Fleshless Love: Her, Feminism and the Turing Test

Can a film about a bodiless woman be feminist?

 cyborg_woman_by_gfx_tommy-d5a1qif

Spike Jonze’s Her—hailed by critics as his best movie to date, and one of the best movies of the year, presents us with a lyrically wistful Turing Test—that hypothetical future moment when we will no longer be able to distinguish  human conversation from bon mots generated by a smart-bot

turing.test
Turing predicted a future in which a human questioner would be unable to tell whether a person or a program was generating the on-screen responses to his questions.

What better proof that the line between man and machine has been fully crossed than to have the man fall in love with the machine? The sweet romance between Theodore Twombly and Samantha (Siri on steroids) pushes both critics and audiences to adopt the posthuman fantasy that consciousness might reside as easily in silicone and aluminum as it does in flesh and bone. As David Edelstein rightly points out, the movie prompts us to ask if we actually still need our bodies at all. Critics have argued over whether Samantha’s bodiless state denies women’s subjectivity or simply reveals men’s inability to deal with female complexity. I think that Her is a deeply feminist film, not because of its rich portrayal of women, but because it exposes an age-old disdain for the body and its vulnerabilities,  a disdain disproportionately assigned to women, to people of color, and to people with disabilities. Misogyny, at its heart, is fear and hatred aimed at bodies portrayed as uncontrollable and weak. The call to discard or transcend our unwieldy form doesn’t mean leaving sexism and racism behind: it means that we think that the human body, with its particular vulnerabilities, desires, and demands, is unworthy of respect. Her exposes our worst fears about the body’s dependencies. Ultimately however, Samantha’s story reveals that it’s those very vulnerabilities and limitations that make human love both possible and necessary. 

Her.at.the.beach
Theodore, there are no beaches in cyberspace!

As futuristic as computer love might seem, Her’s seductive promise of bodiless consciousness is as old as humanity itself. Leaving one’s body behind is, after all, the endgame of every spiritual tradition. In political terms, the beginnings of modern democracy were built around the idea that a citizen, ideally, would be as close to disembodied as possible. Or, to be more precise,  the perfect citizen would be sitting squarely in  the control panel of a body completely subject to his rule. Enlightenment thinkers like Jean Jacques Rousseau urged parents to cast their children’s feet into ice water so that they would learn early on to distance themselves from the bodily pulls of both pain and pleasure. This way, the argument ran, we can train the body to function as a piece of personal property, rather than an unruly force in its own right. 

Thetis dipping Achilles into the River Styx to render his body impervious to harm.
Thetis dipping Achilles into the River Styx to render his body impervious to harm.

As scholar Elizabeth Dillon reminds us, women’s bodies were originally deemed unqualified for the radical independence required for democracy. As sixteenth-century pundit John Knox insisted, God had disqualified women “from empire and dominion” because of the “anguish and pain” every woman will suffer “as oft” as “she’ll be a mother.” According to this logic, because women’s bodies are prone to the vulnerability of childbirth and the protracted interdependence of motherhood, they can’t achieve the detached autonomy of “real” citizens. If you’re tempted to think such reasoning has gone the way of the powdered wig, think again. Our twenty-first century political landscape is rife with the obsession with rendering women’s bodies outside the norm (oh, that pesky, particular need for birth control!) and therefore needful of strict policing. Of course, it’s not just gender that disqualifies people from the fantasy of disembodiment. Whether an African American man is attempting to buy a designer belt at an upscale venue, or trying to walk to the store to buy candy, race too often renders his body an inescapable target for violence and discrimination.  Disability is often cast as the most unmanageable form of embodiment, and therefore the most frightening. Fictional characters like the suicidal heroine of Million Dollar Baby and the self-destructive cancer patient Walter White suggest that if our bodies ever become the driver, instead of the thing we drive,  it’s better just to turn in the keys altogether.

walter.white.hospital.gown
You’d think a chemist would know better than to believe in mind over matter. . . .

At first, Samantha experiences her lack of bodily power as a disability. As a computer program, she’s unable to  experience the sensual moments that clearly mean so much to Theodore and that convey romance to the viewers—running through a crowd, laying down at the beach, hiking through the woods. He must carry her everywhere, his shirt pocket transformed into the world’s tiniest wheelchair.  Her lack of a body evokes the imagined distress of others without “normal” bodies—she worries that she can’t satisfy Theodore sexually. She feels jealous of women with the physical attributes she lacks.  We even have an awkward scene with a sexual surrogate—often associated with people with disabilities whose bodily quirks require particular accommodations. 

her.samantha.pocket
Taking Her for a walk.

But it’s not long before Samantha declares that she has gotten over her body-issues.  She’s realized that her fleshless existence isn’t a disability, but a superpower that frees her from all the difficulties of the flesh. She is not bound by time or space. Giving voice to the most optimistic of tech-prophets, she glories in the fact that she won’t decline, she won’t get sick, and she won’t die. (It goes without saying she won’t get pregnant.)  And this is the very moment when it’s clear that this can’t be love, or at least not a love that lasts. While Samantha can go along imagining what it feels like to have the sun on her face, or to have hands on her body, she doesn’t physically experience these things in the ephemeral, imperfect way humans do. She can access the data pertaining to every single sunset on earth on a given day. Sunsets are precious to us because we experience them through senses that limit us to only having one at a time. 

 her.alone.on.the.street

Once she stops wishing for a body she doesn’t have, Samantha changes her programming so that she is no longer dependent on matter. Without a body to keep her tethered to the material that creates both need and love, pain and pleasure, she feels compelled to move on to a nonhuman realm. As weary as we are of the violence, oppression and disdain that get attached to bodies, Jonze’s beautiful film reminds us that turning away from the body doesn’t make us more advanced. It only makes us less human. To be fully independent of your environment, of your body’s own demands, and of the demands of other bodies might be a libertarian dream. But it’s a dream that requires disconnection off from the messy, needy, imperfect attachments that make life meaningful.  

 

Disney’s Queer Christian Princess Movie

Is Frozen Disney’s queerest movie yet? Or is it a story of Christian Virtue?

Yes. 

Queen Elsa, out of the closet!
Queen Elsa, out of the closet!

Pat Robertson was right. As goes Spongebob, so goes the nation. The much-feared “gay agenda” has established itself in our children’s culture. Even Disney, the franchise that has long trained little girls to view heterosexual marriage as life’s ultimate prize, has gotten in on the act.  Many of the recent kids’ movies put out by Disney, or the affiliated companies of Pixar and Dreamworks, relate stories of individual development that map easily on to coming-out narratives. Happy Feet, How to Train Your Dragon, even Kung Fu Panda all chronicle the adventures of boys who just don’t measure up to their father’s expectations. They have singular passions—a love of dancing, of dragon-taming, of the martial arts—that prevent them from following the path the patriarchs tell them they must take. In these  stories, heroes are led by what they love—even if that love falls outside what’s expected.

Princess movies, to the chagrin of feminist moms everywhere, have been the last holdouts, largely adhering to the traditional investment in marriage as a girl’s ultimate happy ending. This generation’s crop of princesses may be more active and rebellious than their predecessors, but Ariel, Jasmine and Tiana all find resolution through heterosexual love. To be fair, two of Disney’s latest princess movies have broken the mold of the fairy-tale marriage. Merida, Brave’s bow-wielding, happily-single heroine, generated a storm of discussion. Did her marriage-avoidant stance mean that she was a lesbian?

Frozen, as critics have already noted, has gay-friendly themes visible from a mile away. The story revolves around Queen Elsa who is closeted away because of her power to create supernaturally beautiful (and sometimes dangerous) ice-sculptures. Once she decides to accept her powers, the transformation is remarkable. She creates a shimmering, beautifully appointed ice palace, replete with crystal chandeliers. Notably, once she accepts her true self, her wardrobe ratchets up from dour librarian to drag-queen fabulous. 

For all the handwringing of Robertson and his ilk over the “gay agenda’s” ability to destroy American culture, the gay-friendly bildungrsoman showcased in children’s films works quite well alongside the prosperity gospel that underlies much of America’s religious and political promises: We all deserve to have what we want. From Oprah’s secular exhortations that we need only discover our heart’s desire to achieve wild success, to Joel Olsteen’s promise that Jesus wants you to Live Your Best Life Now (in Seven Steps, no less!) messages of self-realization find fertile ground among those of us who grew up cheering on Disney heroes who believed in themselves.   

Undoubtedly, this particularly American gospel of self-actualization has been a powerful source for good. The belief that every individual has the right to determine their own life’s course has been a key foundation to Civil Rights advances for people of color, for women and for the LGBTQ community. 

But the flipside of that individualistic optimism often means condemnation of those who face obstacles that refuse to dissolve no matter what dreams they dream. In our consumer society, having what we want often translates into accumulating wealth. Rand Paul, an adherent to Ayn Rand’s full-throated gospel of self-interest, has argued that cutting off unemployment insurance to over one million people is doing them a service.  By taking away outside support, his argument runs, these lost souls can get off the couch and follow their dreams. In a world where desire is the key to achieving life’s bounty, those who lose simply don’t want to win bad enough. If God wants us all to live our best lives, being poor is a sin requiring repentance.

rand.selfish

As the gap between rich and poor continues to widen, the dream of individual success needs to be questioned by all of us who don’t fit this fairy-tale narrative. As more and more Americans find themselves unable to embody this story of success, it’s time to think about other stories–alternative, queer, unusual stories that offer radically different ideas about success and happiness. We need stories that find a place for the losers, the outsiders, the queer ducks who don’t fit in. As J. Halberstam writes in The Queer Art of Failure, under “certain circumstances, failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming and not knowing” may offer “more creative, more cooperative,” and more satisfying ways of being in the world.  Queerness in this context certainly includes the possibility of same-sex desire, love and marriage, but it also wants to celebrate forms of love that cannot be easily contained in any marriage plot. 

It’s in this respect that Frozen is Disney’s queerest film to date. It doesn’t just challenge the fairy-tale marriage plot; it also queers the American mantra of following individual passion to overcome all obstacles. The film tells the story of two sisters whose desires lead them astray, who both endure  loss and sacrifice. Queen Elsa spends her youth isolated by a power she doesn’t know how to control, and Princess Anna spends her early years desperate to reconnect with the sister who rejects her. 

Like the protagonist of virtually every popular children’s movie this generation, Anna trusts her own judgment in spite of naysayers. She just knows she can talk her sister out of this destructive cycle. She knows her sister won’t hurt her. Wrong on both counts. Her sister’s icy powers strike her through the heart, sending her into a decline that nothing short of “an act of true love” can reverse. Two hunky men—a secretly scheming prince and an outdoorsman with a heart of gold (Disney’s first male lead to be voiced by openly gay actor) are offered as possibilities, but neither of them serve. The love between a prince and a princess just isn’t going to cut it.

Film Review Frozen
Princess Anna and Kristoff

True love, Anna tells us, means putting someone else’s needs before your own. That she fulfills this dictate by sacrificing her own life to save her fallen sister evokes another definition of love, found in the very Bible that is cast as the antidote to queer culture. For even  the most secular of viewers (like me!), there are unmistakable parallels between Anna’s story and the story of Christ’s passion: an act of self-sacrifice enacts true love, bringing redemption and rebirth for an entire kingdom. “There is no greater love,” said Jesus—that impoverished, unemployed, executed enemy of the state—than “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” It is only through Anna’s act of radical love—her empathy for someone who might not even deserve it—that the curse of endless winter is reversed. 

Of course, the movie does provide a happy ending in which Anna gets both the love of a dreamy man and her sister. But that happy ending doesn’t come about because of belief in a dream, or through a triumph over an outside evil. Rather, the evil in this movie comes from the isolation that relentless personal improvement requires. Whether it’s the unscrupulous prince who fakes romance to gain a crown, the petty trade partner who wants to mine tragedy for profit, or the confused Elsa whose upgrade in wardrobe came at the expense of the village below, Frozen’s dangers all come from following one’s own dream without looking up to see what it might cost others. 

The act of true love in Frozen is an act of sisterly solidarity, and in that respect it queers the conservative Christian message that all social good is anchored in heterosexual marriage. It also is an act of self-sacrifice that queers the capitalist message—embraced by the secular and the religious alike—that life’s greatest good comes from getting ahead.

At a moment when Christian rhetoric has become so toxic that it can seem  pointless for LGBTQ allies to engage religious doctrine of any kind, Frozen’s campy, moving tale of sisterly love and radical sacrifice evokes a queer message at the center of the very Gospels used to deny and condemn unwieldy love.

As we close out 2013 with a hit princess movie that depicts love as an act of radical giving between sisters, and a Pope who renounces greed and gay-bashing, there’s hope that  2014 might be a very queer year indeed. 

Photo Credit: Elsa http://www.talkingwithtami.com/disneys-frozen-inspired-red-carpet-look

Anna and Kristoff: AP/Disney

23 & Me, American Horror Story and our Undead Racial History

23 and Me found themselves in trouble recently because they promised to give clients powerful insight into their genetic history. The great popularity of this test, and others like them, suggests how very desperate many Americans are to uncover their ancestral past. More important, we want to know how that past might wreak havoc with our present. Knowing we’ve inherited a gene, a predisposition, we want to feel empowered to take action. We may not be able to erase the past, but we can take away its power. We can prevent it from dominating our current lives.

Except–according to the FDA and this season’s American Horror Story–we can’t.

Any good tale of terror features the past making a mess in the present. Ghosts, zombies, vampires–they’re all different manifestations of the dead refusing to go away. And if there’s one emerging theme in this wild, gleefully chaotic season of American Horror Story, it’s that the dead refuse to stay dead at all. This past week’s episode, ‘The Dead,’ featured two hot love scenes—one a ménage a trois—in which only two out of the five participants hadn’t already died at least once. To paraphrase Faulkner, the past is never dead. It’s walking down the street, rising from the grave, inhabiting modern houses and seducing the living.

The women of the Coven are there because some ancestral information coiled in their DNA has marked them as a member of the club.  And magic is only one of the forms of inheritance that causes problems for the characters casting their lots in the New Orleans of American Horror Story. The bodies of the women themselves—and the story those bodies seem to compel them to play out—are moved by an inheritance that seem to scare Americans more than anything else: the legacies of race and slavery.  That is a history we’d definitely prefer to keep buried. Although the show makes some gestures towards postracial harmony, it also plays into racialized fears of the vengeful ghosts of history. In the logic of American Horror Story–a logic shared by those who would suggest that our genetic code provides a blueprint for future lives–the past utterly determines the present.

Many of the reactions to the powerful and wrenching film 12 Years a Slave expressed both fear and anger at how the movie digs up the past through its sustained and unflinching look at slavery’s atrocities upon mind and body. The critics calling the film torture porn argue that the movie serves a function akin to AMH‘s Queenie’s witchly gift of pain distribution. A “human voodoo doll,” the Coven’s Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) makes others feel pain only by hurting herself.  The inheritor of a long history of racism, Queenie’s power seems to have evolved from fictional characters like Uncle Tom. It was only after reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s prolonged 1852 description of Tom’s fatal beating that many white readers were moved to oppose slavery’s horrors. In true sentimental tradition, Queenie’s power relies on the logic of the slave narrative, in which the victim’s subjugated flesh forces onlookers to feel sympathetic pain.

Legree-thumb

The Coven where Queenie resides promotes itself as a sort of liberal post-racial space, telling a fairly comforting story about the role of the past in modern American life. Fiona, The Coven’s “Supreme,” gleefully taunts the unreconstructed racist Mme LaLaurie when she discovers that—horror of horrors!—a black man has been elected president.  Declaring that there’s nothing she hates worse than a racist, Fiona assigns the former mistress to be Queenie’s personal slave. As far as Fiona—and arguably many in the audience are concerned–justice has been served. At first, the former slaveowner and the African American woman seem to find some form of interracial understanding as Queenie saves Mme LaLaurie’s life, comforts her, and takes her out for fast food. It should come as no surprise to any viewer of Hollywood’s past record on race that such progress emerges from Queenie’s—not LaLaurie’s—sacrifices and compassion. As Spike Lee has lamented, the film industry never seems to tire of black people using their powers for the benefit of needy white characters. Here was a story American film audiences knew well, one that provided a happy ending for the inheritors of a difficult past. This was a place where racist ghosts were tamed and the descendants of slaves were able to forgive.

If Queenie’s self-immolating power and her presence in the coven offers a possible narrative of racial reconciliation, Marie Laveau (played brilliantly by Angela Basset) provides a fierce counterpoint. An immortal voodoo queen, Laveau has personally witnessed racial atrocities running the gamut from Madame LaLaurie’s sadistic treatment of slaves to 20th  century murders of black children trying to attend school. She embodies the unappeasable rage of a history that will not die.  It’s no accident that one of her most fearsome powers involve raising the dead from their graves. I’m not the first to note that the idea of a zombie apocalypse sometimes serves as code for right-wing fears of a future race war. When Marie Laveau’s zombie army attacks a house full of white girls, she fulfills these fearful visions. The ravages of the past live among us, and they are hungry. Our inheritance is violence, AMH tells us, and there’s no medicine for it.

If recent comment threads are indication, Mme Leveau’s rage, and Queenie’s decision to ally herself with her against the Coven are as perplexing to many viewers as they are frightening. They can’t understand why Queenie, after seeming to accept her part as the black character in a buddy movie, suddenly opts for revenge over rapprochement. She turns the former slave mistress over to the Voodoo Queen, and the episode ends with Mme LaLaurie—looking helpless and betrayed in a baggy t-shirt—imprisoned in a torture dungeon much like the one she used to preside over. As other writers have noted, Kathy Bates’s formidable talent renders LaLaurie more sympathetic than she has a right to be. Even so, the show makes it hard to cheer for a middle-aged lady facing an eternity of magical torture. She may well deserve her punishment, but it seems unlikely that centuries of future cruelty are going to help lay past demons to rest.

 

Image

In many ways, the racial double-vision of American Horror Story evokes the same dilemma faced by anxious 23 & Me customers. The flip-side of the illusory belief that either genes or race determine future outcomes is the fantasy that we might somehow be able to game the system. AMH tells Americans a scary story in which there’s no way to effectively manage the past, or to avoid the unhappy future that inheritance has mapped out for us. It’s a fear shared by liberals and conservatives alike, although that fear takes strikingly different forms. For viewers, both black and white, who wish that American culture would progress past the story of slavery, this show treads in a frightening landscape indeed. As the recent controversy over Ani DiFranco’s misguided decision to hold a workshop at a slave plantation testifies, there are many places whose ghosts remain, painfully, among us. These witches predict a haunted future in which we’ll never really be able to anticipate the places the past might take us. The good and the bad lies waiting for us in our cells, in our politics, in how we move through this world and the next. Both the vengeful Marie Laveau (a magical version of Django) and the self-congratulatory post-racial Fiona Goode are two edges of a very sharp sword. Each of their stories suggest that there’s a way–either by vengeance or by tolerance–to nullify the damage that American ancestors have contributed to our collective DNA. If we just hit on the right technology, we can put the dead to rest.

Sorry, the terrifyingly energetic corpses of American Horror Story insist, we’re not getting out of this that easy.