While theorists responding to digital media have moved away from a stable, static notion of self, most theories of identity—from Haraway’s part-human, part-machine cyborg to Baudrillard’s metastatic body—continue to locate it in a singular, discrete body. I propose a theory of identity as defined by the dispersal of consciousness across a network of sensory, imagined, virtual, and cultural experiences, developing a theory of identity-play as a liminal practice central to the way women relate to patriarchal culture.
In the first chapter, I discuss how Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) makes of the figure of the star a focal point of representation and of the film spectator’s entry into the symbolic realm in a way that crosses from imaginary/represented to physical/sensory, even sensual experience without separating the two completely. The socio-cultural upheavals of this period of Germany’s Weimar Republic seeped into cinematic expression, where it destablized representations of gender identity along with class identity, opening a space for women’s previously marginalized modes of engaging representation to become a structuring element of popular representation.
In the second chapter I describe a similar phenomenon taking place in Depression-era Hollywood. I explore the cinematic treatment of space and the female body in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), discussing how clothing functions as the “interface” through which individuals interact with and within social spaces. The third chapter reads film costume, and by extension: clothing in general as a form of masquerade that positions identity play in a ritual, performative context through George Cukor’s The Women (1939). I link the masquerade-like performance of identity in The Women to the resurrection of fan culture and vintage fashion purchases taking place on eBay today. The fourth chapter “re-views” in digital media environments a figure in whom identity play crystallizes in films such as It Happened One Night: the female trickster or the unruly woman. I explore how this figure relates women’s, and especially young mothers’ blogging practices to popular representation in the 1930s, at the same time as linking them to a distinctly masculine technology-related practice: hacking.
Looking backwards through the lens of digital popular culture and its near-actualization of the self as network, I trace a genealogy of women’s engagement with popular media, from the primacy of the female spectator in early cinema to the increasing prevalence of online social practices that favor feminine modes of engaging discursive structures. I explore how technologically mediated popular culture forges connections between women’s private or discrete and public, social, “networked” selves. I challenge the predominant discourse in feminist theory that, while acknowledging women’s pleasure in popular media forms, argues it is there to pacify and—ultimately—betray them. Drawing a parallel with discussions of hacker culture as social critique, I develop a theory of women’s engagement with technologically mediated representation as predicated on an underground, coded, and dispersed practice of resistance. This ‘hacking’ of popular representation, rather than being the basis of outright rebellion, engages in an ongoing critique of predominantly patriarchal cultural norms by encoding women’s private, lived realities into mainstream media.