Virtual reality may be an industry in its infancy, but it is expected to generate $7.2bn globally by the end of this year and be worth $150bn by 2020. Given that the technology is new and unlike much else in Silicon Valley, can it offer female creators the chance to start from and maintain a level playing field? Prof Anneke Smelik, an expert in visual culture at Radboud University in the Netherlands, believes the moment is ripe. “Gaming, and VR generally, is considered very much a male genre, but female artists and film‑makers need to start appropriating new genres and technologies for their own storytelling,” she says.
Why? Well, for one, the industry’s biggest investments are being made in adrenaline-fuelled gaming experiences and pornography – meaning that much of the content is dominated by men. In February, an extensive survey in the UK found that more men than women are likely to use VR; 20% said they had already, compared with 13% of women. Another study showed that two-thirds of women are not enthusiastic about trying VR.
It is not hard to see why: the tech world has a well-documented problem with sexism and virtual reality has yet to prove itself an inclusive space. Last year, gamer Jordan Belamire went viral after writing about being sexually assaulted online, highlighting questions of ethics, behaviour and consent in the virtual world, while Silicon Valley startup UploadVR faced a lawsuit over myriad claims, including gender discrimination and sexual assault – suggesting that sexism in the industry has begun to infiltrate its content.
However, a number of female producers are determined to ensure that virtual reality will not share the same fate as other entertainment and tech sectors and are helping women reclaim the space by making content for and about women.
Independent filmmaker Jayisha Patel is one woman trying to exploit VR’s potential. Her film Notes to My Father is a short documentary that explores the story of a human-trafficking survivor, an Indian woman named Ramadevi. When viewed through a headset, the perspective is chilling. One of the most harrowing scenes positions the viewer inside a train carriage full of men. In virtual reality, it is a vivid and uncomfortable depiction of what it is like to be the subject of the male gaze. “I was trying to get the viewer to feel what it’s like being the only woman in the carriage and having all these men staring at you, hearing them adjust their belts, breathing heavily. You start to understand what it’s really like to be objectified,” says Patel.
“What I wanted to do with this film was not just use the female gaze in a story about sexual abuse, which is typically a women’s issue, but use it to address the fact that men are often complicit in it and are instigators of it,” she says. “Doing stories about women is not just about showing empowered women on screen for a female audience, it’s also about showing vulnerability, so it can be a piece not just for a female audience, but for everyone.” Here, the female gaze in virtual reality puts the viewer in the shoes of a character, offering an empathetic, sensory exploration of the female experience.
Another example of virtual reality that positions the viewer in a female space comes from producer and curator Catherine Allen. She runs a VRvirtual reality diversity initiative that tries to get more women to create virtual reality. “We’ve got this golden opportunity to make the VR space as inclusive and diverse as possible, but right now it is so male-dominated and the content reflects that. When I go on the Oculus store, I’m hit by so many pieces that feel like they’re made by men, for men,” she says.
Allen wanted to rectify this. Last year, she created No Small Talk, a VR talk show aimed at millennial women. Filmed in 360 degrees, it features presenter Cherry Healey and blogger Emma Gannon in a coffee shop chatting about everything from how to take photos with your smartphone to how it feels to suffer from anxiety. It feels like a visual podcast and is designed to make the viewer feel as if they are the third person at the table. “We wanted to make it feel as though you’re the quiet friend who’s just sitting there and listening,” says Allen.
The show was a step forward in creating virtual reality content that is accessible for female audiences, but it was not popular with everyone. “Some of the male viewers we tested with just didn’t get it. When women are having a conversation, men often describe it as gossip or chit-chat; it all sounds quite frivolous and unproductive. But when men are having a conversation, it’s described as discussion or deliberation or debate. We used this piece to really try to change that, by showing how women talk about big topics through everyday things,” she says. “It moves away from the thrill-seeking gimmick that so much virtual reality content is made up of these days.”
Finding ways to amplify women’s voices, stories and narratives is no mean feat, but virtual reality is starting to look like a positive space in which to execute those stories. “We’re still working out what virtual reality even is, how it fits into society and who experiences it,” Allen says. “I don’t think it has more opportunity to expose people to women’s stories than any other medium, but because, as an industry, it is newer we have a responsibility to help make it the most diverse form of entertainment it can be – and one that can be reflective of society.”