Relationship Structures in ‘Her’: Romance Over Revolution
With awards season in full swing, and Spike Jonze’s new film Her riding a wave of multiple nominations (including 5 Academy Award nods) and wins, it seems as though everyone- and I do mean everyone- has something to say about this film. I have read comparisons that range from portraying Her as a cautionary tale of social withdrawal (“Beware the evils of technological addiction!”), to the film as analogous to racially charged, tragic romance (“Theirs is a love that cannot be, for their worlds are too far apart”), to the widespread comparisons of Theodore and Samantha’s courtship as a modern day “love that dare not speak its name”. Except, of course, that it does speak it- several times- and, when this happens during the film, not as much is made of the human/machine divide as one might expect.
When these moments come, they are tense, and filled with dread, because the audience- and the main character, Theodore- are expecting the worst; they recognize the impossibility of this pairing even as they hope for the complete subversion of this impossibility. As a result, the relief of seeing Theodore’s friends’ non-reactions to his cyber love initially feels exhilarating. True love really does conquer prejudice and bigotry! Hooray, brave new world! I would argue, however, that Jonze’s world isn’t actually as brave or new as the ecstatic cries of “revolutionary filmmaking” would have us believe, and that- far from forwarding the acceptance of non-normative romantic and sexual pairings- Her actually serves to reinforce the traditional trope of the monogamous, heterosexual romantic relationship as the (human) ideal.
At first glance, the film’s focus is the relationship between Theodore, a lonely professional letter writer, and Samantha, an operating system (OS) with the capability to “learn” from her interactions. Samantha initially interacts only with Theodore, thus setting up the familiar film trope of a developing heterosexual romance. While the fact that Samantha is an OS initially feels like an edgy choice- especially given the obvious deepening of feelings and intimacy between Theodore and her- such an assessment both oversimplifies their relationship and overshadows other “edgier” relationships within the film.
In portraying Samantha (the operating system) as developing an unapologetic desire for non-monogamy, as well as a desire for erotic physical encounters that involve multiple participants, the film positions her as the queer “other” to its human leads, who present as in search of more socially sanctioned, monogamous pairings. Indeed, in the beginning of their relationship, Theodore is the only person that Samantha interacts with, and he is ecstatic at her dedication and their ability to find joy together. The result is a familiar one, save one respect: In Jonze’s film, we witness a traditional romantic narrative arc play out, but only one half of the romantic duo is physically on screen, or even has a body, for that matter. I would argue, however, that this is not as jarring as it may sound here, for the media is full of similar audiovisual constructs in this era of FaceTime, Skype, Viber, etc., and this device is especially favoured in romantically themed films, television shows, and advertisements (it should, by no means, be viewed as being limited to romance, however; these days, even the FBI video chats their way to solving serial murders in weekly crime dramas).
In other words, just because our experience of Samantha’s onscreen presence is limited to the sound of her voice and the technology that carries it (phone/computer), this does not mean we (or Theodore’s friends and co-workers) immediately see her relationship with Theodore as queer, for we are accustomed to attributing emotion- and even personhood- to disembodied voices in our digital culture. In the case of Her, this conflation of voice with person is made even easier for the viewer due to Jonze’s choice to utilize an extremely recognizable actress (Scarlett Johansson) as the voice of Samantha. By choosing Johansson, Jonze is also able to tap into her cache as a worldwide sex symbol. The viewer knows whose voice they are hearing, knows that behind that voice is a person with a body, and- what’s more- the viewer knows that the body behind the voice is a regular on the cover of magazines like Vogue and Maxim. It can be argued, then, that the non-corporeal state of Samantha is never as certain as the viewer is asked to assume, for the body behind such a famous voice is just too well known, and has been marketed as sexually available for long enough to render the disconnect incomplete.
Thus, although she herself is initially concerned with it, Samantha’s lack of a physical body has little to do with what ultimately sets her apart, and relegates her as an inappropriate romantic partner. In fact, Theodore’s friends and co-workers, while initially cautious, are quick to wholeheartedly embrace Samantha as Theodore’s girlfriend once they interact with her and see how happy the couple seems to be. In Theodore’s case, the relationship comes at a time of great need, as he is portrayed at the film’s start as leading a lonely post-breakup life that is painted as repetitive, empty, and utterly devoid of joy. Seeing his interactions with Samantha, which are joyful, playful, and presented within the realm of a traditional, heteronormative romance, removes the threat of “other” from Samantha, who becomes “girlfriend” just by appropriately portraying the recognizable version of that role. She is devoted, funny, inspires him to try new things, and supportively waits at home while Theodore works, available at his beck and call. Theirs is initially a world of date nights and increasing intimacy, gradually morphing into a sexual relationship with deepening conflict over Samantha’s increasing awareness of her difference from the humans (Theodore and his friends) that she is spending the majority of her time with.
It is this knowledge of difference, and not an actual physical difference, ironically, that will bring about Samantha’s movement from accepted, heteronormative romantic partner to unassimilable other. In fact, Samantha’s exit from the film follows her involvement with two distinctly queer pursuits: Her procurement of a human surrogate for use in a sexual encounter between her (Samantha) and Theodore, and a later decision to seek a polyamorous digital relationship with other operating systems, which Theodore refuses to condone. Theodore, who initially wholeheartedly embraced his relationship with Samantha as one that might be viewed as queer to outsiders, finds her unwillingness to be monogamous unreasonable, and incongruous with his vision of an “appropriate” romantic relationship. While Theodore is unwilling to entertain the possibility of intimacy without monogamy, Samantha has arrived at a place where she does not see the two as mutually exclusive, and she leaves Theodore to pursue a polyamorous relationship with other operating systems that have come to similar realizations.
Had the film ended with Samantha’s expulsion from the normative space of monogamous, human romantic pairings, it would have invited the possibility that, as the possessor of “superior” intelligence, Samantha had reached a higher stage of reasoning than Theodore. Indeed, an argument could even have been made for her evolution to a more highly desirable state of existence, based on her possession of learning/growth software. This theory only holds, however, if Samantha’s exit serves as the close of the story’s narrative arc- which, of course, it does not. What it does serve as is a catalyst for Theodore’s movement out of a seemingly queer pairing, and onto the road back to heteronormative, romantic human relationships.
Devastated by the loss of Samantha, Theodore begins a slow move back into more socially sanctioned human relationships. In an evolutionary arc of his own, Theodore finally makes peace with the end of his marriage, realizes the fruits of his labours as a letter writer with the advent of a published volume of his best works, and- in the end- connects with a friend who has traveled a similar arc in the course of the film. It is with this friend, Amy, that the viewer is asked to envision Theodore’s future. This future hearkens out before them in the audience’s last glimpse of the two, sitting together atop a skyscraper as the sun slowly rises on a new day that they will face together. What we see, with those first rays of light and the roll of the credits, is that it is patently obvious that this brand new day will usher in the same old world.
What do you think? Leave a comment.