Her: The Movie

Published January 25, 2014 by sleepydumpling

I just got home from a day out at the movies (with a little brunch with a friend and shopping interspersed amongst it).  I saw The Book Thief, which is wonderful, I can highly recommend it, and then I saw Her.

I want to talk a little bit about the latter, because I came away with many thoughts buzzing around my head.  Luckily I had a bit of a wait for my bus and then a good half hour bus trip, so that I could begin to gather my thoughts on the movie into some coherence to write about here.

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Let me start by saying that Her is beautifully written, shot and acted.  Visually it is gorgeous, the language of the film is quite poetic and the cast are excellent, they all give nuanced performances that felt very human and real.

But the concept of a man falling in love with an artificially intelligent operating system-woman really stuck in my craw.  At first I couldn’t work out why, humans falling in love with robots/computers/artificial intelligent beings isn’t new, but when I sat with it for awhile, I realised what bothered me.  This perfect woman that Theodore (Joachin Phoenix) has found, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johanssen), has no body.  She has a brain, she has emotions, she has humour, she has intellect, she even has sexuality, but no physical form.

The perfect woman in this film is a woman whose body has been effectively photoshopped out of existence.

We’re all used to the concept of a woman’s body being photoshopped/edited to be something it isn’t.  We’re even used to seeing the results of that editing rendering women’s bodies smaller and thinner and more unrealistic.  All the “messy” bits of women’s actual bodies have been edited away for a long time.  Cellulite, wrinkles, stretchmarks, body hair, fat… even women’s genitals are edited to the point of “perfection”, which is completely unattainable by any living human being even after extensive cosmetic procedures.  Human beings are animals and we’re innately messy.  Our bodily functions are like that of any other animal – messy.  In this case she has been edited completely out of having a body at all.  All her physical “flaws” have been removed until there is no physical form left.

It reminds me somewhat of Alexandria’s Genesis, a fictional “condition” prevalent in science fiction where female characters have purple eyes, pale white skin, dark hair, slow ageing, no body hair or periods (yet they can still conceive) and they don’t get diseases.  This condition is a lazy writer’s way of making the “perfect” woman, who doesn’t have any of the messiness of things like illness, body hair or a menstrual cycle.  Because actual women are seen as dirty, messy, leaky things.

It’s inherently a misogynistic view of women, that suggest we are somehow unacceptable for being living creatures, as human beings.  It’s acceptable for men to be hairy, flawed, smelly, sweaty and physical bodies.  But somehow it is considered far worse a crime for a woman to be any of the above.

I also take exception to the idea that the “perfect woman” is entirely there to please her man.  She is created entirely by and for him, and while she sometimes has emotions that he cannot understand or takes exception to, she never argues with him, never disagrees with him and spends much of the movie apologising to him for her questions, assumptions and actions.  In fact he gets angry when Samantha starts speaking with her peers – other operating systems, and befriends a male operating system.

If this behaviour were replicated in a human relationship, it would be an abusive relationship.  However this makes Samantha the “perfect woman” that Theodore has found.  There are other moments that are deeply problematic, but I don’t want to get spoilery on you all.  Ultimately when Samantha has very human reactions and feelings, things begin to turn sour for the relationship.

Ultimately while I could see the beauty and talent behind the film (both the cast and the director/cinematography) I came away feeling like the film was a very harsh criticism of actual women, that suggested the only way to make a woman meet the standard men are seeking was to erase her physical form and make her sole purpose to please her man.  Take away a woman’s personhood and she becomes “the perfect woman”.

A deeply misogynistic premise… and misogyny in films is so dull, we’ve seen it all before.

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25 comments on “Her: The Movie

    • Thanks, I’m already very familiar with Anita Sarkeesian’s work. Other’s might be interested in the links you’ve provided too.

      As for “what is messy about body hair” – I suggest you Google “body hair on women” and see just what many men, and women, think of body hair on women. The most prevalent reaction you will find is disgust. (I don’t share that reaction of course.)

  • Thank you for this.

    I saw a trailer for Her when I went to see Twelve Years a Slave (an amazing and heart wrenching film, for anyone needing a pocket review of that one, incidentally) and immediately felt uneasy with the entire premise. I just didn’t quite manage to put it into words at the time. Of course, I hadn’t seen what was done with the premise, but I got enough information to know I was seriously creeped out by it.

    You’ve put what I was feeling into actual words.

    It’s a shame, because I actually like all the people in the main cast and I do think something original could have been done with the premise… but this seems to go for the same old lazy tropes about what the perfect woman is. And as you say, she has no body at all. But I’m sure if the relationship had gone far enough, he would have found a way to reproduce with her, anyway.

    I love that my husband loves my body as well as my mind and my soul. I love that he laughs at ill-timed farts and burps, and that the first time I told him I didn’t like a song he’d written, he heaved a huge sigh of relief and told me that he would always know I was telling him what I really thought about his work. I love that he finds it exciting when I have a completely different take on an issue than he does. I love the fact that he loves me in all my smelly, leaky, hairy, argumentative, imperfect glory.

    That’s what love is; when you love the whole package, imperfections and all.

    You can’t have that if one person in the relationship is so ‘perfect’ (s)he doesn’t actually exist and you still want to control them.

    • Twistie I actually wanted to see 12 Years as a Slave but couldn’t get in to a session.

      And I agree, our flawed humanness is what makes us wonderful. The fact that we are so amazing even though we have all sorts of limitations and oddness about us. Approaching relationships without considering that there will be flaws, disagreements, gross moments and tough stuff is a very rose-coloured view and it’s only going to lead to disappointment.

  • Hi!

    First – great blog! Love your energy.

    Second – with regard to the movie Her, my wife and I saw it the other night and we came away with a different impression. We felt the fact that Samantha doesn’t have a body was a refreshing departure from Hollywood’s misogynistic obsession with female physical attributes, most, of which are completely unrealistic and unhealthy in the real world. Whatever impression the viewer develops of Samantha can only be based on her mind and personality, which is something our society needs to learn. Stop focusing on a woman’s body and listen to what’s inside. What made this movie so uniquely beautiful is the way in which Theodore falls in love with Samantha based solely on a cerebral connection and nothing more. As a matter of fact, there is a point in the movie where Samantha introduces a Hollywood-esque female surrogate to their relationship and Theodore rejects it, preferring the mental connection alone.

    As far as the idea that the “perfect woman” is entirely there to please her man, we felt the movie did a good job reminding the audience that Samantha is a computer operating system and the purpose of any OS is to respond to the requests of the user, regardless of sex. In the movie the character of Aimee also has a friendship with a female voiced OS. Aimee’s OS would have been trying to please her as well, wouldn’t it? Also there are male voices available, but Theodore chooses female. Does that mean that all the male voiced OS1 systems in the movie were busy being the “perfect man” to all their owners? The impression we got was that the voice is simply a mask, furthering the idea that what really matters, what really counts should not be limited to the physical attributes or sex.

    Obviously as the movie progresses the directer gives Samantha more human qualities and we begin to think of her in “living” terms and a relationship, with real emotion from Theodore, begins to develop. We were pleased to see another departure from Hollywood’s misogynistic template develop in the end when we discover that Samantha is a far stronger and a more independent spirit than expected, evolving to a point where she outgrows Theodore and leaves him.

    We felt it was a great lesson in understanding that real connections and strength come from within.

    • You can’t ask “But wouldn’t the male voices OS’s be the “perfect men” to all their owners?” when the movie is called HER, not HIM. It’s never asks the question of what women want in a perfect man – it is solely focused on the male perspective, his needs and desires, his reward for the heartbreak of his painful divorce – which is portrayed entirely as his ex-wife leaving him for no good reason. A woman’s perspective of what she would want from an OS is never really explored other than as a few fleeting moments of gossip.

      Amy’s relationship with the OS that her partner left behind (she didn’t even get to choose to have an OS, it’s a remnant of her ex-husband) is very one dimensional. They share a joke together. One can do that with any person – it’s not about finding “perfection” or “the one”. Amy isn’t shown as “deserving” of the OS her husband left behind, in the way that Theodore is being rewarded for his pain and anguish for having been left by this supposedly selfish wife of his.

      By removing the body, the tangible nature of humanity, no human being can ever measure up to Samantha, because that messy, imperfect body gets in the way.

      In fact this is demonstrated in that the reason Theodore rejects the surrogate is that he sees that she’s human, imperfect. Her lip quivers. She is no longer an embodiment of the perfect Samantha, she’s a human being, flawed and tangible. The moment she does anything remotely human and involuntary, he is instantly turned off.

      The whole movie is disturbingly disparaging of women and the idea of “connections coming from within” is false because Samantha is never actually her own person until she leaves him. He connects with something programmed to please him entirely – not someone who happens to connect with him as a fully functional being. She HAS to be what he wants to be. That’s the root of a deeply, deeply unhealthy relationship. And it disturbs me how many people seem to think this romantic or aspirational.

  • Hi. Spoilers ahead!

    I have a lot of different thoughts about “Her”, but in regards to your points specifically, I came away with the opposite view. I thought the film contained commentary that Theodore has a problem with women. I think his ex-wife even accuses of him being unable to handle real emotions. That the relationship doesn’t work out, to me, affirmed that this ideal woman (Samantha) is anything but and a real and healthy relationship could be found with Amy.

    • Really? The only woman who makes that accusation of Theodore is portrayed as an overly-emotional scold who doesn’t know what she wants and left him for no good reason. The only woman who questions his relationship with “Samantha” is the unstable bitch who hurt him in the first place. How is that not suggesting that he is being rewarded for his suffering with the “perfect” woman in Samantha?

      Amy instead supports his relationship (what a good girl she is) and is only worthy of him when Samantha is no longer there. Second choice. If he can’t have perfection, she’ll do.

      I found the whole thing distastefully patronising and the actual women thinly-veiled cariacatures of the flaws of women. They’re either nags that don’t know what they want or pushovers who smile sweetly and encourage the man to follow his wants.

  • The film was most disquieting to me, and I didn’t even give much thought to anything other than the possibility that we are moving more and more in the direction of being unable to handle interpersonal relationships, just because we are so totally dependent on our computers and all the accoutrements thereto. I agree with the comments re misogyny, but I suppose I am used to that. What disturbed me most was the whole relationship-with-an-OS thing, which I saw as the main point of the movie, and which I see in our future. Some people don’t even call or email anymore, they only text. More and more social interactions are limited to what we do through our OS. We even meet people through this. Am I that far off? I don’t think so.

    • I don’t necessarily agree with the demonisation of technology like that. I remember when I was a kid, my parents telling me that having my nose in a book all the time was making me “anti-social” and “cut off from humanity”. Now I see parents doing EXACTLY the same thing with kids and technology.

      Humans always seek out interaction with each other. Technology has made that so much easier. I wouldn’t be able to talk to you if it weren’t for technology. I wouldn’t be able to connect with my friends quickly and easily and make arrangements to spend time with them. I wouldn’t be able to meet people on the other side of the planet, and travel to spend time with them (as I have done – to the US and Canada, and to New Zealand so far) and keep in touch with them afterwards so quickly and easily. I would have lost contact with my oldest friend if it weren’t for technology.

      But more importantly, I wouldn’t have the knowledge I have today if it wasn’t for technology. Not everyone has access to academia. Not everyone is able to travel. Some people are limited financially or physically (illness, disability) from leaving the house. Technology brings the world to your computer, phone or tablet. And I certainly wouldn’t be a fat activist today, with connections all over the world to share resources if it wasn’t for technology.

      Technology isn’t what drives society, it just reflects us back to us.

      • Thankfully, my parents encouraged my nose in a book through discussions of what I was reading and such. I totally agree that technology has brought the world to our fingertips. I would not know what to do without it anymore. However, in the past, when you sat waiting for an airplane, you would easily talk to the person sitting next to you, and I often experienced interested group discussions ensuing from such a contact. I miss meeting other travelers when I am waiting for a plane. People walk down the street talking on their hand-free sets, and I had the experience of ignoring someone asking for directions just because I did not expect the person to be talking to me, I am so used to people walking down the street apparently talking to themselves. I have been in groups where members are busily texting each other, not participating in the group. You go to a restaurant and you see a table full of people engaged with their OS, not with each other. More automobile accidents (a 300% increase is what I last saw) happen because people are driving and interacting with their OS at the same time, and let’s not forget about pedestrian crossing the streets without looking because they are busy with their OS. I could go on and on. Yes OS are the bomb, however, we are losing a lot of opportunities for social interaction and I am afraid interpersonal relationships are suffering. There is ongoing research on the subject.

        • People aren’t “engaging with their OS”. They are engaging with other people VIA their device. In fact, I’m one of those people who sits with my friends in a cafe or somewhere, with us all with our devices out, and they bring us closer together. We show each other things. We take photos of each other. We tag each other at the location. We bring other people who can’t be there in to the conversation. Nobody is “engaging with their OS”. “Apparently talking to themselves” just means “not talking to you”. Who they are talking to is none of your business, and nobody is under any obligation to cease doing that because you personally don’t like it.

          Perhaps you do like to talk to strangers in public. But have you ever considered whether those strangers actually WANT to talk to YOU? Or do you just decide they are “rude” if they would rather not? Have you considered that perhaps people are either busy, or not comfortable talking to strangers, or just not interested? I see quite a pattern of focus on how YOU feel in your comments Eda, rather than considering others feelings.

          I think you might be referring to YOUR experience Eda, not the actual general experiences of people in general. Perhaps you do feel isolated, perhaps you do feel that people aren’t interacting with you. Perhaps you feel lonely for not being included in the conversation. Perhaps you feel that others are interacting outside of your circle. But that’s not about devices, that’s about YOU.

          And it’s certainly not a reflection of the demise of society.

  • Thank-you, thank-you for this piece, Kath! I completely agree with you; something just didn’t sit right with me about this movie and you have hit the nail on the head. This movie has a strong undercurrent of misogyny. I think the Swedish “Bechdel test” for rating films based on how they portray women is an EXCELLENT idea. Here is a link if anyone is interested: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/06/swedish-cinemas-bechdel-test-films-gender-bias

    Your writing is really insightful. Thank-you.

  • I think Steve Martin already explored this concept rather well in ‘The Man With Two Brains’, falling in love with a woman who is just a brain in a jar.

    I really enjoyed your post, especially ‘actual women are seen as dirty, messy, leaky things’, I’ve noticed that women in movies never seem to get periods, and get pregnant with no reference to their ovulation cycles.

    However I do have some agreement with your other commenter, Eda. While technology has opened up enormous opportunities for communication and connection, I too have observed that people seem to be withdrawing from personal interaction. Where I find this saddest is when I observe a parent out with their child in the street or on the bus, but constantly engaged with their phone and ignoring their child. When I used to take my son to a mother and baby group they had a sign up requesting mother’s not use their phones but focus on their babies during session. The fact such a sign had to be written was very telling. Recent studies in the UK showed that more children were starting nursery school with developmental delay, and this was attributed in part to parents not interacting with them.

    • snOrkmaiden I want you (and Eda) to rethink your statements. You’re projecting. YOU feel that using devices in public is antisocial. Not everyone feels that way. People like to judge others for how they live their lives. And that includes judging them for choosing to use their devices in a way that is not the same way that you might. Again, people don’t “engage with their phone” – they engage with other people VIA their phone.

      And striking the “bad mother” comparison is a pretty anti-woman sentiment.

      • Woah, you really don’t like it when someone disagrees with you do you? Pity, I think you have some interesting ideas, but if your only response to opposing views is to attack those who make them, then there’s nothing here for me.

        Anti-woman? Since when is it anti-woman to criticize the actions of individual women? Am I a misandrist if I criticize a man’s actions? Btw, I did say ‘parents’ when I talked of people who remain glued to their iPhones while ignoring their small children while out in public places, I wasn’t specifically slamming mothers.

        • You’re right. There is nothing here for you if you see someone disagreeing with you and suggesting you’re casting your own judgement on others as an “attack”. I am under no obligation to adopt a tone YOU think is appropriate on MY blog.

          And if you meant “parents” why did you specifically refer to “mothers” in the next sentence?

          See ya. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

          • *Wow, I’m going to turn up here and leave my first comment being a complete douche in a conversation that had nothing to do with me. Because I clearly have nothing better to do with my life.*

            • Bite me. If you don’t like it, you know where the door is.

              I don’t understand you people who spend time on a site that you clearly hate, bellyaching. Have you not got anything better to do with your time? Nobody has a gun to your head forcing you to read this page. Get over yourselves.

    • *A bunch of random ranting about what I should and shouldn’t do with the comments on my blog. It’s pointless and boring, so I won’t inflict it on the rest of you.*

      • Why are you even here? Why are you even commenting? Why do you even read this blog?

        I mean seriously, if you’ve got such a bug up your butt about what I do and don’t do with the comments on MY blog… why are you here?

        I think it might be because you have nothing better to do. Or you just want to have a whinge to make yourself feel special.

        Now, I *DO* have better things to do, so this is where this stops. Go do something with your life. Go read a blog you like. Go comment somewhere that the owner of the blog gives a damn what you have to say.

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