A Default Gender?

By guest blogger Cathy Pearl

In 8th grade, I went on our class trip to Washington D.C. The hotel we were staying at had kids from all over the country, and one night they held a dance.  I had changed into sweats and a t-shirt and was dancing away with my friends when a boy walked up behind me, tapped me on the shoulder, and said, “Fairy!”

cortana
“I think we both know the answer to that.” —Cortana, Halo: Combat Evolved

When I turned around and the boy realized I was a girl, he got a confused look on his face, mumbled something and walked off.  I was left feeling angry and hurt.

Humans have a strong pull to identify gender not just in people, but in robots, animals, and even smart speakers.  (Whether that is wrong or right is another matter that I don’t address here, but many people are uncomfortable when gender is ambiguous.)

Even robots, which could easily be genderless, are assigned a gender.

Author Chris Noessel has accumulated an amazing set of data which looks at hundreds of characters in science fiction, and has found that, among many other things, of the 327 AI characters he looked at, about twice as many are male as female.

Social Gender

Noessel has further broken down gender assignment into types:  social, bodily, and biological. I find the “social” category particularly interesting, which he defines as follows:

Characters are tagged as socially male or female if the only cues are the voice of the actor or other characters use gendered pronouns to refer to it. R2D2 from Star Wars, for example, is referred to as “him” or “he” many times, even though he has no other gender markers, not even voice. For this reason, R2D2 is tagged as “socially male.”

Disturbingly, Noessel found that the gender ratio was skewed most for this category, at 5 male characters for every 1 female.

I believe that much of the time, when writers create an AI character, it is male by default, unless there is something important about being female.  For example, if the character is a love interest or mother, then it must be female; otherwise, by default, it’s male. This aligns with the “Men Are Generic, Women Are Special” theory from TV Tropes, which states:

This leads to the Smurfette Principle, in which a character’s femaleness is the most important and interesting thing about her, often to exclusion of all else. It also tends to result in works failing The Bechdel Test, because if there’s a potential character who doesn’t have to be any particular gender, the role will probably be filled by a male character by default. 

TV Tropes

Having been designing and researching voice interfaces for twenty years, I’d like to add some perspective on how gender and AI is applied to our current technology.

In the real world

One exception to this rule is voice assistants, such as Siri, Cortana, and Alexa.  The majority of voice assistants have a female voice, although some allow you to change the default to a male voice. On the other hand, embodied robots (such as Jibo (pictured below), Vector, Pepper, and Kuri) are more often gendered as male.

When a robot is designed, gender does not have to be immediately assigned.  In a voice assistant, however, it’s the most apparent characteristic.

In his book Wired for Speech, Clifford Nass wrote that individuals generally perceive female voices as helping us solve our problems by ourselves, while they view male voices as authority figures who tell us the answers to our problems.

If voice-only assistants are predominantly given female voices, why are robots any different?

Why are robots different?

One reason is androcentrism: the default for many things in society is male, and whatever differs from that default must be marked in some way. When people see a robot with no obviously “female” traits (such as long hair, breasts, or, in the case of Rosie from the Jetsons, an apron) they usually assign a male gender, as this study found. It’s similar for cartoons such as stick figures, and animals in animated movies. Animals are often given unrealistic bodies (such as a nipped-in waist), a hairbow, or larger, pink lips to “mark” them as female.  

It would not be surprising if designers felt that to make a robot NOT male, they would have to add exaggerated features. Imagine if, after R2D2 was constructed, George Lucas said “let’s make R2D2 female”.  Despite the fact that nothing would have to be changed (apart from the “he” pronoun in the script), I have no doubt the builders would have scrambled to “female-ize” R2D2 by adding a pink bow or something equally unnecessary. 

“There. Perfect!” (This is actually R2-KT. Yes, she was created to be the female R2-D2.)

In addition, male characters in fictional works are often more defined by their actions, and female characters by their looks and/or personalities.  In this light, it makes sense that a more physical assistant would be more likely to be male.

There are some notable exceptions to this, mainly in the area of home health robots (such as Mabu).  It is interesting to note that Mabu, though “she” has a physical form, the body doesn’t move, just the head and eyes; it serves mainly as a holder for an iPad. Again, she’s an assistant.

So what?

One may ask, what’s the harm in these gendered assistants? One problem is the continued reinforcement of women as always helpful, pleasant, organized, and never angry.  They’re not running things; they’re simply paving the way to make your life easier. But if you want a computer that’s “knowledgeable”—such as IBM’s Watson that took on the Jeopardy! Challenge—the voice is male.  These stereotypes have an impact on our relationships with real people, and not for the better. There shouldn’t be a “default” gender, and it’s time to move past our tired stereotypes of women as the gender that’s always helpful and accommodating. 

As fans of sci-fi, we should become at least sensitized, and more hopefully, vocal and active, about this portrayal of women, and do our part to create more equal technology.


My donation

Thanks to all who donated to compensate underrepresented voices! I am donating the monies I’ve received to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. This group “is the first and only research-based organization working within the media and entertainment industry to engage, educate, and influence content creators, marketers and audiences about the importance of eliminating unconscious bias, highlighting gender balance, challenging stereotypes, creating role models and scripting a wide variety of strong female characters in entertainment and media that targets and influences children ages 11 and under.” Check them out.

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Dr. Strange’s augmented reality surgical assistant

We’re actually done with all of the artifacts from Doctor Strange. But there’s one last kind-of interface that’s worth talking about, and that’s when Strange assists with surgery on his own body.

After being shot with a soul-arrow by the zealot, Strange is in bad shape. He needs medical attention. He recovers his sling ring and creates a portal to the emergency room where he once worked. Stumbling with the pain, he manages to find Dr. Palmer and tell her he has a cardiac tamponade. They head to the operating theater and get Strange on the table.

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When Strange passes out, his “spirit” is ejected from his body as an astral projection. Once he realizes what’s happened, he gathers his wits and turns to observe the procedure.

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When Dr. Palmer approaches his body with a pericardiocentesis needle, Strange manifests so she can sense him and recommends that she aim “just a little higher.” At first she is understandably scared, but once he explains what’s happening, she gets back to business, and he acts as a virtual coach.

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