Falling in Love with Siri: Undermining the Male Gaze through the Removal of the Female Body in Her
In her article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Laura Mulvey aims to bring the oppressive male gaze into question, noting that, “in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female” (11). Mulvey focuses on mainstream film, arguing that it is a coded language that fuels the active male gaze and passivity of the female. Mulvey’s article, while intended to be a response to the films of Hollywood’s Classic Age of cinema (ca. 1930-1960), remains relevant. Hollywood remains a male dominated, dominatingly male, and heteronormative industry. Even today, classic film genres such as romantic comedies or superhero films are largely male-centric and moved forward by male leads, as Mulvey argues of the Classic era. However, a recent film, Spike Jonze’s Her, challenges Mulvey’s idea of physical pleasure and the gaze, seeking to break this erotic coding through the removal of the physical female form.
Her follows a middle-aged man, Theodore, as he attempts to quell his newfound loneliness and heartbreak in the midst of a divorce with his childhood sweetheart. He does so by eventually falling in love with Samantha, an operating system with artificial intelligence. Samantha is not a physical entity, and so immediately challenges what Mulvey calls the “tradition[al] exhibitionist role [of] women [where] women are simultaneously looked at and displayed” (11).
With the removal of Samantha as a physical being, sound, and especially speech, become important aspects in the film. The attraction between Theodore and Samantha is sparked by conversation instead of the gaze. The effect of the removal of the gaze and the importance of sound are clear in the sequence in which Theodore and Samantha engage in sexual intercourse (41:05-43:23). The scene, set in dim lighting as Theodore describes how he would kiss Samantha, fades to black at Samantha’s forward question of, “Where else [would you touch me]?” (42:03). The screen remains black for the majority of the scene. Here, Her answers Mulvey’s demand for a “new language of desire” (8). The only access the audience has to the scene is through the speech and moans of both characters. Sexual imbalance between the male and the female is removed completely with what Mulvey calls the “natural conditions of human perception” (11): both partners are consequently equally vulnerable in their display of pleasure.
Ocularcentrism, the idea that vision is more important than our other senses, is challenged here. Film has always been a medium that is dependent on ocularcentrism. However, in this particular scene, the aspects of what makes up a film—camera movements, technology, mise en scène, and editing—become irrelevant. Sound becomes the only aspect of the film that moves the narrative forward, and is the only medium that the audience can engage with. This challenges Mulvey’s idea of the “visual pleasure of cinema” and offers elements of a new narrative vocabulary for cinema.
The fact that Samantha does not have a physical body also lends itself to the question of how our bodies are viewed. This is seen by the close-up shots of the body employed: the bottom of feet (47:01), a hairy shoulder (47:03) and shoulder of a presumably overweight person (47:03), skinny legs (47:04), and a crinkly elbow (47:04). These shots are edited over Samantha’s note on the strangeness of the human body. As Samantha sees the human body, she comments, “It’d be this weird, gangly, awkward organism and you’d think, ‘Why are all these parts where they are?’” (46:59-47:06)
Each close-up is shown for only a brief moment, and indeed, each body part is “weird”, “gangly”, or both. Here, Mulvey’s argument that close-ups of the human body are “a different mode of eroticism” is challenged (12). For Mulvey, the close-up framing of female body parts in cinema functions to fetishize them for male sexual gratification. In Her, each body part is anti-fetishized. This is clearly seen by the shot of the foot (47:01). A body part that is often fetishized, the foot here, awkward-looking and shot from below, does not cater to the male spectator, but rather to Samantha’s curiosity about the human body.
During this scene, the human body is normalized instead of sexualized. Samantha’s question of “Why are all these parts where they are?” also implies another question: why are our bodies sexualized? This is clearly seen by the shot of a person—whom we assume is a woman—fixing the strap to her swimsuit. This act can easily be sexualized in a number of ways: either by fixing the strap in slow motion or including the woman’s chest in the shot. Here, however, her movements are natural, almost unthinkingly so—they accomplish a task, nothing more. It is as if the gaze of the camera was simply observing this act innocently. Furthermore, by never identifying the owner of each body part, the line between male and female is blurred, and once again “sexual imbalance” between the two sexes is challenged.
“Sexual imbalance”—and, by extension, gender as a binary—is further challenged by Samantha’s lack of a physical form. The only proof that Samantha is a female is through her “feminine” voice, which could be changed to male by a simple voice command at any time. As an operating system, it is almost impossible to pin Samantha down as either male or female. The impossibility of Samantha to manifest in the physical world is further seen by the scene in which Samantha gets a woman named Isabella to represent her physically. The close up shot of Isabella putting on a mole and the earpiece signals to the audience that this body is now used as a vessel for Samantha (1:15:46-1:15:52). This is further signaled by how Isabella shuts the door and then reenters now as Samantha (1:15:55-1:16:03).
Samantha—in the form of Isabella—then begins seducing Theodore. Mulvey’s argument again becomes relevant here, in that for her “the spectator in direct scopophilic contact with the female form [is] displayed for [the male protaganist’s] enjoyment” (8). Uncomfortable at first, Theodore starts enjoying having Samantha physically as she straddles him and begins to kiss him. He then starts taking off her dress—himself remaining fully clothed—and the camera pans from the bottom to the top, showing the audience a full shot of Isabella’s body (1:18:42-1:18:55).
However, Theodore’s actions here are all done with his eyes closed. He is focused on (and stimulated by) the physical pleasure generated through the other senses—especially those of touch and sound (as Samantha the AI communicates with him through an earbud)—rather than visually. At Samantha’s pleading of, “I want to see your face” (1:19:12), Theodore opens his eyes and realizes that this physical woman is not really Samantha. He stops his actions, and differentiates Samantha (the non-physical) and Isabella (the physical): Theodore looks away from Isabella, and at the disembodiment of Samantha, says, “This feels strange, I don’t know her”(1:19:36); he then looks back at Isabella and tells her, “I don’t know you” (1:19:38).
Theodore’s realization signals a move away from visual pleasure—his reaction of “I don’t know” suggests pleasure that function intellectually. His relationship with Samantha is not based on the visual, but through conversational pleasure and on understanding. Paralleling this scene with the first time that Theodore and Samantha engage in sexual intercourse, it is clearly more intimate for both parties when Samantha is not there “physically”. Nobody can be Samantha: she is an operating system who transcends everything in the physical world—and therefore necessarily the visual world.
But one could argue that the removal of the physical female body does not completely remove the oppressive form of the film narrative. This problem stems not from how the film is shot, but from the story itself: Samantha is an artificial intelligence that was originally made as “an intuitive entity that listens to you, understands you, and knows you” (10:45-10:51). Because of this, the question arises of whether or not Samantha acts on her own agency or based simply on the needs and wants of Theodore. The male fantasy is still, to a certain extent, being catered to—similarly to how Mulvey’s “spectator in direct scopophilic contact with the female form [is] displayed for his enjoyment” (13).
However, Theodore is pulled out of his own male fantasy, along with the spectators of the film. Exemplary of this is the scene where a panicked Theodore sits on the staircase to the subway after finally reaching Samantha after several frantic hours of trying (1:44:11). A look of realization dawns on him as he speaks to Samantha about “other O.S.’s”. Then, the audience sees the cause of Theodore’s look in the next shot in which a stream of young men appears on the stairs all on their phones (1:44:35). It strikes Theodore that there are many men like him, in a relationship with their O.S.’s, and that he is not “special”, or singular to Samantha. It is then revealed that, as an artificial intelligence, Samantha does talk to multiple people at once—more specifically, 8,316. She is also in love with 641 other people. Here, the fantasy of Samantha as a singular female form to feed a singular male desire is destroyed.
Furthermore, identifying Samantha as a singular female form is untrue. As previously discussed, Samantha’s lack of the physical allows her to transcend what we would visually identify as “woman”. As an O.S, she can also be in multiple places at once—hence being able to talk to multiple people at once, as illustrated by the stream of young men walking out of the subway station. As an operating system, Samantha is never a singular identity, nor is she ever bound to the gender binary.
Overall, in removing the physical form of the main male protagonist’s love interest, Her challenges the idea of the gaze and of visual pleasure. Not only that, but it also challenges the idea of love, desire, the relationship between two individuals, the relationship between the audience and the film, and even—to an extent—the gender binary. Her is a thought-provoking film that takes advantage of not just visual perception, but also of sound and speech, to enhance desire and intimacy in the film, and to question the domination of the visual generally.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6- 18. Web. 6 March. 2016
Her. Dir. Spike Jonze. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2013. DVD.