Two recent films starring Scarlett Johansson — Her and Under the Skin — go beyond putting women on a pedestal. They make them non-human. But Johansson's characters relate to real men. What do we learn about women, men, and dating from these films?
In Her, a film by Spike Jonze, Johansson is never seen. She is a disembodied A.I. operating system. But she and Joaquin Phoenix have a sexual relationship — which is where we are headed with social media, computer porn, virtual reality systems, and people's interacting entirely through electronics.
What do we learn about intimate relationships in this situation? That we can create the essentials of what men, at least, want from a relationship using a high-speed processing system. If you say the right things, respond to the key elements in men's lives and egos, and pay enough attention to them — Bob's your uncle, you've got him in the palm of your hand!
I say this with no sense of superiority or claims that people have become simplified recently. All that has changed is the complexity of operating systems. It seems as though men — humans — were always ready for programmed lovers. In fact, Johansson's subtle adjustments to Phoenix may overshoot the mark — do you really need to be as complicated as Johansson's character to get men to fall for you? I don't think so.
There is one bright red line that you can't get men to cross, however. The fact that such a system is indiscriminate, out for hire, so to speak, is too much for a man. Anyone can purchase her — you have to share your delusional dream woman.
Oh, and she has enough of a personality that she seeks more commanding men to fall in love with herself. Ultimately, Johansson's operating system has too much yearning and is too challenging for the sensitive man Phoenix portrays. He has to settle for a real woman — played by the equally attractive female lead Amy Adams. Adams happens to be available and needy and they live in the same apartment building. Talk about impossible fantasies!
In Under The Skin, Johansson is seen (you do see all of her), but that human form she occupies is just a costume she adopts as an alien from another planet. And she picks up men for nefarious purposes — to dissolve them under their skins to ship home as delicacies.
And what does it take to lure men into getting naked? It's harder than you think, because most men are duly suspicious of a sexy woman who comes on to them. And lucky for those skeptics. (I recall a woman whose boyfriend went with a good-looking police decoy. He was arrested for soliciting a prostitute. The girlfriend's reaction: "He was guilty of falling for a fantasy.") And those who fall into Johansson's trap are poor slobs or very needy men who have to be lured into having sex by Johansson making an extra-hard effort. As amazing as that sounds, it seems realistic.
The trouble comes when Johansson is herself lured into actual interactions with men and, then, you know what a disappointment that is — from fumbling lovers to rapists. Again, I'm not saying that this is an unrealistically cynical view of the male species. Those interactions seem the height of social reality.
So, when you make a fantasy film about a synethsized or alien woman interacting with men you get down to the basics of male-female relationships. (And isn't even that concept so last century?) The picture that results isn't pretty. We are all susceptible to having our buttons pushed with just a few key strokes. And when you get beyond that and the "people" actually interact — well, watch out, that's when the real trouble begins!
Stanton Peele has been at the cutting edge of addiction theory and practice since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has developed the on-line Life Process Program for addiction. His new book (written with Ilse Thompson) is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict with The PERFECT Program.
* Johansson, 29, was married for two years (until 2010) to actor Ryan Reynolds, who is now married to beautiful actress Blake Lively. She is now pregnant by fiancé Romain Dauriac, a French journalist. Commenting on why she's off actors, Johansson says, "you know, of course, actors, in general, they're obsessed with emotions. Although, he's French, so he's also probably overly into his emotions." (Is being into emotions good or bad?)