‘Her’ and the Future of Work- by Gabby Bess
In Spike Jonze’s best-picture-nominated Her, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) works as a surrogate letter writer for the likes of couples or families that want to send professionally crafted, and genuine, well-wishes to a loved one. With a blank facial expression, Theodore sits at his desk tapping out love letters to strangers. He’s not the only scribe, but rather just one in a room full of surrogate letter writers, emotional laborers typing out messages for a loved one that is not their own. After getting off work, Theodore directs his phone to ‘play melancholy song’ to help induce and amplify his own emotions after feeling the emotions of others for eight hours. Like the factory worker that becomes alienated from the goods he assembles in piecemeal, the body, living under current constraints, becomes alienated from its emotion.
Then there’s Samantha, a sentient machine built to schedule Theodore’s appointments and organize his life. An operating system voiced by the sultry Scarlett Johansson, Samantha lacks a physical body yet embodies the film trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She is excited to learn and process the world, and more importantly, she is excited to let Theodore teach her. She gives him, a depressed and soon-to-be-divorced mess of a man, a reason to feel excited about life again. He “uploads” all his problems to Samantha, and she listens. In our present world and Jonze’s near-future one, the body, or lack thereof, is a vessel for the projection of a partner – a surrogate for one’s own desires and a vessel to pour oneself into.
The labor of a partner has traditionally been non-market work, defined as unpaid work performed for oneself or for others. Women have always engaged in this type of unpaid work (think of stay-at-home moms). In her recent show during Art Basel in Miami Beach, the artist Cristine Brache explored themes of the body as projection. Comparing the body of a woman to that of a plastic bag, Brache said, “the plastic bag is a container for something of more value. It is produced with that sole purpose and then discarded.”
Jonze’s vaguely futuristic world, which breaks down how emotion can be in the service of labor, shows us how emotional labor is increasingly moving out of the domestic sphere and becoming industrialized. Work, as defined by Irene Padavic and Barbara Reskin in their book Women and Men at Work, encompasses activities that produce a good or a service. This definition includes the service of performing emotions, which Theodore and Samantha both clearly do.
Samantha’s program eventually expands to allow her to feel and to want. With the exponential growth of her intelligence and non-linear capacity to engage in emotional work, she can serve as an emotional companion not only to Theodore but to hundreds of men just like him. Conversely, Theodore’s spontaneous feeling, which is in the service of labor, becomes automated.
We are still a few years off from operating systems that can spontaneously generate personalities and interact in human-like manners—just like we are, unfortunately, a few years off from fully recognizing emotional work as paid work. Ignoring the validity of unpaid work contributes to the devaluation of what is traditionally labeled as “women’s work.” Because emotional work is largely considered women’s work and, as Padavic and Reskin point out, the more heavily female an occupation, the less both women and men earn. But in the future of Her, both men and women can be seen performing emotion work through surrogate letters.
We have seen the future in Her, and it is–against a backdrop of IKEA furniture–a complete industrialization of all spheres of work, for better or worse.