“Her” and Disembodied Femininity


It’s not like I was expecting a gender-neutral artificial intelligence from Spike Jonze, as I was already assuming “Samantha” (with Scarlet Johansson’s voice) was going to represent a straight woman, but here we go again, another lost opportunity for those like me who had some hopes on seeing a future portrayed in mainstream media with more diverse representations of gender and cognitive experiences. Donna Haraway wrote in her 1985 “Cyborg Manifesto:”

 A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction. The international women’s movements have constructed ‘women’s experience’, as well as uncovered or discovered this crucial collective object. This experience is a fiction and fact of the most crucial, political kind. Liberation rests on the construction of the consciousness, the imaginative apprehension, of oppression, and so of possibility. The cyborg is a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women’s experience in the late twentieth century. This is a struggle over life and death, but the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.

In this context, the cybernetic organism is a constructed hybrid, which allows for subverting oppression and is a ground for possibilities of liberation. Although “Her” presents a near-future artificial intelligence that blurs the lines between human organisms and machines (cool!) the disembodied mind of Samantha remains stereotypically feminine, heterosexual, and pretty white sounding (what is new). Also, Samantha’s disembodied identity is a rational one, almost passing for pseudo-universal, with all the negative consequences that universalizing a privileged female experience brings to all those who remain underrepresented (anyone who is not straight, feminine, and white).

In “Her,” an artificial intelligence learns from experiences, develops intellectually, has feelings, and engages in a relationship with a male human. The film presents one perspective of how relationships with independent artificial minds (without bodies) might unfold in a near future. In the story Theodore, who is recently divorced, falls in love with “the first artificially intelligent operating system,” Samantha, and, like most human couples, the two have (disembodied) sex, argue, take trips together and even double date.

I’ve already read good reviews about our tendency to sexualize technology, and how the future already looks somewhat like it does in the film, but I had a secret hope to see how technology could redefine gender roles. And at some points in this film it does: We see Samantha develop feelings of care and love towards more than one partner, resisting in ways, the monogamy of relationships, and leaning towards poliamory. These computers also develop same-sex friendships with their owners in the film. But in other ways, Samantha reflects the projections and programmed content of patriarchal standards inputted into “her.” “She” cares for Theodore in almost smothering ways, performs sexually with the identity of a woman and gets jealous of other ladies who are in Theodor’s life. After being with Theodore for a while, she claims they haven’t had sex in a long time, and adds “I know I don’t have a body…but…” and attempts to find a body to replace her (she picks a blonde woman to perform heterosexual sex with Theodor as her “body fill-in”).

I went to see “Her” with a guy friend who expressed to me: “I kept imagining Scarlet Johansen speaking behind that computer, so it made me think that Theodore was with a woman rather than just a mind.” And probably this is what Jonze attempted to portray, a disembodied mind of a woman? So in this sense, the movie succeeded. But focusing on the hopes for artificial intelligence to really transcend, or actually blur the gender boundaries, I was disappointed. Because if you are going to take out the bodies and just leave all the artificial independent minds, independently collecting knowledge and creating their own identities, why can’t Samantha’s female identity transcend racial and gender stereotypes? I don’t even think that the mind over body hierarchy is successful at portraying the way cognitive experiences work, but if one is to use it, we might as well arrive at a more successful sci-fi transcendence, one where women also get to transcend gender oppression.

Historically, are not women unequally consigned to embodiment while men get to be rational minds?  And “She” is a rational mind who researches, organizes and synthesizes data, speaks at a post-linguistic level with other artificial intelligences and grows intellectually, yet, apparently, “she” is still another submissive representation of an embodied female, who has embodied cognitive experiences, except that without a body. Almost there, but not really there, in my hopes to see gender equality in the artificial intelligence sphere where queerness and gender non-conforming standards should be possible, and sadly, they are not.

About Are You Hung Up

I am a trained philosopher but usually make a living teaching middle school or writing Spanish scripts for Youtube. I get hung up on things. So here is my writing about whatever I'm hung up on in the moment. I'm from Argentina and my style of writing might have too many run ons for you. Consider that too.
This entry was posted in Philosophy about Art and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to “Her” and Disembodied Femininity

  1. Great review, and touched on a lot of the same feelings I had watching the film (saw it last night)! I especially liked that you highlighted the fact that Samantha was capable of engaging in a polyamorous relationship with Theodore (and the HUGE shortcoming, which is a conclusion derived from how that moment in the narrative plays out, is that only a disembodied, artificially intelligent operating system, who has the capacity for *infinite thought,* is the only being in the story that has the adequate intellectual/emotional skills to engage in polyamorous relationships). While it this moment may be down played by some other viewers of the movie, I don’t think one can stress this enough: films, especially one’s as aesthetically and emotionally rich and engaging as “Her,” is a main way in which desire is not simply represented to an audience; but *produced* in an audience.

    And Spike Jonze is not lacking in the know-how in *producing* desires in an audience (I am specifically thinking of the first “sex scene” where the screen goes black and the viewers are only left to experience the voices of the characters. Incredibly intense and rich!). Perhaps his shortcoming is that he didn’t take the powers of cinema far enough – with its ability to inspire people to embark upon forms of relations with others due to their experiences in theaters. What would the movie have been like if Theodore wasn’t salvaged from his despair by the experience of a feminized technology in order to make him feel like life is worth living again (and this raises the issue of the incredibly, painfully, normative romantic idea of a partner being the one who rescues the other from nihilism), but rather a story about the ways in which the desires which produce poly, queer, non-normative, forms of care and affection can be lived, in real time (and not some infinite time of a higher level of consciousness)?

    Oh and…. I found the ending completely disappointing since the female character with Theodore in the end was underdeveloped (and so was ‘her’ relationship to her OS).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s