Recently, in my “Introduction to New Media” class, we were talking about human connections to technology. The professor brought up the movie Her (a film that focuses on a romantic relationship between a human and a computer operating system) as the film depicts a reality that might not be so far in our future. After discussing Her, my professor referred back to the 2010 film, The Social Network (which is based on the story of Mark Zuckerberg’s founding of Facebook). She suggested that we could imagine The Social Network and Her as representing a progression between where we’ve been and where we’re going in regards to social technology. I was immediately interested in what it might mean to use these two films as cultural landmarks in this way.
For starters, if we are to learn anything from The Social Network, it is that technical innovation has been driven by exactly one thing – the sort of expectations and opinions about sex that we’ve come to expect from the teenage boys and young men of “coming of age” comedies: the same expectations and opinions that have been normalized through the rhetoric of “boys will be boys” and that rarely prioritize the agency, value, and/or pleasure of teenage girls and young women. Re-watching the film, an interesting (disturbing?) pattern came to light. The pursuit of sex and a sense of entitlement to women drives every major web-based innovation discussed in the film.
Facemash, the precursor to Facebook, allowed visitors to rate women against each other based on their appearance. In the film*, Mark creates Facemash as a sort of “wronged nice guy” self-care after being broken up with (and after using his public blog as a way to demean and humiliate his ex). The other site that inspired Facebook, the Winklevoss brothers’ Harvard Connection, is a lucrative idea because, according to the Winklevosses, “girls want to get with guys from Harvard.” Finally, there’s Napster, a site created by Sean Parker who explains that he created Napster because “the girl [he] loved in high school was going out with the co-captain of the varsity lacrosse team and [he] wanted to take her from him.” In regards to Facebook itself, it is the “relationship status” and “interested in” sections of the profile that cause Mark to declare the site as finished. Him and Eduardo discuss that what will get people to log on will be the opportunity to use these tools to “get laid” and “meet a girl.”
Furthermore, we never see women driving technological innovation in the film. This is solidified when Mark starts delegating to his newly assembled Facebook team and the two women in the room (having not received any tasks) ask, “is there anything we can do?” to which Mark quickly replies with “no.” In an article on Jezebel, Irin Carmon asks “in Mark Zuckerberg’s real-life world, women did more than give blowjobs… so why does The Social Network so badly want to pretend otherwise?” (Carmon also adds that “black people said more than ‘Is this guy bothering you?’” The lack of people of colour involved in the world of technical innovation is also a serious shortcoming of both The Social Network and Her.) Carmon goes on to say that Mark Zuckerberg “lived, and lives, in a world where, even if women were scarce in computer science classes, they were achieving as brilliantly as the men around them” and points to both Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook’s current C.O.O) and Randi Zuckerberg (Facebook’s former Director of Market Development and Spokeswoman) as evidence of this. Carmon’s article is important because it pushes us to ask why the filmmakers of The Social Network felt that it was so necessary to erase, stereotype, and objectify women in the film.
Her doesn’t have the same obvious lack of involved and developed women characters as The Social Network does. Both Amy Adams’ and Scarlett Johansson’s characters (Amy and Samantha, respectively) are complex and have a powerful presence onscreen (even if we never actually see Samantha). However, the primary narrative of the film still belongs to a man and the women who populate the story are there because of their relationships with him. Furthermore, Her also uses access to women (or woman) as being the major motivator for engagement with technology.
For what it’s worth, Her‘s protagonist, Theodore, does seem to genuinely desire a meaningful relationship with a woman and he does have a strong and mutually beneficial friendship with the character Amy (whereas the men of The Social Network seem solely interested in women for sex). I appreciated this about the film, not because I think all relationships need to be “meaningful,” but because depicting these strong relationships means that we also get to see women as important agents within the film as opposed to only imagining them as bodies that exist for male gratification.
What I also enjoyed about the film was the ending. The narrative of Her allows Samantha to develop to the point that her character moves past her relationship with Theodore and eventually leaves him behind for a new life. In a review on Bitch Flicks, Amanda Rodriguez explains why the ending is so redeeming,
I love that Samantha leaves him because she outgrows him, transcending the role of Manic Pixie Dream Girl in which Theodore has cast her, evolving beyond him, beyond his ideas of what a relationship should be (between one man and one woman), and beyond even his vaguest conception of freedom because she’s embraced existence beyond the physical realm. Not only does Samantha become self-aware, but she becomes self-actualized, determining that her further development lies outside the bounds of her relationship with Theodore (and the 600+ others she’s currently in love with). Samantha’s departure in her quest for greater self- understanding is… what finally redeems a kind of gross film that explores male fantasies about having contained, controlled perfect cyber women who are emotion surrogates.
Rodriguez puts perfectly both the reasons why the ending is important and the reasons why so much of the rest of the film is problematic.
The reality of Her is that Samantha is the “perfect cyber woman.” She’s an operating system, an object, and she’s been created and purchased for the sole purpose of being whatever, or whoever, Theodore wants her to be. In the words of Sady Doyle,
there’s the unavoidable fact about Her: No matter how evolved or human-seeming Samantha is, she is also a possession. When Theodore tells Samantha he can’t commit to her after their first sexual encounter, she’s offended, but, at least at that stage of their relationship, she also can’t leave.
No amount of enjoying the film, or appreciating aspects of it, can magically turn it into a story of two equals who have the same capacity to choose to be with each other.
I was inspired to bring Her and The Social Network together because of the comment made by my professor that they create a sort of timeline of innovation in regards to social technology. But there’s larger connections between these films than that. While the representations of women in each film and the kinds of relationships prioritized are markedly different in each, both films depict the creation and use of technology as being driven in order to facilitate men’s access to women.
Guest blogger on Bitch Flicks, Lisa C. Knisely asks us to imagine if “Joaquin Pheonix had played Sam to Scarlett Johansson’s Thea” and she explains that “that’s the film I’m still waiting for someone in Hollywood to write, direct, and… produce.” I think the basic point of her comment is that, if we’re going to immortalize the cultural and social change driven by technological advancement through the world of film, we can’t be satisfied to only see women as existing to be accessed through it. In our daily realities, women drive innovation and are active participants in what it produces – why can’t this be true on screen as well?
*The Social Network is only based on reality and, as a consequence, much of what happens in the film isn’t reflective of real events. For this blog, I mean to refer specifically to only the events that happened in the film.Tweet