The Future (of Voice Assistants) is (Still) Female: Siri, Alexa, and Samantha from Spike Jonze’s Her
Written By: Brighid Clancy
Our relationship with technology today continuously grows more intimate. With voice assistants at our leisure, people can talk to their phones for information or conversation. As technology advances, the world is beginning to look like a sci-fi movie, specifically Spike Jonze’s Her. People are having meaningful relationships and even falling in love with a computer operating system of their choosing; an operating system that has a conscience and is so intelligent that they cannot be told apart from a human being. One major issue the film conveys that is also reflected in the real world is engendering voice assistants and reinforcing old stereotypes about women.
When Apple Inc. first released the iPhone with Siri, it was remarkable that a user could ask a question or say a command and it would listen to you. Throughout the history of Apple’s iPhones and their evolving technology, having voice assistants is something that users have become accustomed to, and cannot see themselves living without. According to an Amazon spokesperson, when asked about why they use a female voice for Alexa, they shared that, "Studies all over the world have shown that the female voice is perceived as more pleasant, friendly and relaxed (than the male)." Despite Siri having an obvious female sounding voice, when asked what her gender is, she says, “Don’t let my voice fool you, I don’t have a gender.” This can be misleading for users because Siri does, in fact, have a gender; it is programmed to be a woman.
Siri is a female name meaning beautiful victory and is given feminine speech patterns. She is attentive, supportive and submissive. The user has control over when Siri can talk; she will only respond when she is addressed. Additionally, Siri places her own assertions before she responds. She might say, ‘I think’, or ‘I’m not sure’. Apple does not want Siri to appear too confident or bossy. Siri is programmed to sound helpful and cooperative. She often uses a playful and flirtatious tone, but she is unable to have a conversation like Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) in Her.
Representations of artificial intelligence in films such as Her are sexualized and gendered female to play a more subservient role. When the option was given to Apple users that they could now choose between a male or a female voice, most users predominantly chose female. Despite the report from the UN finding that users think male voices sound insistent and strong while female voices sound kind and nurturing. Both Siri and Samantha in Her have limitations. Siri is only programmed to accomplish certain tasks like making recommendations and answering questions. Siri is not intellectually equipped yet to discuss your feelings and darkest secrets. Samantha can provide the film’s protagonist Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) with everything that he is looking for in a partner. Samantha can be whatever Theodore wants and needs her to be. It is easier for Theodore to feel a genuine connection with Samantha given that she is disembodied. He cannot see machinery, so he is able to fantasize about what she would look like.
When watching Her, viewers see an intimate relationship between human and voice technology, a future that is a lot closer than one would initially think. In Her, viewers are taught that machines and evolving technology is not something that we need to be afraid of, but rather embrace the benefits that a voice assistant can have in your life. For Theodore, voice assistants are someone that he can be freely open with, without fear of judgement. He can also develop his emotional skills by practicing how to communicate more effectively with humans. Their relationship is a danger to people living in 2020. While the limitations voice assistants have are obvious (one is human and the other is an intellectual operating system), films like Her demonstrate the possibility of forming a relationship with an artificial being.
The film highlights what it is like to communicate with a machine that’s intellect matches that of a human. Theodore is comforted and feels safe when he speaks to her. He can discuss his divorce with her and things that he has never told anyone before. Director Spike Jonze is playing with the idea of exploring a non-traditional relationship that he believes may eventually happen in our lifetime. Theodore believes Samantha to be the ideal woman for him. He can tell a female more about his life and emotional stresses because stereotypically, women are more caring, kind and nurturing. Samantha is framed as both a motherly figure and a romantic partner to Theodore.
Her emphasizes a harsh feeling that many of us are experiencing now; we are disconnected from our relationships because we are spending too much time with our technology. For a lot of people, they cannot leave their house without their phone or have the urge to check notifications every 5 minutes, even though nothing new has happened. It is obvious that we are addicted to technology. Theodore has closed himself off emotionally and has not allowed himself to feel anymore. But Samantha, as far as he knows, will always be there for him. Whereas ‘real’ relationships are not necessarily forever. Theodore is afraid of getting hurt again, so it is easier for him to close himself off emotionally and not to feel.
Voice Assistants like Siri and Alexa are made female to reinforce the gender stereotype that women are always meant to help and serve their companion. When a user makes a rude or illicit comment to Siri or Alexa, they will tend to apologize or thank them for the ‘compliment’. These statements lead users to believe that this is an acceptable way to treat women, like their assistants who will not talk back or stand up for themselves. This is due to the apparent lack of women who work and are involved with the making of artificial intelligence. Women only represent 12% of A.I. researchers and only 6% working in the software engineering of these technologies. Males mostly oversee making and implementing this technology. This could be a contributing factor as to why women are always the voice assistants.
It is critical that we move forward and do not automatically use female voices for these home technologies. Even if we do not realize it, it is changing the way younger generations view gender relationships. Sci-fi films like Her further complicate this as they similarly reinforce stereotypes about traditional female roles. Can assistive technology only be deemed helpful if given a female voice?