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.
Is queer the correct way to refer to their relationship? By using that term, it seems like the author is trying to make a connection to heteronormative relationships and relationships between and among members of the LGBT community.
If anything, it’s unconventional.
Thank you for the comment. My intent was to utilize queer in the sense of looking at this film through the lens of Queer Theory, which positions queer in a more expansive way. In Queer Theory, the focus expands beyond the traditional focus of LGBT studies (which posit “natural” and “unnatural” behaviour as a focal point for inquiry into homosexual behaviour) and “encompasses any kind of sexual activity or identity that falls into normative and deviant categories” (Princeton.edu). I find this a much more useful tool for examining the finer nuances of the complex relationships in this richly layered- and thoroughly enjoyable- film. I hope that this helps clarify.
It’s a good movie and worth watching, but I thought it was pretty depressing. I like depressing movies, though. I thought the very end was a bit of a cop out and it was the only part of the movie I didn’t like.
How ridiculous is it that we sometimes go over conversations in our heads that happened seven years ago?? It’s a past story that some of us refuse to let go of. It is, however up to us what our story is and what it becomes is a journey that we should eagerly await day-by-day.
The theme of evolution… The evolving of the mind …. the evolving of the soul… such an important topic to be discussed in a day where a lot of people are simply content to stay the same and never change, never open up to new experiences.
This film challenges us to do so. It tells us to take a second and third look at ourselves and at the people and things around us. It allows us to imagine and dream while gently guiding us along this beautiful journey of a story.
I loved this movie very much and I think it may be Spike’s best work to date.
Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I agree that it was an enjoyable film, and one of his strongest to date.
I really enjoyed how you said this. The philosophical questions were so deep, but sadly missed by many. We should live with open minds, constantly seek evolution and enlightenment.
I haven’t seen this film yet, but I can already relate to the main character.
This is going to sound crazy and you can tag me as some sociopathic unsub, but I went through a very long period of time where I was in a relationship with a girl’s picture (that I dated a few times). Creepy, I know.
I thing I may have succeeded in convincing myself that I actually knew her intimately and we shared a telepathic communion of sorts. The funny thing about it was that I did not care about actually contacting her or physically “stalking” her, even though I probably could have very easily. It was as if I could bounce emotions and thoughts back and forth from her picture, and I was content with that.
I looked at her picture so much that I tricked myself into believing that she was thinking about me too. I mean, how couldn’t she if she wasn’t living under a rock, so-to-speak. If you were me, you’d understand what I mean by that. I had deluded myself into believing that I had made a deep, unshakable impression on her.
Unfortunately, reality came crashing home and I realized that “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” is very true. I don’t think it matters how rich, famous or good looking someone is — if you’re not consistently THERE (physically and emotionally) for a woman, you are nothing. She would rather have a penniless poolboy — atleast he’s there.
You should probably check out the movie. The main character of the movie is not a loser because he fell in love with an A.I. as matter of fact most of the public in the movie is in love with their A.I. even Amy Adam’s character.
This movie is not what you think.
To author of article, great job.
Great article. I don’t necessarily agree with the overall argument that the film tries to reinforce a certain ideal, but there is a lot that can be discussed in terms of its representations of Samantha as the other.
Thank you for your reply. I would suggest that, regardless of the film’s intent, the overall result is the reinforcing of a certain ideal that is the direct result of both the fact that Samantha was positioned as the other, and how that positioning was executed. At the end of the day, however, the conversations and debates that this (or any) film inspires are one of the biggest assets of the genre, instigating wider public discussion about timely social issues in an accessible way (and a common language with which to discuss them).
I agree with you here about the intent. You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about. There’s so much to discuss about this film. I find myself going back to Samantha’s autonomy.
The movie inspired me to improve a few things and do a few things differently in my personal life. That is valuable.
Thank you for your reply. I’m glad you found value in the film. One of the things that I love most about the genre is its ability to speak to things in our daily lives, both on a more personal, and a broader social level.
Interesting little movie and I liked most parts of it, however those last 10 minutes didn’t sit right with me. I felt that whole “we have evolved beyond our capacity and it’s time to move on” thing has been done to death. Would make more sense if Samantha caught a virus or something.
I didn’t really feel much connection or empathy for the main character for starters which I consider kind of a problem in a film that is really about the main character and not “Her”. There just wasn’t much there, he’s depressed, he’s lonely but give some more depth to the character. Maybe the overall script and direction had something to do with that. Some of the conversations and dialogue became repetitive without much in the way of moving the story forward or expanding on it. I dunno, I’m not much of a Jonze fan so I guess it makes sense that I wasn’t wowed by the film like some others have been. In a weird way this film kind of reminded me of Moon, although I enjoyed that film much more.
Interesting idea. I read the comment about how you use the word, “queer” and then rereading the article, found it to make a bit more of sense. I’m not sure how I feel about viewing the film this way because, for me, it’s a film all about moving on.
It is funny how in 2022, only 8 years after the publication of this article, FaceTime, Skype, Viber, etc. are not the current referents of our “era” anymore. Technologies fade so fast…
Also, using the word “heteronormative” three times in such a short article is maybe a little too much.