Open to Construction: reading and writing bodies in digital fiction and the open web platform

Abstract (in English): 

Drawing parallels between the open web platform and the open way a fictional body can be constructed from a text, this paper explores the creative and ethical strategies employed in the creation of a feminist interactive digital fiction for body image narrative therapy, advocacy and plurality. The digital fiction was created with and for young women and gender non-conforming individuals from diverse intersectional backgrounds.

If, as Possible Worlds theory posits, the real world serves as a model for the mental construction of textual fictional storyworlds, it follows that our experience and knowledge of real bodies, including our own bodies, serve as a model for the mental construction of textual fictional bodies. Unless a text draws attention to the physical appearance of a fictional character, the reader will tend to assume, according to Ryan's 'principle of minimal departure' (1991), that their body conforms to a familiar or generic norm (two eyes, two arms, two legs, etc.).

The main character of the Writing New Bodies project's digital fiction, Jordan, has body image issues relating to her size and shape. This becomes evident from her negative self-talk. Jordan describes herself as fat, flabby and repulsive, but is that true in the textual actual world or is it a distortion of her body image problem? In our interactive text-based fiction, where the reader-player makes choices on Jordan's behalf that can affect her body image, there is no narratorial voice to authoritatively describe her body and none of the characters are ever depicted in mimetic visual form. Therefore Jordan's body is open to interpretation, open to (re)construction. Although normative concepts of the body are insidious, the reader-player has some latitude to give body to her in their own idiosyncratic way, perhaps empathically shaping her in their own self-image. This openness is a deliberate strategy to make the bibliotherapeutic benefits and socio-political commitments of the work as fluid and widely accessible as possible.

Similarly, with accessibility in mind, we chose to build the digital fiction on and for the open web platform using a mobile-first, responsive web design approach for the greatest reach. But the affinity between these twin approaches runs deeper. Both the refusal to visually represent a (female-gendered or sexed-coded) body in a digital fiction and the refusal to use proprietary closed platforms represent a form of resistance to the normative forces of cultural hegemony within neoliberalism; not least because the big tech platforms that want to lock us in to proprietary systems are amongst the most prolific purveyors of imagery and messaging that contribute to body dissatisfaction in young people. In this context, choosing the open web platform is a feminist strategy that pragmatically and aesthetically underpins the concerns of our digital fiction, where the body is relatively open to (re)construction rather than defined and limited by the restrictive norms and unattainable ideals commonly found in digital media representations of bodies.


ELO 2021: Identities and bodies panel 27th May 2021

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Daniel Johannes...