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 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT