This is the first in a series of posts directed at (but not limited to) one of our contributors, Pete.
I’ve known Pete properly for 6 years now and during this time he has always been in online relationships. To clarify, these are relationships based solely on the use of ‘Skype’, ‘Whatsapp’, and other such online communication tools.
Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, follows a portion of the life of Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) who after a tumultuous divorce with his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) soon finds himself in a relationship with his computer Operating System, voiced by the wonderful, Scarlett Johansson.
I imagine you can see the link between Pete and this film already.
But why do I find Pete’s online relationships so problematic, to the extent that I felt compelled to write this piece? Well Her goes someway to explaining this.
It comes down to how our obsession with online relationships (both platonic and romantic) and the online world in general is affecting the way we perform as humans, and particularly how we as men act around others. Many of us, but more so with men, have problems vocalising our emotions- from how we feel about others, to how we feel in an exact moment, to exercising empathy that actually appears as genuine as we may feel. The character of Theodore, to some extent, has no such problems; his colleague Paul (Chris Pratt) describes him as “part man, part woman”, “a sensitive dude”, who only because he is this way, can perform his job as a letter-writer for other people. Theodore does for others what they cannot do themselves: articulate their feelings. The film nods in particular to one anonymous male, whom Theodore has written letters on behalf of since the man was 12- it’s almost passed off with an air of nonchalance, but additionally feels absurd- an entire relationship based on a lie. But it additionally alludes to something else: that online, we can pretend to be anyone, but in ‘real life’, we are wholly different.
And this is also Theodore, as much as it is our friend Pete.
Whilst both Theodore and Pete frequently appear to engage with ‘real emotions’, they also hide behind the façade of the online world. Theodore says he loves his OS (also called Samantha) because she is excited about life; but more so than that, it appears that he loves her for her functionality- both literally as a computer, but also as an entity that is uncomplicated. Theodore never has to be physically present; he can set her up and engage with her on his terms. He also never has to truly sexually perform; they have, as it’s called today, ‘phone sex’. Theodore never has to deal with the complicated splendour of the human body (and in fact, in the instances in the film where he has a chance to physically have sex with women, he hesitates and refuses).
At one point, Theodore declares to his friend Amy (played by Amy Adams, who I wish was in the film more as she’s so great in it), “I can’t even prioritise between video games and internet porn”, she replies wryly, “That would be funny if it wasn’t true.” The porn, the phone sex- it’s conditioning men to be, ironically, disconnected from reality.
This is Theodore refusing to engage with the real world; it is Pete refusing; it is men all over the world refusing. The purest relationship in the film is actually between Theodore and Amy: a beautiful, open, platonic friendship, where both are physically there for each other. By the end of the film Theodore truly comes to appreciate it (which for me, actually, is a perfect end to the film). It’s a message from Jonze to the audience to love and value those around you.
See, I’m far from a relationship expert. I’ve only had one ‘proper’ relationship: it lasted a year. But in that year I learnt more about myself, more about people, then I ever have before. And this was down to the fact that I had to be bodily present for another: during the fights, during the sex, during it all. It’s the way we are meant to do it and it helps us grow as men, to understand emotions, others, and ourselves.
Eventually, Theodore’s online world begins to crumble; illustrating to us that even online there isn’t a perfect sanctuary. I’m not denying that Theodore’s relationship with Samantha is very real: it’s touching, nuanced, and passionate (I think Spike Jonze’s film would have failed if I didn’t care about it, and I do). Similarly, I don’t dismiss the time Pete has had with his online partners as meaningless (communication is integral, many men refuse to use it, and at least Pete/Theodore do that). But it misses the integral component of being physically there for others, to literally offer that sympathetic arm, that kiss on the forehead, or take that slap across the face.
Catherine sums Theodore and many men up perfectly: “You always wanted to have a wife without having to deal with anything real”.
We can’t choose the ones we love, but humans are wonderful and Samantha’s desire, “to be as complicated as all these people”, to have a body that feels emotions, is a lesson to us to appreciate and exercise our own ability to be bodily present and genuine with another.
by Rohan Rice.