Skip to main content

Why are Cortana and Siri female?

By David R. Wheeler
April 4, 2014 -- Updated 1915 GMT (0315 HKT)
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
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1842 GMT (0242 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 0035 GMT (0835 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT