"There's an 'Alexa', but no 'Alex'?" by Becca DeMent
“Alexa play ‘Despacito’.”
“Siri, remind me of my appointment.”
They’re here to serve you, pleasure you, and just make your life so much easier. That isn’t the only thing these three robot assistants have in common... that’s right, they’re all women.
Of course not women in the physical or even human sense, except for in one clear personification that they all share; their female voice.
If you haven't noticed, virtually all helpful pieces of technology of this nature have a female persona. Let me list a few more.
- Bank of America app, online assistant’s name is Erica.
- Windows’ version of a sub-par Siri is named Cortana with a female voice.
- Lyra Personal Assistant, an app.
- Blah blah blah even the airport's regular announcements are done with a woman’s voice!
Come on, just imagine any kind of commercial persona, or any societal communication that’s audible is feminine sounding. You get the point.
The fact is that whenever a company or service has to pick an audible voice that they even name sometimes, it’s almost always a female’s voice. My questions are why and what does that have to do with the sexism and gender binary that dictate our society?
The first easy question to “why a female voice” when having to choose seems obvious. It’s more pleasing to the ear. It sounds more pleasant. It’s melodic. Why not a male voice? Paralleling the prior, because a male voice is not, or is less, pleasing, pleasant, or melodic. Something about a man’s voice answering our question about the weather or reminding us of our dentist appointment next week just seems weird.
I believe that the predominant nature of inanimate personas being female is because it fits into our societal binary that women are supposed to be pleasing, helpful, and servicing.
Women have a long-standing history of being shoved into the roles that require pleasantry, servers, hostesses, dancers, greeters, sex workers, receptionists, customer service, helpful, teachers, therapists, assistants of all kinds, volunteers, the caretaker of the family, class parents, nurses, and servicing, maids, masseuses, secretaries, flight attendants, nutritionists, sex workers again, and any kind of aesthetic work. These jobs and roles are dominated by women in society. Is it because they’re pushed into it due to inherent and traditional traits, or because we raise women to believe that these are the traits of value?
I believe the latter and here’s why. I don’t think women are under any obligation at all to be pleasing, helpful or servicing. No more than I think any man should be during any interaction with one. Think of a woman who doesn’t chat with another in line at the store, doesn’t tuck in
the shirt tag sticking out of someone else’s collar and is the boss at her job. Does that make her cold or unfriendly, or dare I say to make her a BITCH? You’re probably good and smart and know that “no, of course not”, but here are some realities. When a woman doesn’t smile, she’s accused of not being pleasing. When a woman doesn’t become her family and or parent’s caretaker, she’s considered unhelpful. And finally, women make up almost 70-90% of all service jobs.
Wait, what do jobs that most women have to do with some company’s automated system voice system? We shape society and society shapes us. I don’t judge if you’ve heard this before or not, but even the most microscopic elements in daily life shape how we think and view others, both consciously and unconsciously. Sometimes we’re aware of how something affects us, and sometimes it does and we don’t even know it. For example, the shows we watch either reinforce our beliefs or shape them differently. So do the ways we talk about women, the way women are portrayed in books and movies, the fashion women are told to wear, the phrases we say, the jokes you hear; the list goes on. When we watch a show that has women-only portrayed as mothers, receptionists, love interests, or another stereotype, it fortifies the idea being fed to us that that is where women belong. To undo this then, it seems correct that we would have to see them in different roles.
So. Why are Siri, Alexa, and your Google Home all female?
Honestly, the answer is because it fits the mold that the role of an assistant is fit for a woman.
We need to break this mold and stop seeing women, and female traits, as needing to be pleasant, helpful , and servicing to be normal. The continued use of female voices for audible communication by programs and organizations further promotes the idea that such assistance is the job of women, and not of men. It perpetuates the ideas that men and women, and their various traits, have certain expected and accepted roles in society. It harms our society and is the little voice in our ear that tells us what women have to be and where they belong.
My solution is rather simple; make the default androgynous, ambiguous, or non-gendered. They should advertise the number of choices we could have. Couldn’t you see it? Wow, I can make the voice sound like my dear grandpa that I love so much. Wow check it out, I’m British and so is my Google Home(I know that this is an “option” but the default is a female voice). Cool, this one sounds just like Sam Smith! This solution is viable and more complementary to the complexities that humans have rather than the same similar box. Also, it helps men. Firstly, in the same way, it helps all of society in eliminating one of the indirect ways we sort women and men into binaries. Secondly, it opens up the possibilities for men. Never forget, feminism helps men too. Maybe we wouldn’t be so repulsed by a male Siri if we saw it more often. Maybe men’s voices wouldn’t seem so oppressive when listening off the Google recommended ingredients for vanilla vegan cupcakes(my fave). And maybe men wouldn’t have to feel so discouraged from choosing amazing professions like singing, dancing,
nursing, teaching, and so many more. We need to stop putting ourselves in boxes and thinking that’s where we and where they belong.
That’s the end of my argument but a little note to all my women, cis and trans, and non-binary woes out there. You do NOT have to be pleasing to be valid. You don’t have to be friendly, or overly nice, or any kind of way that isn’t how YOU want to express YOURSELF. It's the world that’s told us we have to offer them something to be valid, BUT THIS IS A LIE. Shit. Live like men and do whatever you want.
I’m concluding the voices written about are “female” or that of a “woman” on the basis
of their natural sound and pitch are most likely to be naturally produced by a female person’s voice. Some of the services cited even have human female voice actors/employees. However, I know that individuals of all sexes and genders vary in their natural voices. Men can have high-pitch melodic voices and women can have deep low-pitched voices. And if only speaking for myself as a non-binary individual, my voice is deep and obnoxious, so who’s really to say.