Friday, August 2, 2013

Feminine Voice of Reason

Pacific Rim hit theaters just a little while back and made over thirty-seven million dollars during its opening weekend. It is an action-packed film, and for a movie about large robots fighting off hulking monsters, it has a surprising amount of story. If you haven’t heard already, Pacific Rim has a woman of color as a main character but, sadly, the film still does not pass the Bechdel Test. There is another female robot pilot, but she has almost no screen time and very few lines, and in the background only a few women can be picked out of the crowds of the main setting. But there is one familiar female voice that graces the screen, that of Ellen McLain as the voice of robot Gipsy Danger.

There has been a rise in the use of fictional computer voices, artificial intelligences, and virtual intelligences in recent years, accompanying the rise in science fiction’s popularity.  Voice actresses, such as Ellen McLain, portray voices that are mechanized, concise, educated, informative, and helpful. And it is almost always feminine. This can most prevalently be seen in the realm of video games, where science fiction and computer advancements have always been part of popular game design. For female-voiced AIs, video games and movies are their domain.

GLaDOS from Portal, voiced by Ellen McLain

Ellen McLain, most recently voicing the computer of the main robot from Pacific Rim, is most well known for her voice work in the Portal franchise. While McLain’s GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System) from Portal may be one of the best-known AI/VI voices from video games, the line goes on. From the popular Halo series the AI Cortana (voiced by Jen Taylor) assists and informs the player, but also evolved to be more sexualized as the series and graphics allowed it to. From Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 there comes EDI (voiced by Tricia Helfer), a female voiced AI that chooses a provocative robotic female body to integrate with.  Going farther back, before the turn of the century, there was the intense computer SHODAN (voiced by Terri Brosius) from the System Shock series. Some of the most memorable computer programs from the last few generation of game consoles have been vocalized as feminine.

SHODAN from System Shock, voiced by Terri Brosius

Why is this?  With the recent backlash at the video game community for its lack of strong female characters, it is interesting to see that many of the ‘fake’ people or minds in video games are portrayed as or performed as female.  Artificial intelligences are not true people, but the prevalence to refer to GLaDOs as ‘she’ instead of ‘it’ remains.  These computers contain a mixture of stereotypically gendered traits, from the feminine gracefulness to the masculine lack of emotion. But these computer programs share a lot of traits with successful women in the workplace; they are effective, hard working, confident, knowledgeable, and self-reliant. Given this there is still, in most cases, no realistic middle ground; these AIs are either helpful, following orders as an artificial assistant, or they are cruel, manipulative and against the player character.

The evolution of Cortana's appearance.
Sadly, it seems that video games create more female voiced or bodied avatars when they make them out of metal instead of bone.  This trend is changing as reimagined classic female characters reemerge and new characters are created, but video games still have a long way to go in character equality. Fully-fledged female characters in video games are still hard to come by, but these exaggerated, objectified feminine computer programs are actually very well known and persistent.  Video games have a bad reputation of objectifying women and organizing female characters by tropes. While characters such as GLaDOS and SHODAN are loved, these AI characters are not doing video games any favors towards more realistic interpretations of women.  While these AIs may be viewed as intelligent women, some are sexualized without choice or representation. While Halo’s AI Cortana started off as blocky graphics back in 2001, her most recent rendition depicts her as a seductive and naked digitized woman. Mass Effect’s EDI implants her own consciousness into the empty robotic shell of a metal femme fatale.  It is noted throughout the game that EDI has chosen to inhabit an attractive form.  With their attractive bodies they are also mostly void of emotion but brimming with information and assistance.

The use of feminine-voiced computers has allowed video games and movies to give us some beloved characters, but there is a clear split between those that use it to represent a creation of intellect, or a creation meant to objectify the female form. It is interesting to note that the helpful female AIs are usually given attractive female forms, while those who are independent and usually malicious are abstract voices. 

As the realm of science fiction expands, computer graphics increase, and stories continue to be written, it will be interesting to see how the artificial and real women of video games and movies are represented. AI characters are a wonderful addition to science fiction and allow for great story expansion. Yet these artificial female representations do not create a pass for appropriate objectification, especially if the AI is the only slight version of female representation in the film or game.  When a high-budget summer release such as Pacific Rim can still fall short of the Bechdel test, and video games are still under fire for their lack of strong female characters, certain changes have already been called for. Adding to those, a change in the way mechanical humanoids are used, in some but not all cases, to exploit the female form and emphasize stereotypical feminine traits. 


  1. Excellent article! I would point out that the first AI in movies, the HAL 9000, was definitely MALE in character, but loopy. Also recall several ill-fated AIs in Star Trek TOS, also male, and in Star Trek NG and its attendant games you must deal with "fully functional" Cmdr. Data.

  2. I rarely talk to other women as my best friends are all male. I, as a woman, fail the bechdel test.GLaDOS is fine considering the game she's in and she passes the test. I can see and understand your other points, though.