In the first scene of Her, Theodore Twombly is at work. He’s a letter writer for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, a company that produces bespoke correspondence for husbands to send to wives or parents to children. Though each letter is an individual creation, the letters aren’t actually handwritten. Instead, a computer produces a convincing facsimile of handwriting.
There’s a tender love story at the heart of Her. However, that first scene sets up another of the film’s motifs: the power of empathy, and the power of its absence, in 21st-century relationships.
Theodore is a very contemporary sort of man. He writes love letters for a living, he cries often and he’s incredibly empathetic. He often detects and asks how other characters are feeling. He has a sweet relationship with a admiring colleague at work. When his friend Amy shows him some of her puzzling in-progress artwork, he’s gentle and thoughtful in his reaction.
Theodore falls in love with Samantha, his new operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson. She’s everything you could want in a bodiless partner, and very sensitive to Theodore’s moods. He communicates with her using an Apple-white ear bud. Both figuratively and literally, she gets in his head.
We don’t see her much, but Theodore’s wife is altogether different–she’s professionally successful, and seems cold and calculating. After all, you don’t cast Rooney Mara (formerly of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) if you’re after a warm, sympathetic performance.
A 21st-century worker
In watching the movie, I was reminded of Hanna Rosin’s excellent book, The End of Men: and the Rise of Women. In it, she talks about how our workplaces increasingly value so-called ‘soft skills':
Technology began to work against men, making certain brawn jobs obsolete and making what economists call “people skills” even more valuable. The coveted and lasting professions were the ones that required a boutique skill or a nurturing touch–things a robot could not easily do. Traditionally feminine attributes, like empathy, patience and communal problem-solving, began to replace the top-down autocratic model of leadership and success.
Theodore is a 21st-century worker, too. He works in a creative field where his clients outsource their empathy to him.
In my career, I’ve gone from working mostly in the technology sector to mostly in the non-profit sector. In terms of empathy, I’ve moved from scarcity to riches. You don’t work at a charity for the salary and benefits, and many NGO staffers seem fully emotionally connected to their work. This makes for a highly empathetic workplace. Though the meetings tend to be longer, it’s a more welcoming and engaging sector to work in.
It’s no mistake that empathy is at the centre of ‘Her’. Our world and our work are becoming ever more collaborative. Like Theodore, the successful 21st-century human puts empathy at the centre of their relationships.