Television

We’re Used to Thinking of Digital Assistants as Female. The Good Place and Big Mouth Show Why That’s a Mistake.

Cheery secretary, femme fatale—neither one suffices.

D’Arcy Carden as Janet in The Good Place and Cellsea in Big Mouth.
D’Arcy Carden as Janet in The Good Place and Cellsea in Big Mouth.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by NBCUniversal Media and Netflix.

It speaks to the teeming ubiquity of misogyny that men feel empowered to talk down to women even when there are no actual women around.
Shortly after the rollouts of virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana, technologists cautioned that coding these AI programs as female would reinforce women’s role as helpful, subordinate, and eager to please. News reports soon followed of male users falling into “men’s roles” around their digital assistants—insulting, sexualizing, or barking commands at their digital devices. A UNESCO report from earlier this year warned that these interactions could affect real-life relations between men and women: “The more that culture teaches people to equate women with assistants, the more real women will be seen as assistants—and penalized for not being assistant-like.”

Studies suggest that humans are predisposed to assign gender to tech that mimics humanity, and to project corresponding traits onto it. Even though users know perfectly well that they’re interacting with lines of code, they tend to attribute personalities and motivations to apps—a propensity toward anthropomorphism that’s understandable but in an ideal world would be constantly challenged. This context helps explain why the depictions of feminized tech on the most recent season of Big Mouth and throughout The Good Place feel so innovative. Both series feature technology that initially embodies female tropes—the toxic girlfriend and the agreeable secretary, respectively—but soon expose the limitations, if not the absurdities, of gendering decidedly nonhuman entities.

In the third season of Big Mouth, Netflix’s filthily progressive sex-ed sitcom, the show’s middle schoolers fall prey to the temptations of the internet. An angry Andrew is nearly recruited into the men’s rights movement after a romantic humiliation, while typically quippy Matthew, feeling shy around a new crush, prefers to interact with his love interest through screens than risk crushing awkwardness IRL. But the most notable tech-centric storyline involves the impressionable Nick, whose new phone—a kitten-eared hand-me-down from his sister, called Cellsea (voiced by Chelsea Peretti)—quickly becomes his possessive, risk-pushing girlfriend.

Peretti’s brief but labile turn as Cellsea builds on her long-running Brooklyn Nine-Nine character Gina, a too-online savant who is equal parts whiny boredom and brazen hyper-confidence. But Cellsea also belongs to the world of Fatal Attraction or Natural Born Killers—older movies where a femme fatale’s allure destroys the male lives around her—except she’s a phone. Her episodes play like a parody of Her, but the seductiveness of Scarlett Johansson’s husky giggles is replaced here with eyeball-drawing, brain-frying clickbait like “You’ll never believe how fat these civil rights heroes got.”

Playing the Yoko in the show’s central best-friendship, Cellsea quickly separates Nick from Andrew by validating her user’s dumbest impulses, encouraging him to create embarrassing viral content (which he does by invading his father’s privacy), and hooking him on a never-ending series of mindless distractions (“You wanna watch somebody play a video game that you don’t even own?”). Later, she gets Nick to convince Andrew to take them on an illegal joyride, resulting in a smashed garage.

Big Mouth is a show built around anthropomorphizing the forces that make puberty such a frantic, confusing time, such as the Hormone Monster and Monstress, the Shame Wizard, and the Depression Kitty. Unlike most body-centric coming-of-age stories centered around boys, it’s also a fairly gender-equal one: The show pays attention to the ways Jessi and Missy’s developments differ from those of Nick, Andrew, and Jay. That largely extends to the female monsters—the Hormone Monstress and the Depression Kitty—who seem to know how best to guide girls, or lead them astray. But Cellsea, who lures Nick, is used to defang the femme fatale archetype while shifting the focus to the insidiousness of the attention economy.

Plenty of film noir vamps chewed up and spit out male dopes, but none as dopey as Nick, who’s strung along by the promise that his friends will finally see that Wetzel’s Pretzels follows him on Instagram. Big Mouth flings the blame for a man’s downfall, which has historically fallen on women, back at Nick for his willful naiveté. The seemingly endless randomness with which Cellsea keeps him scrolling for hours also suggests a force more powerful than even romantic obsession. A femme fatale might leave a strong impression, but what woman can hold a man’s undivided attention during every waking hour the way a phone can? Cellsea illustrates how silly it seems to despise a woman, algorithmic or otherwise, for a man’s frailties.

If Big Mouth makes, and then disrupts, an analogy between technology and a certain kind of dangerous femininity, The Good Place routinely points to how inadequate conflating tech and femininity can be. One of its several breakout characters was Janet, a sort of Siri for the afterlife, played with a comic matter-of-factness by relative newcomer D’Arcy Carden. Styled somewhere between a librarian and a flight attendant and serving as the demon Michael’s girl Friday, Janet is all-knowing but compliant, instantly available, and almost always obedient—the very picture of feminized support and accommodation that so troubles critics of Alexa et al.

Janet knows everything in the universe and has been created to use that knowledge to make users’ lives more convenient. But The Good Place has been careful to suggest the profound unknowability of Janet’s powers, even as it fills in her background. Stolen from a warehouse full of a potentially infinite number of identical entities, she never hesitates to remind the other characters—not least to her on-again, off-again lover Jason—that she’s “not a girl,” “not a person,” and “not a robot.” (I think the audience is supposed to be rooting for a Janet and Jason endgame, but it also doesn’t seem like a coincidence that it’s Jason, truly the dumbest person in the world, who falls in love with a “walking database” that happens to wear a wig and a dress.) But even as The Good Place fills in the mythology of the Good and Bad Places, including a female deity played by Maya Rudolph, it continually cultivates a sense of mystery about what Janet is. That her human wards—and probably we viewers—primarily see her as a female android only highlights our own shortcomings.

Although Janet has taken on slightly more human traits over The Good Place’s run—when she’s faced with being rebooted, she pleads for her life while admitting that it’s technically impossible for her to die—the show has continued gesturing toward her infinitude. Suffering from a broken heart (or whatever the Janet equivalent is) after the end of her brief marriage to Jason, she finds a rebound boyfriend by creating one—although their relationship is complicated given that she is also, in a sense, his mother. But even that pales in comparison to the glimpses of her “void,” the boundless, bright white nothingness where she generally resides, and where the show’s core human quartet at one point take refuge. (As an unintended side effect, each of the humans takes on Janet’s physical appearance, and yes, it’s as chaotically baroque as it sounds.) In the current season, Janet notifies the other characters that, in order to restore her processing power, she will be “violently eating” her “Janet babies,” the humanoid creatures she manufactured to populate the neighborhood’s latest iteration. Her power is almost godlike, her actions like something out of Greek tragedy, and yet she’s still being likened to a printer.

The character that became Janet was initially envisioned without a specific gender, and Siri was originally conceived as a man. In launching a female helpmate, Apple, like the rest of the tech industry, decided to oblige customers where they are instead of inspiring them to, well, think different. Lost in the (valid) warnings about equating womanhood with servility is the possibility that the nonthreatening presentation of these machines might be a factor in their wide adoption—even though most of us ought to know better than to put corporate-owned surveillance devices in our homes. De-gendering our tech would clearly be a step in the right direction. Big Mouth and The Good Place show us where to start.