Skip to main content

Why are Cortana and Siri female?

By David R. Wheeler
updated 3:15 PM EDT, Fri April 4, 2014
Microsoft's digital assistant for its Windows Phone 8.1 is named after Cortana, a character from Halo video game series.
Microsoft's digital assistant for its Windows Phone 8.1 is named after Cortana, a character from Halo video game series.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Microsoft's Windows Phone 8.1 just got an upgrade with the voice of Cortana
  • David Wheeler: Why are Cortana, Siri, and basically all "virtual assistants" female?
  • He says there's biological factor, tradition, sexism, and the popularity of Mad Men
  • Wheeler: Having a virtual assistant like Cortana makes us feel like Don Draper

Editor's note: David R. Wheeler lives in Lexington, Kentucky, where he is a freelance writer and a journalism professor at Asbury University. Follow him on Twitter @David_R_Wheeler The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Microsoft's Windows Phone 8.1 just got an upgrade with the voice of Cortana. If you're an avid video game player, you're probably thrilled. Cortana is a character in the popular Halo video games series. She's sexy and smart and tries to save the world.

So how does Microsoft's Cortana compare with Apple's Siri? We'll find out. But here's the interesting question: Why are Cortana, Siri, and basically all "virtual assistants" female?

Sure, there's the biological factor, i.e., our time in the womb predisposes us to prefer the sound of a woman's voice. And then -- as CNN's Brandon Griggs pointed out -- there's also tradition. Ever since World War II, automated navigation systems in airplanes have used female voices, which stand out in the male-dominated cockpit. And let's not forget straight-up sexism, whose logic goes something like this: "Well, if it's an assistant, it has to be female, right?"

David Wheeler
David Wheeler

All of these reasons certainly contribute to the choice of a female voice for the increasingly popular "virtual assistant" feature on smartphones, which understands commands and in some cases talks back.

But let's not discount the influence of a certain AMC television program that has a hypnotic hold on Western culture right now: "Mad Men."

Have you noticed that trendy clothes are tight-fitting right now? And ties are skinny? And fedoras are everywhere? Heck, even Lucky Strike's sales are booming. It's the Mad Men factor, and this phenomenon also makes everyone want a female assistant. But in 2014, assistants are about as rare as those IBM Selectric typewriters from Season 1, so we'll take the next best thing: the virtual version.

Most of us have to make our own coffee, hang up our own coat, and set our own appointments. But by golly, having Cortana or Siri call someone for you makes you feel like a regular Don Draper, if just for a moment. Roger Sterling sure is a selfish rake, but wouldn't it be great if you had an assistant to do your shopping for you -- just like Roger? With Siri and Cortana, you at least have someone make your shopping list.

Of course, we draw the line at boss-secretary romance. Let's not get carried away. A person and a computer program? No one would ever be weird enough to fantasize about falling in love with an operating system. Unless you count the $481 million in ticket sales from "Her," a movie with this exact premise.

But perhaps I haven't convinced you. For example, you might be wondering how there can be a distinction between the sexist reason for wanting a female assistant and the Mad Men reason. Isn't it the same thing? No. From fashion to furniture, everyone wants a little Mad Men in their life. And whatever form "a little Mad Men" takes, it must resemble the show as closely as possible.

Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner takes pride in the deadly accuracy of his period details, and so do we, when we recreate aspects of the show in our lives. If all the assistants on Mad Men were men, everyone would want a male virtual assistant right now.

Also, let's not forget that everyone roots for the female characters Joan Holloway and Peggy Olson, both of whom begin the show as assistants. They both break through the glass ceiling (in very different ways) on their way to the top of the advertising hierarchy. We want them to succeed, and we agonize over the injustices heaped upon them in their ascent. Whatever our gender, we also want female assistants, just like Joan and Peggy eventually have when they become powerful.

There's a twist to this story. Cortana, the artificially intelligent character from Halo, was based on the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti. Some scholars believe Nefertiti ruled Egypt after the death of her husband, Pharaoh Akhenaten. Viewed from this perspective, Cortana represents not only a helpful, soothing voice, but also an eventual ruler.

For those who are predicting world domination by robots, the choice of Cortana is certainly something to ponder.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:30 PM EST, Sun December 28, 2014
Les Abend: Before we reach a conclusion on the outcome of AirAsia Flight QZ8501, it's important to understand that the details are far too limited to draw a parallel to Flight 370
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 6:27 PM EST, Sat December 27, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT