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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.

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