First Published July 18, 2014, on Leah's former blog, "Being In Berkeley".
I recently gave my phone a sex change.
No hormone therapy was required, nor any expensive surgeries. It only took a few swipes and taps and my her became a him. Turns out Siri can be a boy’s name, too.
If you don’t own an iPhone or iPad, this post may make no sense to you, and for that I apologize. But since I’ve moved to the Bay, I’ve immersed myself in a place where iPhones are so ubiquitous that I think it’s probably a fair assumption that if you own a smart phone here, it has an Apple logo on it. Which also means it has Siri.
Siri, in the world of Apple smart devices, is the artificial intelligence assistant hidden in your device. And by default, as my kids quickly identified, Siri is a girl. She has a female voice, and with it she can help you with all manner of things. Siri can search the web for you. She can tell you about the weather tomorrow. She can place a call for you, wake you up in the morning, or set a timer to let you know when the cookies are done. Since moving to a new city, Jason and I have navigated all over the place with Siri’s help. “Take me to the Berkeley public library,” I say as I get in the car, and Siri helpfully starts giving me turn-by-turn directions.
It’s such a part of our world that our kids have been following our lead in connecting with Siri. I recently overheard four-year-old Junia talking to the iPad, saying “Siri, take me to the donut shop.” Perhaps she reasoned that Siri, like a genie in a bottle, could not only give her directions, but magically transport her to the closest place to get scrumptious breakfast treats. Eight-year-old Elliott’s favorite game is to generate interesting Siri responses. He likes to ask her her last name, or tell her knock knock jokes, or test her clever pop culture references. (If you haven’t yet, try asking Siri, “What does the fox say?” and then do it again, and maybe again.) Even two-year-old Gwen likes to pick up my phone, push the circle button and babble into the microphone. Typically Siri responds to her with something like, “Sorry, Leah, I didn’t get that,” since she doesn’t understand Gwen nearly as well as I do. The response always sends Gwen into uproarious giggles of delight.
And then one night as Jason and I were turning in for the night, and Jason said to Siri, “Wake me up at 7 am,” and she responded in the affirmative, I realized it bothered me. Why did Siri have to be a girl? What did it mean that by default she was? Why choose a female for the natural voice of the assistant? I wondered how many male users internally feel empowered having this compliant, helpful female at their beckon call. She’s the 21st century girl-friday, always available to assist you with whatever you need.
One could argue that Siri’s an expert on all sorts of things, and thus is worthy of great respect. But honestly, I doubt most iPhone users see her that way. Any Siri user knows her intelligence is limited. She can’t think creatively. If she doesn’t understand what you need of her, she usually just generates an annoying web search, which isn’t what you wanted. Siri works great if you know what to say to her and if you say it clearly in a way she can understand. She can help you, but she can’t innovate. She can’t lead. She’s only a freakin’ robot after all.
And maybe that’s why I get annoyed by the idea of Siri the default-girl. It could be that I’m overly sensitive. I grant that, but if that’s the case, it’s not without its reasons. I’m a recently-ordained female “church planter” (a.k.a. senior pastor), a vocation for me that even in 2014 a large number of my male counterparts, especially in the evangelical world, would fundamentally disagree with because of my gender. They might say that they believe I am fully equal to men in terms of my value before God, but that, as a woman, I’ve been created to play a different kind of role. Men are made to lead, women to support their leadership. They are help-mates, like Eve (or Siri). They partner with men to get things done, but they are not the ones who wield authority, who chart new territory, who strategize, who initiate, who preach.
I remember the first time a mentor of mine said these words to me, “Leah, I think God’s made you to be a church planter.” Internally, I felt relieved and terrified at the same time. It was liberating to hear her say those words because they felt so scandalously true. Scandalous because at the time we were both a part of a church that didn’t openly bless women in the most senior role of church leadership. True because it affirmed everything I had internally felt God growing in me for years, though I’d never dared confess out loud. But it was a vitally important moment for me. It was the beginning of naming out loud who I am, who I believe I’ve been fearfully and wonderfully created by God to be, even in spite of the conventions my identity might break.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being an assistant. There’s nothing wrong with helping. There’s nothing wrong with being administratively gifted. I’m personally grateful for all the administrative assistance I can get because I definitely need it. What I do resent (and ultimately disagree with) is the notion that women, by virtue of their gender, are uniquely qualified to serve in the helping role, while men, by virtue of their gender, are uniquely qualified to lead. I am grateful beyond measure that I have seen in the last several years a much healthier model: men and women equally leading and helping one another, each serving as their unique gifts and personalities led them to serve, showing one another mutual deference, and sharing power through caring cooperation.
This is the kind of faith community I am seeking to build. It is the kind of world I’m hoping to raise my children in; a world where we don’t have to defend our identities as anamolies: the female pastor, the stay-at-home dad, the gay Christian, the male administrative-assistant. We can just be us, fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of a wildly beautiful and creative God. And in that hope, after my light-bulb moment in the bed, I made a change. I told Siri to be a boy. And she told me how to get the job done. I followed the directions Siri gave, and soon the voice speaking back to me was no longer a feminine one, but a masculine one. My kids call him, “Boy Siri”.
It’s not gonna change the world. I know it’s really a small deal in the grand scheme of things. But here now in my home we are taking one more step to counter the gender stereotypes that permeate our culture and even our phones. Girls aren’t the only ones who can help. Boys can be a big help too. And they can still be named Siri.