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There's a Totally Sexist App for That!

05/23/2013 12:18 EDT | Updated 07/23/2013 05:12 EDT
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A woman tries to use 'Siri' voice-activated assistant software built into the Apple iPhone 4S March 13, 2012 in Washington, DC. An iPhone 4S buyer has sued Apple for promising more than it delivered. A suit filed in a California federal court argued that Apple advertising touting the wonders of Siri amounted to 'intentional misrepresentation' and unfair competition, according to documents available online Tuesday. Lawyers representing a New York City man who bought an iPhone 4S want class action status to represent millions of people who bought the latest generation Apple smartphone. The suit included Apple -- which runs showing people asking Siri to help them find restaurants, learn chords to songs, tie neck ties, and even figure out if there is a rodeo in town -- had disappointed some users. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

Virtual personal assistant apps are taking us back to the '50s by casting women in the subservient, secretarial role. So why are we OK with it?

A bald, middle-aged man, his wrists tied together behind a chair, sweats profusely as he hears the voices of his male captors nearing the stairs to the basement where he's being held hostage. With his free right foot, he taps on his cell phone, which sits conveniently close to the chair he's tied to.

"Robin, Google how to untie knots," says the man with a faint British accent.

"Certainly," answers a computerized voice of a woman. "Begin by pushing back on the tight areas to loosen their hold on rope."

The James Bond-inspired commercial for Robin, a virtual assistant app by Android, ends with the computerized female voice uttering the words: "Feel like a secret agent."

The commercial is perplexing for a number of reasons. For one, you would think by selecting "Robin" as the name for a virtual assistant that Android would have been taking inspiration from Batman's loyal male sidekick, or better still, embracing the notion that Robin is a unisex name, leaving the sex of the virtual assistant up to the customer. Let's not even get into the idea that the commercial only targets a male consumer to begin with.

Robin, like many of its predecessors, is just one of multitude of virtual assistant apps out there that is blatantly characterized by its creators as female. Siri, Jeannie, Andy and even Edwin all reply to their users in female voices, and the trend of "female" virtual assistant apps isn't going anywhere. In fact, in some cases, virtual assistant apps are becoming even more humanized and in a decidedly female way.

Donna is the name of a new iOS app that came out just a matter of weeks ago, made by Incredible Labs. Donna's name was inspired by West Wing character Donna Moss who starts off as an assistant to the Deputy White House Chief of Staff at the beginning of the series and works her way up to being the First Lady's Chief of Staff. When interviewing Incredible Labs co-founder and CEO Kevin Cheng about Donna this week for Tech Crunch, writer Ryan Lawler was impressed by the human qualities that Cheng attributes to Donna:

"When talking about Donna, Kevin refers to 'her' rather than 'it,' talking about what she does, not what the app's features are. It's a bit disarming, but it also speaks to the care they took in building Donna."

If it seems a little more disturbing in a Lars and the Real Girl kind of way than it does endearing, consider what this trend of making virtual assistant apps female means. It's easy to pass it off as pure fantasy. Maybe the creators of Donna, Robin, Siri and the like are just a bunch of awkward dudes who've secretly dreamed of having a sexy assistant who's eager to respond to their every command. Certainly with the tech skills they've garnered over the years, creating their very own fantasy girl isn't outside the realm of possibility. The appeal is quite obvious.

On the flip side, and from a (real) woman's point of view, the multitude of "female" personal assistant apps in the marketplace feels terrifyingly counter-productive to all the strides women have made in the work place over the last few decades. Just a half century ago, most North American women only ever thought they could be secretaries, assistants, nurses or homemakers. Today, we actually outnumber men in universities across North America and the U.K. The feminization of virtual personal assistants is perhaps just a reflection of the fact that stereotypes and attitudes take a long time to change even when we're making huge steps forward towards equality. Nevertheless, if virtual personal assistants were all characterized as, say, one specific ethnic group, human rights organizations would no doubt be up in arms about it. So why are we not making a fuss about the feminization of personal assistant apps?

Perhaps the best way to respond is with our money. If women make up over 50 per cent of the world's population, then it doesn't take a genius to figure out that women make up over 50 per cent of consumers out there. If we want an app based on Tony Danza's character from Who's the Boss? or Lloyd from Entourage, then we need to demand it and give our money to the company that's willing to make it. Don't just passively buy Donna, Siri or Robin. You're not tied to a chair, and even if you were, there's no reason why your male personal assistant, Robin, shouldn't be there to help you out.