“Her”, Physicality, and the Nature of Love

Her made me uncomfortable.

If you walk out of Her completely comfortable with the way relationships are presented, there may be something wrong with you (for my friends at The Critical Hit Podcast, discomfort comes primarily from unexpected outlets: the nature of purchasing an OS, the nature of consensual desire in phone sex, etc.). The big question of the film you can glean from the trailer: what does it mean to fall in love with a person who doesn’t have a body? More so, a person who was artificially created with the express purpose of serving you. It seems clear that Samantha isn’t human, at least to me: I’d say humanness is wrapped up in at least an initial connection to physicality (as a Christian, the Incarnation makes this a clear stance). But the bigger question is whether or not Samantha is a person. Much like India argued that dolphins are non-human persons, so do I suspect that Her is contending, tacitly if not explicitly, that Samantha is a non-human person, complete with rights and feelings and abilities that extend beyond the majority of animals.

Some people have already fallen in love with the machines, at least if we measure “love” in devotion, rather than sex. We spend hours and days interacting with our phones and computers, sometimes without using them as a medium for interacting with others or with ourselves. My phone can be a portal to interact with others via voice or Facebook, much like my computer allows me to communicate with readers. But these are means, not ends in themselves; technology should function for a purpose. Her flips this on its head: Samantha is literally a piece of technology, but she’s functioning as an end in Theodore’s life.

Samantha reacts emotionally to Theodore, he is consistently amazed at who she is, she has a sense of humor, Theodore gets jealous of other AI’s. The whole relationship mirrors what we would consider a normal romantic relationship between two humans: ups and downs, sexuality, anxiety, self-esteem issues, etc. all abound in both of them. The relationship even ends when Samantha falls in love with hundreds of other individuals, and then ends up leaving to join the other AI’s in some vague metaphysical reality.

We’ve already touched on Her here at Evangelical Outpost. Hannah had this to say at the conclusion of her article:

Truthfully, part of me would rather just message back and forth forever and not deal with flesh-and-blood people. Because people are scary and imperfect and not contained in my computer. But I know that keeping people contained to chats isn’t the way to go. Because in an actual live relationship, I learn something. I grow. I pick up on ways to be better at the relationship and ways in which I am selfish.

I think this is what the film really wants to hammer home, even as it is intentionally ambiguous regarding the goodness of the relationship with Samantha. In a pivotal scene in the film, Theodore has lunch with his ex-wife to sign the divorce papers. When he tells her that he is in a relationship with an OS, she accuses him of being afraid of the reality of a physical relationship, of a “real person.”

And there’s something there. While his ex-wife is hardly the protagonist of the film, I think she provides a unique look at Theodore’s soul. While some of his friends are fully supportive (he goes on a double date, for instance, providing earpieces for the other couple), here’s a woman who knows first-hand the problems that Theodore will face in a deep relationship. Ex-wives are hardly the first place you ought to go for relationship advice, but she speaks for many of the audience members when she brings up her concerns (granted, she does so in a far more accusatory manner than I suspect most of us would).

Some of our relationships are done primarily through connections that could only exist with technology. I spend time weekly with people who don’t live in the same city I do, let alone the same country. There’s a goodness there, but there’s also the recognition that even those relationships have a physical component, or at least the potential for that. If I found myself in the same city, I’d opt to see them in person, rather than relying on Skype and e-mail. We shouldn’t avoid using technology to further our relationships. We most definitely should avoid replacing our relationships with technology, however.

Published by

J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).