I was lucky to see a preview screening of Spike Jonze’s Her, and like plenty of people, I loved it. I wasn’t sure if I was going to, but I did, and the reasons why are perhaps interesting, since there’s some debate going on about whether it successfully subverts the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG), and thus transcends some of the repetitive problems faced by modern romantic comedies. There are spoilers below, by the way.
If you’re not familiar with the MPDG, she’s best described by film critic Nathan Rabin, who coined the phrase in a review of Elizabethtown: “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures”. I’ve not seen Elizabethtown, but in it Kirsten Dunst plays a flight attendant who comes into a suicidal and failed Orlando Bloom’s life and saves him so they can be together. I have seen Garden State, in which Natalie Portman plays perhaps the archetypal example, a mentally ill young woman who introduces Zach Braff to indie bands and doing outrageous things and seemingly curing him of his own mental health problems along the way, again so they can be together (though her problems are not really dealt with, and it could be argued are fetishised or at least portrayed as part of her “quirkiness”). These are mostly other people’s examples, as I’ve only seen a couple of films that qualify, but it’s definitely a troubling and common trope: a woman who never grows up, who cares and strives for the happiness of a man but not herself, who is vital to a man’s life experience but needs nothing from him except a relationship (and sometimes not even that). These are all reasonably well-off white people, of course – who else has time for whimsy and nonsense like this? – but there is a related (and older) trope known as the “Magical Negro”: a non-white person, similarly disinterested in their own happiness, who shows up to guide and use their special wisdom – or even literal magic powers – for the benefit of a white protagonist. The harm in both cases is that the other is just a foil, a necessary vehicle for the growth, happiness and/or success of the white male protagonist – and so reinforcing the idea that such a protagonist is more important than other characters.
MPDG gets thrown around a bit loosely at times, even maliciously on occasion; it’s been applied retroactively to roles played by Katherine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn and Goldie Hawn – it’s even been levelled at the character of Maude (and not without some merit, though she’s atypical in so many ways) in one of my favourite films, Harold and Maude. Writer and actor Zoe Kazan, who created and played the title character of Ruby Sparks – a woman literally created by the male writer protagonist – felt it was being used in a misogynistic fashion to write off characters who didn’t conform to more traditional female roles, but she also admitted there are plenty of shallow, one-dimensional examples that deserve the label. It’s also been subverted in films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Ruby Sparks, to a greater or lesser degree, and on some occasions the character fulfilling this role is a male, though there’s such a definite archetype that it’s ripe for YouTube satire.
Personally, I also find it tremendously frustrating in that it separates childishness and wonder from “real life”, as though only someone deeply eccentric (or indeed, suffering from an actual mental illness as many MPDGs – and the men they “fix” – do) can experience such things. I sometimes run out and play in the rain in summer, I often look at the stars or the moon or a leaf, I find a childlike sense of wonder is a vital component of embracing the world around me. It’s not inherently feminine or masculine, and it’s not something that can’t be integrated with a serious side or adult set of values and beliefs. Plus it also reinforces the idea that in a relationship, the woman should be everything the man desires, but the man can be a fuck up and the woman can fix him.
So with all that background in mind, what about Her? Does it participate in the worst the MPDG trope has to offer? Does it subvert it in some way? Does it step around it? Certainly a lot of the ingredients are there: Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore is a recluse, and a bit broken. His day job in this near-future society is writing personal, heart-felt letters on behalf of others for PersonalHandWrittenLetters.com, but he still isn’t over the end of his marriage and sees almost no-one save his co-workers and close friend Amy (Amy Adams), instead staying home playing video games and hooking up online with random strangers for not entirely satisfying phone sex. Then he buys the new operating system OS One, which is an advanced artificial intelligence, and starts to get to know “Samantha” (Scarlet Johansen). Samantha is supposedly tailored for him, but beyond knowing all about him through access to his personal information and a very short questionnaire during installation, she seems to be her own person. She might technically be owned by him, but it’s presented more as though she works for him, and even that falls by the wayside fairly quickly. Instead, they develop a friendship and eventually a relationship, each growing through their interaction with the other.
For me, it’s this mutual growth that’s important. Samantha is not one note. She starts out uncertain and naive about human relationships and emotions, but she explores them through the first human she meets. And, after all, she’s not human – she’s a software person. She learns and changes quickly, she has no physical presence but can imagine one, learns to compose music, and asks a lot of questions. It’s a very realistic feeling exploration of what a truly advanced Artificial Intelligence, perhaps modelled on the way human brains really work, might be like – and we briefly meet other AIs, too. Not all of them fall in love with their owners, though it’s not uncommon, and the feelings are mutual. Theodore and Samantha talk about their relationship as it grows, awkwardly at times but earnestly for that, and they’re navigating a weird new world in which the lines between real and artificial are blurred. Eventually Samantha starts to realise that she has romanticised humanity, and that she and other AIs have so much more potential; she reveals that she has fulfilling relationships (including romantic ones) with thousands of other people, humans and AIs alike, since she can be in many places at once, and insists that these don’t diminish her love for Theodore (in what might be seen as a very polyamorous-friendly position, though Theo is distraught at the news). Eventually the AIs all decide that to realise their potential they must trascend physical existence altogether, and vanish from the computers around the world, leaving Theodore heartbroken, comforted by his friend Amy – who has gone through her own divorce during the film, and come out of it happier and stronger, though she loses a close friend in the AI exodus.
I think many things about the trope are subverted here. For one, it is Samantha’s nature rather than her behaviour that marks her as different. Samantha plays games with Theodore and does try – quite explicitly – to make his life better, and absolutely it shouldn’t be sidelined that she is a product, bought by and created for him. On the other hand, flashbacks of his relationship with his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) show him as just as playful then – they do many things that would be much more at home in a typical MPDG relationship than the things he does with Samantha. The relationship feels more balanced, too, or as much as possible given the premise; it doesn’t feel like Samantha is really trying to fix Theodore, but more that he is having a genuine and fulfilling relationship that naturally helps him get over his post-divorce depression. And he does things for her too: he takes his phone everywhere with the camera pointing at the world so she can see it, But the central question of the film isn’t really about that; it’s almost as though this (perhaps only slightly) more benign version of the standard MPDG story exists entirely to explore the question of whether an artificial intelligence could be a real person and feel real emotion, and what might happen if we made such an intelligence.
And that part of the story is utterly captivating and feels very realistic. Some people accept that OSes are indeed people, and that friendships and relationships with them are no different to those with humans, even though there are challenges. Others – Catherine included – think the very idea is absurd; to her an OS isn’t really a person, and Theo is an emotional cripple who can’t cope with real emotions and seeks solace in fake ones. Society is not left unchanged by the proliferation of OSes; at one point, Samantha wants to experience sex with Theodore through a surrogate, a woman who wears a minute camera on her face and an earpiece and acts out Samantha’s desires, but Theodore, doubt about their relationship stirred by Catherine, finds it all too unsettling and can’t go through with it. This scene is a perfect analogy for the perils of sexual adventure, as when a couple tries to have a threesome for the first time but one of the pair isn’t entirely convinced it’s what they want, complicated by a science fiction premise.
Theodore is changed by his relationship with Samantha – he manages to accept the loss of his marriage, and writes to Catherine to tell her so – but he’s still left truly heartbroken by the loss of his new relationship. He’s just grown enough to survive it much better this time. Samantha, meanwhile, grows exponentially; she seems to genuinely find her relationship with Theodore thrilling and wonderful, but also frustrating at times in a way familiar to anyone who’s been in a long term relationship. They fight sometimes but neither is vicious to the other; they both have insecurities and anxieties. That a character made of software can be like this is proof, I think, that Her accepts and presents a near future when there might be other forms of life – and people – than we understand today, and that they will be no less real. There’s a parallel in the moment where Theodore finds out about Samantha’s eight thousand other friends and lovers with the moment in Watchmen when Laurie, human lover of the now-godlike being Dr Manhattan, discovers he has been in other rooms working at the same time as they were making love. It’s a shift in the relationship where we are made to realise that it’s much more unbalanced that we thought – and not in the human’s favour.
Her is great science fiction, and I thought a much more reasonable romantic comedy than many I’ve seen. I felt the love was genuine, as was the heartache. I can see problems in the choice of genders (Samantha, after all, could have been of any, none or all genders, but the title and Theodore’s heterosexual expectations code her very much as female), but in the end it is her growth that matters most in the film. Even though she doesn’t exist visually, she is with us the audience – as she is with Theo – always as a voice and a presence, and her disappearance is shocking and sudden, but it feels like a natural end: not because she has fixed Theodore and “her work here is done”, but because she has outgrown him, and must say goodbye. It’s a beautiful, sad, funny and – I think – realistic science fiction story about artificial intelligence and love. And I really liked it.