Blade Runner 2049’s gender politics: a counter-argument

By Georgia Dodsworth

Cinematically, Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner has aged impressively well. Its dystopian future vision of Earth, with its rain-slicked neon skyscrapers haunted by Vangelis’ skin-prickling score, is at once futuristic and timeless – a world away from the clunky, distracting special effects which can hamper the viewing of films from a just a few years, let alone decades, ago.

To reduce them to their gender alone itself does a disservice to the pursuit of equality.

Yet there is a scene which jars uncomfortably upon re-watching. Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard, the titular “blade runner” (an officer hired to track down and kill “replicants”, artificially-created humans often indistinguishable from the real thing) physically bars love interest Rachel, herself a replicant, from leaving his apartment and violently forces her to kiss him. The scene is problematic to say the least, and has quite rightly coloured discussions surrounding Blade Runner, particularly in recent years.

Now, 35 years after the original, acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve has released a sequel: Blade Runner 2049. It’s as complete and riveting a follow-up as could be dreamed of – visually, aurally, and thematically. However, a buzz of discord around the film’s gender politics makes up another, more unfortunate connection to the original. Some reviewers have taken issue with the sequel’s portrayal of women, dismissing it as a sexist and regressive move by the filmmakers that its female characters are predominantly sex objects, sex workers or simply villains.

It’s a scene which jars uncomfortably upon re-watching. 

To me, this reading of Blade Runner 2049 is both misguided and incredibly naïve – a misunderstanding of the fundaments of the film and the questions it is trying to ask. It is true that one of the key female characters is expressly designed to cater to the needs of a man. Joi (played by Ana de Armas) is the holographic projection of a woman, an artificial girlfriend purchased by protagonist K (Ryan Gosling) who periodically shifts hairstyles and outfits to suit his preferences. Some people see her character as no more than a sci-fi fanboy’s wet dream, but this does no justice to the thematic questions her presence throws up.

Joi evidently has some form of in-built consciousness, which reacts to K and the wider world around her – does this make her, on some level, real? She is designed to be all that her customer wants to see and hear, but there are times – such as when she stands in the rain and takes pleasure in “feeling” the water hitting her holographic edges – when her own distinct personality begins to manifest. Like Samantha from Spike Jonze’s Her and Eva from Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, she adds to the cinematic conversation about emotion, attraction and artificial intelligence.

Nor does this view consider the complicated, conflicted character of K. Both a blade runner and a replicant, he is subordinated, spat at, seen as even less than subhuman: a mere machine to carry out the state’s dirty work. A connection with a “real” woman is unlikely to impossible, and Joi fulfils his craving for human affection and acceptance. Why wouldn’t his character take this form of love when it is offered – or sold – to him?

The claim that the women in the film conform to little more than the above-mentioned tropes is also far from the truth. Anyone who made it to the end of its almost three-hour length will know that women make up most of its truly instrumental characters, those who drive the plot and essentially completely define it (though this is impossible to discuss without invoking major spoilers).

Women make up most of its truly instrumental characters.

The debate over a lack of well-written female characters in cinema is a valid and valuable one, but to shoehorn the argument into a film like Blade Runner 2049 misses the mark entirely. The sign of a well-written role is complexity, and this film is filled to the brim with female characters with shifting and sometimes inscrutable motives and morals. However, discussion within this narrow line misses the point on yet another level. One of the most misguided – and frequent – aspects of the debate on women in film is that, though with the best intentions, people end up discussing female characters as female above all else.

This aspect of their being, even when it is irrelevant to the rest of their personality and role in the film, completely overshadows it. From Robin Wright’s morally ambiguous Lt. Joshi to Sylvia Hoek’s ruthless replicant enforcer Luv (both superbly acted), the fact they are women is incidental, if not irrelevant, and to reduce them to their gender alone itself does a disservice to the pursuit of equality.

It’s true that the film is populated with sexualised images of artificial women. At one point K must visit the radioactive remains of Las Vegas; as he paces through the toxic orange fog, we see gigantic statues of naked women, mouths open, breasts bare (but high heels still on). When I saw this I grimaced, but of course that’s the point. Villeneuve isn’t leading us through a utopia, a vision of what the world and its concept of women should be like: this city is desolate, diseased, broken. And then again, how far away is this from the Vegas of today?

To have boycotted Blade Runner 2049 on the basis of its gender politics is nonsensical. Not only would you have missed out on the cinematic experience of the year, but you would do so on the basis of an argument which doesn’t even understand the film.

Photograph: Olja Antic via Flickr

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