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.
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.