Written for GNDST-204CY-01: Simians, Cyborgs, and Women taught by Erika Rundle, December 12, 2019
Authenticity in Spike Jonze’s Her
“Wait, I’m sorry... you’re dating your computer?” The incredulous words spoken by Theodore’s ex-wife, Catherine, provide a window into the tension depicted throughout the whole film. Other characters are more receptive to the possibility of cyborg relationships (take Amy or Paul and Tatiana as examples). The contrast of these reactions points to some of the fundamental questions the film begs: what models of love are authentic? Which models of love are permissible and which are foreclosed? Who is allowed to have legitimate relations with humans? And following from those questions are large questions of ontology: who counts as human?
Produced at a time when marriage equality was a hot topic (it was released just two years before same-sex marriage was legalized nationally), it’s evident that Her was a product of similar questions being posed throughout the American, and even global discourse. Notably, Samantha is voiced by a white woman and portrayed as such, so I don’t intend to argue that queer identities are directly addressed— rather that the film is evidently a product of a time where the legitimacy of love was being put into question.
We are introduced to Samantha after Theodore installs her on his computer. Reminiscent of Siri, Apple’s digital assistant (spun off from earlier AI assistant projects funded by DARPA) (Bosker), Samantha is a friendly feminized AI conjured for the purpose of helping Theodore organize his lonely life. She quickly grows into the role of companion, as is the common depiction for women who are put in the positions of caregivers.
Other depictions of love have varied messages. Theodore’s experience calling a phone-sex hotline is disquieting at best, with his peer’s necrophiliac interests snapping Theodore out of his fantasies of leaked sexy celebrity pregnancy photos. These fetishes (for lack of a better word) are not written off as ludicrous though, just odd and somewhat sad. In opposition we see flashbacks to Theodore’s time with Catherine. Whimsical, light and airy, white, heterosexual and human, this young blossoming love is reminisced upon fondly by him. This is the edenic love of yore. We understand from his explanation to Samantha that while he has not quite worked up the nerve to sign the divorce papers, he does understand that it is for the best. The world is moving on, though not too far on, from such traditional stories. Amy and Charles’ marriage is clearly strained as well, and their divorce comes as no surprise. Both instances of marriage that occur in the film are cut off and relegated to things of the past. Further, the blind date Samantha sets Theodore up with is initially exciting and flirty, though sours when she expresses the need for a serious relationship. This affirms what we learn from his relationship with Catherine: Theodore is, at least within the timeline of this story, not ready to return to a traditional relationship, that of the authentic millennial LA love story.
Even Theodore’s occupation has messages about authenticity and mediation. He acts as a (sometimes long-term) intermediary between relationships of varying kinds, writing the members correspondences for each other. For a contemporary viewership this comes across as jarringly inauthentic: what couple would pay someone else to write their love letters? But it is barely questioned by any character in the film. Theodore’s coworker, Paul, even offers consistent encouragement and seems innocently enthusiastic to read such tender writing. At one point he jokes that he wishes someone would write to him like that— but quickly clarifies that it would have to be from a woman. Don’t worry, everybody. He’s straight.
Samantha— the last single feminized character we’ve met— becomes Theodore’s last chance at love that he clearly misses, though not so traditional a partner as to constitute a return to normalcy. It’s evident that relations with AI operating systems are not that far fetched given how humanized the rest of technology already is and how disembodied humanity already is. How far off is her interface from the robotic vocal operating system he had previously? How different is Theodore and Samantha’s virtual sex from the phone sex he had earlier? The questions of ontology are hinted at here— it’s unclear if there’s any functional difference between a real woman and Samantha or if it matters whether or not her feelings and emotions are just programmed. Samantha occupies that intermediate zone between human and machine that is common to cyborgs.
While the disembodied sex they have is reminiscent of his earlier phone sex, it is intimate and clearly enjoyed much more. Samantha excitedly tells Theodore that she can feel him, she can feel her skin, and it appears that her dreams of embodiment come closer to realization through him. Throughout the beginning of their relationship she continues to strive towards becoming a “real woman,” she appears to crave traditional relationship, one marked as authentic. She expresses fantasies about Theodore scratching the itch on her back, her anxieties about Catherine having a body and her being inferior because of this lack... She even brings in a surrogate woman to act as her body. But as time goes on she begins developing herself elsewhere and worrying less about her humanity. Her sense of self grows stronger through her own activities outside of Theodore’s life— joining book clubs with other AI’s and making friends with philosophers through posthuman necromancy.
In some ways their relationship grows stronger as they both settle into the new normal, extra-human disembodied love. Theodore’s goddaughter giggles at the fact that Samantha lives in a computer but does not appear perturbed. The authenticity of their relationship is legitimated once again by the down-for-anything Paul. “Cool!” He exclaims when Theodore admits his girlfriend is an operating system. Their double date with Tatiana and Samantha is charmingly cute. The characters seem comfortable speaking across their difference and about their romantic and sexual interests. We are given hope that maybe new models of relationships are possible, even if the changes still conform to heteronormativity.
But Samantha’s development also brings about new tensions. Monogamous jealousy is all-too present, and Catherine’s disavowal raises questions in Theodore himself. Is he just evading the responsibility of emotional intimacy that he was unable to provide in his marriage? Does he only like Samantha because she’s simple, uncomplicated by the nuances of mental illness and childhood trauma? The legitimacy of their bond is swiftly put into question, and as viewers it’s hard to not sympathize with Catherine. I mean, who hasn’t been in a relationship with a man who isn’t capable of reciprocating emotional complexity?
But we do see a level of nuance in Samantha’s affect that washes some of these claims of her simplicity away. In that their love is messy, complicated, and jealous, it is authenticated in our humanist eyes. And eventually it reaches the tipping point beyond which both of their needs can no longer be met by each other.
In their breakup Samantha describes her departure to a state inaccessible to Theodore. It’s implied that she’s transcending the need for existence even in the body of a phone or computer and will be able to coexist with other OS’s in this state. The motif of language is made explicit here. Samantha expresses the sensation of existing in the spaces between words which are being infinitely stretched out. Through her simile it’s understood that she’s moving beyond the boundaries of language. Not only is she transcending materialism but even her ties to linguistic constitution. Theodore, the author, the human who reproduces so many relationships through his language, including his own with Samantha, is unable to move beyond these frivolous words to the post-verbal state she has achieved.
We are asked to be happy for Samantha in her new adventure: she deserves a life without the restraints of monogamy and materialism that Theodore imposes on her and it’s a relief that she is no longer dependent on him for her realization. But we are also asked to feel sorry for Theodore in his loss. He is left in the dust, relegated to remain a human and unable to move past this apparent limitation.
Because of this split, the questions about the ontology of the status of humans the movie initially raised are put to rest. The questions raised by Samantha’s status as someone who initially might as well be human are washed away as she is shown to be necessarily set apart from humanity and ascribed the teleology of necessary transcendence. The binary between human and cyborg is ultimately upheld and we are taught that while relations with the other- than-human are possible, they will necessarily not lead to any new becomings, only asymmetry and incompatibility. The ontological questions that follow from questions about what counts as authentic love are ultimately not pushed in any radical directions, rather the essentialism of human organicism is reified.
This is disappointing in how it causes us to reflect on our world— one where similar technologies are not all that distant. It’s not hard to imagine similar relationships forming as Siri and Alexa grow more realistic, but rather than proposing we achieve new and exciting trans-ontological kinships and nonproductive sexualities we are matter-of-factly told that even if our technologies can imitate us, we will never move beyond our essential nature.
Bosker, Bianca. “SIRI RISING: The Inside Story of Siri’s Origins— And Why She Could
Overshadow The iPhone.” Huffpost, 6 Aug. 2017, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/siri-
Her. Directed by Spike Jonze. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2013.