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 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT