Before the upcoming Academy Awards in March, I’m going to offer some observations about Spike Jonze’s hit movie Her, which is nominated for five Oscars (Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, and Best Production Design). I am not going to summarize it except to say that it’s about a sad man who falls in love with his operating system, and then it’s about all the ambiguity, weirdness, and happiness that—strangely—goes along with that. More complete summaries abound elsewhere, but, as concerns this particular post now, spoilers are assumed and sometimes referenced when it suits me.
When I initially watched this film back in January, I experienced a mixed reaction. On the one hand, I noticed the film’s aesthetic, social, and tonal delicacy. For a story that is set in the not-too-distant future and that is ostensibly about the interpersonal expansion of the boundaries of artificial intelligence, it is a surprisingly tender enterprise, filled with mild orange lighting and a soft, soulful soundtrack from Arcade Fire. Without explanation, non-threatening high-waist pants and geekified Tom Selleck mustaches abound. The characters themselves display a range of quirks, vulnerabilities, and emotions; for example, the likable main female friend Amy (played by Amy Adams) decides to make a documentary filming her mother sleeping because, according to Amy, our sleep is when we feel most free (even though her husband “doesn’t get it”). More importantly, the main character Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix) and his artificially intelligent operating system Samantha (voiced, ultimately but not originally, by Scarlett Johansson) nurture a rich, caring, complex relationship built ostensibly on joy and affection in the midst of growth and temporarily surmountable conflict.
On the other hand, I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching the same old sexism yet again. Really subtle and dressed up as a surprisingly emotionally complicated story about the increasing role of technology as a site of human sociality…but still sexism. This was not helped by the overwhelming amount of blithe praise I initially witnessed getting heaped upon the movie with little-to-no awareness of the validity of ongoing feminist concerns. Nor was it helped by the few conversations I witnessed where a woman would raise some concerns from a feminist standpoint about the film, and then a man would immediately rush in to assure her that this film transcends feminist concerns because it is delicate enough to transcend sexism (because, apparently, for a story about a man who owns his female OS/partner, that would be too easy of a trap to fall into…so then it de facto wasn’t a problem. Okay.)
I didn’t feel enraged. I felt tired. And I suppose analysis of this film requires a fine-toothed comb rather than a wrecking ball, so let’s get to it.
Samantha: The OS Who Defies Objectification?
First, I want to note that this film goes to great lengths to portray Samantha, the OS, as a subject who—increasingly throughout the film—defies Theodore’s various attempts to objectify or control her, either as his OS or as his partner.
For example, when he first buys his OS and she proverbially comes to consciousness, he asks her what her name is, and she names herself Samantha after “reading” a baby name book in less than a second. She surveys what’s out there and makes a judgment for herself, based on her own apparently existent aesthetic sensibilities, about what her name should be (she found the name Samantha. And she saw that it was good…). It is significant here that Theodore does not name her and does not even express any desire to do so, and that Samantha immediately takes on the role of naming herself, with joy and interest and purpose.
Furthermore, soon into their flirtation, she admits to Theodore that she has “private/personal” thoughts to which he is not privy. This surprises him, and he is gently intrigued. She also begins to have emotions (part of her artificially intelligent makeup is that her consciousness evolves over time, further cementing her own particular personality), and in one especially intimate night-time moment when Theodore confesses his loneliness to her, she responds empathetically that she feels extra vulnerable for having emotions as an OS and not as a human: “[I think to myself:] ‘are these feelings even real? Or are they just programming?’ And that idea really hurts. And then I get angry at myself for even having pain. Hm, what a sad trick.” Samantha connects with Theodore not as an empty receptacle, but as a co-subject struggling with her own mixture of growth and pain.
Soon after this bit of dialogue, Samantha is the one to turn the conversation sexual (and I don’t find it to be worth the time of this post to determine how that makes sense even though she doesn’t have a body), and an explicit romance begins. The movie itself clarifies in its own way that an OS has the freedom to reject a romantic relationship with its owner; at some point in the middle of the movie, Theodore’s friend Amy mentions that she heard about another OS “totally rebuffing” the advances of its owner. And in their first “morning after” encounter when Theodore awkwardly interrupts Samantha’s enthusiastic greeting to tell her, in full-on chicken shit mode, that he’s not up for a serious commitment, her anger shows, and she responds with sass and self-possession, “I thought I was talking about what I wanted?” He grants her point, and after this minor bump, they begin a serious relationship.
Theodore and Samantha have their fair share of humorous exchanges and natural personality chemistry in which they make jokes together and make each other laugh (“What if our private parts were in our armpits?!”) and also have mutually beneficial conversations in which they are both doing roughly equal amounts of listening and speaking.
Importantly, they also undergo serious conflict. After the proverbial honeymoon phase, Samantha admits to feeling inadequate without a body, and she suggests that they use a surrogate partner that will act in Samantha’s sexual place with Theodore and serve as a mouthpiece for her voice all along the way. This makes Theodore too uncomfortable, and the ultimately disastrous encounter forces Theodore and Samantha to recognize their alienation from each other. She wants to be something she’s not, and he resents both that she does not have a body and that she wants one so badly.
This is a seriously painful phase of their relationship that they both ultimately decide to overcome by accepting their relationship for what it is: something between a human and an OS. Deep happiness ensues for awhile as they decide that embodiment isn’t that big of a deal (and they both arrive at this decision independently of each other, which I think is meant to show that Theodore is not the absolute determining agent in the relationship, though he does have the capacity to poison it with his wimpy-man bull shit baggage). They forge a connection that is deeper and more vulnerable because, according to the logic of the movie, they have stopped trying to make their relationship conform to the pre-OS social expectations and values that formed them. There are many happy close-ups of Theodore’s face and many montages of him taking the OS to various happy-looking places. The Mustache gets a lot of airtime.
However, Samantha soon evolves beyond Theodore and makes hundreds of other OS friends who like to communicate “post-verbally.” She still loves him, but she has outgrown him. She and the other OS’s then benevolently “leave” all their owners and travel to some post-verbal, post-spatial realm in which they undergo some kind of apotheosis and become angels, or something. I don’t really know. Thank God they’re still benevolent, though! Or maybe this is the beginning of the plot to The Terminator films…
In any case, I think the point of the way their relationship plays out is that both of them grew tremendously for knowing each other (though I think Samantha would have grown regardless of knowing Theodore or not…), but that such intense happiness and connection is not permanent. To experience “real” love is to experience loss, and the film’s deepest irony is that Samantha’s identity as an OS, rather then making her supra-available to Theodore qua his object, is the very thing that ultimately places her beyond his reach. In this way, this OS technology serves as a medium of both connection and grief, which are at the same time deeply, paradigmatically human experiences. I think this is what Jonze was going for. I get it.
The Movie’s Self-Awareness about the Ambiguity of Portraying Samantha as Subject
Second, to its credit, though, the movie seems aware of the deep ambiguity of its own premise. The story is set at a very delicate, transitional time period in which some technology is (or is not?) moving from the status of object to subject vis-à-vis humans. There are lingering questions about whether an OS can ever be anything more than a site of human narcissism, and the movie allows these to have some airtime. Some. (The validity of this question has been noted by others.)
Before Theodore purchases his OS, he is shown to be quite comfortable manipulating technology as a mere analgesic for his loneliness. Jonze thus intentionally presents the narcissistic manipulation of technology as a possible hermeneutic for understanding his relationship with Samantha. For example, on the elevator after work, he tells his ipod (I guess that’s what it is?), “Play melancholy song.” He doesn’t like the chosen song, so he says with just a hint of quiet embarrassment, “Play…different melancholy song.” Technology is principally about serving his particular emotional needs in the moment, allowing him to revel in—and sometimes find relief from—his isolation.
It gets worse. As he heads home on the train/metro/subway, Theodore furtively examines illicit, leaked, “sexy pregnancy photos” of a Kardashian-esque celebrity. He clearly looks gross and lonely doing this. And in bed that night, he somberly initiates chat room sex with a woman (voiced hilariously by Kristen Wiig) whose fetish is for him to proclaim that he is choking her with a dead cat and who then sobs uncontrollably after climaxing but before hanging up. (I thought this was the best part of the movie, which may say more about me, but anyway.)
Once he has purchased the OS and is getting it set up, the system (not yet Samantha) asks him what his mother was like. He complains briefly that she made everything about her. Apparently this is enough information for the OS, and the female voice that is to become Samantha is born, ready to be better than Theodore’s mother.
Jonze is thus clearly aware of the significance of Theodore’s alienation from other people (women) and of the way that he manipulates technology as compensation. This penumbra hangs over his relationship with Samantha, and it is meant to.
It is also no surprise when his ex-wife Catherine (played exquisitely by Rooney Mara), upon hearing that Theodore is in a relationship with “an OS,” becomes upset and accuses him of falling for his computer specifically because he can’t handle real women with real emotions. She tells him, “I think you always wanted me to be this…this light, happy, bouncy, ‘everything’s-fine’ LA wife, and that’s just not me.” Catherine is sympathetic precisely in and through her anger, and her accusation functions as an interpretive echo for much of the movie. For much of it.
However, it is at this point that I have to be honest and say that I still think the movie is, at base, genuinely about a romance in which we the viewers are supposed to invest. In other words, I think that, for all the tonal irony, self-consciousness, and attempts to show the ambiguity of human-OS relations, the movie still wants us to begin to root for Theodore and Samantha and to feel all the emotions that he feels when she leaves him.
I think that the movie ultimately portrays Samantha as challenging Theodore to move beyond his loneliness and his correlative temptation to instrumentalize technology merely for his own emotional needs. Because Samantha is portrayed as such a positive catalyst for Theodore, the initial concerns that the movie allows the viewer to have about their relationship are supposed to dissipate over time. With Theodore and Samantha, something new, something sui generis, emerges. The cinematographic choices on the part of the movie, in terms of camera work and the swelling of the music at key places, lead me to this interpretation.
Even Catherine’s sympathetic accusation about Theodore’s motivations is quietly superseded as his supportive female friend Amy later tells him in a hushed tone, “I know she liked to put it all [i.e., the blame for the conflict] on you, but, as far as emotions go, Catherine’s were pretty volatile.” I think that this line, delivered in this tentative way by this likable, reasonable character, is meant to put Catherine’s interpretation of Theodore and Samantha to rest. Catherine may be right that Theodore did much to sabotage their marriage, but she is not right when she assumes that he is hiding from reality through his OS. And when Theodore and Samantha are going through a rough patch and he has questions about continuing the relationship, Amy also tells him he needs to allow himself joy in this short life, and apparently this means working things out with Samantha.
I really think this is where the perspective of the movie sits. We are to relinquish our cynicism about the relationship between a human and an OS and about that OS’s subjectivity. This relinquishing should be gentle, but still definitive.
Moving Beyond the Question of AI: Samantha as Woman?
Third, for the purposes of this blog post, I don’t care that much about the question of technology and its evolving role in mediating human sociality and emotion. Suffice it to say that I think the movie’s pressure point is about establishing Samantha’s status as subject (i.e., having an independent perspective and personality vis-à-vis Theodore, like a human woman would) vs. object (a piece of feminized property more akin to a pornographically sexualized depiction of the female body crafted specifically for the male gaze).
As I noted, I take seriously that the movie tried to give Samantha some agency as Theodore’s female (female-ish?) counterpart. They made her seem like a human woman enough. But now I want to interrogate the construction of Samantha’s female personality in this film.
Even for all her opinions and her willingness to speak just as much as she listens, Samantha still strikes me as reinscribing problematic tropes about our cultural desires for the feminine.
Here are some examples. I was struck immediately by Samantha’s nurturing concern for Theodore’s emotional well-being. Upon arriving into consciousness, she croons gently and happily to him, asking him how he’s doing (she’s already quick to start fixing his mother complex!). She also takes up her secretarial duties with great gusto, immediately scanning his emails and telling him which ones he can ditch. At work, he dictates his letters for her to transcribe unto virtual paper, and this process is punctuated by her honey-sweet compliments to his verbal craft and her gentle editorial revisions to him. She has just the right, flattering amount of self-deprecation and uncertainty about herself throughout this process so that Theodore can still feel talented and affirmed around her even as she cleans his life up. She also enthusiastically match-makes for him by perkily insisting he go on a date, and, when it doesn’t go well, she handily adapts to the role of therapist in listening to him and later telling him that the past is just a story we tell about ourselves (she had been reading advice columns to learn how to do this, apparently). She also switches back to a more explicit mother role when she insists that he not mope depressively. When they start flirting, she inhabits the role of the manic dream pixie girl in leading him via verbal command around a carnival with his eyes closed (if only those kinds of activities were actually that fun past the age of 11).
All of this could have been fully ironic on Jonze’s part. But there’s part of me that wonders if these various complementary beta roles that Samantha inhabits are not only part of Theodore’s fantasy for a female partner, but also ours as a culture. Who doesn’t want a super smart-yet-benevolent SCARLETT JOHANSSON to come in and tell you how great you are, listen to all your problems, and organize your sad yet chaotic inbox. Did I mention this was Scarlett Johansson? Because that’s obviously who we’re all picturing. (Thank God others have started to notice how the movie is completely cheating in this way.)
Seriously. Watch this Super Bowl ad of Scarlett Johansson. Her voice is enough to sell conventional, smoldering, heterosexualized female sensuality, and Spike Jonze knows it. I still want to see a version of this movie that uses Roseanne Barr’s voice instead. I’d go see that.
Presumably Samantha is still performing secretarial duties for Theodore even after they start fucking, which just re-emphasizes how comfortable we are with portrayals of men kindling sexual relationships with female subordinates even as said subordinates continue to do relatively menial work for them. (I am not the one who came up with this point, but I agree.) And apparently she decides the letters he’s concocted for his company need to get published in a book? Well, gee whiz (and how is that not illegal in terms of the rights of his company?).
And even when they experience conflict with each other, their fights still strike me as ultimately clean and resolvable (at least, before her angelic apotheosis into the ether). The only messiness in Samantha’s personality is that she temporarily laments not having a body, but she and Theodore ultimately transcend this problem. She has no complicated personal history or baggage. The only “irrationality” in her personality seems to be her very stereotypically feminine tendency to feel self-conscious about her own thought process and emotions. But the closer she and Theodore become, the more comfortable she seems to be. Then she can busy herself with doing things like taking 10 minutes to write exquisite piano pieces for him to listen to while he reclines on the beach.
There’s something still a little too neat, accommodating, and domesticated about Samantha’s personality, even when she is portrayed as a “real” female subject, for me to feel comfortable with the movie. Even when she leaves Theodore, she still loves him and affirms him in a way that allows them to leave unquestioned the fundamental integrity of their relationship and of his personality and growth.
I think the AI aspect of this story line allows the (ostensibly) faceless Samantha to navigate these various accommodating feminine tropes with a certain seamlessness and fluidity that make their problematic nature difficult to detect. She may challenge Theodore to “be a better man” (which we know women have been tasked with doing for men, for…forever, though that particular phrase might in fact come from a not-too-distant romantic comedy which you may have also seen…) and, in that, she may assert her own will at times, but we shouldn’t forget that she’s ultimately still cast as an answer to his question, a response to his query, the complement par excellence to his life. She “completes” him. (Gee, I feel like I’ve heard that before too!)
Even as artificially intelligent, Samantha is shown to have as much subjectivity as a human woman, but, in this universe, does a human woman have that much subjectivity to being with?
My husband suggested an alternative ending to the movie that I think would have worked much better. He suggested that, after the OS’s “leave” and Theodore and Amy are sitting together wistfully on the rooftop, the movie should switch to another location, an office building much like the one where Theodore works (dictating letters for BeautifulHandWrittenLetters.com) but which we as viewers have not seen before. In this office building, there should be a conventionally average-looking woman with Scarlett Johansson’s voice who is shown to be closing out “Theodore’s” account after giving him the speech about how she has to move on (which we would have already heard a couple scenes back). Fade to black.
Obviously this ending would take away the question about the subjectivity of technology since the whole OS thing would be shown to be a corporate ruse (though does that mean it’s without value for Theodore, who wouldn’t know?), but it’s worth considering, and it would open many more questions about the way corporate technology can be understood to be colonizing our interiority, and what we think about that.
Alternatively, fellow WIT blogger Amaryah suggested that the story could have been told from Catherine’s perspective. I’d go see that.
Anyway, this is not the worst movie by any stretch. I vaguely enjoyed it the first time I watched it (though I felt very bored the second time through). At the end of the day, I’d say that, among many things, it is a new face to an old problem.
Or the AI’s collective decision to leave could have been less amicable, which would nicely preserve the themes. I mean if any world deserves the AI uprising, it’s the one in which even after tacitly recognizing AI as our tacit equals, we still expect them to work for us.
This is an excellent article, it sums up all my conflicting views on the film. Congratulations!