- Habiba Ahmed
Speaking To a Seductive Speaker: Why are most virtual personal assistants female in persona?
Why are most virtual personal assistants female in persona? Or in other words, why do they live rent-free in their users’ gendered imaginary? More importantly, how are renowned-actress Nicole Kidman and congresswoman AOC related to all of this? You’ll find out in a minute.
The following article is an excerpt from my Gender & Women’s Studies M.A thesis/ethnography, titled “Living With & Through Virtual Personal Assistants (VPAs).” The latter is a fancier way of saying that I was obsessively reading and writing about gender’s relation to AI-powered assistants that are embedded in smart speakers, phones…etc. For three months, I drew parallels between the literature I read and what I witnessed with my 4 interlocutors (participants in my study) while interacting with or talking about their VPAs.
Throughout my field-work, I witnessed plenty of situations that prompted me to think about how users arrive at a gendered configuration of their VPAs, like Siri and Alexa. How can something as arranged and artificial as artificial intelligence (AI) become perceived as something that is gendered?
The simple answer would be that AI and gender binarism are not separate - in the sense that both are constructed, dictated, and performed. Echoing de Beauvoir in Butler (1988), “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman and by extension, any gender is an historical situation rather than a natural fact”. In this light, we can approach VPAs in the same manner we would with gender as a socially constructed category.
Comparable to AI, “gender is a learned, imitative behavior” (Halberstam, 1991). Thereof, beyond assigning feminized names and personas to VPAs, gendered reactions also stem from their users’ overarching understanding of gender. Among other things, it stems from the nature of tasks they carry-out, surrounding discourse, past similar technologies, as well as popular fictional depictions (cue Her and ex-Machina’s theme songs).
My field-notes and cited works underscore the ways in which the VPA’s subservient identity is of immense importance to both their developers and users; as it caters to the promise of controlling and leading an interconnected, seamless life. Think of it this way: if you’re an avid user of a VPA, your work/life balance amid the pandemic was probably not as chaotic as others, thanks to virtual reminders and timers…etc.
Simply put, advertising the VPA as an intimate property that functions as an assistant attracts modern people - who live a fragmented-life full of deadlines, appointments, responsibilities, and desires. Positioning VPAs in such a manner often paves the way for uncovering social tensions, desires and (PG 13+ alert) sexual fantasies.
My interlocutors share similar opinions on what it is like to be living with and through a VPA, one of which is perceiving them as feminized, loving, caring and approachable. Their discourse surrounding VPAs is deeply rooted in how these technologies offer companionship. All four of my interlocutors have first interacted with their VPA while set on its default persona - which sounds like an American woman. Ever since, none of them opted to change personas - they only temporarily played around with other available options, but ultimately favored the default setting.
Why is this the case? When asked, my interlocutors base their feminized imaginary on three main reasons: the VPA’s name, voice, and skills. Common commands include using the VPA as a search engine, which evokes a librarian image in their minds. They also use their VPA to control home temperature; play songs and games; make jokes; create to-do lists, set reminders, appointments, and alarms; inform about new emails/messages; turn off the lights and lock the door.
You know, just almost all tedious tasks that have been historically designated as a woman’s job - rooted in servitude.
Think about this way, when was the last time you heard a GPS guide, answering machine or ATM speak in any voice that is not female-like? My guess is not anytime recently.
Gendering technologies – or perceiving them in a gendered way – is attributed to a long intersectional history of anthropomorphization (when a nonhuman is endowed with human qualities/characteristics). Which is why when humans interact with an AI that listens, speaks, and does tasks for them, become prone to gendering them.
One of my interlocutors for instance, recalled the endless times he wished for his wife to “be more like his VPA”, because of her caring nature and assistance. “She takes amazing care of my crammed schedule, tells me a joke when I’m down, and keeps me well-rounded with what’s happening around the world,” he went on to elaborate.
When asked about envisioning their VPA in human form, all interlocutors imagined their VPA to be a young woman. The distinctions were in how they visualized her hair and skin-tone. One imagined a brunette, referencing congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Another fantasized about a freckled-face redhead that looks like young Nicole Kidman. Figments of their imagination are not so different than the figures illustrated by artists drawing VPAs for Quartz Magazine, as you can see below:
As digitization waves storm everyday life and all industries, it is important to understand the repercussions of gendering technologies that assist us in doing life. It is crucial to acknowledge how, as well as why, developers gender their technologies. In parallel, acknowledging this can keep our internalized misogyny in check when interacting with our virtual helpers.
Throughout my gendered examination of user-VPA interaction, anthropomorphization proved to be seeking after reproducing and deepening sustained normative gender roles and relations (like the woman as the caretaker!). My observations pointed towards how the VPAs’ gender performativity facilitates a sense of ownership/superiority over the feminized AI-persona. Performing gender in this light, is a way in which developers anchor their presence in the every-day. Thereby, when technologies do gender, “it is visible as the product of deliberate choices about how best to relate, assist, or persuade the imagined technology user” (Hester, 2016).
In an age where gender and women’s issues are unprecedentedly seeing the light through multiple outlets, VPA’s (as well as interchangeable technologies’) designers/developers have a role to play in shattering normative gender understandings and negotiations.
No one would hate an extra pair of (virtual) hands to help – but before integrating such technologies, it is essential to recognize the gendered power dynamics and asymmetries.
- Butler, J. (1988). Performative acts and gender constitution: An essay in phenomenology and feminist theory. Theatre journal, 40(4), 519-531.
- Halberstam, J. (1991). Automating gender: Postmodern feminism in the age of the intelligent machine. Feminist studies, 17(3), 439-460.