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Image courtesy of Mayra Sierra-Rivera '20, Studio art major

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Beautiful Handwritten Letters Dot Com

by Michelle Burnham

The film Her opens with Theodore talking romantically to a beloved on the occasion of their anniversary. It takes a minute before you realize he isn’t talking to a person. It takes a minute more to realize he isn’t even talking for or about himself. He’s at work, where he is paid by clients to compose beautiful letters for designated recipients. The end result is printed out in a computer-generated simulacrum of personalized handwriting, ready to be mailed.

The first time I saw this film I thought: how coarse, how sad, how inauthentic to pay a stranger to write a letter for you to someone you love. There is actually an 1897 French play about this. In Cyrano de Bergerac, a man (attractive, but a terrible writer) hires another man (a good writer, but unattractive) to compose expressions of love to help him woo a woman. It works, but is she falling in love with the man who says the beautiful words, or the man who wrote the beautiful words? The one who wrote them, according to the play—and to all of its subsequent adaptations (including the 1987 film Roxanne, with Steve Martin and Darryl Hannah).

But watching Her this time, I wondered: how is hiring someone to write letters for you any different than buying a pre-printed greeting card at the pharmacy to give your partner on Valentine’s day, or to your mother or nephew or sibling on the occasion of their birthday or graduation? Since at least the founding of Hallmark greeting cards in the 1910s, we have outsourced our expressions of intimacy and care to companies, and relied on technology (such as print) to do so. The name Hallmark now connotes an entire industry devoted to producing and selling love stories, from romance books to a television channel dedicated to romance films. Whether you find these Hallmark productions deeply satisfying or disturbingly saccharine, stories like them have shaped our assumptions about what love is, what it looks and feels like, what we expect of it and from it. What we think we know about love has been imprinted on us by writers, like Theodore.

When Samantha asks Theodore “are these feelings real, or are they just programming?” it seems like a legitimate question for a computer program to ask. It’s more disconcerting to imagine it as a legitimate question for a human being to ask. But it’s exactly the question that Her asks us to consider. If our ideas about love are the product of what we’ve read, watched, and learned about it from stories, then would our ideas about love be different if we read and watched different kinds of stories? The film Her tests this thesis out. Did the love story between Theodore and Samantha change your ideas about what love is or can be, or did it just reinforce what you already know, or think you know, about love?

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Michelle Burnham with a green background

Michelle Burnham is Professor of English and Director of the Center for the Arts and Humanities. This summer she is cooking, reading, watching tv, learning to play “Jolene” on the guitar, writing about the 70s, and planning next year’s CAH events.