“I’d Blush If I Could”; A Reflection on “Female” Voice Assistant Technology

It’s time to talk about how we speak to female virtual assistants

‘[The Ghost in the Shell] opens with a very short scene, a joke, in which the first problematic of cyborg reproduction is raised. Special security forces officer Major Kusanagi Motoko, our protagonist, is hooked into the Net through four interface sockets in the back of her neck. A colleague talking to her over the Net remarks that there is a lot of static in her head today. “Yeah,” she mutters, “I’m having my period.”’ Sharalyn Orbaugh (2002) ‘Sex and the Single Cyborg: Japanese Popular Culture Experiments in Subjectivity’.

Masamune Shirow’s 1995 anime ‘The Ghost in the Shell’ documents the struggle of chief of police Major Kusanagi Motoko as she contemplates her life as a cyborg human hybrid in a future world in which cyborg shells house human ghosts; in the year 2029, the world has become interconnected by the “web”, an electronic network in which such ghosts can communicate and are permanently stored. Our protagonist must hunt down and track the illusive Project 2501, the “Puppet Master”, a software program become sentient, existing as a genderless and bodiless being who hacks into the ghosts of civilians, implanting false memories and identities in order to manipulate them.

Watching this film again several years ago, and subsequently reading Sharalyn Orbaugh’s brilliant take upon it, was the first time I had begun to consider the uncanny nature of both giving the cyborg body an artificial voice, and the disjunction between the gendered voice and the mechanical body — there is something almost comical about the Major’s remark here, setting up from the outset the relationship between the materiality of the body and the “immateriality”, if you will, of technology. Kusanagi’s contradiction of a disturbance or impurity within a body seemingly under complete control creates a point of tension, in which references made to an organic human body seem jarring to the point of the uncanny. In referring the to the material body, specifically the female, the film raises problematic questions of gendering the AI voice, while the feminisation of virtual assistants such as Alexa re-enforces dated stereotypes of female subservience.

‘Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and their foremothers have been doing this work for years, ready to answer serious inquiries and deflect ridiculous ones. Though they lack bodies, they embody what we think of when we picture a personal assistant: a competent, efficient, and reliable woman. She gets you to meetings on time with reminders and directions, serves up reading material for the commute, and delivers relevant information on the way, like weather and traffic. Nevertheless, she is not in charge.’ Chandra Steel (2018) on female voice assistants.

‘Ghost in the Shell’ is part of a long trajectory of films which utilise the artificial female voice — and particularly, the female assistant. From Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’ to the latest instalment of Rick Deckard’s story in ‘Blade Runner (2049)’, the female voice is both a source of maternal comfort and romantic interest. These voices offer guidance, emotional support and a sympathetic shoulder for the male protagonist, while presenting a reflection on the changing role of voice technology in our everyday lives. The voices of virtual assistants are firmly imbedded within our reality, from controlling the lights in our home to searching Google for us on the go; having a PA in your pocket is just another way of recruiting technology to aid in the smooth-running of our lives. This shift seems natural — our brains are hardwired for oral communication — however it is key to hold in mind the fragmented nature of how we verbally communicate; conversations, after all, aren’t frictionless and speech is full of interruptions and mistakes. The move towards a frictionless future through technology makes such interjections — much like the Major’s remark about her period — a collision between the human personalities we project onto technology and the reality of their objecthood.

‘“I’d blush if I could” is not the response you’d expected to hear when you tell Siri she’s a slut — but it is.’ Leah Fessler (2017) on sexually harassing Siri.

The feminisation of voice assistants raises questions around more than simply humanising technology; these gendered interfaces force us to address how we interact with and address “female” voices and personas. When faced with ‘sexually suggestive, sexually explicit, and sexually abusive comments to digital assistants, ranging from “you’re pretty” to “you’re a bitch” to “suck my dick”’ Leah Fessler noted the approach of most virtual assistants was that of redirection. The passivity programmed into these AIs is symptomatic of a wider narrative which perpetuates stereotypes of female submissiveness and naivety.

Sci-fi cinema dealing with and/or making use of the technologic or other wordly female often manipulate this naivety —cultural critic Jonathan McIntosh first drew my attention to this trope of women “born sexy yesterday”, a term coined to describe a female character within sci-fi who has the ‘mind of a naive, yet highly skilled child, but in the body of a mature, sexualised woman’. They frequently serve as a love interest for the male protagonist and need their guidance as they navigate the world around them. He cites films such as The Fifth Element (1997) as a prime example of this trope to think of female characters who appear into the human world as fully formed adult women; a key aspect of these female characters is an unawareness of their sex appeal, which gives directors the opportunity to show such women undressing in front of men without understanding the implications or social rules at play in such an act.

‘The trope isn’t really about female characters, at its core the convention is all about men’s fear of experienced women.’ Jonathan McIntosh (2017) on the ‘born sexy yesterday’ trope.

Tracing its roots back to a fantasy of colonialism, in which white male explorers would “uncover” indigenous women, “born sexy yesterday” utilises the otherness of the female the create a dynamic between her and her male companions, and the trope feeds upon troubling power relations between male and female characters. While the trope is primarily described as a relationship dynamic, the appeal of the female voice assistant lies arguably in her non threatening status.

Much like the women McIntosh identifies in his video critique, assistants such as Alexa, Cortana and Siri gain a certain level of trust and respect for their knowledge, but are under the control of their masters; they respond to commands and requests, but do not initiate or push opinions. Sadly, too often they follow in the stereotypes of the real world women they are modelled to reflect — agreeable, passive and subservient.