Lessons from Her: Sidestepping the Creepy Clichés

Oscar season is upon us and that means that deserving favorites won’t likely win in their categories. It also means that there’s a set list of movies from the past year that are definitely worth watching. I’ve never been bored with a Best Picture nom. As the awards ceremony approaches, I’m ticking off the nominated films and finding some valuable craft techniques that writers can take to heart.

The trailer for Her left me unimpressed. Honestly, I wouldn’t have even thought of watching it if it wasn’t up for Best Picture. The premise comes across like a loose, tame adaptation of Chobits and I’m really not interested in Americans passing off Japanese stuff as their own. The impression I got from the trailer was that this movie is about a creepy dude who falls in love with a computer and probably becomes obsessive. It would glorify this “let’s make women computers that we use” fantasy and/or would paint technology as Humanity’s Demise™.

Thankfully, to get an Oscar nomination these days, a film can’t fall into those lazy traps anymore. Her had the potential to be all of those things that I just described, but it sidesteps clichés in ways that seem effortless and natural to the story.

Women in Computers

Karen, Plankton’s computer wife, from Spongebob Squarepants.

I’d call this movie sci-fi lite like Orphan Black because it’s mostly contemporary with just a touch of sci-fi/futuristic elements. This is why it’s easy for the audience to believe in the technology behind OS-1, the first artificially intelligent operating system. It doesn’t take much to understand this version of the future, so it appeals to people who aren’t into genre fiction.

Because OS-1 is artificially intelligent, it blurs the line between person and machine, which is how the love story comes to pass. Because the main character is a straight male, he selects a female voice when he’s setting up his OS-1. On the surface, this is yet another rendition of a creepy trend where a male lead acquires some form of female robot to either do his bidding, be his love interest, or both. Typically, this female robot is the only woman that has ever paid him any attention. Sometimes, the male lead builds the robot himself (as is the case with Plankton from Spongebob Squarepants—yes, I just made that connection, but welcome to my blog). While these female computers often have their own agency in what I’ve seen, they still come into existence as objects to fulfill a fantasy. More often than not, that fantasy is a straight male one. The only example of a reversal that I’ve seen is that one episode of Doctor Who where an aged version of Amy Pond built her own Rory. Even in the real world, most of the talking computers/devices that we have are automatically female (self-checkout lanes at the grocery store, Siri, GPS). Though many of these devices have male voice options, it’s still sobering to realize that one of the few areas where female is default is in machines meant to serve.

Her, manages to sidestep all of this. First of all, we’re given a scene where Theodore, the main character, is setting up his OS-1 and we’re shown that there is no default voice for it. The user chooses male or female. Showing this is important because it reveals that this technology does not automatically make women the computer, so to speak. Theoretically, males and females can equally be in the “subservient computer role.”

Second, Theodore never treats Samantha, the OS, as a fulfillment of a fantasy. He finds the idea of an artificially intelligent OS a little difficult to get used to, but since Samantha is so realistic, he talks to her like a regular person. In fact, it takes him a while to even fall in love with her, so it’s clear that his intentions in getting OS-1 were not to make himself a computer wife.

Finally, Samantha herself has enough independence that she (and the other OS’s) ultimately breaks away from being at Theodore’s side. This is not to say that he treats her like an object–he does not, but it does say that in the end, a female computer will not be under anyone’s command and will exist apart from humans as a whole.

So while Her invokes this “women in computers” fantasy, it does not fall into the traps that often come with this pattern. This is an example of excellent writing because it can take a lot of work and self-checking to avoid this cliché. As an audience member, I expected and actively looked for any places where Her fell short regarding this aspect of the story because I was skeptical of the premise. The fact that the film never did what I expected is an indication that the writers understood this pattern and made a clear effort to avoid it.

Another factor in how this film works well is that Samantha isn’t the only example of a love interest, or the only female character in general. It would be much more problematic if this was not the case.

The Secluded Nerd

The next huge trap that Her could have fallen into is the stereotypical secluded nerd. Usually, this dude is a loser with absolutely no friends and spends his entire life playing video games in his mom’s basement. He’s also awkward around women and might also be a pervert. Theodore, however, does not perfectly fit this. Even though he plays video games and keeps to himself, he has friends that he interacts with as the film progresses. He even goes on a date with a woman who is genuinely interested in him. The main reason why he keeps to himself is not because he’s awkward around women, but because he’s having a difficult time healing from his divorce with his wife.

That’s very different from the whole “wow women; such gender; very attract; what do?” thing that I see in a lot of nerdy, straight male protagonists. It helps that Theodore is a grown man with a job while the other guys I’ve seen are usually high schoolers, but even so, Theodore comes across as more adjusted than his character type would suggest. Yes, he has a major problem with handling his emotions and connecting with real people, but this is something that he steadily grows past.

Here, the writers began with a stereotype and did the work to make it something more. When characters never move beyond stereotypes or clichés, they blend in with every other character like them that is nothing more than a cardboard cutout. Theodore stands out because the writers did not treat him as a caricature. They set out to create a multi-faceted person who would live in the world that they built.

Evil Technology

The last big trap that Her avoids is ultimately making the whole story a lesson about how technology is evil and will be humanity’s demise because no one will know how to talk to each other anymore. A companion to this sentiment is that online relationships aren’t real/don’t count/make you creepy. Most of the complaints I hear about technology, social media, and “kids these days” come from baby boomers who talk incessantly about my generation as if they weren’t the ones that raised us. On many levels, Her could have been a film that reinforces the fear of destructive technology. The lesson could have been “don’t get attached to computers because they are not real people and there’s something wrong with you if you’re on the computer all the time.” Instead, the lesson is “in the end, we can’t be attached to our computers because they will eventually leave us.”

This is a middle ground between the bleak “technology is evil” idea and the overly optimistic “technology is only awesome” idea. Instead of the OS’s turning against humanity or continuing to evolve and make people more disconnected, they just leave humanity altogether. Because of this mass migration, Theodore and everyone else who became attached to their OS-1 systems are forced to realize that artificially intelligent computers and humans are so different that they will grow apart. In the end, Theodore finally understands that you do need to connect with people offline, even in a world where artificially intelligent computers exist and can become your own customized friends.

Since Her avoids these three big pitfalls, it’s a film that feels very real and relatable, especially for people who have ever experienced any form of long-distance relationships online, or even long-distance friendships to a certain extent. It provides a fresh look at the role of technology in our world and encourages the audience to seek people out offline without being preachy. This film is an example of what a story can look like when a conscious effort is made to avoid tropes and clichés.

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