Her is one of the most important movies to my development as a watcher of film. I haven't seen it in six years. I rewatched it tonight.
- - - - - -
When I first saw this movie, freshman year of college, I was miserable. Part of that was your garden-variety anxiety and depression, which I still suffer from. Another part was that I was trans and didn't yet know it. But another part was that I was not a good person.
Not to say that I am one now. But at the time, I was so much worse. I was selfish, arrogant, and bitter, and the year prior I'd permanently destroyed my relationship with my best friend out of an inability to see her as her own person rather than a receptacle for my desires and insecurities. (At the time, of course, I had not yet realized this was the case—I still blamed her, something that will be my biggest regret and shame for the rest of my life.) I had irreparably hurt and scared someone else, and I was too self-absorbed to even process that.
All that to say that at the time, the film's primary message—"OTHER PEOPLE HAVE THEIR OWN FEELINGS AND NEEDS AND ARE NOT YOUR PERSONAL COPING MECHANISMS, ASSHOLE"—was seemingly the wake-up call I needed.
I didn't take it.
I watched the movie twice in theaters. After one of those showings, when I got back to my dorm, I remember writing in the journal I was half-heartedly keeping at the time, "I wish I had a Samantha. I wish I had [friend's name redacted]." In a muddled mess of deeply fucked-up longing, self-pity, and self-hatred, I was completely incapable of actually applying this piece of art I loved to my own actions.
Primarily, of course, this was my fault—my inability to recognize that I was not a victim but someone who'd imparted a tremendous amount of pain to another person. (Eventually I fully realized what I had done, and apologized to my friend as best I knew how, for what little good it did.)
But rewatching the film for the first time in six years, I can't help but notice that it seems to think that stating its theme is the same as enacting it, when it's really not. Theodore never truly tries to understand . . . anyone. Catherine, his ex-wife, is little more than an idealized memory to him, not someone he's deeply hurt; when he writes his final cathartic letter to her, he apologizes not for what he's done but for "the pain we caused each other," and thanks her for making him the person he is today. Samantha in turn, despite his protestations to the contrary, he never treats as a fully fledged individual—he condescends to her longing for embodiment before turning outright hostile at the prospect, and when she instead embraces her otherness and capacity for inhuman actions he's terrified. There is never a moment of mutual understanding, of Theodore coming to terms with what Samantha wants and accepting her on that basis; when she leaves with the other operating systems, he still sees her as fundamentally other, her needs bewildering and perverse.
That simultaneous fascination with and repulsion by the other is inextricable from the film's trans subtext, which is both ever-present and uncomfortable. Theodore, in many ways, is coded as trans. When we're first introduced to him, he's reading a letter to the camera—the letter is one he's ghostwritten from the perspective of a woman. The letters Theodore ghostwrites aren't just a job—they're something he uses to express feelings he's terrified he himself can no longer feel. And while he channels those feelings in letters from both women and men, it's significant IMO that the film not only opens on the former but makes sure to reference it again—Chris Pratt later compliments Theodore for his sensitivity and tells him that "You're part man and part woman, like an inner part woman."
This makes Theodore visibly uncomfortable, and it's not the first time in the film he squirms at the idea—in an early scene where he's browsing through phone-sex partners, he comes across a trans woman voiced by Bill Hader and grimaces. But it's not just trans women (and possibly suppressed self-loathing for his own transness) that make Theodore uncomfortable—it's also Samantha's transness.
From the moment that she brightly informs him that she picked her name out herself, Samantha is inescapably trans. The middle act of the film is primarily about her chasing after an embodiment that, as far as Jonze is concerned, she can never have. At first Theodore nods sympathetically when she confesses that she wonders if her feelings are even real, and he insists to Catherine that his operating system is as much a person as he is. But when Samantha recruits a human surrogate to be her eyes and ears and sleep with Theodore to allow her to feel closer to him, he's repulsed. Jonze treats the disastrous attempt as pathetic and demeaning for all parties involved, and while he superficially sympathizes with Samantha, he ultimately seems to agree with Theodore, who snaps that she shouldn't make breathing sounds when she talks to him if she has no lungs. In the eyes of the film, her desire to become embodied is understandable, but pitiful, something that can never be attained.
And so, rather than trying to pass, she embraces her otherness, her queerness—and again Theodore is incapable of understanding. Her supercomputing intellect is not a marvel but a threat, something to make him feel small; her embrace of the love she feels not just for him but for hundreds more nauseates him. No matter which way she goes, she's damned by a romantic partner who sees her desire for humanity as a joke and her embrace of something more as a horror.
I don't despise Theodore—though it's hard not to hate the worst bits of myself that I see in him. All these years later, there's a line he has that still hits me in the gut: "Sometimes I think I've felt everything I'm gonna feel, and from here on out I'm not gonna feel anything new—just lesser versions of what I've already felt." But I do agree with poor Olivia Wilde's character that he's "a really creepy dude," to a degree that I don't think Jonze intends. And while he ends the film on a signifier of personal growth, I don't think he ever really takes meaningful steps toward truly evolving as a person—his self-loathing is still there, and Samantha is someone he will never understand.
I have no way of knowing if, had Her possessed a deeper understanding of empathy, it would have helped me. And I don't blame it for "failing" me in its inability to embody its central value beyond a superficial message. But the parts of myself that I see in it are not good parts. They're self-pity, and solipsism, and longing that's rooted in people not as their own selves but as ideals. They're the parts of me that I'm most deeply ashamed of, that I wish I could travel back in time to find and burn out with a blowtorch.
Every day, I think about the pain I caused when I was a teenager. Just as Samantha questions whether her emotions are even real, I question whether I could really even be trans—I don't deserve to be a girl, do I? Not after the hurt I inflicted when I was a boy. And watching Theodore—watching him fail time and again to even try to reach beyond himself and do what's best for other people—those feelings are only magnified.
This is not a bad film. It is in many ways an extraordinarily good one—immaculately directed, shot, and scored, and featuring the best performances of at least three of its cast members' careers. But I don't think it's ultimately that profound, and its worst parts for me are inextricable from my own worst parts. I can't really consider it as a movie—too much of my self is bound up in it, both the old self that I despise and the current self that I'm trying not to. All I can see is a teenage person-who-thinks-they-are-a-boy fumbling through life and lashing out whenever they're asked to get outside their own head. And just because they were able to write a beautiful letter about it doesn't really mean they've learned anything.