“Her”: A.I., Love and the Gaze

Movie poster for "Her." Found on Google images.
Movie poster for “Her.” Found on Google images.

Have you heard of the movie, Her, a love story directed by Spike Jonze? I first learned about it last weekend while I was out and about with some friends. It’s the story of Theodore, a guy who buys a new operating system that is designed to meet his every need and he ends up falling in love with it. The concept is juicy—enticing and fascinating on a variety of levels. Although the film doesn’t release until November 20, I couldn’t wait that long to write about it. The reasons I find the concept of this film so fascinating are twofold. First, it approaches the idea of falling in love with A.I. which, in the past, has often been projected as very controversial and taboo when broached in literature, television or film. Secondly, it brings up all sorts of fascinating conversations to be had in regard to the gaze and the concept of sight and love. Of course, I cannot comment directly or analyze what the film is saying about these concepts because I haven’t seen it. But I think the steps the film takes in broaching this subject are fascinating because they reveal (and probably comment on) a prejudice that is both very old and very new at the same time.

Before I dive into these conversations, here is the trailer, in case you aren’t familiar with the film.

As I previously stated, this subject matter is always pretty taboo in the worlds in which it takes place. The people who fall in love with robots or various forms of artificial intelligence often are viewed negatively by their peers. If you remember the show, Futurama, there is an episode in which Fry falls in love with a robot. Fry downloads Lucy Liu’s image from nappster.com onto a blank robot. The robot is programmed to love him and eventually, he falls in love with the robot too. His behavior is viewed with concern and disgust by both peers and the robots too, if I remember right.

The second piece about this film that intrigues me has to do with the concept of “the gaze.” The gaze comes out of Feminist Film Theory and talks about the domination, objectification, and thus the feminization, of the subject being filmed. Obviously, Theodore can’t see the figure he has fallen in love with because she is just a disembodied voice. If you go back to the days of courtly love, The Art of Courtly Love states that “everyone of sound mind who is capable of doing the work of Venus may be wounded by one of love’s arrows unless prevented by age, or blindness, or excess of passion,” (Andreas Cappelanus: The Art of Courtly Love). Cappelanus suggests that a person could not fall in love if they were blind. Blindness inhibits the ability to fall in love because the blind individual cannot see the person who they covet. It prevents them from having mental images to swoon or moon over and thus they are barred from the world of love. 

If the concepts from The Art of Courtly Love are combined with the upcoming movie Her, one is left with an interesting dynamic and question. How can this guy fall in love with someone he can’t see, who isn’t even real? Obviously, the writer of The Art Of Courtly Love would claim that such a situation is impossible. But in modern times, we see symptoms of similar circumstances all around us. People begin relationships online (though they are typically able to share photos of themselves, thus satisfying the rules of courtly love). But there are scenarios where this could be possible. Think of the catfishing. A person presents a false image of themselves and the person on the other end falls in love with this false image. In a way, that is a sort of blindness.

Beyond online dating, the advent of the Internet has meant that many of our needs are met at home. We don’t have to go out into public to shop for luxuries or necessities. We can work from home. We can play games with people in different countries from the comfort of our living room or office. People are, relatively speaking, more lonely or independent than in the past. There are fewer necessary relationships because advances like the Internet seem to reduce the need for human contact by providing a multitude of substitutes for basic needs and wants.

Because Theodore cannot see Samantha, one could argue that he is, in effect, experiencing the equivalence of blindness and, according to Cappelanus, not truly capable of falling in love with her. Of course there are plenty of people in the real world who are affected with blindness and they lead perfectly normal lives and they are completely capable of falling in love (needless to say, Cappelanus was wrong). If Theodore is blind, literally or figuratively speaking, he may not care that Samantha does not have a body. Her body is not what interests him. Or, one could argue that her lack of a body does not concern him. Either way, it brings a whole new meaning to the phrase, “love is blind.”

Another interesting question that this film brings to the surface is the chemistry of love. Where does it come from? What causes it? I’m not a scientist or a psychologist, but the preview of the film suggests that the relationship that Theodore and Samantha have is initially based on subservience and meeting the needs of the human being. Perhaps Theodore likes having all of his needs met; though the film will most likely try to suggest that it’s the companionship and not any sort of egocentric foible on the part of Theodore that causes him to fall in love with Samantha. Their relationship then evolves to something more like equality and shared interests and desires (of course this is merely speculation).

Though they are in love, Samantha still functions as the subservient being, meeting the needs of her companion or owner (I imagine her initial role as caretaker does not dissipate as the film progresses, but I could be wrong). Feminist film theory may have a field day with that. I don’t know. But then there is another conundrum for them to overcome. Samantha obviously has no chemistry, no real hormones, being a computer and all. She has no body to be objectified. Instead, it is her mind and her voice that would be objectified by the camera and by the mind and ears (rather than they eyes) of Theodore. Is an ear much less menacing than an eye? We could probably debate that too.

Courtly love and the gaze are pretty prominent topics of discussion in the academic world of literature and have pervaded the world of literature from their origins up to modern times. The gaze really complicates the concept of love. But having the opportunity to expand these concepts to an upcoming film has been tirelessly entertaining for me, particularly because of the unique story that I imagine this film will tell. Her inspires some really interesting questions and personally, I can’t wait to see it! The fact that it brings up ideas that are both very modern (or, rather futuristic) and very archaic at the same time means that this film will be great to go see with friends and spend time discussing afterwards. And no matter what it is they are saying about humanity and technology, I hope you are as intrigued as I am!

3 thoughts on ““Her”: A.I., Love and the Gaze

  1. Indeed. I wonder if those of us who have had a lover betray them with an online avatar will find commentary in this film. To have never meet a person but risk everything you have for a “relationship” with them- can be romantic but also am addiction to the gamble. Interesting post, brw, I am definitely looking forward to the release of this one.

    1. You bring up a really interesting point with the online avatar thing. Thanks for helping me think about this topic in another way!

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