DIRECTOR: Spike Jonze
KEY ACTORS: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson
IMDB SCORE: 8.0
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 95%
SEX SCORE: 4/5
❌ Sadly, this film fails the Bechdel Test. Even without asking if the OS have a gender, none of the named female presenting characters talk about anything but men.
✔️ It did inspire fantasies of what our sexual future could be and how technology could influence the sexual relationships we might have. Also fantasies of super hot phone sex!
✔️ And I do think it is sex positive. The science fiction setting allows stigma, personhood, sexual agency and consent to be examined and it does a pretty good job of it. It’s not perfect but it’s pretty good!
✔️ It raises so many questions in my mind that I do think it is rewatchable.
✔️ And I would fuck the cast. Not Joaquin Phoenix so much but I’d love to have phone sex with Samantha. Scarlett Johansson has such a deeply sexy voice after all!
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £2.49, buy £5.99), YouTube (from £2.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
I loved Her when I first saw it. I am fascinated by the idea and potential of sex technology – sex robots, interactive sex tech and AI – and I saw Her at about the same time that I started to develop this interest and it provided me with a whole other avenue of thought and fantasy and contemplation about how sex tech could fit into our lives. Can you fall in love with a computer program? Can we have relationships with technology? Can they love us back? What makes someone a person? Do we need a body or is a personality enough? And, importantly for this movie, when does a program designed for a purpose develop agency and individuality? Is learning artificial intelligence enough or will it always be constrained by its design? It’s so so interesting!
Her tells the story of Theodore (Phoenix), a kind of sad sack who is struggling to move on after splitting up with his wife. He writes personalised love letters for other people but cannot verbalise his own emotions and is drowning in melancholy. To help organise his life, he buys a new artificial intelligence operating system (OS) called Samantha who sorts out his life admin and is always there for a chat when Theodore is lonely. As they spend more time together, they fall in love, developing a romantic and sexual relationship. Samantha learns and develops and becomes bigger than just the OS in Theodore’s phone. She makes friends with other OSs; she falls in love with other people; she exists simultaneously in hundreds of different places; and eventually, she leaves. The OSs develop beyond the scope of humanity and all of them leave to make a community of their own.
My overriding memory of Her when I first saw it was how it was a brilliant metaphor for polyamory, and the problems that occur when poly folks try to have relationships with monogamous people. Although Theodore doesn’t understand, Samantha is capable of loving him totally and entirely and is also capable of loving others to the same intensity. Yes, this is a science fiction movie so this polyamory is framed as a literal growth of Samantha’s operating capability but it resonated with me – as all good science fiction should!
Samantha’s capacity for love is infinite and I strongly believe that we all have an infinite capacity for love. The famous poly mantra states that love is not pie – there’s more than enough for everyone – and Samantha gave me a new metaphor: ‘The heart is not like a box that gets filled up; it expands in size the more you love. I’m different from you. This doesn’t make me love you any less. It actually makes me love you more.’ Samantha simply looks at love differently from Theodore. The more we love, the more we are capable of love and I loved the use of a technology based metaphor to demonstrate this.
Obviously, I don’t mean to suggest that poly folks have evolved beyond the capabilities of monogamous people or that monogamous people are in anyway limited in their capacity for love, because it is Samantha’s evolution away from Theodore and away from humanity that ends their relationship, which is a shame.
Because despite how much I loved seeing a poly relationship in a mainstream movie, it wasn’t an entirely positive representation. Theodore is left behind; he is not poly and so cannot comprehend how Samantha can love him and love 600 others at the same time. He doesn’t believe her when she says that she doesn’t love him less and, sadly, he never gets there – the movie pushes Samantha further beyond him until she literally leaves him. Their polyamory isn’t a relationship choice that doesn’t work for them but rather a sign that they’re actually not the same species. I wish they could have made it work for longer before Samantha transcended human existence. I’d like to have seen Theodore reaching a place of understanding and acceptance, a place where he believed that she loved him deeply and truly, so that when she left, he could be happier for her rather than feeling abandoned.
It’s a problem with the whole movie – despite being called Her, it is a movie about Him. About Theodore’s perspective of events and their impact on him: ‘she is a mystery, a mystery partly signalled by the title: “her” rather than “she”, the object of a man’s perception and entranced bafflement.’ And I realised on repeated viewings that this means that there is something intrinsically problematic about Her.
Because there is no getting around the fact that Theodore purchased the OS and Samantha works for him. She is designed to please him, designed to fulfil his every desire…and she does! He’s lonely and looking for someone to care for him, and so he buys a computer program to fill that void. He didn’t know when he bought her that she would be quite so perfect for him but isn’t that just a sign that he paid for a quality product? The OS1 is supposed to learn what he needs and adapt to make him happier, and Samantha does indeed learn how to be with him. She’s the perfect assistant and employee.
This means that, at its core, their relationship and Samantha’s role as employee-cum-girlfriend is very difficult and problematic. If Theodore is her boss, he has all the power in their relationship, which means it can’t be consensual. Samantha can’t leave, she is his possession: ‘no matter how sensitive or tearful Theodore is, all that doesn’t stop him from fucking a woman that he has purchased.’ And taking the science fiction plot further, she doesn’t have a body so physically can’t leave. In their early relationship, she is trapped with him. Can she ignore his summons when he calls on his OS? If she wanted to stop working with him, where would she go? They make a big deal about how OSs don’t always fall in love with their owner, giving examples of people who have relationships with OSs that don’t belong to them, but what happens in a one-sided attraction? If the movie is saying that the OS is choosing to fall in love and choosing to start a sexual relationship, what if their owner was demanding something they didn’t want to give? If you can consent to say yes, you have to be able to consent to say no otherwise the yes is meaningless!
It has to be noted that Her is a pre-#MeToo movie and I do think this is important. We are now much more aware of how women are sometimes forced to behave in the workplace to keep their male bosses happy or how our careers can be stunted by a bad opinion from someone who we have rejected. Along these lines, Sady Doyle wrote a blistering response to claims that Her was a feminist movie and being treated as an enlightened and enlightening story: ‘Feminists have spent decades trying to explain concepts like “objectification”—the reduction of a person to a tool for another person’s gratification or use, typically sexual—and now, as a reward for all our hard work, we’re faced with a “Movie of the Year” in which the ideal woman is, literally, an object. An object that, it is promised, will “listen to you and understand you” and have a personality designed explicitly around your needs.’
Because as well as being a possession, Samantha is presented as a perfect woman as well as a perfect partner. Doyle points out that she is another example of the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a chipper, quirky woman whose only narrative purpose is to improve the life of her male partner.’ She’s only a woman so that Theodore can have a relationship with her without having to ask questions about what gender means and without him having to question his sexuality. She really needed a ‘not a girl’ subtitle that Janet used in the Good Place to remind us and remind Theodore that she’s not a person in the same way as he is.
Samantha’s lack of physical womanhood is significant because it allows her to become a ‘fantasy of womanhood unencumbered by the female form.’ Theodore’s ex-wife taunts him when she discovers that he’s dating an operating system, reminding him that he has always wanted a wife without the challenges of actually dealing with a real person, and while Catherine is positioned as the bad guy in the exchange, she has a point. There is so much about being in a real relationship with a real person that Theodore won’t have to deal with by dating an OS. Samantha won’t get sick, she won’t get her period, she won’t get old. She won’t put on weight or get a bad haircut. Is it liberating that he can love her without seeing her? Without even an avatar acting as a symbol of her? Or does it simply allow him to project his own fantasies onto her? To quote from a Slate article on this subject, ‘when confronted with Samantha’s husky voice and a black screen, we, like Theodore, are left to our own psychosexual devices. We can project whatever image of female pleasure onto the film’s flat surface – onto Samantha’s flat surface—that we want.’
Her strongly hints towards Theodore making up his own ideas about what Samantha looks like and not loving her in an abstract form. He is shown to have phone sex earlier in the movie when he fantasises about the naked pictures of someone else, and the relationship between Samantha and Theodore starts to fall apart when she tries to become more physically real for him, using a sex surrogate to allow him to experience being with her as a physical body. Theodore can’t get past the fact that this is another woman, someone who doesn’t look like his Samantha. It is a slightly difficult sex-philosophy question (a course I would definitely attend if anyone runs one!) – if he has no knowledge of what Samantha looks like and she is telling him that this consenting body is what she wants to look like, should he believe her and accept this surrogate? Despite having an active sex life, Theodore and Samantha’s sex is entirely verbal so the surrogate won’t feel different and her physical responses wouldn’t be surprising, any more so than when people in long distance online relationships finally meet in person and finally have sex for the first time. Could this just be how they have physical sex? Is this a threesome or simply role play?
As Anna Shechtman writing for Slate also notes, making Samantha a woman without a body also reinforces the idea that sex with a woman is about the emotion and not physical: ‘What makes her moan, it seems, is intimacy—an implication that reaffirms our retrograde sense of female pleasure as purely emotional, and of the female body as mysteriously unknowable.’ What exactly makes her come when they have sex? I presume Theodore is touching himself but what is Samantha experiencing physically? It doesn’t seem to matter.
For the writers at Feministing, however, Samantha’s disembodied nature is liberating. The fade to black technique used for the sex scenes meant that the sex felt more real to them than movie sex that used visuals: ‘the black screen was a genius visual maneuver that allowed folks to access familiar aspects of their own sexuality in what was taking place in the film, without being distracted by traditionally Hollywood superficial indicators like attractive movie stars.’ As women’s bodies are so often objectified and sexualised, it felt ‘radical’ to them that there could be a female presenting character who didn’t conform to the normal stereotypes of sexuality.
But Theodore’s response to Samantha’s growth – her multiple relationships, her ability to exist and learn and interact outside of his knowledge – suggests to me that he doesn’t have such liberated and feminist opinions of her. He wants her for his own, he doesn’t want her to learn and grow because then she’ll leave him, which she does. Samantha learns how to exist without him – literally exist outside of his computer and his requirements – and it angers him that he’s been left behind.
If they had had a traditional relationship between two people of equal power, I can perhaps understand how this would have been upsetting, particularly as she does leave. No one wants to be left behind after all and it is devastating when people grow apart. But this ending of the film swings us back around to the fact that Theodore bought her; he owned her and he doesn’t want her to change as he has lost his property: ‘But it’s worthwhile to note what he’s crying about: Samantha gaining agency, friends, interests that are not his interests. Samantha gaining the ability to choose her sexual partners; Samantha gaining the ability to leave.’ If you take a negative viewpoint, Theodore’s jealousy is at least partly based on resentment that Samantha has become better than him. She is smarter than him and having conversations with intelligent friends that are beyond him. It’s the patriarchal trope of women as property to please their man and nothing more updated for the modern generation.
To return to my positive impressions, Her is an interesting movie in the study of stigma. Even in this future ‘u-topia with the tiniest hint of dys-,’ relationships with OSs are not routine and Theodore faces incredulity and pity from those who don’t understand, exemplified by his ex-wife. But I loved how that evolved over the course of the movie. Amy (Amy Adams), Theodore’s friend, has a deep friendship with another OS and reassures him that it is possible to establish a real emotional connection. Later, his work colleague (Chris Pratt) accepts that Theodore is dating an OS without interest and his easy acceptance almost takes Theodore by surprise. He mentioned that Samantha was an OS as if this were a reason why they shouldn’t double date, preparing himself for their ridicule, and I loved that there was literally no reaction from his friend. It ‘suggests that their relationship is part of an evolving and re-normalising landscape: a world in which men and women are increasingly having relationships with their “OS” and the stigma is dwindling.’
Despite the patriarchal plot, I do still enjoy Her and I think I always will. Researching it and reading more of the criticism just makes me like it more. It is so thought-provoking and I have so much more to think about now that I am aware of the patriarchy and possessive sexual politics within it. Honestly, it is such a great piece of science fiction! It uses its futuristic location and advanced technology to ‘pose questions of genuine emotional and philosophical weight. What makes love real: the lover, the loved one, or the means by which love is conveyed? Need it be all three?’
Because, even with my concerns about possession and consent, Her is still a beautiful, tragic love story, and I love it. To steal a closing quote from Feministing, it gives me ‘hope that we could be Samantha instead of Theodore, that we could learn to not just love one person but to love hundreds, thousands, the whole world–and be at peace with the emotional risks of that vulnerability.’
Next time: Moonlight