

    (I’m such a creature of habit with an amazing lack of imagination! I hang my head in shame….)

    • Redemption Song II says:

      Your avatar reminds me of my godfather…he’s (I take it) considerably older--in his mid 80’s now--but he’s a big, tall pecan brown man with wireframe glasses, a snow white beard, and a happily shiny bald head…and he wears the most fantastic hats: cowboy hats, tweed flat caps and fedoras. Even elderly he’s quite a striking figure (and I adore him--one of the most strong, clear-headed and kind-hearted people I ever met).

    • Abbyrose86 says:

      I LOVE your AV with your hat. I love seeing a man in a hat. My dad always wore a hat, he always looked so dapper!

      I have a hat fetish, myself. I LOVE hats! I must have a least 50 hats that I wear all the time…it’s become my trademark!

      But I don’t do it because I don’t have hair, I’m just too lazy to DO my hair everyday…such a pain to straighten it or style it everyday, so I pop on a cute hat that matches my outfit.

    • jdmn17 says:

      Oh Oh, looks like Huffpo {[spit]} is catching on. Dang Penner.

    • dimplasm says:

      I like it. My paternal grandfather (and no, you don’t remind me of him) had a pocketwatch, and as a child, it fascinated me.

      • jdmn17 says:

        My maternal grandfather was a watchmaker and clock repairman. My fondest memories of visiting in Indiana, aside from hand made donuts in the Griswold and Black bottom pie was the entire dining room was filled with chiming clocks. He’d shut them down at night but early morning he’d wind them and start em going. Still love the sound of the Westminster clocks.

    • KB723 says:

      PW. Not too many folks wear the Panama Hat. I Love IT!!! My pic is on the second page or listed as “Older Comments” :sad:

      • PocketWatch says:

        KB, just saw it… kewl hair, man! LOL I could never have worn a ‘hawk or anything like it. I started going bald at 16 (thanks mom!) and have always had fine hair. During my hippie days, it was way long. But the day I got out of the army, I started a beard, and have not had a shaved face since. Even against company policy a couple times. Skrew ’em!

  5. Plutocrats really suck says:

    I figured I would go with the “make my avatar as self explanatory as possible” option. Now the only question is, who do I go with for my next pic? Where do you go after Snydley Whiplash? I have had Monty Burns, Sauron, Darth Vader, etc. I need something evil.

    I’m thinking the smurfs maybe, don’t be fooled they are deadly little bastards. When one says “I’m going to smurf you!”, what does he mean by that? I mean really? Papa smurf was a cult leader, I’m telling you.

    Poor old Gargamel and that cat got a bad rap, were just trying to keep the woods safe from murderous blue imps that lived in mushrooms. Smurf propaganda.

  6. ADONAI says:


    Give me some skis and a pair of oars to attach to each pedal, and I will ride my bike to Maui.

    Also, some snacks for the journey. Preferably cookies.

  7. Kalima says:

    Well being as everyone is dishing, I might as well drop in my 5 pence worth.

    I’m a late starter with computers and blogging compared to many of the wonderful friends I made on HP. 2007 was the the year for my first computer, a Mac, and my first adventure into the blogging world. When a friend suggested HP, I ventured in with my thigh high wellies. Just getting to keep a username which wasn’t already taken took two days, and when I joined we were just username with numbered comments, so you would read things like, “Come in number 34, I totally disagree with your opinion.”

    Then when the avatars were introduced it took me another few days to successfully upload a picture of our abyssinian, Coco, wearing a pink feather boa. She was my avatar there until I stopped posting in mid 09. I went recently to delete my profile for many reason, but mainly I thought she might be feeling lonely over there by herself, we lost her in October last year. My account had already been deleted, someone working for HP might have been lurking over here, who knows, and who really cares anyway.

    My eventual moniker was the combination of Kali, one of our naughty cats, and her mother’s name Ma, it never caused much curiosity until one day a crazy poster from India, Mattie or Maddy, accused me of being a Muslim spy, whatever that is when it’s at home, I told her politely to “Bugger off” it could have also been “Sod off.”

    This avator I have been using at THe Planet is a result of having to arm wrestle my hubby into letting me use our business logo. I reasoned that it was after all a drawing of a photo of me, even if the artist had decided at some point that I looked better in Japan with black hair, which I can assure you that I don’t. A few night nurse in a London hospital will attest to the fact that when they had to take my pulse when I was sleeping, two of them let out a loud shriek waking elderly ladies around my ward after seeing my newly dyed black hair fanning out on the pillow, framing a very white face. They thought that I had passed away after our awful evening meal.

  8. deygirl says:

    @jdmn17-- My mother is paralyzed on her left side. She lives in the basement apartment of a two story duplex, and I take care of her.

    Mostly I’m all softy covered in bluster. Unless you marry me.

    • Abbyrose86 says:

      What a good daughter.

      I had “custody”of my dad for the last three years of his life. I’m the youngest of 5 and at that time, I was in the best position to take him in when he got sick. It was daunting at times, and he was a handful, but I wouldn’t change if for anything in the world!

      It’s so worth being with them when they need you.

    • jdmn17 says:

      My mom is 87 and I am her primary care giver now. My son helps a lot too. She’s not as spry as she was but her damn mind is sharper than a carpet tack. And she’s a lot more capable of doing things than she lets on. I often find things she’s illegally hauled down from the attic. She sells on ebay and I swear she knows where every little thing is in her stuffed house. Makes me crazy when she can find a postcard she put away thirty years ago but can’t find the salad dressing in the fridge

      • escribacat says:

        JDM, Your mom sells stuff from your attic on ebay? Wow. My mom never could comprehend what “the computer” did, much less sell stuff on ebay. I’m impressed.

        • jdmn17 says:


          Her computer “skills” are legendary. She can get online and list stuff just fine. But she still uses AOL for mail and she has the capacity to get the strangest error messages I’ve ever seen. My son is the computer geek and he’ll trudge in, fix the computer even as “grandma” pleads innocence and come back to me shaking his head.

          She has stuff all over her house and lists about five to ten items a day. God, she’s wearing me out.

          My brother in law and I are convinced she’s going to work us both to death.

      • Khirad says:

        Hahaha. I can so relate to that.

        • jdmn17 says:

          One day my son was doing some stuff for her, she was moving him around the house (three story Victorian -- way more than she needs but she raised us all there so she stays til she’s gone).

          When he and I were eating our Friday night breakfast he looked at me and told me

          “I think grandma is laying in the weeds, she can do a lot more than we think”

          “Yep” I replied as I chewed my waffle in grudging admiration.

          He sat for a while then he looked at me and waved his fork

          “Don’t get any ideas, I’m on to you”

      • deygirl says:

        You have my undying admiration.

        • jdmn17 says:

          Hell Dey, she carried me for nine months, almost miscarried (although the time she was on bed rest has gotten longer and longer over the years until it’s now approaching ten months), plus she raised my sorry ass, kept an abusive father at bay most of the time and generally has been the grandmother every kid needs to my two. What else can one do?

          Plus she’s a kick. Still works seven days a week. I got her to retire from her antique business and sell on ebay thinking she’d cut back but instead it’s WORSE. Sheesh, talk about being careful what you ask for

          • jkkFL says:

            My Mom passed away this December, and I was amazed at all she did until the week before her death.
            Treasure all those images- when you need them they will make you smile, or cry.
            They will never fill the hole in your heart; but they feel like her hugs sometimes.

            • jdmn17 says:

              We are trying to save as much of her as we can. When my dad died his fourth wife threw out so many things, almost all the photos from my childhood are gone. She finally allowed me to go through what was left and I felt like I was going through the aftermath of a tornado. We got some things but thankfully my mom came through with some boxes she “meant” to throw out and we have created a pretty cool thing about her life. The only thing I found that made me blush was a series of photos of me and my first wife when I was 19. She was wearing a white leather mini dress with one of those Russian Cossack hats sort of like from Young Frankenstein. The dress hem was so short my friends told me when she kneeled at the altar she “mooned” the entire church. HAHA

            • deygirl says:


          • Abbyrose86 says:

            Your mother sounds like a wonderful lady…she raised a hell of a kid! :)

            • jdmn17 says:

              Thanks Abby

              I do my best. She taught me a lot. How to still love my old man who did everything he could to make himself unlovable, took my sisters and I to museums, plays, the art institute and other cultural places. About ten years ago I started compiling her life. Her mom did the same thing with my cousin so we have a record of the women in the family back to 1893. My mom’s a pack rat (that apple did not fall far enough from the tree) and we found dozens of pieces of her art (she was a commercial artist during WW II) and have framed several things. She saved every letter my father wrote from WW II. Stuff like that. Reading my dad’s letters I could actually see where, when and why he descended into what we now call PTSD. It’s chilling. Their lives and times were so different. I do cherish her and think we would all do good to have them in our lives as long as we can.

          • deygirl says:

            She is a lucky woman. She is blessed.

        • dimplasm says:

          Both of you. I’m a Social Worker and work with the elderly. I really respect people who take care of their parents.

    • BigDogMom says:

      Girl, your hot tonight! ROFL!!! Spit my drink out on the last line… 😆

  9. Caru says:

    One of the nice benefits of my name is that someone once derisively referred to my arguments as “Carusian Logic”, which I thought was awesome because it almost sounds like “Cartesian Logic”.

    I’m a nerd, aren’t I.

  10. KB723 says:

    bito, THANKS, now folks know what KB723 Really
    Looks Like!!!!


    • ADONAI says:

      So, why pose with the bike? Were you selling it? Were you about to make it disappear in some sort of “illusion”?

      • KB723 says:

        ADONAI, I was showing off my new XTR cranks. I have invested over $5,000.00 in that bike. All racing components. Only weighs 21 pounds.

        I made this investment after my last bike crash that put me in a Coma for ten days, Hospitalized for three weeks.

        • ADONAI says:

          It is a very nice bike. If I spent as much time on one as you do, I’d want it to be as safe as possible too.

        • dimplasm says:

          Whoa. What are “cranks”?

          • KB723 says:

            dimplasm, Cranks are the front drive that you petal on. That set cost me $575.00.

            Sheesh XTR components are Not cheap. My cranks cost me more than my girlfriends Cannondale mtn. bike.

            She thought I spent too much money for her bike til she saw me drop nearly a thousand dollars in New components the next month…

            I am moving more toward carbon-fiber.

            • dimplasm says:

              If it is what you love to do, you might as well spend your money on it. That’s one of the great things about money--it helps you do the things you want to do.

    • dimplasm says:

      Do you ride the bike, or just lift it? : )

    • BigDogMom says:

      KB -- do like the cig hanging out of your mouth while holding up your bike! 😆

      When my husbands shop was just a couple of blocks away, he used to ride his bike to work….smoking away! People would just laugh at him because it looked, well, strange! 😕

  11. BigDogMom says:

    If I ever have an incarnation, I always like the name, “Dulcinea”, Don Quixote’s love interest from the Man of la Mancha and use Sophia Loren’s pic as AV

    • Khirad says:

      The only time I go back is to spar with the IRI apologists -- who I believe are on the Iranian government’s payroll -- and so my name would be ‘Westtoxified’ (gharbzadegi) and I’d probably find a picture of the Shah or Maryam Rajavi to really mess with their heads.

    • ADONAI says:

      Both excellent choices.

      • BigDogMom says:

        Look nothing like her, blonde, blue eyes and not has heavely endowed as her…but she is one beautiful woman.

        One of the few, who seem to get better with age!

        • jdmn17 says:

          When I studied film in college they interviewed one of the busty ones and she was talking about having “approved” bras, that was back when censorship was heavy. They would come into the dressing area and there was this one bra (Hard to imagine they actually shared bras back then) the early one would get to wear because it “lifted” things up better than the others. Now perhaps she was just making up a good story. But Sophia is one of those ageless beauties who does seem to look smashing no matter the decade she’s in.

        • dimplasm says:

          A lot of them get better with age. We are just focused on the young. How many movies do you see where the 45 or 50 year old hero is with a woman who is over 30?

          • jdmn17 says:

            And conversely, aside from The Graduate how many movies do we see that aren’t about cougars where the fifty year old woman is with a 30 year old guy? I know there are some but not nearly as many as male leads with young female hottie

            • dimplasm says:

              and then she was seen as a bit predatory. For the men it’s not even mentioned.

  12. Haruko Haruhara says:

    My avatar is easy to explain!

  13. ADONAI says:

    For the longest time I thought about changing my name to Cookie Monster, getting a Cookie Monster avatar, and writing all my comments as though Cookie Monster were typing them.

    “Me no want war in Middle East. Me just want, COOKIE!!!”

    But how long before that gets old?

    “Me think tax cut bad for country. And bad for, COOKIES!!!”

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