The problem with Sweden’s talking trash bins

Image: Reuters/Toby Melville
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The Swedish city of Malmo attracted attention recently when it re-programmed two of its talking garbage cans to make users blush.

Five years ago, when the eco-conscious city bought 18 speech-enabled cans, some of the trash cans uttered a family-friendly retort when users dropped something in them. (During covid, some even reminded people to follow social distancing guidelines.)

Now, only two of them are still programmed to speak. And they speak dirty.

People who toss litter into the re-programmed bins will hear phrases like “Ooh, yeah, right there,” “Come back quickly and do that again,” and “Ahh, that was crazy good,” all spoken in a sexy, come-hither voice, according to The Local.

Sadly, the voice also sounds like a woman’s.

Listen for yourself in this video by a journalist at The Local.

A city official cited by The Local explained that the goal was to find “a humorous way to get across our message” and offer “a positive reinforcement to people who do the right thing, by giving them a laugh.”

And, to be sure, the team behind this stunt deserves kudos for the clever idea.

But public service announcements probably shouldn’t objectify women. Nor should they connect women so explicitly with garbage.

A missed opportunity to use a gender-neutral voice

The choice to hire a woman for the voiceover is particularly striking considering Sweden’s reputation for supporting gender equality. Many Swedes now use “hen” as a gender-neutral pronoun, and the country’s gender-neutral kindergartens have modeled a pioneering approach to confronting gender stereotypes. Unfortunately, Malmo’s temptress-trash cans are now polluting those good efforts by playing into sexist marketing tropes.

Programming the cans as cooing vixens seems particularly sloppy considering that gender-neutral voices have already been developed and are easily available. This was the perfect opportunity to use one. Here’s an example:

In recent years, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft have all been forced to rethink product decisions that were similarly problematic. The tech leaders initially made their supposedly genderless smart assistants—Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant, and Microsoft’s Cortana—sound like women.

The problem with that move was that “the work that these devices are intended to do” is gendered, Yolande Strengers, an associate professor of digital technology and society at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, told The New York Times. People ask Alexa to remind them of doctor’s appointments or to pick up a birthday gift for a child’s classmate—all tasks that, frustratingly, usually fall to women and especially mothers. (File that under unpaid labor and mental load.) Siri looks up phone numbers or tracks down information, just as an administrative assistant—or secretary—might.

These products also send a powerful message. Safiya Noble, a professor of gender studies at UCLA and author of Algorithms of Oppression observed in an interview with New York magazine that they “function as powerful socialization tools, and teach people, in particular children, about the role of women, girls, and people who are gendered female to respond on demand.”

Which brings us back to trash cans. If we’re socializing the idea that women should talk dirty but be grateful for having trash tossed their way, what message could that possibly send?