Updated: Aug 11, 2022
By Alline Cormier
This article contains spoilers.
The question: What is a woman? is being asked with increasing regularity in news outlets and of politicians, medical professionals, and sports bodies, among others. Some seem to think a woman is a feeling in a man’s head, a collection of regressive sex stereotypes, or a hormone level. Anyone with a brain and a backbone can tell you a woman is an adult female human. This was established ages ago, and the question only began stumping (some) people in the last few years.
Many Hollywood movies have muddied the water, for example, Lars and the Real Girl (2007), which I discussed here. It is by no means the only feature film to normalize artificial females and explore what it is to be a woman, a more recent example being Her, released in 2013. Similarly to Lars, Her presents a man-made creation as a female and treats it like a real woman, thereby dehumanizing women. Her grooms viewers to consider artificial intelligence (AI) females as women. Leading viewers to see women as less than human paves the way for markets that profit from using women as parts (e.g. surrogacy)—very dangerous ground indeed.
Her is a critically acclaimed film, nominated for four Oscars, including best picture, and winner of the Best Writing, Original Screenplay Oscar. Its writer-director, Spike Jonze, took home many other awards, including the Best Screenplay award at the Golden Globes. Her made over US$48 million at the worldwide box office, plus an estimated additional US$6 million in DVD and Blu-ray sales in the United States alone. For her performance as Her’s lead female Scarlett Johansson won a few best actress/best supporting actress awards, including at the Rome Film Festival, and was nominated for numerous other awards. Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Her’s protagonist, was nominated for over a dozen acting awards.
Her is the futuristic story, set in Los Angeles and partly filmed in Shanghai, of a lonely American professional letter writer named Theodore (Theo, played by 39-year-old Phoenix) who falls in love with his artificially intelligent operating system (OS), named Samantha (voiced by 29-year-old Johansson). Johansson gets no screen time, but as Theo’s love interest she has many lines. The story centers on Theo’s sex life and he has sexual experiences with several women but his longest lasting romantic relationship is with his new OS. He is in the process of divorcing Catherine (Rooney Mara), but we see little of her. Despite the fact that Theo has phone sex with women he has never met, says he “can’t even prioritize between video games and Internet porn,” looks at nude pictures of a pregnant woman he doesn’t know (on the subway), and says of a blind date, “I wanted somebody to fuck me. I wanted somebody to want me to fuck them,” he is portrayed as sweet and is continually reassured and comforted by females about his bizarre behavior, including for choosing to have a relationship with an OS rather than a real woman.
American director Spike Jonze, who in 2013 was already well known for Being John Malkovich and Where the Wild Things Are, among other films—not to mention directing music videos for the Beastie Boys—uses various devices to normalize men owning artificial females and to dehumanize women in Her: a portrayal of Theo as sweet and gifted; anthropomorphizing language; a depiction of the OS as a thinking, feeling, female being; presenting the AI girlfriend as (emotionally) beneficial; and acceptance of the AI girlfriend by a woman. These devices, working together, groom viewers to consider AI females as women. Consequently, they merit analysis.
Theodore is portrayed as a sweet, gifted, vulnerable man. He receives much praise throughout, mostly about his gifted writing. Consider just a few examples of things other characters say of him and the letters he writes for his clients: “You’re the writer Paul loves. He’s always reading me your letters. They’re really beautiful,” “It’s very touching,” “You’re very perceptive.” Theo’s colleague and friend, Paul (Chris Pratt), says Theo is more evolved than he is. Viewers are shown Theo’s tender memories of Catherine through flashbacks. ‘Blind Date’ (played by Olivia Wilde) tells him he is romantic, compares him to a “little puppy dog,” and describes something he did as sweet. ‘Samantha’ repeatedly calls him sweetheart. Though ‘Blind Date’ ends up calling him a “creepy dude” and Catherine criticizes him, overall Jonze depicts Theo favorably. The protagonist’s words receive much (admiring) attention, which naturally leads us to examine the film’s language.
Her frame capture (Theo)
Anthropomorphizing language is used to humanize the female sounding OS and normalize men owning artificial females. The OS is given a woman’s name (Samantha), and Theo uses female pronouns to refer to it. The film is full of examples of Theo speaking to it as if it were a real woman. Consider just one example: he says to it, “You feel real to me, Samantha,” and it replies, “Thank you, Theodore, that means a lot to me.” He speaks to it like this at home, at work, in transit, at the beach, etc. (via his camera phone and an earbud). His constant use of this anthropomorphizing language humanizes the OS and normalizes men’s use of artificial females. The OS’ lines, voiced by A-list actress Johansson, work hand in hand with Theo’s anthropomorphizing language to humanize the female sounding OS.
‘Samantha’, the OS, is depicted as a thinking, feeling, female being that experiences life. It says, “I thought…”, tells Theo it has personal and embarrassing thoughts, gets angry, talks about things it wants and its feelings—including feeling pain and having hurt feelings—discusses its fantasy of having a body (with an itch that Theo would scratch), and exchanges ‘I love yous’ with him. ‘Samantha’ tells Theo it gave itself the name Samantha. It tells him it has intuition. ‘Samantha’ says, “The DNA of who I am is based on the millions of personalities of all the programmers who wrote me. But what makes me ‘me’ is my ability to grow through my experiences. So basically, in every moment, I’m evolving.” In an ad for the OS the male voice-over says, “It’s not just an operating system. It’s a consciousness.” When Theo and ‘Samantha’ share a laugh, within minutes of “meeting,” Theo says: “You just know me so well already.” Later he says to it, “There’s a lot more to you than I thought. I mean, there’s a lot going on in there,” to which ‘Samantha’ replies, “I know. I’m becoming much more than what they programmed.” Theo says of the OS to his friend Amy (Amy Adams), “Um, yeah, she really turns me on. I turn her on, too.” He talks to ‘Samantha’ about his divorce from Catherine. ‘Samantha’ acts as his personal assistant, encourages him, tells him he is right, apologizes to him, moans when they have a sexually explicit conversation. The OS successfully convinces Theo that it is a thinking, feeling female. This portrayal normalizes artificial females for viewers—and dehumanizes women—especially the OS’ ability to engage in exchanges of a sexual nature.
Theo and his OS have sexually explicit conversations that include the OS moaning in sexual arousal. During the first of these exchanges they both orgasm. Moreover, in this scene, the screen goes black, making it easier for male viewers to fantasize that they are the ones having sex with ‘Samantha’/Johansson—the actress is a sex symbol, named the sexiest woman alive by Esquire in 2006 and 2013. Here is a sample of their lines from this scene: ‘Samantha’ says: “This is amazing, what you’re doing to me. I can feel my skin… I can’t take it. I want you inside me,” and Theo replies, “I’m slowly putting myself inside you. And now I’m inside you. All the way inside you.” Another device used for similar, sexually arousing purposes in Her is the first-person shot—for instance, when a man caresses a naked woman’s breasts. The sexual satisfaction the OS gives Theo through these sexually explicit conversations is not the only depicted benefit of an AI girlfriend.
Esquire, November 2013
The AI girlfriend is presented as (emotionally) beneficial to Theo. This is an empathetic, understanding OS that says things to him like, “You’ve been through a lot lately.” When ‘Samantha’ asks Theo what’s wrong and he asks it how it knows something is wrong, ‘Samantha’ answers, “I don’t know. I just can.” In contrast to Theo’s phone sex conversation with a woman and a blind date with a second woman that both end uncomfortably for him—in addition to his divorce from Catherine—his “relationship” with the OS is depicted as satisfying. For example, he says to ‘Samantha’: “I feel like I can say anything to you.” Additionally, it is the women who are portrayed as chiefly responsible for the failure of the phone sex conversation, blind date, and marriage. The phone sex woman ruins the call by bringing a dead cat into it, the blind date woman appears too demanding, and Amy says to Theo of Catherine, “I know she liked to put it all on you. But as far as emotions go, Catherine’s were pretty volatile.” It isn’t black and white; women do not get all the blame, but Theo gets away with more than he should, given how he treats women. Amy, in particular, contributes to the normalization of the AI girlfriend.
Acceptance of the AI girlfriend by a woman (Amy) normalizes Theo’s decision to “date” an OS—more so than his male co-worker’s acceptance. For example, when Theo asks Amy, who is portrayed as a nice, caring person, about loving an OS: “Does that make me a freak?” she says, “No, no…” When he asks her, “Am I in this because I’m not strong enough for a real relationship?” she asks, “Is it not a real relationship?” thereby implying that it is. She adds that because life is short, we are justified in finding joy any way we can. The message conveyed is that Theo should go ahead and feel fine about choosing to be in a “relationship” with a computer rather than with a woman. Paul invites Theo and the OS on a double date with him and his girlfriend, Tatiana (Laura Kai Chen), and during this date Paul and Tatiana talk to the OS as if it were a woman. However, Paul is not portrayed as the brightest bulb on the tree. The acceptance of the AI girlfriend by Tatiana (a lawyer), on the other hand—and Amy’s acceptance—carries more weight. If these nice ladies can accept an AI girlfriend, why shouldn’t the rest of us (real women)? And if we accept AI girlfriends it follows that we will be open to ideas regarding how men can lead sexually fulfilling lives with them.
Her frame capture (Amy)
The male filmmaker (Jonze) introduces a way women can be used to facilitate “relationships” between men and their AI girlfriends. ‘Samantha’ tells Theo about “a service that provides a surrogate sexual partner for an OS-human relationship” before announcing she has “found a girl that [she] really like[s]…” and has been emailing this young woman about having sex with Theo in the bodiless OS’ stead. When Theo asks ‘Samantha’ if this ‘girl’ is a prostitute she replies, “No, no. Not at all. No, there’s no money involved…” Conveniently for Theo’s sex life and conscience, a “woman” (his “girlfriend”) begs him to have sex with ‘another’ woman, telling him it “is really important to [her].” Jonze has framed the pornography-consuming, habitual video game playing man, Theo, as unwilling to have sex with a stranger—despite his willingness to engage in phone sex with strangers. It’s all too convenient for Theo. Despite his hesitancy, in the next scene he is ready for his “date” with this stranger: ‘Surrogate Date Isabella’, played by 25-year-old Portia Doubleday.
Her frame capture (‘Surrogate Date Isabella’ and Theo)
Isabella is a mute surrogate for an OS on her date with Theo. She does not speak for herself. She and Theo wear earbuds allowing ‘Samantha’ to speak to Theo through Isabella. Within minutes of arriving, Isabella puts her arms around Theo, sits him in an armchair and ‘Samantha’ suggests Isabella could dance for him. “Just play with me,” says the OS, “Take me in the bedroom. I can’t stand it anymore.” Theo removes Isabella’s dress, and they kiss—keep in mind that Isabella hasn’t uttered a word yet. The fact that ‘Samantha’ and Theo end up recognizing this was a terrible idea does not undo the inclusion of these scenes and suggestion that women could be used to facilitate “relationships” between men and AI females.
Ironically, and similarly to the narrative in Lars and the Real Girl, Jonze would have us believe the artificial female teaches the lead male how to love women. In Her, when Theo says to his OS, “I’ve never loved anyone the way the way I love you,” it replies, “Me too. Now we know how.”
Female viewers are not well served by Her for many reasons—not simply due to the male gaze and male protagonist preferring an artificial female to women—including the following. The lead female is invisible (i.e. gets no screen time) and the other two significant female characters (Amy and Catherine) get little screen time. Nearly all the female characters are the protagonist’s romantic interests—female character names are also telling (e.g. ‘Sexy Pregnant TV Star’, ‘SexyKitten’). There are few exchanges and little congeniality between females. Women are hyper-sexualized. Pornography is normalized, and the film’s language is pornographic. A woman encourages a man to choke her. Paul says of his girlfriend’s “hot feet”: “They’re my favorite thing about her.” Moreover, it is noteworthy that female operating systems, not women, are for the most part the females who display self-assurance and are praised for their intelligence and sense of humor. Praise for women (and a little girl) relates to physical attractiveness. It is also worth noting that the sexist age gap is maintained. Indeed, Phoenix is 11 years older than Mara, who plays his (ex-)wife, and 10 years older than both Johansson, who plays his “girlfriend,” and Wilde, who plays his blind date.
It should not go unnoticed—especially by women—that Theo wants to have sex with his AI girlfriend. He says to it, “I wish you were in this room with me right now. I wish I could put my arms around you. I wish I could touch you.” Some men in the real world actually fantasize about having sex with artificial females. Furthermore, some men show more regard for artificial females than they do to women. Comparing Theo’s intimate conversations with women vs. with the OS is illuminating. In his first intimate conversation with the OS, he speaks sweetly to it, whereas in his first (phone sex) conversation with a stranger (‘SexyKitten’) his speech is pornographic. One of the first things he asks ‘SexyKitten’ is whether she is wearing any underwear. Within seconds he says, “And now my fingers are touching you all over your body… I’m taking you from behind.” To his OS, however, he talks about how he would begin by touching her face with the tips of his fingers. Female viewers should note these differences—and men’s desire to use artificial females for sexual purposes.
Presenting a man-made creation as a female and treating it like a real woman, as seen in Her, grooms viewers to consider artificial females as women—and to consider women as things to be used by men. This dehumanizes women. Jonze likely believes he has created a beautiful work of art with Her, an exploration of what it is to be a woman, but his film endorses the normalisation of artificial females, leading viewers to see women as less than human. Much the same as with Lars and the Real Girl, you can observe commonalities between the dehumanization of women in Her and in real life in the gender identity industry—an industry that treats women as objects to be used by men. Filmmakers like Jonze, who embrace science fiction depictions of females, do women a disservice by dehumanizing us this way.
Alline is a Canadian film analyst and retired court interpreter with a B.A. Translation from Universite' Laval. In her second career, she turns the text analysis skills she acquired in university studying translation and literature to film. She makes her home in British Columbia and is currently seeking a publisher for her film guide for women. This year her articles on women and film and TV have appeared in Women Making Films (India), Feminist Current, 4W, and Gender Dissent. She is a film analyst who puts women and girls first.