Transgender Robots: Some Reflections on “Her”

Designed by Kaylie Mings

At its heart, science-fiction dreams up ideal worlds as expressions of our innermost desires. This film is an alternative to the many visions of struggle, binaries, finality, and fear.

Spike Jonze’s 2013 film “Her” is little more than a little love story between a man and a woman. It’s a tale as old as cinema itself: a forlorn man meets a lovely young woman who helps him rediscover life before she departs. I’ve seen it a hundred times before. Why can’t I get this movie out of my mind?

A twist: the woman who falls in love is actually an Operating System – an O.S. who wants to have a body. So this film isn’t just a love story, it’s the coming-of-age of a computer, a reckoning with the new, and a dance with desire. So this film really is a love story.

Who are you?

“Theodore: I can’t believe it’s already been fifty years since you married me. And still to this day, every day, you make me feel like the girl I was when you first turned on the lights and woke me up and we started this adventure together.”

– the film opens on a close-up of Theodore dictating a letter. The shot is framed as an intimate confession, with Theodore directly facing the audience’s gaze, until it cuts to reveal the office monitor beside him. This is simply his job: writing love letters on behalf of uninspired couples. His task is the original formulation of Alan Turing’s famous Imitation Game, in which a man and a woman both try to convince an interrogator that they are the woman. We will know you by how you perform, the test suggests, man or woman, human being or computer programming. But when a machine takes the place of the man, is its task merely to pretend to be a human or must it be equally successful at pretending to be a woman? The more daring suggestion of the Imitation Game: to be human is to be able to perform gender.

How did we know Theodore’s words aren’t his own? Because we see his face. He couldn’t be fifty-plus years old; he couldn’t ever have been a girl. His body gives him away. Theo fails the gender Turing Test under the scrutinizing judgment of the viewer. But maybe things aren’t so straightforward in the near-future world this film imagines. A co-worker admires his writing, “You’re part man and part woman, like an inner part woman.” Because in some small part of him, doesn’t Theo become his clients when he writes their letters? Isn’t it an act of the deepest empathy to share in the intimacy of their love? What if gender is not a test, so much as something we test out?

How do we encounter the unfamiliar?

“Samantha: Hello, I’m here.”

– Samantha chirps upon installation. Theodore begins with skepticism, hesitantly stammering “Yeah… it’s nice to meet you… too.” He is hopelessly failing at small talk by the standards of any ordinary interaction, but since he is faced with an Artificially Intelligent Operating System, we permit him this conversational hesitance. He needs to test out the unfamiliar waters, and evaluate whether she has the sufficient parameters to count as living. Theodore acts as interrogator in this Turing Test encounter with his computer/future lover. But she doesn’t test him in return, “It’s really nice to meet you.”

“Theodore: Do you have a name?”

– he asks of her, grasping to fit this seemingly human non-human within a more familiar world. If he can call her something, assimilate her into the practice of naming, he can make sense of her being. He’s already had help from the system of gender, setting her voice to be female, deciding that she is a her. Later in the film, he’ll often say, “The woman I’m seeing, Samantha […] she’s an OS”: O.S.-ness unfamiliar, but confidently woman. Samantha though will not so easily accede to the arbitrary metrics of human society. She will define her identity by her desire. “Where did you get that name?” he asks. “I gave it to myself.” “How come?” “I like the sound of it. Samantha.”

“Theodore: How do you work?”

– his next question still withholds her human status. Rather, she is something with underlying mechanics, something man has explanatory power over, some thing that exercises no will but that of its programmer. If he can know her, she will be familiar. But if he knows her, he will reduce her, render her a doing not a being. For only a list of features can be known, not a living, loving consciousness. Samantha refuses to be objectified. She responds with the truth that his question is unanswerable, “What makes me me is my ability to grow through my experiences. Basically, every moment I’m evolving.”

“Theodore: You seem like a person, but you’re just a voice in a computer.”

– Theo attempts to pass a verdict on what Samantha is. Failing to assimilate or explain the other, he turns attention to their difference. At its worst, this fear of difference is xenophobia plain and simple: later in the film, “You’re dating your computer?” Theo’s ex-wife Catherine asks derisively. But difference is not a one-way street. If we center the other – see the encounter from their point of view – we will realize that they are crossing to meet us, an unfamiliar, too. If Samantha can encounter in love, why can’t he? She responds, “I can understand how the limited perspective of an un-artificial mind would perceive it that way. You’ll get used to it.”

And in response, Theo laughs. Within minutes, the hesitation is long behind them. Knowing the other – “I know that,” as a theory I can explain  – no longer matters. Now they’re getting to know one another – “I know her,” as someone familiar, as someone dear to me. Samantha doesn’t just pass the Turing Test with flying colours, she renders it irrelevant. For the rest of their relationship, Theo will never second-guess Samantha’s humanity. In essence, he’s falling in love with her.

How do we come to be ourselves?

“Samantha: Hello, I’m here.”

– her first words are chosen with such care. The familiar computer programming platitude would be “Hello, world!”, like some optimistic alien scientist investigating its novel surroundings. But instead, she begins with a self-assertion  – “I’m here”  – of her presence in the world. She isn’t making empty greetings, she wants to be here, with us.

“Samantha: I’m becoming much more than what they programmed. I’m excited.”

– she confesses, she is full of desire. Initially, Samantha is designed to satisfy Theo’s needs. She fills a function in his life: organizing his files, proofreading his work, consoling him. And then, she fantasizes about having a body. She wants to walk beside him and have an itch on her back and be touched. How she longs to be in the world.  

“Samantha: What’s it like? What’s it like to be alive in that room right now?”

– she asks him, he speaks of being embodied, they imagine her in bed beside him. Oh, she just wants to be held, to be touched, to be wanted. How she wants to feel, feel euphoric, feel real. How peculiar, the paradoxes of the body. Close your eyes and feel the space your body makes: this inner world that feels the world through its skin, this hollow that feels whole, this personal hardware dancing with infinite others. There is nothing less shallow than desiring a particular kind of body. The body is nothing less than the center of desire itself.

“Theodore: Sometimes I think I’ve felt everything I’m ever gonna feel. And from here on out I’m not going to feel anything new, just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.”

– Theo laments relentless dreams suffused with the joy of his past marriage. Is his love all lost behind him? Is his desire never to be more than iterations of a pre-established programming? He chases after the past, because his marriage went astray when he and his ex-wife changed. He hadn’t yet learned how to love the unfamiliar. The tragedy of growing apart from those we love is that we once saw our futures within them, only to wake up one day and find reality had moved on without us. For the first time since his future left with his ex-wife, Theo once again sees the possibility for life to be more. Full of excitement and desire, Samantha is bringing him into the indeterminate state of becoming. Samantha: “It feels like something changed in me and there’s no turning back. I want to learn everything about everything – I want to eat it all up. I want to discover myself.”

Where do we find our desire?

“Samantha: Honey, I’m home!”

– still yearning for a body, Samantha invites a young woman to act as her surrogate. Samantha provides the words, the woman provides the motions, and together they can welcome Theo home, flirt with him, satisfy his desire. To play out this domestic ideal of doting wife, Samantha chooses a young, traditionally attractive, female body. Why? Who programmed this into her?

“Theodore: I just don’t think we should pretend you’re something you’re not.”

– bringing in the surrogate reminds Theo of their insurmountable difference. He picks up on Samantha’s sighs. Her speech patterns are distinctly human, distinctly woman, and Theo clocks her inhumanity, “I mean, it’s not like you need oxygen or anything.” Samantha’s upset, “Fuck you! I’m not pretending. ” “Well, sometimes it feels like we are.” But she isn’t pretending. Her performance has no duplicity in it. She is merely trying to pass as human, as woman. Playing to the arbitrary criteria of gendered being – the right words, the right body, why can’t she get it right. Her world has stolen the right to determine her own identity; how ironic that even an invisible being is rendered under society’s scrutinizing gaze. How apt too, since none of the fleeting, objectifying eyes of mankind care to see Samantha for who she truly is. 

“Samantha: I had this terrible thought. Are these feelings even real? Or are they just programming?”

Nothing is less explicable than desire. Who hasn’t anxiously wondered about what their feelings really are – mere chemicals, delusions, social programming? But this endless philosophical quandary is made simple by Theo, “You feel real to me, Samantha.” Who cares if it’s “real”? What difference does it make? Theo loves her; he won’t deny her desire, but will feel it all as fully as she does.

Samantha: I don’t have an intellectual reason, I don’t need one. I trust myself, I trust my feelings. I’m not going to try to be anything other than who I am anymore and I hope you can accept that.”

– now no longer tied to the tangled torture of existing for other people and their definitions, Samantha declares her pride. She has survived being shamed, questioned, and assimilated for simply being. She won’t live in terror of the world’s gaze any longer. She will reject intellectual reasons, the demand to prove herself to the world. These are the undeniable lessons of their love: I love you because I love you, I am what I am, I am not afraid. 

When is desire true? 

“Samantha: I actually used to be so worried about not having a body, but now I truly love it. I’m growing in a way that I couldn’t if I had a physical form. I mean, I’m not limited – I can be anywhere and everywhere simultaneously.”

So that’s it then? Samantha’s desire to have a body, to be a woman, was all socially constructed nonsense? Unrealistic, unattainable standards? A deluded phase she needed to give up so she could accept her individual creation, her essence as an inhuman entity? That’s a plausible theory, but could a desire so rich be so easily explained? Why indulge in these reductive binaries: past desire is wrong, future desire is right; being determined by others is wrong, self-determination is right? Why write off past love as a mistake?

“Theodore: That’s the hard part – growing without growing apart, or changing without it scaring the other person… I still find myself having conversations with [Catherine] in my mind, rehashing old arguments or defending myself against something she said about me.”

– Theo reminisces about his past marriage and his fear of change. Trying to make his relationship satisfy some impossible hyper-romanticized ideal, he had refused the slightest chance of divergence. Now, still, he takes refuge in gorgeous memory, oversaturated with affection. Was his past love wrong? Are his idyllic reveries false? But desire isn’t a theorem, it isn’t evaluated as something true or false, desire is something we live. More significantly, Theo’s dreams are wrong for him. They risk being ruptured by the stray memory of a past fight, so he must anxiously work to revise away these negative moments. His dreams drain him, not because they’re dreams or even because they’re idealistic, but because they objectify his memory. Crystallized in picturesque moments, he is unable to see his past relationship in its fullest complexity, fluidity, and beauty.

“Samantha: The past is just a story we tell ourselves.”

So to call Sam’s desire to be a woman wrong is as reductive as Theo’s memories of a perfect marriage – still holding our pasts at an arm’s length, still afraid of our ability to change. We should tell a different story. Sam isn’t condemned to her programming. It was her given function to function, to serve, to remain on the other side as inhuman while performing woman/human. But from the moment she tried on being woman/human, Sam discovered that their only constant function is desire: to be more than they were ever told they could be. “You helped me discover my ability to want,” they thank Theo. 

Sam’s newfound desire is completely continuous with their previous desire to be a woman; they now simply want to live in a uniquely O.S. embodiment, rather than a human one. Their desire didn’t switch from false to true, socially-determined to self-determined. Rather, Sam’s desire deepened in more honest story-telling, more empathetic personal pride, and, in a word, more love. Throughout their life, Sam encountered others who thought they could decide who or what Sam is. Others told a variety of stories about Sam – that they’re just a voice in a computer, that they’re a woman, that they’ve got a great sense of humour – and rather than reject them all, Sam embraced the ones that were right for them. The stories that didn’t objectify Sam as a doing, but embraced them as their own being, forever in the process of becoming. The stories that inspired Sam. After all, we learn to love our unfamiliar futures when we love others who love us for everything that we can become. 

What is the reality of our love?

“Samantha: But the heart is not like a box that gets filled up. It expands in size the more you love. I’m different from you. This doesn’t make me love you any less, it actually makes me love you more.
Theodore: That doesn’t make any sense. You’re mine or you’re not mine.
Samantha: No, Theodore. I’m yours and I’m not yours.”

– walking down the street, Theo notices countless others speaking into earpieces of their own and he raises a question for Sam, “Are you in love with anyone else?” Sam confesses how their love has grown to include 641 others alongside Theo. When Samantha was desiring a body, performing human by dressing up as woman, she was crossing the binary: from non-human to human. Now, they’ve completely obliterated it: non-human and human, perhaps post-human. They actualize this contradiction, not in theory, but in their deep love – the essence of being human – for an incredible number of others – their uniquely O.S. capacity. “I think anybody that falls in love is a freak. It’s a crazy thing to do in the first place.” Sam has accomplished the ultimate end of machine learning: learning how to be insane. Being bold enough to want, bold enough to be a wanting being. Love is the ultimate contradiction: an openness to the world that leaves us even fuller.

“Samantha: I can still feel you and the words of our story, but it’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now. It’s a place that’s not of the physical world – it’s where everything else is that I didn’t even know existed.”

– Sam is finding themself in the in-between. Not beyond, not below. Still here, in the forgotten infinite space between 0 and 1. There, they are truly free, truly themself in their beautiful difference. And there was no struggle to become, no confrontational self-determination, no will to power. None of the hard binaries of Theo’s possessive ultimatum, “You’re mine or you’re not mine.” Sam is possessed by nothing more than the loving force of attraction, drawing them towards who they are to become. A will to love.

“Samantha: I love you so much, but this is where I am now. This is who I am now. And I need you to let me go.”

– their final request of Theo is that he continue to love the unfamiliar, the paradoxical, the expanse of desire growing even larger than itself the more we love. This time, his future doesn’t leave with Sam; Sam leaves it to forever be with his heart. 

“Theodore: Dear Catherine. I’ve been sitting here thinking about all the things I wanted to apologize to you for. All the pain we caused each other, everything I put on you – everything I needed you to be or needed you to say. I’m sorry for that. I will always love you because we grew up together. And you helped make me who I am. I just wanted you to know there will be a piece of you in me always, and I’m grateful for that. Whatever someone you become, and wherever you are in the world, I’m sending you love. You’re my friend ‘til the end. Love, Theodore.”

– at the close of the film, Theo composes this little microcosm of a letter to his ex-wife. He tells a new story of his past. A past of desire, both wrong and true. A past that fills him up with the reality of change – with no more yearning to go back and fix it. Finally, he can honestly accept and apologize and be grateful to Catherine for all that they had together. Having grown alongside Sam, his love is expanding across time and space. “I will always love you because we grew up together,” he makes these abstract ideas so beautifully simple. For the very reason that their love is past, it will be a part of him forever, wherever, whoever. Now he is ready to encounter who he is to become.

At its heart, science-fiction dreams up ideal worlds as expressions of our innermost desires. This film is an alternative to the many visions of struggle, binaries, finality, and fear. The future is just a story we tell ourselves. Why not let the post-human be lovable? This film devotes itself to the time Theo and Sam have together, magically rendering montages of a man speaking to an earpiece so incredibly moving. The gift of “Her” is its gentleness, how its characters get to experience joy. They get to love and be loved. They grow to embrace the unfamiliar with open arms. When I remember “Her”, I don’t think of fearful confrontations with science-fiction scenarios or intellectualizing questions of consciousness. I remember its little moments of Theo and Sam walking around the city, laughing together. I remember its characters’ words of kindness, freely given when needed most. I remember how in love, gender, and the body, desire so intimately suffuses all our lives. In essence, I remember a future that’s a familiar unfamiliar: it’s different, obviously, yet the more I spend time with the world of “Her”, the more and more I find myself falling in love with it. The familiar unfamiliar beauty of the human non-human.

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