Her and the Complex Legacy of the Female Robot

Spike Jonze's film isn't the first portrayal of a servile, seemingly caring artificial-intelligence program. Robots have taken on traditionally feminine human roles since the 1960s.

Warner Bros.

About midway through Spike Jonze’s new film Her, characters played by Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson engage in very passionate, vocal sex behind a completely blacked out screen. This is an unusual move for a mainstream film, deliberately moving the sex scenes offscreen. But this way, spared some visual awkwardness, the viewer can better imagine the act taking place: two beings falling in love, one a man and one a disembodied, highly intelligent operating system.

Set in the near future, Her uses scenes like these to examine desire, artificial intelligence, and the possibility of a relationship between a human and a piece of technology. Theodore Twombly (Phoenix), recently divorced and disillusioned, purchases an advanced operating system named Samantha (voiced by Johansson) to help organize his life and perform a number of tasks, like reading and sending email and proofreading the letters he writes at his job. The two eventually begin a relationship and engage in normal couple activities, like double dates (though they look nothing like the traditional dinner and a movie, but rather like three people and a talking iPhone at a picnic). Though this seems to be the first operating system of its kind, few people in the film seem surprised by Theodore and Samantha’s relationship.

Her isn’t the first film to depict a relationship between a man and an object. Nor is it the first to characterize a sweet, subservient artificial intelligence bot as female: Computer science and pop culture actually have a long history of casting artificial intelligence programs, which are necessarily servile and obedient, in caretaking, supportive, traditionally feminine roles. While Her is part of this tradition, it creates something more disturbing out of it: a conscious being that’s owned as if it were property.

Spike Jonze traces the film’s origins to a conversation he had with an online chatbot about a decade ago:

I went to the website, and I IMed this address, and I was like, “Hi, how are you?” and I got responses like, “Great, how are you?” And you can talk to it and tease it—not a him or her, it’s just typing—and get a little banter going, getting mocked and so on. I got this sort of buzz thinking: This thing’s actually keeping up with me. And then after a couple of minutes you start to notice the cracks and the flaws. Oh, this is a very cleverly written program, I thought in the end, but for those couple of minutes I got a very distinctive, tingly kind of buzz from the experience.

Though they’ve drawn many comparisons to each other, Her's Samantha and the (female) iPhone personal-assistant program Siri are quite different—but they do share common ancestors. While the objective of Siri is largely to deliver information, her ability to communicate with users is the result of decades of experimentation with natural language programs, specifically designed to carry on a conversation with a human and probe the possibilities of artificial intelligence.

And, though the chatbot with whom Jonze interacted was “not a him or her,” many early chatbots have similarly been cast as female characters. One of the earliest and most well-known such programs was Eliza, created in the mid-1960s by computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum and named after the main character of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion for her ability to consume and utilize language. When running her most famous script, one based on Rogerian psychotherapy, Eliza carries on a conversation with the user which mimicks that between a therapist and a patient, asking questions like “How may I help you?” and “How long have you been depressed?” as well as providing guiding statements like “We were discussing you, not me.”

Shortly after Eliza’s creation, peers of Weizenbaum’s developed a similar program and proposed actually using it to diagnose patients. But though Weizenbaum’s creation seemed to herald the impending reign of artificial intelligence, he was careful to emphasize Eliza’s limitations, and in 1976 wrote Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation, an argument against substituting artificial intelligence for human reasoning.

More than 30 years later, however, multimedia artist Lynn Hershman Leeson came to a different conclusion when she set out to examine questions of virtual consciousness and desire by creating her own chatbot, Agent Ruby. Leeson wanted to create an interactive program which would collect information from users around the world, developing and functioning as a result of human input. But when Leeson set out to make Agent Ruby, “no one knew what [she] was talking about,” so she made a film—2002’s Teknolust—to explain. In the film, Tilda Swinton plays Ruby, a female cyborg who falls in love with and is impregnated by a human man. As Leeson explained in an interview:

I see that where we are in culture, in society, maybe in evolution, is that we’re physical beings. And we’re reaching through screens to kind of take out the information that’s inside of a virtual space and bring it back towards our physicality. There are people who believe that the screens have superior intelligence, and their own intelligence, and their own will, which is, in a sense, what Teknolust was about. And it’s the characters within the screen that are reaching towards us and bringing us into them so that eventually we’ll all be one unit.

Many of Her’s themes can be traced back to Teknolust and Leeson’s work; both Jonze’s film and Leeson’s on “female” artificial intelligence ask whether it can feel arousal or love, and, showing the influence of both Eliza and Agent Ruby, Samantha both acts as a sort of therapist. She helps Theodore sort out his life, and she displays consciousness and free will.

It bears mentioning, of course, that there are many examples of “male” artificial intelligence programs in pop culture—like HAL 3000, C-3PO, and the bots in Iron Man (J.A.R.V.I.S.) and last year’s Prometheus (David), to name a few. But male artificial intelligence programs are more often portrayed as machines built for disseminating knowledge; they generally don’t attempt to imitate human life or fill emotionally supportive human interpersonal relationship roles—such as romantic partner, spouse, or parent. In other words, they are prized for being more than human rather than for being the ultimate human, and even when the programs display some sort of consciousness, or imitation of it, they are far from being objects (or subjects) of desire.

There may be an underlying reason for this tendency to portray caring, concerned AI programs as female. As Robin James, a University of North Carolina, Charlotte associate professor and Cyborgology contributor, recently pointed out, technology now aids in many of the tasks once performed mainly by women: scheduling, reminding, diagnosing, helping, etc. Though many of these tasks haven’t lost their association with femininity, a re-branding is beginning to take place: “Just think about the ways personal computers and smartphones re-gendered and re-classed secretarial labor,” James writes. “Typing isn’t feminized and classed in the way it once was (my mom’s boss’s wife still won’t type her own emails, because typing is for secretaries, not bourgeois housewives). Typing is universal, at least among the educated middle- and upper-classes.”

Maybe it isn’t surprising, then, that the cheery and servile Samantha is engineered to be the ultimate housewife. She is a literal superwoman—never tired, never incapable, and never lacking for knowledge of a particular subject. And she is always available as a friend and love object. Thanks to her uninhibited access to Theodore’s email and work documents, Samantha scores him a book deal based on the letters he’s written for his job at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. On double dates, she chats about sex with the other (human) girlfriend, and she helps Theodore play his video games thanks to her high-powered processing skills. Since Samantha doesn’t need to rest herself, she begs to watch him while he sleeps.

There is, of course, the uncomfortable fact that Theodore purchased his lover. After they begin a relationship, Theodore doesn’t seem to ask her to work as much—or, at least, we don’t see him do so. But he also doesn’t turn to any other program (such as he had in the beginning of the film) to perform his tasks while he’s with Samantha, which suggests that she’s still fulfilling his secretarial needs. Though Jonze seems to portray Samantha as a truly conscious being, he wants to have it both ways: Samantha’s purchase, ownership, and servitude don’t seem to be an issue precisely because she’s an object. In the end—to put it as delicately as possible, to avoid spoilers—Samantha transcends her position as lover, laborer, and object, and Jonze gets to sidestep any prickly implications.

In some ways, Her isn’t that different from movies about men falling in love with their female assistants or secretaries. In others, it’s a fleshed out and provoking look at consciousness and physicality. (And, to Jonze’s credit, the film strikes a nice balance between Dave Eggers-esque technophobia and all out Silicon Valley utopianism.) But if we really are to be stuck with the trope of technology being female, maybe in this storyline’s next iteration, the female artificial intelligence program can be something other than a romantic and domestic partner.