In their attempt to keep up with Apple’s Siri and Google Now, Microsoft recently announced their own virtual assistant: Cortana. Now, I’m going to assume for a second that if you’re reading this blog you know that Cortana is a major character of the Halo series, regardless of whether you’ve ever played the games before. Her story arc and character design are fascinating and problematic, and one of the few reasons that I own all of the Halo games.
The news that Microsoft is naming their virtual assistant after this complex dame speaks to larger gender roles in America. As Matt Peckham pointed out in his Time’s article of the event,
What about this idea that the personality — and both Apple and Microsoft clearly want us to view Siri and Cortana as personalities — is female and not male, responsible for what amount to secretarial duties like creating alarms, reminders and appointments? …If so, what does that say about us?”
To be 100% fair, Siri does have a male voice that users are able to use if they so desire. At this point, however, it does not appear that Cortana will be able to make that change. There is some science behind this, Clifford Nass of Standford University has gone on record saying that “”A male voice is seen as a better teacher of technology and a female voice is better for everything else.” There is also speculation that a preference for female voices begins in the womb, as a mother’s voice is the first voice a baby will tune to.
That said, the reasons why people in a culture tend to prefer a certain gender to voice something is based on cultural attitudes towards gender. We may think of women’s voices as soothing because we see them as motherly, feminine figures while our manly stereotypes still involve gruff anti-heroes. Thinking about it, I really wouldn’t mind if say, John Wayne or Chris Hemsworth spoke to me through my phone. Or you know, if Val Kilmer said “I’m your huckleberry” every time I unlocked it. Clearly I’m on a western kick.
Sexy male voices aside, the fact that both Apple and Microsoft assume that users prefer a female voice speaks volumes to cultural attitudes in America. In 2013, statistics demonstrated that a gender wage gap still persists, with women earn roughly 77 cents on the dollar when stacked against the paychecks of white men. Could attitudes about women being best as secretaties and organizational tasks have any influence on this?
It’s an interesting question, and one with many more factors than just the default female voice on your smart phone. While there may be many Halo fanboys that welcome a chance to have their very own Cortana, she deserves better. Cortana didn’t give her life in Halo 4 just to be reincarnated as your personal secretary. Plus, do you really want your virtual assistant created in Cortana’s image?