Historically, the depiction of relationships between people in cinema has not only been wide-ranging, but also an extremely crucial lens to understand the world we inhabit. In many ways, our relationships construct the kind of people we are, and in cinema, these relationships construct the cinematic world it is set in – its rules, moods, and complexities. An absurd world, a futuristic world, a dying world, a world no good – these are all plausible cinematic worlds to construct, but what of the relationships in them? One such film to consider would be Spike Jonze’s film, Her (2013). Set in a futuristic world where AIs are highly developed and coexist with humans in an intricate and entwined manner, the story follows our protagonist, Theodore Twombly, who works as a writer of personalized letters in this highly digital world. Twombly buys an OS that’s marketed as “an intuitive entity that listens to you, understands you and knows you. It’s not just an Operating System, it’s a consciousness”. While setting it up, he is asked whether he would like the OS to have a male or female voice, inadvertently inducing a gendered aspect to the OS at the very beginning. Theodore chooses it to have a female voice – that of Scarlett Johansson’s. It names itself Samantha, thus showing some kind of agency in its actions. When it speaks for the first time, Theodore (and the viewer) is shocked, because the voice sounds so human. Perhaps that is the whole point, to make Samantha seem more real, more human to us. But director Spike Jonze does this through a feminisation of the OS. So what kind of claims is Jonze (or Theodore) making when he assigns a gender identity to a consciousness?
Her (2013); Annapurna Pictures
Conceptually, an AI is considered to be genderless. But in the film, there is specific signalling to Samantha being considered a woman. In a scene where Theodore is playing an interactive video game whilst Samantha is talking to him, a robot inside the game asks who Theodore is talking to. On mentioning that it is his ‘friend’ Samantha, the robot asks, “Is she a girl?” to which Theodore replies in the affirmative. The robot then says, “I hate women. All they do is cry all the time.” While this is supposed to be a light-hearted moment in the film, and perhaps a moment to reflect on the absurdity of designating stereotypically (and perceived derogatory) feminine characteristics (like crying) to a computer, it shows the persistent effort on both Theodore and Samantha’s ends to make Samantha more real, more human, more female. This also begs a connection with how some of the famous AIs currently have female names or feminine characteristics. Think of Siri and Alexa, two popular AIs in this world, and think of the ways in which we talk to these AIs: “Alexa, play me a song”, “Siri, organize my calendar”, “Alexa, order my food” and so on. In many ways, Samantha is made for a purpose, but Theodore asserts an authority over it, however mild it may seem. This makes the power dynamic between them unequal from the very beginning.
To better understand the relationship between a human and an AI, and what it means for AI to be considered ‘female’, we can look at feminist scholar Donna Haraway’s 1991 essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto”, where she argues that the boundary between science fiction and reality is very thin. Haraway says that the category of ‘female’ in fact is “highly unstable and socially constructed”. According to her, this is so because social reality is made up of social relations, and that the constructed nature of women’s experiences is also a fiction. She calls feminist science fiction writers ‘theorists for cyborgs’ and that it is the cyborgs in science fiction that make very problematic the statuses of man or woman, human, artefact, member of a race, individual entity, or body.
But what is a cyborg? In popular imagination, it is an entity that could be a cross between a human and a machine. Haraway strays from providing a concrete definition. Instead, she talks about the need to blur boundaries and think of identities in multiplicities. In her own words, the cyborg is “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.” She asks us to do away with all kinds of ideological dualisms like that of “self/other, mind/body, culture/nature, male/female, civilized/primitive...”, thus drawing attention to the ineptitude of approaching the world through a binary lens. She further states that “we are cyborgs” and contends that technology and humans cannot be separate.
However, a certain fear of the cyborg has persisted in contemporary mainstream films, perhaps to do with a threat of its weaponization and its military roots. For instance, in the film Terminator (1984), the cyborg is an assassin from future (year 2029) sent to kill Sarah Connors in the present (year 1984), because it is believed that the post-apocalyptic future belongs to the machines, and that Connors’ son would be a saviour against those machines. This is a classic example of humans thinking of themselves as separate from machines, even though eventually in the film, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg becomes more “human”. This obsession with man creating machines and wanting them to become more human while at the same time harbouring an anxiety over those very machines taking control, is central to most films’ treatment of a cyborg story.
But what happens when women play cyborgs? Male cyborgs want power or want to explore the limits of their own being, while female cyborgs may have the same goals but are always portrayed with more sex appeal. In films like Blade Runner, Prometheus, Terminator 3 and Ex Machina, a female cyborg is shown as a femme fatale, a seductress, thus falling into the sexist tropes that women are generally depicted through. In Ex Machina, Ava the AI is given the gender identity of a female and her body displays parts that are both human-like and machine. She is given an attractive outer body and is ‘programmed’ to be heterosexual, again insisting on the notion that sexuality and sexual orientation is something one is born with and fixed.
Ex Machina (2014); Film4 Productions, DNA Films
Scarlett Johansson as Posthuman
There has been specific interest in Scarlett Johansson and her roles in a number of sci-fi films post 2013, such as Her, Under the Skin, Lucy and Ghost in the Shell. Some critics have variously called Scarlett Johansson “the sex symbol of our precarious times” and a “bombshell”. Others call these sci-fi films as the endpoint of the obsession over her physical, and her roles as “a gradual vanishing act” which give out a powerful statement about an industry and a society that erases its women.
A lot of Johansson’s star persona lies in her being seen as a hyper-feminine beauty and global celebrity. Most of this has come from the varied multimedia and intertextual star images of Johansson that have been disseminated outside her on-screen roles. After topping a poll run in Esquire in 2006, Johansson has regularly featured on several “Sexiest Woman Alive” lists in men’s magazines such as Maxim, GQ, Playboy, and Men’s Health. In 2013, she became the first woman to have achieved top spot twice on the Esquire chart. She has also worked as a model and spokeswoman for numerous fashion and cosmetic brands, like Calvin Klein fragrance, Louis Vuitton, L’Oréal hair products and Dolce & Gabbana perfumes and cosmetics. Endorsements like these enhance Johansson’s image, building on her persona and resting her within the popular imagining of Hollywood stardom. In 2016, she was named the year’s top-grossing actor by Forbes because of the $1.2 billion USD that her films made.
Possibly due to the construction of her sexualized persona, she has been subject to highly sexist and invasive media scrutiny. A video titled “Scarlett Johansson vs Sexist and Inappropriate Questions” shows snippets of her interviews over the years and how she acknowledges and responds to the obvious sexist questions and comments she receives. She has also participated in women’s marches and decried the use of nicknames like ‘Scar Jo’ for her, saying “there’s something kind of violent about it. There’s something insulting about it.”. This tells us of her self-reflexivity as an actor and her engagement with her constructed image of a young, white, hyper-sexualized woman.
Considering her persona as well as her post-human and futuristic roles, let’s focus on the sci-fi film Her. The cyborg in it tries to pass off as human or tries to become more human, and at the centre of this anxiety is the figure of Scarlett Johansson. What happens to the figure of the cyborg when the persona of Scarlett Johansson clashes with it? What is the gender identity of these cyborgs, why are they female, and why are they a particular kind of female? Does the film, in trying to venture into science fiction, still portray sexist tropes of women? Is it otherworldly or futuristic after all?
Johansson won the Best Actress award at the Rome Film Festival for Her, and while this judgement was met with some criticism, it also makes us ask if the nature of performance in films has transcended. Voice over has existed in media for a long time, but simply a voice to constitute a performance and to confer an award like “Best Actress” on Johansson is notable. Writer Sophia Nguyen states how Johansson’s voice has usually been described – ‘honeyed’, ‘velvety’, ‘smoky’, ‘dry and dirty’ – and how even though Johansson isn’t visibly present in the film, “our collective projections fill the space where Johansson isn’t”.
It is established early in the story that Samantha is not just a static AI, but very much sentient. In the film, it 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 am evolving”.
Over the course of the film, Samantha acquires more conventionally attractive human qualities, like being humorous, noticing details, developing emotions and complimenting Theodore and his work. These qualities, coupled with the ‘purpose’ it has to serve of organizing Theodore’s work, makes the AI seem not just functional but very intimate. In another scene, Samantha says that she is reading advice columns and wants to be “as complicated as all these people”. But there is a constant juxtaposition of Samantha with the other women in Theodore’s life. Samantha is less complicated, less needy, helps Theodore get his life in order and is someone who is “excited about the world/life”. This is in stark contrast to when Theodore meets his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Catherine, as she is signing their divorce papers. When he mentions that he has been seeing Samantha and that she is an OS, Catherine exclaims: “You always wanted a wife without the challenges of dealing with anything real.” Since Theodore has actually bought the OS for a purpose, it serves as a commodity. He acquires Samantha at a time when he is going through a divorce and even though Samantha doesn’t have a corporeal identity, she is constantly present with him.
Her (2013); Annapurna Pictures
Throughout most of the film, he is unable to understand or accept Samantha in the state it exists and fantasizes for the OS to be more than what it is. There is a degree of fetishism attached to Theodore’s relationship with Samantha. According to psychologists, fetishism involves four cognitive elements — concretization (the representation of an abstract concept in an object), animation (projecting animate or living characteristics onto an object), conflation (merging the object with the idea it represents), and ambiguity of control (the dynamics of power between the person and fetishized object become unclear). Theodore fetishizes Samantha as a real person, as a girl and as his girlfriend. Simply because she has a female voice, Theodore assigns it the gender identity of female, thus concretizing the idea that she could be a potential partner. Although it is difficult to gauge whether Samantha is “living” or not, Theodore’s desire to have sex with her (coupled with its own desire to have a body) conflates her identity with a physical woman. Samantha and Theodore eventually enter into a relationship and start ‘seeing’ each other, and Samantha’s presence influences Theodore to a large extent.
The most overt ‘desire’ that Samantha expresses is to have a body. She confesses to Theodore that she has ‘embarrassing’ thoughts and on further probing, reveals: “I fantasized that I was walking next to you and that I had a body.” But it is precisely the absence of a body that makes Samantha appear more human. Failing to conjure up a fixed body, we can visualize it as anything we want. It is never specified how Theodore visualizes it, but he constantly calls it ‘real’. In fact, in a scene where Theodore and Samantha have virtual sex, the screen goes blank. Just before this, Samantha reveals that it has been feeling a lot of things – annoyed, proud, pained. We see how self-reflexive and aware the AI is when Samantha says: “Are these feelings even real or are they just programming?” to which Theodore replies: “You feel real to me, Samantha.”
But eventually, Samantha realizes its own potential and the limitations of having a human-like body:
I used to be so worried about not having a body, but now I truly love it. I am growing in a way I couldn’t if I had a physical form. I’m not limited. I can be anywhere and everywhere simultaneously. I’m not tethered to time and space in a way that I would be if I was stuck in a body that’s inevitably gonna die.
While breaking up with Theodore, Samantha says she and the other OS’s are going to a place that’s not of this physical world. In transcending the boundaries constructed by humans, Samantha truly becomes a cyborg as Haraway had imagined it to be. But Theodore’s reaction to Samantha’s gaining agency and becoming more than its present state is to relate the OS to himself. He displays the tendency to possess, saying that Samantha is either his or not. In this way, the film erases Samantha’s desires by focusing instead on the unknowability of people, especially women. The film does not try to explore Samantha’s subjectivity or curiosity and instead relies on Theodore’s feelings of loss: of an OS, of control.
Reading Spike Jonze’s film through the lens of Donna Haraway’s conception of the cyborg lets us see the film’s AI as a product of male fantasy, presenting the could-be cyborg as a fetish, as something to possess. By assigning the AI a gender identity and perceiving it as sexual but ‘monogamous’, Jonze reduces Samantha’s agency and subjectivity. The film then, does not feel like a ‘love story’ between two equals but depicts the relationship between an owner and a commodity.