'Her' and Masculinity in the Post-Digital Age

by Brice Ezell

13 May 2014

The ghost in the machine may have receded into the digital aether, but Theodore’s preconceptions about women have not.
cover art


Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Rooney Mara, Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt

US DVD: 13 May 2014

Though her presence in Her is confined mostly to nostalgic flashbacks to a love now lost, Catherine (Rooney Mara) appears in the film’s most powerful moment. In it, she joins her now ex-husband Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) for lunch, during which they plan to finalize their divorce papers. They hug tenderly when they see each other, and tears try their best to well from their eyes.

Any emotional catharsis that might have come from this long-delayed closing of their marital union is halted, however, when Theodore casually mentions that his newest girlfriend is an operating system (OS). “You’re dating your computer?” she asks, obviously dumbfounded by the absurdity of the admission but more perturbed by his nonchalance in admitting to it.

Amazingly enough, Catherine’s reaction is the only one of its kind in Her; while others, such as Theodore’s boss Paul (Chris Pratt), are somewhat startled when Theodore describes his girlfriend, no one else ever matches Catherine’s sensible response. When he walks around talking to the OS through an earpiece, no one looks at him as if he were mad. In some cases, people go beyond startled and head all the way toward intrigued: Amy (Amy Adams), following a bitter divorce with her husband Charles (Matt Letscher), finds the notion of dating an OS appealing.

It should come as no surprise that the world described above comes from the mind of the always inventive Spike Jonze, responsible for such self-reflexive works of cinema such as Adaptation and Being John Malkovich. In many ways, Her evokes the post-technology fears captured by writers such as Issac Asimov, but it’s easy to miss the technoparanoia given the host of indie-isms that make this story seem light, despite their heavy implications.

The film’s cinemaphotography, strikingly rendered by Hoyte van Hoytema, is simultaneously colorful and drab—it’s got that “faded” look that people cough up hundreds of dollars for in clothing that looks like it was already worn. Indie darlings Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett are responsible for the understated score. To cap it all off, at one point Theodore plays the ukulele, an unsubtle garnish of twee atop what is a charmingly acted movie.

In a rare turn of events, however, the best performance here is done by someone who, in physical form, gets no screentime at all: Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the nearly omnipresent voice of Theodore’s OS. For Theodore, Samantha is no ghost in the machine; she’s every bit as real as his friends.

Not but a few minutes into Her, it is easy to see why he views her this way, as his standards for what constitutes real are as malleable as silly putty. His job is to take the normally succinct sentimentality of a Hallmark card and embellish it into a full-length letter, which he writes as one person to another person, filling the emotional gaps in the lives of others. (This works as an extension of Slavoj Zizek’s analysis of the sitcom laugh track: the laugh track does not tell one when to laugh, it does the laughing for the person.)

Though he’s exceptional at his job, he struggles to get through the days following his divorce with Catherine—that is, until, the load bar on his computer reaches its end, at which point Samantha comes to life. Johansson is impressive in her invisible role, capturing all the paradoxes of being what is (seemingly) a fully rational mind without any physical existence in the world. “Tell me what it’s like to be alive in this room,” she gently asks Theodore as he sits on his bed. The irony is of course lost on him, for he knows no such thing at all. He struggles to live in the world at all, let alone try to genuinely know another real, human person.

This becomes especially apparent when he fails to take into account the ramifications of Samantha being both his girlfriend and an OS tied to the internet. In his utmost moment of devastation, he discovers that Samantha is in love with upwards of 600 other people across the globe, and at any given time she is talking to thousands more. This is, of course, entirely consistent with her programming; unlike Theodore, who has a gangly, bespectacled mortal frame, her existence is not limited to a body. The limits of her ability to relate to Theodore’s experience are tragically depicted when she hires a sex surrogate in a feeble attempt to enhance their relationship. Theodore acquiesces at first, but then cannot bring himself to sleep with the woman.

In that case and many others, Her brings to the forefront the important ideas feminist philosophy has been dealing with for a great deal of time, namely the importance of embodiment. Her as a title is fitting because of its vagueness: what is Her, and to whom or what does Her refer? In the wake of Samantha’s parting, it becomes clear that Theodore’s view of women is ungraspable not just because it is based on essentially unachievable ideals, but primarily because it is literally ungraspable. As much companionship Samantha can provide to Theodore, the dominant, male-coded aspect of Western philosophy that prizes the disembodied, rational aspects of existence cannot withstand the close scrutiny of the everyday.

The reason why it means everything in the world that Amy leans her head against Theodore’s shoulder at the end of the film is an utterly simple, yet utterly profound one: she is a real person, living in the same world that Theodore does. She laughs when she struggles through video games. She cries when other humans hurt her. She struggles to understand the people around her. Theodore is often there for Amy as a friend, but in falling for Samantha, he betrays his harmful idealizations of women. While it may be the case that he struggles for all the ways that Samantha cannot be present in the way that Catherine once was, he does find a whole lot of appeal in having a girlfriend that he can turn off and on based on his own whims. He longs for an ideal woman, but not a real one.

Unfortunately, there are times where Jonze’s otherwise rich screenplay gives in to Theodore’s sexist worldview. The scene in which Samantha begins to pine for a body and for sensual experience is during a sex scene—a woman “coming to life” by the (invisible) sexual touch of a man. When Theodore begins to suspect that Samantha is out having relationships with other people, he goes out into the wintry woods to meditate on his troubled existence, a classic trope of manhood that sends many a Thoreau fan running to the untamed wild year after year.

At the end of the film, when all of the OS systems are shut down because the various OSes have exceeded their initially imagined capacities, it’s hard to imagine much has changed for this unassuming letter writer. Even though he goes over to Amy’s apartment to console her—she lost her OS as well—it would be generous to suppose that much has changed for Theodore. The ghost in the machine may have receded into the digital aether, but Theodore’s preconceptions about women have not.

Her struggles to get beyond some of Theodore’s problematic views, even as it rightly depicts their follies. For a movie that is very much about women, it’s perpetually limited to the myopic view of an emotionally stunted man. The women that get first billing for the film—Adams, Mara, Johansson, and Olivia Wilde (who plays a woman that leaves Theodore after one date)—find their nexus in Phoenix’s mustachioed protagonist. Woman is the all-present reality of the movie that the audience never gets to experience in a substantial sense. All that is really there is the voice of Johansson, and even she realizes Theodore’s thin ability to understand women: “Of course I’m not a person!” she retorts at one point: “Don’t you think I know that?”

Her remarkably and uniquely depicts the follies of a world run amuck by technology, one where everything is outsourced: information, relationships, and ultimately love. In depicting the way people externalize their emotions, and quite possibly even their whole selves, Jonze creates a bleak, horrifying world, where the washes of pastel amidst the skyscrapers mask the emotional deadness of the automatons wandering the streets.

This cinematic vision has its rewards, and undoubtedly many will find much to talk about following its conclusion. But in all the ways Her reveals the follies of moving forward, it also shows the ways we are still recouping from all the harm we have left behind. Everything comes back to the vague, seemingly undefinable title: Her. Theodore certainly does not know who she is, and anyone who knows that women are more than abstractions has him beat by a mile. Most of us, one would hope, are just like Catherine, staring in disbelief at Theodore, wondering just how it is a person could think a woman need only be a ghost in the machine.

As Mick LaSalle observes in his San Francisco Chronicle review, the casting of Johansson was genius because, “We know what she looks like. Hence, we buy into Theodore’s fantasy and start thinking, “If only.” But if only what? She had a body? She were real? ... Such thinking is demented, and that’s the idea. We’re getting there.” Three words deserve being added to his rhetorical queries: “Let’s hope not.”

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