April 23, 2015
“Siri, what appointments do I have today?”, one could ask of Apple’s digital assistant. Built into every modern iPhone is an incorporeal secretary whose primary uses include setting and reminding one of appointments and alarms, checking the weather, giving directions, or simply checking a fact through some quick research. Microsoft and Google’s devices have their own equivalents, Cortana and Google Now respectively. When hearing the kinds of interactions users have with these assistants, who all have female voices, it is hard not to be reminded of the likes of the alpha-males of the Mad Men office, who employ often sexualised young women to manage their calendar and Rolodex. How has this gendered role determination, that was supposedly destroyed by the feminisms of the late twentieth century, been transplanted from physical young women, to simulated women distributed on every iOS, Microsoft Phone, and Android device?
This essay hopes to extend these critiques to have them address the body of woman in the space of the digital assistants, like Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana. By doing so, this essay aims to draw together a framework to address the representation, simulation, and subjugation of women’s bodies in this new medium. Firstly, this essay will survey the basis of theory that establishes the body of woman as an object of patriarchal forces which seek to shape, control, and ultimately, oppress it. Next, it will establish a rubric of spectacle by analysing Laura Mulvey’s theory of woman in cinema, beginning to draw links to demonstrate the evolution of the body of woman over time in media. Next, this essay will draw a link between the disruption of narrative by voyeuristic instinct in cinematic and video game representations of the body of woman. Focusing on the character of Cortana from the Halo series, I will demonstrate how Cortana’s body falls prey to the typical forces of sexualisation and hysterization, amongst others. Finally, bridging between the video game character of Cortana, and her adaptation as the Microsoft Phone virtual assistant, I will argue that the choices of representation made in her creation created a classically oppressed woman, but without a body at all.
The principle functions woman is constrained to occupy that I will focus on will be as: a body plastic, a servant to others, and as a sexual object. Haraway said “a woman … does not exist as a subject … since she owes her existence as a woman to sexual appropriation” (2201). This is the crux of the critique of woman as a negated subject, which most accurately relates to my second category of the functions of woman: as a servant to others. When society denies woman subjecthood, it both confines her role to that of an object for manipulation and administration, and negates any potential for her having agency. By extension, original thought and general importance as an equal amongst man, who has aggrandised agency by comparison, is also negated. The fact that woman is inhibited from existing as a subject is core to all discussions about the oppression of woman, from material conditions of life to issues of representation and language.
These three roles are all as a direct consequence of woman’s negation of subjecthood, and I will refer back to this fundamental trait throughout my analyses. This negation is represented most potently in the field of body studies, where the body of woman is physically reduced as an expression of the reduction of the role of woman in culture and space (Bordo 2241). Classical body studies has primarily concerned itself with the strictly physical reduction of the female body in space in instances, such as the expression of repression through conditions such as anorexia. However, I would like to take this process and re-contextualise it in light of the representations of the female body in film, games, and now in the latest form, that of the disembodied digital assistant. It is no longer appropriate to dissociate theories that address woman’s body in physical space and culture, and woman’s body in representations. Given Baudrillard’s observations of the significance of representations in modern society (1555), it is instead more appropriate to map the physical woman and the represented, simulated woman as being along a spectrum. To draw together Bordo and Baudrillard for a moment, I argue that the precession of the sign that Baudrillard refers to means that representations and simulations of women are among the forces that materially shape the body of woman in the manner Bordo describes. It is for this reason that we should interrogate the constraints laid upon women in representations, especially as they near simulation, rather than representation in media of video-games and virtual assistants.
As Bordo tells us, those classically desirable traits such as “delicacy and dreaminess, sexual passivity, and a charmingly labile and capricious emotionality”, are an expression of the overall passive and weak role and performance demanded of woman (2243). This role is a “gender oppression that exercises itself” (2241), where the expectations are set up in some hypothetical first instance as prerequisites for socioeconomic success (presumably by constituting criteria for marriageability) and then policed by women themselves, between mother and daughter, for example. Now that we are in the age of the sign, as Baudrillard would have us believe, it is worth expanding outwards this loop of self-reinforcing gender oppression. As media images project the figure of the oppressed woman as ideal, material women synthesise this ideal, performing their own oppression and producing new media images to complete the loop; “the body … is a medium of culture … a powerful symbolic form” (Bordo 2240). When the question is posed, “so what”, to demonstrations that representations of women lack subjecthood, one must only point to Baudrillard’s observation of the precession of the sign to show that representations define the conditions of women in the world.
To go even further, as simulations of woman converge with the likeness of material women, the roles and forms which society prescribes for representations of woman are even more efficiently transferred to material women. Haraway puts it thus: “our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert” (2193). So, to bring our discussion back to that of denial of subjecthood, it seems that our “machines”, which began as mere representations and are now matured simulations, can themselves be a demonstration of the ideal woman. They can have bodily presence sufficient to satisfy the voyeuristic and libidinal requirements of society whilst not occupying any space at all when is convenient. They can have enough subjecthood to imitate life and perform the tropes of the ideal Freudian frail woman, whilst having little enough to be resigned to servitude as assistants. These themes are how I aim to draw lines between the diminution of subjecthood in the woman, and the role of the modern digital assistant.
The power relation between those who observe, and those who are observed has been approached from many different angles. To Foucault, this relation forms the basis of his knowledge-power nexus. It is the hell that Sartre describes in No Exit. In the latter, it is one’s realisation that one is an object in another conscious that causes the agony. This sentiment is perhaps the basis for Laura Mulvey’s theory of the controlling gaze. Mulvey elucidates the pleasure experienced on the part of the observer, “aris[ing] from pleasure in using another person as an object … through sight” (2086). Mulvey’s text limits applications to classical Hollywood cinema, the mileu of Garbo and Dietrich, but the implications of the body as spectacle are far more broadly reaching. In much visual media, particularly cinema, television, and video-games, the woman can be read as constantly deprived of subjecthood. In the act of inviting an erotic gaze, the media in question reinforce the objecthood of women in their depictions. For an anecdotal swath of examples of the reinforced subjecthood of men, consider how many visual media representations take the first person perspective of a male character, as compared to that of a female.
Mulvey also refers to how the voyeurism of the audience and the willingness of the medium to pander to this voyeurism often disrupts the purported purpose of the medium’s narrative. When the body of woman appears in film “her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story-line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation” (2088). This observation only gets more potent with the slow-motion close-ups of the bodies of Megan Fox and Michelle Rodriguez in the Transformers and The Fast and the Furious franchises, respectively. In these instances, the weight of the male gaze upon the body of woman is so heavy that it overcomes the narrative of the piece. This moment of eroticism exists in “a no man’s land outside its own time and space” (Bordo 2089). The interesting element of this analysis as it pertains to digital assistants is the notion of a fragmented body. In order to construct an ideal spectacle in the body of woman, the film must collage a series of erotically framed pieces of body; an undoctored representation of any body as a whole is not sufficiently erotic. As Bordo formulates it: the represented body is a “body, stylised and fragmented by close-ups” (2089). A fully simulated woman like those I will outline later, is necessarily a perfected construction of fragments. There is first the voice actress, who is selected for her “non-abrasive”, comely sound, then there is the reference model who is closely recreated in facial structure, and recreated often with exaggerated features for body shape. In this way, we can draw a line between the collage of elements of the body of woman in cinematic spectacle, and the same phenomenon that comes to physically constitute representations of women in newer media.
I would next like to draw this tendency to conflate desirable elements to construct a desirable object or image for the body of woman to the medium of video-games. It is through the exaggeration of the form of bodies that I referred to earlier, that video-games are able to provide an even more conspicuous sexual object for gamers. In the medium of live-action film, the filmmakers are only able to construct an object of desire by accentuating and framing elements of the body of a real woman. By contrast, in animated media such as animated films and video-games, the game designers are wholly the creators of the female body, who depict the body of woman in the fullest sense, rather than frame and mould it from another body, that of the actress. The result of this further control over the plastic body of woman, is that bodies in video-games become “extreme” in their depictions. In an episode of PBS Game/Show titled “Why Are Videogame Bodies So Extreme?”, Jamin Warren demonstrates that the bodies of women in particular, are depicted with extreme and unrealistic proportions. His analysis conforms to those critiques made of depictions of women with eroticised bodies in that he claims “the conventional ideal female body rarely communicates power, agency, or ability”. Here then, the body is disempowered by its very construction and thus the character that inhabits the body of woman is intrinsically unfit for subjecthood, an attribute most often expressed in video-games by being a character that is controllable by the player.
Like Mulvey, Warren addresses the incongruity that the fixation on the body of woman as a sexual object causes in the narrative structure of the hosting medium. “A lot of times these extreme proportions flat-out do not match the content, setting, or context of the game” says Warren. To give some sense of the incongruities that emerge through these systems, I give the example of depictions of warrior women in many video-games with a body that is diminutive, low in muscle mass, and closer to the physique of a modern fashion model than to a credible person who spends their days in taxing physical combat and training. The form of the body of woman in video-games is “scantily-clad, long-legged, thin-waisted”, no matter the role of the woman’s character is in the narrative, or her supposed occupation in the world (Why Are Videogame Bodies So Extreme?).
Some video-game depictions of the body of woman seek to sidestep this credibility of body shape issue. A key example is the Halo franchise and the character of Cortana. Cortana is an artificial intelligence derived from the mind of a woman called Dr. Halsey. She is installed into the body and mind enhancing armour of the primary protagonist of the series: John 117, commonly known as Master Chief. She is depicted with a body that appears in holograms and on screens, and interacts with Master Chief aurally throughout the game. Importantly, Cortana’s pseudo-corporeal form is depicted as a blue, nude woman. Never ageing, Cortana is always shown as a nubile twenty-something with an idealised body shape. The conspicuousness and lack of reason for Cortana’s nudity has been widely observed; in a Forbes article Carol Pinchefsky said that upon seeing a preview of Halo 4, all she could think was “naked naked naked” (Pinchefsky). The shamelessly libidinal function of this choice is something I have already demonstrated, yet it is Cortana’s nature as a body-less artificial intelligence, but one that has a holographic image form, that I will to expand upon. Matt Peckham from Time summarised Cortana’s oppression when he said: “she’s also a character who’s essentially imprisoned - literally in the [Halo] series’ case - within the psyche of an adolescent male’s fantasy notion of a … hero figure: a … hyper-fleshy persona” (Peckham). By constructing Cortana this way, the game creators have been able to walk the Bordoian tightrope: Cortana occupies no physical space whatsoever, and yet she is a voluptuous sexual object, just material enough to be observed. Being integrated into Master Chief’s armour, Cortana has “willingly contract[ed] into the space [Chief] occup[ies]” with utter success (Bordo 2241). Where Bordo and Penny speak about the contraction of the female body in terms of anorexia, the Halo creators have been able to utterly negate Cortana’s physical space while avoiding the non-ideal body appearance of a victim of anorexia. Cortana also satisfies the prohibition of occupying “public space” in another sense: she belongs to Master Chief and interacts with him almost exclusively, being practically, a part of his own mind (Bordo 2245). Cortana performs analytical tasks for Chief and provides him with companionship and useful information, all whilst being a flickering and faltering body consistent with the “dissociation, the drifting and fogging of perception, the nervous tremors and faints” present in the idealised weakened woman (Bordo 2243).
The Halo series is ultimately the intellectual property of Microsoft, and for this reason it has been possible to adapt the character of Cortana into the persona for the Microsoft Phone virtual assistant. When a Microsoft Phone user asks for weather forecast, they are greeted by the voice of Cortana. The hologram of a nubile young woman is absent from the user experience on Microsoft Phone; instead there is a blue disc. However, Cortana’s voice is intact, and the application tries hard to simulate a natural, often flirtatious conversation with the user. On Microsoft’s documentation page, Cortana’s womanhood is reinforced with an unwavering use of the pronoun “she”, and parallels to a real assistant are conspicuously drawn: “she’s there to make things easier for you and keep you up to date on the things that matter to you” (Meet Cortana). To follow the mythos of the original source of the Halo franchise, we can observe that the “real” woman of Dr. Halsey was made ageless and more “ideal” in Cortana, and embedded in a man’s psyche for a life of servitude, to then be distributed in a mass market form for the whole world, to act as a hyper-effective and body-less secretary. At each stage, Cortana’s body was reduced and her servitude increased, her gender and sexuality miraculously maintained.
Cortana is not the only digital assistant available on mobile devices. Google offers Google Now, and Apple offers Siri. Siri is not derived from any particular body of woman, but most often has a female voice, and is most often referred to as “she”, so this essay will refer to her in the same way. She serves the same roles that I have thus far described: calendar management, fact-checking and so on. Despite Siri’s lack of body, she does not escape the typical expectations of the behaviour of a woman in this circumstance. In an article for CNN, Doug Gross characterises Siri as a “sassy, sometimes snide companion” (Gross). The language here is the same language used to refer to women in the workplace who transgress their traditional societal boundaries. As Emine Saner observed, “sassy” is used to subtly express that a woman is not “behaving in the way all women are expected to” (Saner). Demonstrated here is the boundaries for woman that exist even once the body is stripped away. Though Siri is an abstract entity many layers removed from a woman, she retains many of the trappings of woman, and thus is discursively corralled in much the same way as any real woman would be.
The adaptation of representations of woman into these digital assistants reinforces the Bordoian observation that woman is fundamentally servile: “women learn to feed others, not the self” (Bordo 2245). The digital assistant embodies, or rather represents, the absolute realisation of the pressure on the body of woman in society. These entities have no bodies to speak of, and thus take up no public space whatsoever. As Penny puts it, “[they] tidy away the messy reality of [their] bodies just as [they] tidy away the grim reality of their domestic toil” (48). Yet, they are able to serve forever without fatigue, and without any need to be provided for; they are companions that are infinitely patient, kind, and even flirtatious. By the gradual but escalating reduction of the undesirable elements of the body of woman through the media of film, then video-games, then digital assistants, patriarchal forces have effectively imprisoned simulated women in servitude. Without bodies, these simulated women still retain referents to their forebears (real women) in the form of sexual objectification and discursive policing. In interrogating how such an abstract representation of woman can still retain the boundaries laid down for the body of woman, we need only look to Baudrillard. The sign of woman has successfully precessed the referent of woman.This is how material, flesh-and-blood women can be called something separate from, and opposed to “real women”, because they do not conform to an ideal image of woman that exists in media. It is these simulations of women that are now the source of the true body of woman, and the true existence of woman: “signs have now taken priority over the things signified” (Baudrillard 1554). Thus the sexuality that constitutes the object of woman does not begin in the woman, but instead in the sign of woman. A woman must imitate the media sign of woman in order to be complete and un-antagonistic in society, a complete sexual object. In the same way, women without bodies (digital assistants) can simulate a sexuality becaus they are derived from this ideal sign of woman. Cortana can be a flirtatious young woman, a referent to the ideal.
This essay has demonstrated a series of interrelated processes such as the negation of the subjecthood of woman, its expression in the reduction of the body, the constraint of the role of woman to servitude, the sexualisation of the body of woman, and the abstraction and fragmentation of the female body and sign. Tracing these processes through the progressing media of film, video-games, and reality augmenting digital assistants, this essay demonstrated how the body of woman, thus her subjecthood, has been utterly negated. Despite this complete negation, the figure of woman has maintained referents essential to continued oppression of representations and simulations of woman. For example, the incorporeal woman is still a flirty, nubile, young woman. She is still servile and attentive. In fact she has shed the burdens of physical sustenance and thus takes up no public space whatsoever. This seeming contradiction allows for the classically defined role of the body of woman as a diminutive and servile sexual companion to reach her most potent form. The oppressed woman is caged within every iPhone and Microsoft Phone. With referents to the extreme assemblage of sexually ideal body parts present in video-game simulations of women, she is at once a sexual object and a willing assistant, serving us with no needs herself, forever.
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