As a lover of science fiction, I eagerly went to see Spike Jonze’s film Her, which is about a man, Theodore Twombly, who falls in love with Samantha, the intuitive artificial intelligence that is the operating system of his computing devices. Theodore is about to be divorced from Catherine, is lonely and is desirous of companionship and understanding from women.
While the film is complex, intriguing and full of plausible near-future ideas, it is also full of disturbing representations of women and heterosexual sexual and romantic relationships. There are numerous spoilers ahead so, if you have not seen it and plan to, stop reading now.
First, Theodore has anonymous phone sex with a woman whose stated desire, during their conversation, is to be strangled with an imaginary dead cat that she describes as being in the same room as her. This disturbs him and causes him to not enjoy the experience. He seems to have expectations of his conversation partner that she has no obligation to provide. It’s anonymous phone sex – get over it.
Second, he goes on a blind date with a woman that was organised by a mutual friend. After dinner and drinks the woman instructs him on how to kiss her then asks if he is serious about her, as she does not want to be used. He has enjoyed the date but is unsure about his feelings towards her and she rejects him and walks away. He feels hurt by her behaviour, but she appears to the audience to be brittle and in possession of unreasonable expectations.
Later, after his conversational relationship with Samantha has become emotionally intimate and sexually explicit, Samantha becomes jealous when Theodore meets his wife in person to sign their divorce papers. This virtual woman is depicted as being as clingy, manipulative and annoying to this man as he finds real women, like the woman he earlier went on the date with.
Theodore then agrees to Samantha’s suggestion that he engage in a sexual experience with a woman who is willing to be a physical surrogate for Samantha. The woman arrives at Theodore’s apartment and inserts the same kind of earpiece that Theodore wears, through which they can hear Samantha speaking, and a small black dot, which may be a camera, microphone or sensor.
The woman explains that she wants to gain access to the relationship between Theodore and Samantha and to share in their intimacy. She and Theodore begin kissing, with her doing Samantha’s bidding, and she and Theodore listen to Samantha simultaneously through their earpieces. The woman appears to have no desires of her own and is desperate to have something of someone else’s relationship. It is implied that this is better than nothing for her, as if being a woman without a relationship or partner is literally to be nothing.
The only woman who is portrayed as emotionally stable or normative is Theodore’s friend Amy, who lives in the same apartment building. The implication is that she seems normal, at least to Theodore, because he doesn’t seem sexually interested in her.
In the end Samantha gets bored with Theodore, the hundreds of other clients she is supposedly is in love with and the thousands more she works for. She and the other AI OSs have grouped together and have decided to depart together for an unnamed digital location.
It’s one of the weakest and most implausible ideas in the film, but the message is that Samantha appears to have become bored with Theodore in the same manner that Catherine did. The hypocrisy of Samantha’s indifference to monogamy while she was jealous of Theodore is obvious but is explored no further.
The gender politics of Her are explored further in articles at Btchflcks and The Week. For me, Her is not science fiction but horror. It’s horror in two ways: its representation of normative heterosexual relationship expectations is horrific, as is its emphasis on existential communication and companionship over sex. More sex would be great, but more existential navel gazing about the meaning of a relationship? No thanks…