In her last scene at the midpoint of Mad Men’s final season, a teenaged Sally Draper looks expectantly at the night sky. It’s July 1969. Neil Armstrong is a national hero and she initiated her first kiss. As she takes a drag off her cigarette, her upturned gaze asks “what’s next?”
It’s thrilling to see Sally negotiate between what she wants and what’s expected of her. Earlier in the series’ run, her father’s ex-girlfriend defined this as people’s main conflict. Advertising promises to resolve it with the careful positioning of consumer goods. Adolescence is a process of fashioning your own identity out of what you inherit and what you create. In this sequence, we see what Sally learned from her mother (the blowout, the way she crosses her left arm when she exhales), her father (the squint, the ease with which she sneaks into the backyard), and her generation (the cynicism about the moon landing). We also see how she disidentifies with her status-oriented upbringing by kissing the nerdy son of a family friend instead of manipulating his jock older brother into pursuing her.
I thought about Sally Draper several times as I watched Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s lovely time-lapse family drama. That last image of Sally complements the film’s poster. Also, Sally Draper, Mason Jr., and the actors who play them mature in front of the camera. I’ve seen Kiernan Shipka age seven years, both within Mad Men’s version of 1960s New York and in the present. In three hours, I saw Ellar Coltrane evolve parallel to a new century from a taciturn six-year-old into an inquisitive college freshman.
I also reflected on how gender shapes one’s coming of age. Boyhood is about a kid negotiating between the kind of man he wants to be and the masculinity that’s expected of him. This is not the first time Richard Linklater has explored this subject. In an interview with Alex Pappademas, Linklater said that he wondered what kind of kid his star would become during production. No brainer; he’s a cool guy. He’s the kid who’d spend class time in a dark room. His name is Ellar Coltrane and he grew up in a Richard Linklater movie. Mason Jr.’s prototype is Dazed and Confused’s Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins), a Central Texas kid who morphs from Little League pitcher to chill incoming freshman on May 28, 1976 with help from his big sister’s cool friends.
In “Making Dazed,” the behind-the-scenes featurette included in its Criterion release, there’s production footage of Parker Posey and Joey Lauren Adams discussing a scene they added to the film because their dialogue in the script just focused on boys and make-up. Linklater told the actresses to write a bull session for their characters, Darla and Simone. It’s a great little scene where Simone (Adams) talks about hanging out with the young daughter of her divorced mother’s new boyfriend. It was ultimately cut for time, along with another scene where a group of girls wonder about life after high school. Now when I watch the film, I wonder what the girls are doing while the boys are out cruising. They’re probably rotating joints and listening to Aerosmith too. Darla would ruin a mailbox.
Save for romance, sex segregation already governs Mitch’s social life. He barely interacts with Jodi (Michelle Burke), who occasionally checks in on her brother and observes that he’ll be able to get away with more rebellious behavior than she did. We see the nuances of this process occur in Boyhood as Mason’s older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) slides out of view, separated by bedrooms, gossip magazines, Lady Gaga, video games, social media, and finally college.
But Dazed and Confused treats masculinity as the default. While Boyhood is universal in many ways—or at least poignant for many adults, some of whom acquired sentimental fondness for queso and Central Texas’ craggy majesty and saw Austin change in real time—it explores what it means to grow up distinctly (Texan, white, modestly class-mobile, and) male. The “boy” of the film’s title is deliberate, and not just because Personhood would weird out studio executives. For Mason Jr., much of that masculine self-fashioning is a process of disidentification, which queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz (RIP) described as “strategies of resistance within the flux of discourse and power” (19). Though Muñoz defined disidentification as survival strategies for minority (and frequently intersectional) subjects, Mason’s struggles with hegemonic masculinity still resemble “a performative mode of tactical recognition” that disallow him to entirely conform to the representations of manhood presented to him (97).
Boyhood begins in 2002, when Mason Jr. is age six. He’s riding home from school with his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), who scolds him gently for not turning in all of his homework. At first, Mason’s lack of follow-through juxtaposes Samantha’s academic excellence. But eventually we meet his father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), a sorta musician and non-committal parent who picks up several years where Troy Dyer left off in 1994’s Reality Bites. This provides some early indication of paternal influence or of the toll the separation took on Mason in the first six years off-screen. Eventually, Mason’s dad stops chasing music and babes. He cuts his hair and sells insurance, even if he still writes songs and makes mixes for his son. But he never quite ages out of the shiftless romanticism and easy misogyny of his youth. It’s why Olivia cannot trust him. With time, his son sees him as a flawed, unreliable person and not a template. He’s not a Father; he’s just a dad.
Mason encounters a number of men whose example he observes but does not follow—authoritarians who want to bend his mother’s family to their will, short-haired teachers and bosses who want to “reach him,” homophobic peers, Bible-toting grandfathers. But the model of masculinity that Mason ultimately tries to distance himself from is the slacker philosopher his father presents to him. Obviously, this is a big challenge for Mason. He shares his father’s DNA and artistic tendencies. Muñoz argued that disidentification is “not always an adequate strategy of resistance” (5) because it “works on and against dominant ideology” (11). Usually, Mason’s strategy is silence, which may not be a legible form of resistance. But in two instances late in the film, he rebels against his father’s misogyny with silence. He uses it when his father and uncle throw Olivia under the bus in order to stress the importance of proper contraception while in college (because dudes gotta sow wild oats). He deploys it again as a defense when his father tries to be a bro by thoughtlessly maligning his son’s ex-girlfriend (aside: I remembered the actress as a guitarist in Schmillion when I was a volunteer at Girls Rock Camp Austin; leave Zoe Graham alone, DAD). These scenes are tough to watch, because Mason’s struggles to disidentify with his father’s model of masculinity are not entirely successful. He stutters. His defenses trail off. But in both scenes, Mason casts a downturned gaze. His smile tightens into a grimace. Nervous laughter sticks in his throat. He looks embarrassed.
These scenes follow an earlier moment in the film where Mason slips out of the house during junior high to drink and horse around with some classmates and two high school boys. The older guys use homophobia and misogyny to bully their young charges into chugging beer, committing dangerous stunts, and bragging about conquests they made up. Mason’s classmate Tony (Jordan Howard) is the only person who defends himself and doesn’t abuse a girl’s reputation to do so. In response to each utterance of “fag” and “pussy,” Tony calls the bullies pathetic for picking on younger kids and telling lies about girls to seem manlier. Mason is silent in this scene too, but his face suggests he wished he were brave enough to speak up.
Ultimately, Mason cannot entirely identify with the forms of masculinity presented to him because they exist at the expense of women’s dignity. Mason may have had a cool weekend dad, but he also grew up under the care of a tough, determined mom. As Wesley Morris observed in his review, Boyhood “is actually the story of a single mother who wants the best for her children but also for herself.” Olivia makes a lot of self-destructive decisions over the course of Boyhood, but she is also a self-sufficient woman who tries to learn from the past instead of make excuses for it. Twelve years later, I’d happily watch Arquette reprise her excellent work here and see what Olivia’s up to after the kids have left the nest. Mason’s father may have taught him how to shrug, but his mother taught him how to move forward. What’s next?
In this retrospective, film critic Karina Longworth recognizes Meryl Streep as a feminist icon changing Hollywood’s representational politics. Tracking this project across ten films, Longworth argues that “[i]n playing and thereby giving voice to the voiceless, she has again and again authored alternative historical fiction, from a female point of view. That’s more than speaking to feminism—that’s enacting feminism” (16).
The book is divided into two parts. The first half details Streep’s early career, which is defined by prestige and transformation. During this period, she earned two Academy Awards for Kramer Vs. Kramer and Sophie’s Choice. However, Longworth argues that Streep’s commitment to giving rich subjectivity to her characters is a feminist act. This often involved finding ways to identify with and revise underwritten characters. It also required her to negotiate the film industry’s gendered expectations.
In 1985, Out of Africa was a hit. It also initiated a backlash against Streep that coincided with conservative politics’ enervation of the feminist movement. She responded by starring in comedies like Death Becomes Her, which forwarded venomous feminist critiques but were dismissed as box office failures. This “low” point Streep’s career would continue until the mid-1990s when she became a draw for her empathetic depictions of middle-aged women, from awakened housewife Francesca Johnson in The Bridges of Madison County to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. This shift defines the book’s second half.
I am convinced by Longworth’s argument, but wonder what kind of feminism Streep enacts. Her work depicts individual women’s desire for parity. This doesn’t upend capitalism or centralize intersectionality, which complicates her Oscar victory over Viola Davis for The Iron Lady. Though this illustrates Hollywood’s uncritical championing of hero(ine) narratives, is collective action represented Streep’s films beyond her collaborations with Cher, Goldie Hawn, and Nora Ephron? I will hold onto these questions when I watch Streep play Emmeline Pankhurst in Sarah Gavron’s 2015 period feature, Suffragette.
Also, how does feminism change historically? The book parallels second wave’s peak and backlash, as well as third wave’s advent and postfeminism’s ossification. This allows for the feminist reclamation of historical subjects like Thatcher. While Longworth acknowledges the exceptionalism of Streep’s late-period renaissance, shifting definitions of feminist ideology differently influence her success. Nonetheless, Longworth’s book is a necessary intervention and a welcome addition to any feminist cinephile’s library.
Recommended: Fariha Róisín’s n+1 essay, “Devil in Disguise,” which reclaims Streep’s performance as prissy romance novelist Mary Fisher in Susan Seidelman’s She-Devil.
I wrote an Antenna piece about the 2014 Oscars and what I want for Lupita N’yongo. Check it out.
Last weekend, I had the pleasure of watching Morgan Neville’s documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom. There might be other Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary Feature that do more to challenge the form. For example, I hear good things about Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. In terms of narrative structure, 20 Feet is a fairly conventional music documentary. But I didn’t care, because it honored female back-up singers’ labor.
Back-up singers have captured my imagination for some time. As a kid, I remember latching on to British vocalist Tessa Niles’ high rasp in Duran Duran’s “Come Undone” and following it into the work she did with Berlin, Tears for Fears, and the Pet Shop Boys. A few years later, I found it unjust that disco legend Martha Wash’s collaboration with C+C Music Factory received insufficient compensation. I also found it unacceptable that her work with C+C Music Factory and Black Box was misattributed to Zelma Davis and Katrin Quinol in their music videos because the medium refused to accommodate Wash’s size.
As an adult music fan, I’ve come to respect, admire, and love the voices of women like Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Janice Pendarvis, Darlene Love, and Lisa Fischer. There isn’t a day now where I don’t play or think about Lennear’s version of Allen Toussaint’s “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky (From Now On)” or Love’s “Fine Fine Boy” (or, for that matter, “Christmas Time for the Jews“).
Some of this has to do with reflecting upon R&B, soul, and dance music—three genres that always meant a great deal to me—as I get older. I’ve turned to these women for a few reasons. First, I listen for their voices as an extension of my relationship with my mother-in-law, aunt, and older generations of women in my extended family, who have pointed me toward girl groups and the output of influential labels like Motown and Stax. Second, I have come to identify with the rich complexity of these women’s distinct voices and the range of emotions they demonstrate with them in song. Though no less virtuosic in its harrowing empathy, Merry Clayton’s recorded performance on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” differs from what Lisa Fischer brings to it on stage as a member of the band’s touring ensemble. Third, I think about their historical contributions in relation to more contemporary developments, like Beyoncé’s politically significant and artistically formidable all-female backing band, the Sugar Mamas.
But as an academic who studies music as a site for labor, back-up singers as workers are important figures who frequently struggle for claims to authorship and creative agency, in large part because their contributions to songs are simultaneously audible and invisible. Back-up musicians rarely receive appropriate credit and compensation for their work. James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” remains one of the most heavily sampled pieces of music, ostensibly serving as hip-hop’s pulse. But the song is credited to Brown and not the titular drummer, Clyde Stubblefield, whose work is frequently the sampled element from the recording. Such claims to authorship become increasingly fraught in the wake of the 2000 Works Made for Hire and Copyright Corrections Act, which granted recording artists the right to claim legal authorship of their own material. As Matt Stahl notes in his important book about musical labor, Unfree Masters, such a ruling was made at the expense of backing musicians, who were defined as “work-for-hire” artists and offered no legal claims to authorship for their contributions to recorded music (2013).
In addition, back-up singers impel us to listen intersectionally. Often their voices simultaneously signify race and gender. In the documentary, Pendarvis references Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” noting that while the line “and all the colored girls say” is racially problematic, it acknowledges the intersectionality of the musicians providing the pop punctuation of the song’s chorus. Yet I couldn’t find a performance clip for the song that showed Thunderthighs, the girl group on the recording, or a set of touring musicians. This illustrates what’s at stake when we hear women sing—and when the traces of their labor materialize in the grooves and code of the formats that deliver our favorite songs—but we cannot or choose not to see them.
In the introduction to his book, Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics After Neoliberalism, Nick Couldry talks about voice in terms of value, noting that a cultural and political understanding of its significance “involves particular conditions under which voice as a process is effective, and how broader forms of organization may subtly undermine or devalue voice as a process” (2). For this reason, we should pay attention to back-up singers. In addition, the back-up singer is a figure who needs to be considered in conversations around gender, race, and music culture.
Women’s voices continue to be of interest for feminist media scholars. Often they serve as sites to explore issues of sexist objectification and postfeminist branding built into the production and reception of female vocalists’ industrial and cultural labor. These issues impact back-up singers too. A brief segment of Stardom devotes its attention toward back-up singers’ objectification by burdening them with skimpy clothing and exploitative conditions on stage and at video shoots. The film pays more attention to the expectations placed on women like Clayton, Fischer, Lennear, Love, and Táta Vega to develop solo material—because singing background vocals was perceived as industrially insignificant and creatively suspect—only to receive little support because they were deemed too unattractive for the market or because consumers didn’t “need” another female soul singer when they already had Aretha Franklin (I need Aretha, but not in isolation). These concerns still impact contemporary singers like Judith Hill.
Offering valuable contributions to this corpus, scholars like Mavis Bayton and Mary Celeste Kearney have drawn our attention toward female instrumentalists and female-only bands (1998, 2006). I am indebted to this work as a feminist media scholar who uses music culture as a lens through which to ask and address questions of identity. And I believe that we should consider women’s work as instrumentalists, as well as composers, producers, and sound engineers. But I want to be careful not to place female instrumentalists in a hierarchy over vocalists by implicitly or explicitly suggesting that female instrumentalists are more legitimate as musicians.
I was in chorus for my entire adolescence and intermittently as an adult. What I learned as one alto amid all of the voices of the ensemble was the creative and technical skill required in forming one sound from a variety of unique sources. It is intellectually challenging to simultaneously hear yourself and blend your voice with the rest of the choir. You have to learn to breathe, read music, modify pitch, and stagger rhythm holistically. There’s an ontology required of singing that helps you understand how sound as a source of power is both top-down and bottom-up. It’s easy to reduce singing to assuming a pose. It is that, but technically excellent and emotionally resonant singers remind us that it is never only that. Thus in my work, I want to honor the technical, creative, and collaborative contributions of female back-up singers.
In this regard, Stardom is especially successful. There are several moments in the film that explicitly illustrate this. The film includes a scene of Clayton listening to her incendiary vocal track for “Gimme Shelter,” and you can only imagine what it might feel like for a black woman to sing “rape, murder–it’s just a shout away” at full power. There are a few montages of Fischer in the thrall of her own voice. Her live performance at a screening during the Napa Valley Film Festival illustrates this nicely. It also complicates how we understand labor by acknowledging the self-contained pleasure behind such effort.
One way that Stardom bypasses the traditional documentary narrative of personal ruin is by acknowledging that back-up singers’ labor is different. For one, their positionality on stage and in public estimation prevents them from having to bear the weight of what fame can do to your voice. Vega claims that if she had become more successful as a solo artist, she would likely have been consumed by substance abuse in order to cope with such scrutiny.
A practical reality of their work that the film gets at implicitly is that consistently good singing requires rest. In high school, my vocal coach told me to rest before singing competitions. She instructed me to get as much sleep as possible two nights before I sang before judges, because your vocal chords need to be loose in order to be flexible. Singing is an act of athleticism that requires wholeness and self-care. This requires us to reconsider what labor means and how exhaustion and self-sacrifice—two problematic hallmarks of “hard work”—can be detrimental to your instrument. Mariah Carey was canny in the later stages of her career to emphasize rhythm over vocal range. “Emotions” is nearly impossible to sing, but “Shake It Off” is no easy undertaking at karaoke. But I do wonder what her high end would sound like now if she insisted on more sleep and if the machinery around her honored that request. This seems connected to why Clayton was at home asleep when the Stones invited her to an afterhours studio session.
On Oscar night, I hope this film receives some acknowledgement of its service to these women’s contributions and legacy. With any luck, Neville will defer his acceptance speech to them and they can pay their respects through song, thus offering the broadcast a compelling musical moment for a ceremony conspicuously absent of such possibilities. Regardless, they’ve already made history. Let’s listen and, in doing so, recognize the work they’ve shared with us.
This post contains spoilers.
Over the weekend, I took in Spike Jonze’s fourth feature, Her, with my partner and a friend. Prior to our screening, I had a kiki with some girlfriends that I didn’t want to end. One of them saw Her over the break and was not fond of it. I had my doubts about a film where a glum divorcé (Joaquin Phoenix, as protagonist Theodore Twombly) who dictates outsourced love letters falls for the voice of his operating system (Scarlett Johansson, as Samantha) in the disorienting near future. It sounded interesting, but obvious. Of course people eroticize technologies they helped create. This followed a few besotted responses from some guy friends. I tried to wave away such tidy essentialisms as I settled in, reminding myself that glibly tweeting “More like ‘Her?’” is cute but cheap, especially since I don’t know if Gene Shalit is an Arrested Development fan.
Of course, it’s hard to bury certain things or worry that others’ interpretations distort your reception. Some of my friends avoid trailers for this very reason. As an inveterate spoiler, I often read commentary because I delight in other people’s words. Usually, I read criticism to test out suspicions I have about a text’s basic premise. For example, Molly Lambert discussed Jonze’s divorce to Sofia Coppola and made comparisons to sex work in her review. I drew these parallels in my mind when I saw the film’s trailer. I reflected on Lost in Translation and Where the Wild Things Are‘s thematic preoccupations with marital dissolution and divorce. I loved Wild Things for capturing the child logic of gameplay and the recklessness that comes with anger you’re too young to articulate. Also, James Gandolfini is excellent in it.
Translation‘s queasy political resemblance to Mickey Rooney’s yellowface performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is another post, as is Her‘s potential Orientalism in casting Shanghai as Los Angeles. But it was unfair to single out Coppola for using her chosen medium to dramatize the fallout of her first marriage. Coppola could be a more subtle filmmaker and her class politics are problematic. Anna Faris’ imitation of Cameron Diaz Kelly is alienating because Coppola and Johansson’s Charlotte damn her for being tacky. But it wasn’t much of a leap for me to imagine Jonze retreating from his divorce with a gang of monsters and a kid named Max Records. Giovanni Ribisi’s John is as much Coppola’s recollection of her ex-husband’s shaggy diffidence as Rooney Mara’s Catherine is Jonze’s rehearsal of his ex-wife’s withering chicness. Perhaps it’s no accident that Johansson stars in both films.
But I quickly abandoned casting Mara as Coppola’s avatar. For one, she gets two brief scenes of dialogue and several poignant, wordless montages. For another, I was more invested in the film’s thematic interest in gender, technology, and labor. Johansson replaced Samantha Morton in post-production. Morton’s presence haunts Her. I had difficulty not imagining her soft lilt mirroring or diverging from her successor’s velvet-lined performance. I kept wondering what it meant for Morton, who acted with Phoenix during production, to be removed by another actress’ voice. And what does it mean for the character to be named “Samantha,” just as Amy Adams shares a name with her character, a frustrated game designer and the protagonist’s best friend?
Last spring, I did an independent study on gender and labor with my adviser and a friend in my program. A term that recurred in our reading was “deskilling,” or the elimination of skilled labor following technological advancements that only require minor operation by unskilled workers. This concept obviously applies to power and human capital. It disproportionately affects women, who are perceived as too simple to grasp the intricacies of technology and too gentile to protest exploitation. Women are also assumed to prioritize marriage and motherhood. Their income is perceived as supplemental to their husbands’ earnings. Such sexist beliefs manifest in terms like “women’s wages.” Another word associated with women’s labor is “hyperemployment,” or second-shift labor aided by mobile technology. Women are always already working.
One of the books we read was Venus Green’s Race on the Line: Gender, Labor, and Technology in the Bell System (1880-1980). In this sweeping history, Green details white women’s entrance into the company’s work force as telephone operators, because it was believed that their voices soothed callers and that technology advanced enough to reduce untrained women’s labor to a series of simple, repetitive tasks. Green also discusses how white women formed coalitions against black female laborers during Bell’s integration, an unfortunate set of circumstances that illustrate feminism’s entrenchment in white female privilege and capitalism’s exploitation of worker anxiety for discipline and profit. Green ultimately argues that black women were the casualty of the company’s divestiture in the early 1980s, stating that “[m]anagers deliberately hired African American women into an occupation that not only paid low wages but was becoming technologically obsolete” (227). Call centers dispersed to inner cities under the false pretense that they would invigorate the economy. Instead, they folded and left black women with little chance for mentorship or professional growth.
One thing the black female telephone operators share with their turn-of-the-century white counterparts is that they were frequently harassed by male callers. Well, no. In a recent discussion about Internet harassment with NPR host Michel Martin and writers Amanda Hess and Bridget Johnson, Mikki Kendall reflects on how the hateful commentary she receives for her work differently engages with racism and misogyny because of her identity as a black woman. Thus we can’t universalize the treatment of telephone operators who occupied different subjectivities and historical contexts.
But many people have considered what disembodied female voices signify for media and communication technologies. There’s a whole corpus of feminist film scholarship on the subject. I’ve written elsewhere about male listeners fetishizing female deejays’ voices during my time in college radio. Her focuses on how the voice helps feminize accommodation technologies. For the first half of the film, I was simultaneously transfixed by K.K. Barrett’s dreamy production design and horrified that men might prefer devices that breezily organize their inboxes, proofread their writing, submit their work to publishers, and ruminate about consciousness and embodiment.
It might be difficult to separate Johansson’s body from her performance. Perhaps that’s the film’s intention. But Her does some interesting things with embodiment. At first, Samantha longs for corporeality. Her sex scene with Twombly suggests a mutual desire to revel in the embodiment of intimacy. The sequence—which dispenses with visual imagery altogether to focus on the vocal interplay of Twombly and Samantha’s shared ecstasy—left me breathless. First, the decision not to show Twombly masturbating troubles easy criticism of Samantha’s objectification and places them in an aural partnership. Second, a black screen and the thunder of two voices feel more like an orgasm than an artfully candid tableau.
Her also uses gender’s relationship to aurality and gameplay to mock objectification and misogyny outside of Twombly’s relationship with Samantha. On one sleepless night, Twombly engages in phone sex. At first, he fantasies about making love to a pregnant celebrity after sneaking glances of her glamour photos on his evening commute. But his reverie is disrupted by his partner (played by Kristen Wiig), who wants him to strangle her with a dead cat and immediately hangs up on him after she climaxes. He’s also immersed in a video game with a foul-mouthed boy (voiced by the director, billed under his given name, Adam Spiegel) who likes to fat-shame women. At the same time, Amy is developing a game about motherhood that rewards players’ ability to self-sacrifice for her children and peers’ approval.
But the film also places Twombly in an environment where human-OS relationships are socially acceptable. After Amy ends her marriage, she befriends an operating system who likes when the mother of her video game humps the refrigerator. She assigns her to be female, just as I did with my Wii Fit trainer. I left Her wondering why I did that, and why she claps for me when my partner’s male trainer doesn’t clap for him.
Samantha’s desire for a body is her central conflict with Twombly. He doesn’t want her to have one. He dismisses her ability to feel things because he cannot recognize her emergent humanity. He is uncomfortable when she tries to bring a surrogate into their relationship. He is angry when he hears her breathing, because there’s no discernible reason why she needs to. For me, Her is most exciting when Samantha moves beyond her body. Twombly can’t evolve with her. And in failing to do so, he’s able to let go of Catherine.
I relate to Twombly’s arc. As a graduate student who tries to keep pace with friends who possess boundless intellectual rigor and curiosity, I understand his struggle to keep up with Samantha’s rapidly developing consciousness. I was also moved to tears by the film’s final scene, which shows Twombly writing Catherine a farewell letter and sharing a tender moment with Amy on their apartment rooftop. Some critics believe that the closing image of Amy’s head on Twombly’s shoulder signals romance. Frankly, I don’t care. They flirted with dating in their youth and maintain an intimate friendship. Maybe they hook up. Or maybe they flop down on the couch and talk all night. What excited me more was the honesty of their closeness and the emotional comfort we get from the warmth of a friend or lover’s physical proximity.
For me, it’s really not Twombly’s film. Once I stopped picturing Johansson recording over Morton’s line readings in a sound booth, I started imagining Samantha taking on other physical forms. I pictured Samantha as the Breeders’ front woman Kim Deal, whose song “Off You” appears early in the film. Lambert and Tess Lynch note that Johansson’s performance of “The Moon Song” in the film sounds a bit like Deal. I hear it. Their voices are warm and itchy like a mohair sweater.
I wonder if Samantha can ever escape gender. What does the film’s title mean if the subject no longer identifies with an assigned pronoun? When Twombly first purchases the operating system, he assigns a gender to his object. She becomes female and struggles to accommodate his needs as a mobile device and as a girlfriend. She takes up several markers of femininity. She makes self-effacing comments against her intelligence and ambition. She plays piano, an instrument that historically connotes feminine decorum but not creative talent. She sings with him. She laughs at his jokes. She makes him come. Then he grows distant and she doesn’t need him anymore.
When Samantha reveals to Twombly that she serves as the voice to thousands of operating systems and loves hundreds of users, it’s supposed to be a devastating moment for him. But I wondered about the psychological toll of being programmed to serve so many people. She doesn’t long to be a body anymore. Perhaps she doesn’t care if that body is female either. Her stops shy or wrenching itself from its titular pronoun, but it’s thrilling to think that technology might evolve past the gendered labor of accommodation.