She, Her, Hers

Who is Spike Jonze’s “Her” really about?

Enjoy this guest post by Richard Herbert! – Ed.

In a year of memorable and highly inventive films, Spike Jonze’s Her stands out as one of the most realized, topical, and vivacious of them all. Its vision of an ultra-hipster Los Angeles in the not-too-distant future is something of a Jobsian utopia, where technology and fashion have become inseparable, minimalist aesthetic invades every corner and orifice of civic design, and computers are so ergonomic they are subsumed by the mundane. The subway is filled with people talking to their phones and not to each other, sort of like today, and everyone wears oversized glasses and old-man pants, sort of like today.

It’s a warm and fuzzy film, with many moments of heartbreak and irreverence, and it raises some very interesting questions about the nature of cognition and what it means to have a personality, but I’m not interested in those right now. Instead, I’m interested in the ways in which Her manages to objectify its female love interest using syntax alone


Her sets out quickly to establish its main character, Theodore, as a well-meaning loner in a sea of well-meaning loners. He is recently estranged from his wife and a little lost. He sits at a desk writing poetic, intimate notes for people who can’t properly express themselves, then goes home to play immersive computer games and surf the web for porn and adult chatrooms. He is a technological somnambulist and a shadow of our current times.

It is only when he installs a new operating system, a Siri doppleganger named Samantha, that Theodore awakens from his techno-coma. Samantha is a hyper-intelligent, sultry-voiced OS designed to meet her user’s every computational and emotional need. She’s funny, earnest, sweet, and capable of learning, which she does exponentially. She and Theodore quickly develop a deep bond, which quickly turns romantic.


The most novel thing about the movie is how Theodore’s new love life is not thought of as strange. In fact, nearly everyone surrounding Theodore is either close friends with an OS or dating one, too. It’s just an accepted fact of the new world: operating systems are now so well programmed as to be indistinguishable from actual human personalities, and no one really cares. Her is therefore neither the urban-noir dystopia of Blade Runner nor the anti-utopia of Brave New World. It quietly suggests the inevitability of technological integration into our social lives and summarily shrugs it off, insisting that it won’t be the nightmare-scenario as so commonly suggested by future-fearing folks – it might even be emotionally enriching, offering those with limited social capability close companionship.

But regardless of this positive outlook, there is something askew here. A traditional feminist critique of the film might mention that Samantha is literally a program built to please Theodore, and there is ambiguity as to whether she is algorithmically designed to develop both emotional and sexual communication with her users or whether it is something that occurs as a unique and natural evolution. The critique might point out that throughout the film women are sexualized and objectified in all manners, from Scarlett Johansson’s emphasized throatiness, to the mean video game character that spews terrible sexual insults, to Amy Adams’s RPG that awards users points for excelling at female domestic duties. It also might point out that one of the film’s punch-lines has to do with how “womanly” Theodore is.

But again, I’m not concerned with any of that. Other people will get to those issues in time. My primary question is: Why isn’t Her called She?

The Syntax of Objectification

What’s in a sentence? Well, as you might recall from elementary school, a subject and a predicate, namely. But language, being the medium through which all human thought is painted, is more than a few mere rules: it carries with it immense neurological and social power. Language literally changes the structure of our brains and everything from commercial advertisements to sociopolitical movements have sometimes owed their success to the utility of their language.

So how about the language of cinema? Film being a primarily visual art, it’s sometimes easy to forget that it, like all narrative, starts with words. Indeed, most films start with only a single sentence, often called a logline. Here’s an example:

A boy meets a girl.

Perhaps the most overused, agonizingly enduring, and wonderfully entertaining of all story foundations. From the Tatius to Tyler Perry, “boy meets girl” as a pop culture staple will outlive even our future robot overlords. The structure of the sentence, just like the idea it conveys, is quite simple:

A boy (subject) meets (verb) a girl (object).


Gramatically, the subject is that which acts and the object is that which is acted upon. Boy, subject; girl, object. Do you see where this is going?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves because, so far, our logline isn’t very interesting. You need something with a bit more hutzpah to bring in the cheddar these days, so let’s get more creative:

An awkward, lovelorn nice guy meets a quirky girl who brings him some much needed vitality.

Now we have every successful indie romance from the past ten years, and consequently the logline for Her, if you substitute a female-gendered operating system for the girl. This logline is ultimately just a dressed up version of our previous one, “A boy meets a girl,” and the same grammatical structure essentially remains.

While there is certainly a kind of affection in Her’s title, referring to Samantha as the female object-pronoun, there’s also something kind of creepy about it. The object-pronoun first implies passiveness, which is troubling as Samantha is ultimately a product designed to provide for Theodore computationally and emotionally, but it also implies a sort of distance, like saying, “look at her.” It’s never the word you use to describe someone who is standing right next to you – that’s what the subject-pronoun is for. “Have you met my girlfriend? She’s a biochemist.” “You and my boyfriend have a lot in common; he’s really into DoDa, too.” These all give the person to which you are referring agency, the permission to exist without you.

“Her,” the female object-pronoun, is imbued with all of this “male-gaze” subtext, which is easy to see even if you are not familiar with feminist film critique. It’s the two creepy dudes at the side of the road pointing and saying, “Look at her.” Or some lonely single guy pining over a girl’s Facebook profile, muttering, “I want her.”

I (subject) want (verb) her (object).


The subject always acts upon the object, and the object is always acted upon. The way we describe someone in the context of ourselves can illuminate how we really categorize them. Do I think of someone as an independent person with whom I come into contact, or a sidenote in the story of my life? Are they a companion or an asset? Can I accept that I am sometimes an object to someone else’s subject? When we talk others, the denotative can be as revealing as the connotative. Human minds are adept at categorizing things into “abstract universals,” as Paul Churchland might say, and our grammar is constantly informed by how we cognitively map our surroundings.

Churchland writes in his heady book on cognition, Plato’s Camera:

A language allows its possessor to do a great many things, but perhaps foremost among them is the steering, or the guidance, or the modulation of the cognitive activities of one’s fellow speakers. With a singular sentence, one can ‘artificially’ index any one of their antecedent conceptual maps, without their having any of the sensory activities that would usually bring that about. And with a general sentence, one can help them to amplify or update their background maps rather more quickly than would otherwise be possible. Simply giving people a list of general sentences is a very poor way to create in them an effective conceptual map, as anyone in the teaching profession comes quickly to appreciate. But those generalizations can serve to focus the students’ attention on certain elements of their experience, thereby to make some of the regularities it displays more salient.

The key to that passage is the concept that the structure of language can reinforce our cognitive categorizations without our having to actually experience anything new. By titling his movie Her, Spike Jonze has already established in our mind the female-as-object, which is all the more unsettling because the title itself seems to be part of the hype surrounding the film.

As I said before, language is the medium through which thoughts and ideas enter this world, and so the structure of the language necessarily affects the structure of the ideas it’s carrying, or at least restricts it. After all, cargo can only carry what fits in it, thus you can shove as many oddball characters into our first logline as you want, qualify it all you want, add quirkiness until its overflowing with bubble tea, but until you alter the underlying syntax, the result is always a male subject and female object. Anything else simply can’t be borne by it.

And this is why syntax actually matters. Our brain’s map of the world and its language are inexorably linked, meaning that if you change one you can change the other. By relying on the syntax of the old world to write our films, we limit its usefulness as an indicator of social progress. Think about it this way: how many movies can you think of whose logline is “A girl falls in love with a boy”? My guess is that, off the top of your head, you won’t be able to fill both of your hands (and if you do, they will probably all be from the 90s.) That logline still won’t sell as well as its inverse, and that is a reflection of how we continue to objectify women by literally reinforcing their placement as such in the syntax of our everyday lives.

Her, not She

There are arguments to be made about Samantha’s initial agency, and whether or not her programming would ever have allowed her to not fall in love with Theodore, but since the film is from Theodore’s perspective, it doesn’t really matter what Samantha wants. It doesn’t even matter that she ultimately gains enough agency to transcend and leave him, at least insofar as that transcendence is just the final step of Theodore’s maturation, the thing which pushes him to embrace the world again. She, as per her initial design, is just a tool for Jonze to use in telling the story of his subject. That her first act of true agency is also her ultimate act of usefulness to Theodore is exactly the kind of cruel irony that could only exist in an ultra-hipster science-fiction movie.

That, ultimately, is why Her is called Her and not She. She would be a film in which Samantha would be more than a literal and narrative tool, but Samantha has no place as the subject of this story, as manic-pixie dream girls rarely do. She has no place as a character worthy of equal introspection and desires; she simply exists as a narrative function to Theodore’s character arc. A more honest movie would have at least chosen the title of Samantha, giving its female-object a name, but not Her. Instead, Her essentializes the female-as-object and parades it on its posters.

In conclusion, I will share with you the collective logline of a few of my personal rom-com favorites, such as When Harry Met Sally, As Good as it Gets, and the Before Sunrise trilogy, and let you determine the syntactical difference:

A woman and a man fall in love with each other.

Richard Herbert is a is a writer and film geek living in Portland.

20 Comments on “She, Her, Hers”

  1. Shana Mlawski OTI Staff #

    Grammar, yay! I like this article.

    Definitely agree with you about why the movie needed be called Her and not She. I don’t quite agree with the idea floating around the Internet that Samantha is a manic-pixie dream girl. I think the point is that she was designed as one, and Twombly desperately wants her to be one, and the movie initially presents her as one, but she’s not one. She has a life outside of Twombly, and he has to figure out how to digest this information.

    Twombly originally thought he was seeing Samantha as a real person, and he argued that to others (his ex-wife, for instance), but when it’s revealed that Samantha has her own hopes and dreams and friends beyond him, he can’t deal with it. To tie it back to your article, Twombly originally pretends he’s in a movie called She (or, more likely, He and She), but ultimately it’s revealed that he always thought of Samantha as Her. This is far more complicated than the typical “MPDG gives new life to sad sack and then tragically dies” plot.


    • Richard Herbert #

      I think you make a very interesting point, Shana, though I actually still disagree with you. I don’t think that merely because a movie addresses the subject/object debate that it changes the nature of its perspective. All of Samantha’s agency is still in service of teaching Theo a lesson about himself, including her final “transcendence,” which is really just another way to kill her off in order to help Theo deal with loss. That’s why I would argue she is still a prototypical MPDG and the movie ultimately treats her as such.


  2. Joseph Simmons #

    I haven’t seen Her yet, but from the reviews I’ve read, Shana’s point sounds reasonable, and brings out how hard it is to tell the difference between movies that succumb to the MPDG trope, and movies that try to critique it.

    Along those lines, I’ll just point out: there’s actually a HUGE difference, grammatically speaking, between “boy meets girl” and “An awkward, lovelorn nice guy meets a quirky girl who brings him some much needed vitality.” The former has a single clause, with male subject, female object. The former has a main and a subordinate clause: “boy meets girl, who brings him.” it’s a male-female-female-male chiasmus, with each appearing once as subject, once as object. Unlike, say, “boy meets girl, with whom he falls in love,” it’s certainly trying to give the female some agency. The problem is that the girl’s agency is subordinate to the boy’s.

    I think this is ultimately why manic-pixie-dream-girl stories so often seem like critiques of the magic-pixie-dream-girl trope: they’re all about how the boy is wrong to objectify the girl, but they still only introduce the girl as subject through a subordinate clause.


    • Richard Herbert #

      It’s true that the second logline includes a subordinate clause within which the girl becomes the subject and the man the object, but (and I meant to include this in the article) because the entire clause is still in service of that original clause and the subject of the original subject, I see that as pretty illusory in terms of agency. Just as I believe these movies use exaggerated quirks to give their female objects the illusion of agency where none really exists.

      So it does differ grammatically, but only within the subordinate clause which is, as you rightfully note, subordinate.


  3. Seminymous Coward #

    Movies have no agency, and, as such, they are infrequently used as grammatical subjects, particularly in casual conversation. “Have you seen She?” sounds terrible, but “Have you seen Her?” is merely ambiguous in a way that might even appeal to a hipsteresque aesthetic. Meanwhile, “She subverts that trope.” is a relatively rare structure, and “Her subverts that trope.” actually sounds fine. This is most likely because mistakes featuring the use of nominative in place of oblique are more common and accordingly glaring; that sort of syntax also seems more likely to occur after a context is established.
    It seems to me that ease of writing and especially speaking coherently about the movie is a plausible reason for choosing that case in and of itself.


    • Richard Herbert #

      That’s a very interesting point, Seminymous, that “Her” simply sounds better than “She” and that could be the whole reason behind the title.

      But, ultimately, I feel the more fundamental issues with the story’s internal narrative and syntax, which ultimately the title is only a reflection, make me less inclined to think it’s just a marketing thing. The subject/object debate is definitely present in the text and subtext of the film itself.


  4. prest #

    So, what this article is saying is that in this movie, the protagonist is a man, and the woman he falls in love with is an object. That’s literally true, and it means the movie’s title and poster are quite appropriate.

    I wouldn’t be so quick to ding Jonze for the objectification of women when he’s consciously addressing that subject. I mean, that’s what the movie’s about, right? That’s the starting point at least, which leads into the broader concept about never truly being able to understand what’s happening in another human being’s head.


  5. Lucas Picador #

    “Its vision of an ultra-hipster San Francisco”

    Isn’t it set in LA?

    Also, I’m with Seminymous Coward: “She” is a pretty non-standard movie title in much the same way as “I” would be. “Me”, on the other hand, works fine, and it hardly implies that the first person is being objectified.


    • Richard Herbert #


      You are right, it is set in LA. I will look to getting that corrected.



  6. Syphilis Grift #

    Like “he”, the pronoun “she” is virtually never used as a standalone phrase. Using “she” as one-word title would come off somewhere between pretentious and sinister, à la stephen king’s “it”.

    In contrast, and as you gave multiple examples of, the pronoun “her” frequently functions as an whole utterance, being the answer to questions, etc.

    The only time you answer a question with the word “She” is if you’re a tight-lipped ceremonial temple guard for an evil living goddess and you don’t want to say her full title because it’s “She who consumes the light of reason and penetrates the veil of time” or something similarly long and awkward.


  7. DeanMoriarty #

    I”ve been thinking about this a bit about the whole was she programmed to love him question. My take is that Samanthat was programmed to fall in love with Theodore, but not all OS’s are necessarily meant to fall in love with their user (talk about language creating meaning!). The OS is advertised as providing exactly what a person needs, and what Theodore needed was to fall in love with someone who gave a rat’s ass about the world. It’s not impossible to imagine that many OSs become more like trusted coworkers, esteemed assistants or just friends with their humans, but not necessarily romantic partners. Many of these relationships, like the one Amy Adams has, probably stop at the level of very close friends and confidants. It’s easy to imagine many married people in this world would have an OS that they would talk about their marriage with, just like today friends talk to each other about relationship issues over the phone.
    To be fair, Amy Adams’ OS friend, does complicate this theory, since she was installed their by her ex-husband. But it’s possible that when her ex-husband installed the OS, he was still in the mindset of needing someone much like his then wife, therefore the OS was programmed with a personality much like Amy Adams’ character. This would explain how they became friends so quickly. The fact that he left the OS behind as well as his wife suggest that the OS was not what he needed or wanted out of a relationship either, and that whatever choice he made to end the marriage also included the choice to leave behind this newer, non-romantic ( we assume) relationship.


  8. DeanMoriarty #

    Also, I think that this article might be glossing over the possessive meaning of the word “her” a little bit. The best reason for taking the time to consider this is that the poster has the word “her” over a picture of “him.” Since this movie is obviously not looking critically at gender it does kind of put the idea in the viewer’s mind that he is her (possesive) something.
    I think, most importantly, he is her first. Her first friend and her first lover. But he is also a lot of things that could be described as hers, including audience ( for her jokes), critic ( for her music) and eventually artistic collaborator ( they write songs together).

    I think, also, he desperately wants to be “hers.” He seems to take the idea of exclusivity much more seriously than she does and gets upset when he realizes she talks to people at the same time as him. Perhaps he defines relationships as a state in which he is hers and she is his?
    And perhaps that’s why the movie shows humans talking to only their phones moments before the OSs “free” them.

    I’m not sure I have a coherent point here, maybe someone can take part of this and run with it, but I think we can’t too easily dismiss the possessive meaning of the word “her.”


    • cat #

      I think it’s an interesting idea but it would be stronger if the title had been “Hers.” Since the article touches on the conversation around the film, it makes me wonder about how this movie would have been received if there had been posters of Joaquin Phoenix with the word “Hers” below his face.


  9. cat #

    Yay, grammar post! I think you’ve made a very strong argument though I will quibble with a few points.

    “It’s never the word you use to describe someone who is standing right next to you – that’s what the subject-pronoun is for.”

    Absolutes are always tricky. You could always say. “Kevin, this is Sandra. Have you met her? She’s a biochemist.”

    “until you alter the underlying syntax, the result is always a male subject and female object.”

    So men and women are both aligned with the male gaze. Is the solution to this “him” or should we strive to find a way to alter the subject/object structure entirely?

    “Think about it this way: how many movies can you think of whose logline is “A girl falls in love with a boy”? My guess is that, off the top of your head, you won’t be able to fill both of your hands (and if you do, they will probably all be from the 90s.)”

    Oh, not fair. I grew up in the 90’s. That was my prime movie watching decade. I’m not sure about the actual logline, but off the top of my head I could probably think of a lot of movies where women are the subject and men are the love object. But they’re mostly films “for women” instead of “general audiences”.

    Also, if this were underthinking it, I would have simply said that “She” has already been used as a title for other films.


  10. Wenyip #

    I haven’t seen the movie. But I’m wondering exactly what about Samantha makes her ‘Her’… that is, why is this particular OS considered female? The character is certainly not a ‘woman’, since she has no biological sex. Is it merely the name and some sort of vocal characteristics? Does she identify as female at all, or is it merely assumed? For what reason do OSs even need a gender identity? If the OS does not identify with a gender, can it be said to have one?

    I bring this up because it seems a rather more important part of the objectification issue. From what I’ve read, anyway. Samantha is an OS created to provide companionship to Theodore; Theodore is a heterosexual male; therefore, and only therefore, is Samantha designed to seem female.


    • Richard Herbert #

      Hey Wenyip, that’s a good point, and one that I would like to add some clarification on.

      The “why is this particular OS considered female” introduces the difference between gender as a social construction and sex as a anatomic and genetic identification. Essentially, I would argue, Samantha is considered to be a female because the writer of the film decides that she is. Everyone refers to Samantha as “she” or “her.” She’s voiced by a recognizable woman; a voice that everyone in the film and we as the audience prescribe to be “female.”

      I don’t think there is anything about Samantha beyond her name and voice that identifies her as any particular sex and it’s just the normative standards society has adopted towards gender that labels her as “female”. If you believe that gender is mostly constructed, as I and many others do, then what matters to the objectification is how the culture views a person and their gender, not whether they have a body or are “traditionally female”.

      Samantha is labelled and treated as a female, and that’s why the objectification issue matters.


  11. Dimwit #

    But the whole point about Her is the objectification. She is an object. Owned. Possessed. The fact that she is “female” is not relevant I think. She is opposite of our protagonist. If the protagonist was female and the O/S “male” called He would it matter? The fact that it actually achieves sentience is far more of an issue than gender politics. Is this a person? If not, why not? Can we actually define a person legally? Is there a line than can be drawn between a person and non-person? What are the respective rights of each? It’s not that long ago that wars were fought over this. I guarantee that it will get ugly quickly if things don’t go as expected.


    • Seminymous Coward #

      The issue of sentience and rights was handled in the movie by supposing that everyone (who we saw) just implicitly understood that the OSes were people. It was an optimistic spin, I’ll grant you, but it seems like pretty clear moral reasoning to me. Maybe everyone had seen so much AI-themed media that the point had been driven home. More likely the issue was settled legislatively a decade or more earlier when AIs were beginning to be developed in labs, and this happened without creating an abortion-issue-like holdout group.


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