Designing women the old-fashioned way: The gendered rhetoric of animated interface design


As animated and intelligent software agents become increasingly popular user interfaces on the web, we need to attend critically to the values that inform their design. Put simply, agents that are designed to seem "humanlike" are inscribed with cultural values about what it means to talk, act, and look human. Moreover, given that users treats computers as social actors, it is important that critics pay attention to the ways in which virtual agents are sustained through a set of design ideologies and styles of interaction.

First, this paper will address the history of the female automaton, and how that history is mirrored in today's virtual agents. Then, this paper will build on that history to explore the gendered rhetoric of intelligent interfaces in news media discourse. Web agents are too often figured by designers as young women in stereotypical roles (e.g. secretary, sex object, etc.), and are supported in the news media by a discourse that celebrates technological innovation as an end in itself. As a result, stereotypes are reinforced; the technologist's perspective is treated as normative while the perspectives of potential users and critics are minimized. But more importantly, technology comes to serve an ideology in which women are feminized, treated as objects.

The idea of women as automatons to be programmed and controlled is made literal through the construction of tools that are figured as young women eager to lend a hand.