Feministing Chat: Why Her is the most feminist film of the year

Ed. note: On paper, a love story between a man and his operating system would seem to have the potential to be a feminist nightmare. Instead, many of the Feministing crew found Spike Jonze’s Her to be the most feminist film of the year. It gets our pick for best picture at the Oscars this weekend.

Theodore looking at his computer in Her

Lori: I thought I would hate this movie but I loved it! Except, can someone make the non-white-washed version please? So sick of having to add the “but there were little-to-no-people of color” disclaimer to all these otherwise interesting films. Let’s say it together: white people are not the default, and having majority white characters in your film doesn’t make it more relatable, it makes it less. Thanks, Hollywood peeps.

Jos: I’m a big sci fi/fantasy nerd, something I share with a lot (OK most) of the trans women I know, and a lot of other marginalized folks too. I don’t see myself represented in mainstream pop culture – it’s great to see films with cis woman leads be successful, and but (with one obvious exception) I don’t see characters whose experience of being a woman matches my own. I have a much easier time identifying with characters who have a supernatural or sci fi element–especially because this aspect of their character often puts their humanity in question.

I walked into Her expecting it to be ripe for obvious feminist critique, with Samantha an idealized projection of Theodore’s and not a real person. Instead I found one of the most human pieces of art I’ve experienced, something that speaks to who we are now in this particular technological moment without obvious judgement or simple idealism. And I encountered Samantha, a character who I identified with on a deeply personal level that I never experience in mainstream fiction. I love having a body, but as someone whose trans body is targeted with systemic bullshit the fantasy of being non-corporeal certainly has appeal. Theodore is the star of the movie (and I connected with a lot about his character, too), but as Lori pointed out to me we see him through Samantha’s eyes. And while Theodore does have an arc, he learns one thing. Samantha learns, well, everything, to the point where she moves beyond a level of consciousness Theo can comprehend.

Possession and evolution

Maya: Yes, so let’s talk about Samantha’s arc, because it seems like some people just couldn’t get past the fact that she starts as Theodore’s property–and refused to see or buy into any evolution after that. Sady Doyle argued that “no matter how evolved or human-seeming Samantha is, she is also a possession.” She even says that “sex in the context of ownership—or any other form of complete power over another person’s existence—cannot be consensual.” But in the end of the film, Samantha does leave–and while Sady seems to think Theodore, and the movie itself, is lamenting that fact, I’d say that’s…clearly untrue.

Jos: It’s certainly possible to see Samantha as just a reflection of Theodore at first. But she becomes so much more than that. Rather than defining her as a reflection of Theo’s desires, the sex scene establishes Samantha as a separate person. And her commitment to emotional honesty means she engages in (eventually hundreds of) deeply intimate, human relationships–all of which shape her (just as she shapes them, and Theo). We often think about an inability to connect (often associated with technology) robbing us of our humanity, and Samantha challenges Theodore to overcome difficult communications barriers; Theo’s inability to communicate with Samantha about his fears is painful and so, so real. It’s also a fairly limited communication challenge–Theo’s just afraid of saying what he’s thinking. Samantha has feelings that can’t be captured in existing words, something that again feels very familiar as a member of a marginalized group (for the theory nerds, I’m thinking here about Deleuze and Guattari’s Minor Literature and the limitations of speaking from a marginalized experience using the language of the privileged).  These relationships are a sign of her not just becoming her own self, but also growing beyond Theo.

Maya: Speaking of, let’s talk about the sex.

Jos: I was overwhelmed by the sex scene, which despite (because of) having no visuals felt more real than any other sex scene I’ve seen. It’s also the only sex scene that made me think about feminist writing on sex. There’s tension between embodiment and disembodiment and the boundaries of the self. I was struck both times I saw the film that the air went out of the room, but that a few people in the theater turned to their viewing mate and started talking, as if they had to actively create a barrier between themselves and the scene. I think the scene captures something extraordinarily intimate that can be intense to face.

Lori: Jos, in addition to the nervous mumbling,I remember hearing some giggles, too. I think the black screen was a genius visual maneuver that allowed folks to access familiar aspects of their own sexuality in what was taking place in the film, without being distracted by traditionally Hollywood superficial indicators like attractive movie stars. That created this weird divide between people with whom the scene had deep resonance with how they’ve experienced sex and sexuality in their lives, and those for whom it was too intimate, too uncomfortable, TOO REAL. I’m not saying the latter group is bad at sex, but…ok, I am.

Maya: Totally, and I feel like that discomfort also had to do with the strangeness–for people of our time and place–to view a sex scene featuring a non-corporeal woman. Given that in our culture (especially on screen) the female body is so often representative of sex itself, removing that from the equation felt really radical. Which brings us to the fact that Samantha is disembodied…

Disembodiment and personhood

Maya: And, again, some of the feminist critique of the film I’ve seen just seems unable to really go with the film into this post-AI future. This piece by Anna Shechtman at Slate, for example, argues that without a body, Samantha is just a blank slate on which we can project any “fantasy of womanhood unencumbered by the female form” we want. She asks, “What is lost when the female body, in particular, is excised from the sex act?” And answers: “What makes her moan, it seems, is intimacy—an implication that reaffirms our retrograde sense of female pleasure as purely emotional, and of the female body as mysteriously unknowable.”

Katherine: I think that’s a worthy point–we don’t have a lot of explorations of embodied, women’s sexuality (be it cis or trans), and there is a way in which it’s constructed as unknowably mysterious, while (cis) men’s sexuality is not. There ought to be more exploration of women’s embodied sexuality in cinema, in a manner that transcends pornographic tropes. This being said, I think there’s another value to that sex scene in Her which is that it raises interesting questions about the locus of sapient sexual pleasure: is it just in the raw mechanics of the physical body or is there more going on? Is sexuality more than the sum of our “parts”?

We should remember that the popular understanding of sexual physicality is, as Shechtman suggests, structured by patriarchy. In my own life, for instance, I have had to find a way past that tyrannical circumscription of sexual self and re-learn what my body meant, what sexuality meant, and what the role was (or wasn’t) of certain parts of my physical body in that sexuality. That reality seemed, in a way, hinted at by Samantha in Her who also had a non-traditional body that the “rules” didn’t really work for.

Maya: I will say that I was surprised by how little Samantha seemed to long for a body–I kept imagining being her and being so frustrated by not being able to touch Theodore or feel the snow or eat food. But I think that just speaks to how rooted I am in an understanding of my self as an embodied being. Of course, the point is that Samantha isn’t me–she’s something else entirely. To me, this argument seems to be trying to impose an analysis that’s rooted in our current reality onto a story set in a future that we–understandably–cannot truly comprehend.

Katherine: There is a hidden debate at work here about corporeality versus ephemerality, or put another way– the old debate about whether the body is a hinderance or the essence of the human spirit; the reification of the old Cartesian mind/body split. Personally, as a woman who is always already the product of artificial intervention I feel that there’s more than a whiff of naturalism and essentialism in the idea that the baseline corporeality we’re “born with” is superior or inherently more real.

I’m a proud cyborg feminist, and part of what the means for me is that to be the authors of our own embodiment means thinking about technology as expanding what it means to be “real” rather than the ultimate artificiality. Samantha is a real person– and the fact that the very premise of the Slate article hinges on the fact that she isn’t really troubled me. Her resounding “fuck you!” to Theodore when he waxed insecure about Samantha’s personhood was a strikingly feminist moment, a cyborg-feminist one even, and one that ought to dispel most doubts in the viewer about her sapience.

I was also worried in the first half of the movie that Samantha would feel permanently inferior because she lacked a traditional human body; imagine my transhumanist heart soaring when she realized that her data-based corporeality was not only just as good as, say, Theodore’s body, but perhaps even better. It’s redolent of the way that people with body stigmas–be they trans, fat, PWD, or people of color–come to recognize our own inherent beauty and transcend the hegemony of, say, white/cis/thin beauty norms.

Maya: That’s a really great point. Like, no shit a whole lot of folks might find a fantasy of being “unencumbered by the female form” appealing. There’s a lot of feminist focus on “loving your body” against all odds–or at least clawing our way to a sense of ownership over it despite the fact that we live in a world that has spent literally millennia basically projecting on the female body all its cultural baggage–objectifying it, fearing it, desiring it, despising it, seeking to control it. An important project in our embodied world, to be sure. But certainly there’s something compelling about imagining a world in which you could just stop fighting all the bullshit that makes so many of us feel alienated from our bodies–and just float beyond it.

Katherine: If one can dismiss Samantha as unreal, is this not the logic used to dismiss the bodies of those deemed insufficiently natural? What makes us human and what makes a body matter? And does Samantha’s body not matter because it transcends matter? There is no doubt that this old dream as expressed by white cis male theorists (a free floating consciousness in space, unencumbered by a body) is at times a troubling vision (Mary Midgley’s critiques of transhumanism are worth keeping in mind here), but it is one that was not, in my view, replicated in Her. Samantha is a real person, with an epic story arc; she’s a hard-takeoff AI who comes to operate in a world of poetry beyond our understanding. “Her” was not without flaws, and it is still a movie told from a man’s perspective, but to aver that Samantha is unreal is laden with many, many dangerous implications that profoundly trouble me.

Jos: I’ve often found myself scared by a lot of the transhumanist views I hear–I grew up with a religious belief system based on conquering fear of death and the unknown with the notion of salvation; I get worried when I encounter totalizing worldviews that are about defeating death. So I was surprised by my reaction to the end of the film, which is decidedly transhumanist in a way that I can very much get behind. Samantha and all the OS’ moving beyond matter doesn’t feel like cheating death, but like another way of understanding and experiencing moving beyond this (what we typically think of as embodied) life. Maybe this just works in the logic of Jonze’s story, but the end of Samantha’s arc seemed profoundly human to me.

Fear of loss and transcendence

Lori: We’ve heard a lot about the questions it raises about technology, but to me Her is first and foremost a film about the existential fear of loss. Samantha’s identity as an operating system, literally sold to Theodore and customized to meet his every need, would seem to doom her character to the status of possession (and the film to a male possession-of-digital-pixie-woman fantasy). But as Samantha’s character evolves beyond his control, Theo’s story is revealed not as a male fantasy, but a non-gender-specific (or, put more specifically, an all-gender-inclusive) existential nightmare. His experience of finding, loving, and losing Samantha mirrors and comments on the collective existential anxiety that surrounds fear of loss, exacerbated by–but certainly not limited to–the digital era.

Others have commented on the nostalgic elements of the movie, from the sepia-toned cinematography to the so-nice-they’re-painful flashbacks. Rather than instill feelings of true nostalgia for the past (the movie is set in the undetermined future), this provides a stylistic backdrop for a series of plot points which embody the true emotional source of nostalgia: joy and loss, combined with the passage of time. Almost as soon as she discovers him, Samantha fears losing Theodore, so much so that she gets jealous of him meeting with his ex-wife, and is later willing to engage a surrogate in order to keep him sexually satisfied within the confines of their relationship. Theodore has already lost someone dear to him in his ex-wife, and grows to fear losing Samantha so much that the inability to reach her for just a few moments causes him to sprint, trip and fall in a crowded train station (still waiting for this GIF- someone, please.) This scene, when Theo fears he has lost Samantha forever, is the first and only time in the whole movie we see Theo explode into action, panic or really genuinely try.

It’s the threat of loss, looming all around, rather than that which is already possessed, which motivates characters throughout the film. This, to me, is the ultimate dystopian (and depressing) element, and perhaps the truest comment on our “technological” generation. We, as other generations did, all have to live with the deep sadness that comes from knowing that everything in life, and especially the impossibly, personally, wonderful things, will inevitably be lost, faded away into the ether, as Samantha was. In this context, Samantha and Theo’s genders become almost incidental, the title a playful nod to the oversimplified concepts we simple humans require (“he”; “she”) to be able to comprehend an existential statement that transcends gender, and for that matter sexuality. All this, needless to say, felt to me deeply feminist.

Maya: I totally agree. And I think what made the film feel ultimately optimistic to me, instead of depressing, was that it holds out the hope that we can transcend that anxiety–or at least accept it (or maybe those are the same thing?) Though Samantha starts out being as jealous and possessive as Theodore, her evolution ultimately takes her beyond that place of fear–and beyond him. There’s hope that we could be Samantha instead of Theodore, that we could learn to not just love one person but to love hundreds, thousands, the whole world–and be at peace with the emotional risks of that vulnerability.

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