Blade Runner 2049 and Gender

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Blade Runner 2049 is breathtaking. It has already been said, but there’s no harm in reiterating: it is an amazing film in so many ways. It works very well alone, and even better when side by side with the other occupants of the Blade Runner cinematic universe. Maybe it’s just a thing a fan would say, but there’s not much not to like about it. And yet, there have been many dissenters.

After I finally watched Blade Runner 2049, I searched for the internet’s opinion on it. I had read some comments regarding its depiction of women, but seeing as I wanted to go into the movie theater knowing as little as possible about the film, I just saved them for later. Coming back to those comments after watching it was an unpleasant experience, to say the least — and that’s not because of how much I loved the film.

I’d like to take you for a walk now, one that won’t be easy — it’s definitely not easy for me. On the one hand, I don’t want to encourage the internet’s misogynistic population, one that receives already too much encouragement, and one that deserves very little respect apart from being human beings entitled to free speech. On the other hand, I also don’t want to condone what has been going on for long enough now on the liberal feminism side, something that bothers me quite a lot, to be honest.

I have heard a lot of complaints about Blade Runner 2049 and gender, and I will talk about them giving away as little about the plot as I can — there are, however, many spoilers ahead.

Many critics say the film has a huge woman problem. It objectifies women’s bodies, it’s misogynistic, it fails to pass the Bechdel test, and the female characters are flat, simple accessories — amongst other things.

One can say that the objectification of women’s bodies is a recurrent theme in the film, and portrayed intensely. It shows female replicants, “pleasure models,” who are exactly that: replicants used for men’s pleasure, showing a lot of skin (ironic I should use that word). There is a huge hologram ad of a naked Joi that the eye cannot fail to notice. Except for Lt. (“Madame”) Joshi, all of the other women who have screen-time and lines are replicants.

Joi is seen patiently waiting for K to come back home, dressed as a 50s housewife, catering to his every emotional need. When she calls on Mariette to serve as her body, she does so to fulfill what she believes is K’s physical need that she cannot meet. Isn’t that hideously regressive portrayal in 2017? Shouldn’t we be boycotting this film?

Well, no. To the people calling women’s objectification in Blade Runner 2049 “fanservice,”  I’ll start my case by pointing out that when the actual sex between Mariette, K and, to some extent, Joi, happens, we’re not allowed in that moment. It feels to me that I watched a different cut of this film because it is impossible to ignore how much of a “fanservice” that would be. But it’s not the point of the film, it doesn’t advance the plot. What needed to be shown in this interaction had already been shown, and then — cut to the next scene.

When it comes to the rest of the film, what did people expect? That this upsetting dystopia that no one would want to live in would provide excellent roles for the women living in that society? I’m not sure I would call myself a feminist because what has been passing for feminism nowadays is a liberal scam. I try hard to distance myself from it, but I am definitely for the feminist core ideals, and I defend those with all my heart and mind. What do we gain, really, from filling every blockbuster with a thousand strong women? Do we get better films from that? Are they better at artistically expressing some truth? Do they promote some actual change in our lives?

Or do they just make more of us run to the movie theaters every couple of days, to fill companies like Weinstein’s with our money? Oh, and by the way, the gender gap is still alive and well in most corners of the world, thank you for asking. Not only that but the corporation’s grip around our necks, men and women, any color you choose, is ever tightening.

Watching this film, seeing naked Joi nearly as big as the nearby buildings, seeing those other Jois filling their owners’ emotional needs, Mariette on the street, Luv out and about following Wallace’s every order: that hit me so hard. Not because I thought “wow, how sexist this film is”, but because of how sexist and misogynistic the real world is. It hit me hard because I thought, “that’s what our lives are like right now”, and yes, there has been some improvement. Yes, it can get better with time, but it can also get so much worse. Reality has its own “pleasure models” being developed and sold, and they are not stopping. Our bodies and the male desire relating to them is being separated from our human bodies, but it is still there. It is still objectified and used for men’s pleasure, and it contributes to the centuries of oppression we’ve endured.

It might be just me — and that’s fine —, but I’d rather see a thousand “Blade Runners” pointing at that bleak reality and its possible consequences in an even bleaker future than seeing perfect women, with perfect personalities and bodies, portraying the perfect strong North American woman ruling the world. I’m not one of those. I’ll never be. I don’t care about seeing that. I’m not about to give Hollywood companies any cent for that kind of empty representation.

I understand why people who are not acquainted with cyberpunk aren’t able to fully grasp how terrible this kind of dystopia is — it is, after all, high tech and low life, and this film shows it perfectly on so many levels, from the superficial to the deep, existential ones. I have wonder whether it’s that pure ingenuity or simply bad faith that is making people completely miss the point about the deep insights this film offers into the gender problems our Western societies face.

It is not a film about women turning the table on an oppressive patriarchal society. I would love to see a film that goes about those lines, and there are many other cinematic endeavors that indeed put this on display, like the recent Mad Max: Fury Road. And yes, there are many unaddressed issues in Blade Runner and most importantly in Blade Runner 2049, the film we’re talking about now, the one released in this moment where diversity and political correctness are on the rise, and the gender issue is definitely one of them. For now, this film attends to so many other issues and themes, and in a majestic way. It succeeds in what it proposes to explore. That is a lot already.

Furthermore, does it even make sense to look at Hollywood for representation, for political change, for better opportunities for women? Does it make sense to crave for shallow representations coming from millionaire perfect-looking women getting millions from corporations run by executives much richer than the actresses themselves? That’s what it is, mostly: a billionaire industry trying to achieve the demands of its changing consumer audience. And in that scenario, Blade Runner 2049 and its uninviting point of view (to say the least!), miserable humans and replicants in existential journeys is something to be celebrated, not abhorred.

10 Responses to “Blade Runner 2049 and Gender”

  1. Ken Rodriguez

    I think it would be enlightening to many readers (especially the probably mostly-male audience here) to be given some background on your assertion that “what has been passing for feminism nowadays is a liberal scam.” I can guess at it, and your references to it elsewhere in the review shed some light on the subject, but as a man I am necessarily at least semi-blind to it.

    • Carolina

      Thank you for your comment!

      If there’s interest (and there is, at least from you), I’d definitely try and delve deeper into this subject in the future. I’m not an expert on the subject, but with enough research and time I’d quite like to share my thoughts on the matter. Maybe not here, since it’s not directly linked to cyberpunk, but somewhere.

  2. I agree with the central points in this article; that the dystopian nature of Blade Runner reflects dystopian realities, and that representation is important, but communicating an effective story should not be sacrificed. Being a person of color in an international/interracial couple, I am completely for equality of and inclusion of all types, but I also feel like we should be clear-minded about how that can be achieved. True equality — be it between gender, race, ability, or any other category — can never truly be achieved without economic equality, as Dr. King once noted, and economic inequality has been absolutely skyrocketing of late.

    Having a Black president was a great first for the US, but that ‘representation’ was not enough to change the hard reality of increasing poverty for minorities, across all stripes. Divide and conquer is the primary strategy used by the elites to maintain and increase inequality *for everyone* and keep attention focused off of the elephant in the room; that half of the US is in poverty, we have millions of PhD’s barely scraping by on Uber, task-rabbit and being paid pennies to shill articles for corporations. Having more representation in movies, games, etc. is great, but having more female celebrities is not going to change the fact that young women (and men) are all being screwed our of their future by the 0.01%, and being distracted from that by fighting each other for scraps will only ensure we are all more equally screwed.

  3. Very interesting article. I have to admit I didn’t pay attention to gender issues through the movie, I was really captivated by the whole of it. But it’s really interesting reading this kind of POV, especially coming from someone who does not consideres herself a feminist.
    However, I wouldn’t call “what-passes-today-as-feminism” a “liberal scam”; it strikes me as very harsh. Granted, I’m male, I wouldn’t dare to lecture you with authority, far from it, it’s not my place. But I just want to give you an opinion, as a male learning to change thinking structures.
    I’d say that feminist issuea might vary from country to country, as different societies have different levels of socio-political issues. I’m from Argentina, and from the way I see it(either through american fiction or american news media) I’d say that situations are quite different between our two countrys. Or maybe not.
    I think it might happen there too, but here, aside from Buenos Aires, the rest of the provinces (badly called “inner country”) are quite backward regarding social issues (quite, but not completely).
    Recently, in my hometown, a woman, from poverty-stricken social background, filmed her husband through a window; he was laying, naked, next to this woman’s best friend, Mary. The filming woman started to yield him, telling him that he was a scumbag, and to her friend the same, and that she was a traitor. Well, the video was shared MASSIVELY through Whatsapp (an interesting cyberpunky thing nowadays) and even some local websites wrote about the issue. But what happened next?
    First, we had elections here a few weeks ago. The guy went to vote and the people recognized him. They started taking selfies with him. Next, last weekend, the guy was signed by some smalltown dance club to be there, as a famous personality. However, almost nothing was said about the treasonous friend, Mary, except that she was a whore, and that stuff.
    This kind of things, allomg with femicides, are sadly, still very common here. I’m not saying that we are a backwards country, I stand for my country in many asspects. But,as a society, I think we still have a long way to walk. And that’s why I think that maybe people shouldn’t just disregard feminism, as a whole, even the (wrongly called) radical feminism. Of course, nothing should be taked for granted, and I think criticism should be encouraged, but that’s different to call something a scam.
    I’m constantly reading and informing myself about these kind of issues through all the world. There are substantial differences between pur societies, but there’s also many similitudes. As a male, trying to learn to see things from a different point of view, I think we should consider these matters and try to learn from what happens at the other side of our borders.
    Again, very nice article. Have a nice day.

    • ¡Hola, hermano! Te llamo “hermano” porque es así que, en Brasil, llamamos a los argentinos. Y tengo además mucho amor por tu país.

      Switching to English: it’s not that I do not consider myself a feminist. As I said in the article, I’m all for feminism core ideals. That alone makes me a feminist. I do, however, have a huge amount of problems with the mainstream branches of feminism, and have been looking to distance myself from them and their practices. Not from feminism itself. Therefore I’m not sure I would call myself a feminist nowadays, but I guess that technically I am. (On a not-so-much-related note: I don’t believe in god, for instance, and still I hesitate to call myself an atheist.)

      Brazil is, as you probably know, deeply plagued by sexism and misogyny. And we face some of the same issues the people in Argentina also do. We have to do something about that, and there are many feminist groups making progress, slowly but surely. It seems to me, however, that the mainstream branches concern themselves with issues that shouldn’t be the main focus of the movement. And the problem is these branches are the bigger, most visible ones. In a country where abortion is still illegal, femicide is a sad reality that repeats itself every day, amongst other terrible things: is it really a priority to spend time and energy demanding representation on Hollywood, or in advertisements, or in the “telenovelas”? Of course, those are all important in our societies, and they shape the way some people think. Changes in those areas are not completely useless. Though they are shallow and trivial. At least in Brazil, much of the feminist movements concentrate online, for many reasons. One of them being that Brazil is such a large country, a rural one too, and it’s hard to have feminist groups outside of the large metropolitan areas. What I feel is happening is that it’s so much easier to focus on the symptoms instead of the causes. And it’s also so much easier to make progress with the symptoms, since they causes are much, much deeper. But that doesn’t cut it for me. And I truly believe no real progress can be made that way. And for a series of personal reasons, some of which make me quite an annoying person, I don’t take part in that kind of movement. That isn’t to say feminism isn’t important and that all hope is lost. There is still much to be achieved that is quite important, even when it comes down to simply working with the symptoms. And it has been, is, and will be a long fight.

      There is also the problem that there is so much wrong with our political and economical systems in Latin American, and the Western societies in general, that the gender (and therefore representation) issue is in no way disconnected from many other issues. And as long as those other issues — of class, racial, ethnic inequalities, amongst others — are still around, the power structures remain.

      Unfortunately I don’t have time to expand on this right now. Thank you so much for your comment, though, it was a very interesting read. You have a nice day too, thanks!

  4. The film puts on par robots, woman, prostitutes, showing the patriarchal relation to woman in the original root definition of robots: slave, machine to provide service. The film is obviously sexist, but since its themes propose such a head-on and prospective vision of sexism embodied in the city scapes, it can not be only attacked as depicting badly woman.
    The main problem being that the main direct opposant to K is a cold woman, and as such feels robotic, and surely, she is.The main ally of K is just a blockbuster stock character without real contenance, as shallow as most robots, strictly restricted in her actions in her role and hierarchical position, hence a boring character. All character but the prostitute, a clear nod to Pris, are robots, and as such, highly programmed to fit into men’s desire for empathy (original theme of Dick’s Do Android Dream of Electrip sheep, with its mountain climbing ). Even then, she falls prey to the stererotype of the loving prostitute/underground help, which makes for a highly positive ending of a film that calls revolution all along but falls short providing real hope, as the scenario is scripted, robotic.
    The film is sexist, dont deny it behind the glamorous aesthetic experience Deakins and villeneuve provided. But for what sexism it brings, it does present obviously the working gearing of a certain sexism, and that is where it brings back new-wave sci-fi prospective and criticism, which is deeply contradictory in its depiction of badassness and rule of cool clashing with social justice, minority and marginal representation and counterculture.
    Blde Runner 2049 is all in all just this other sci-fi movie that is cyberpunk but has been compromised by the cult success of its predecessor, the actual resurecction of Sony as a international Zaibatsu Media Corp, the blockbuster script (scenario and programs are indeed homologous), the directing of a once-again Gosling in a Refn-like acting cue (and weirdly even Gosling’s movie Lost River feels more dystopian and relatable than BR 2049), the over reliance on Villeneuve’s catchy but shallow vision, though highly “realistic”, its trademarks at the forefront of a hollywood canadian new wave of neo-classicism . It has not the film noir melancholic and desperate feel, nor the weird exotism, mystical mystery that Blade Runner carried on, though it hits the right spots numerously, just not strongly enough.
    The film does give a woman the most important role as a mind architect in its truely most sci-fi idea of the movie about crushed dreams, pursuing the thematic of K’s wishful dreaming of being an actual human, as Joi, well named, sets him on thinking, and he dies under snowflakes, but since the film relies too much on his relation to Joi, and it is profoundly shallow, the film brings only this: a great mix of cinematography coupled with some great visual design and a few good concepts, but not really a strong involvment through narrative. Or it is just that narrative driven conscience is slowly being swallowed up by aesthetic wave of sound and light in a blended mix of soothing soma for the mind?

    The film also delves quite lavishly into nostalgia rather than melancholia, making it all needed for this late sage capitalism investment on reminiscence of good times never existent, subconscious void caused in the neon dystopia of actual times, faux-revolutionnary proof of concept for a future sold to corporations by themselves (Sony).
    Very cyber, not so punk.

    • @Perferic – I have a really hard time buying any of your points here. Let’s just say that most assessments of Blade Runner 2049 as a “shallow art house cyberpunk movie” are just the expression of a much shallower, yet very trendy, “run off the mill art house criticism” that looks for validation by simply recycling the same arguments over and over again.

      *** Spoilers may and will ensue from now on, so proceed at your own risk, guys ***

      For starters, if you’re onto dismissing Robin Wright’s Lt. Joshi character as a robotic and boring antagonist to K, I think you should delve deeper into the point rather than stating it as a fact. As worried as she is with preserving the status quo, “Madame” is the guardian of a world that is built around barriers, just like ours. In her system of beliefs, inequality is the only dam shielding the world of men from a flood of chaos, and that makes her much more than a simple antagonist to K’s figure: she IS the dam, the embodiment of the society she protects and the true antagonist of the story. As K delves into his own nature’s mystery, strawing farther from Joshi’s control, the movie shows his spinner zipping along a massive water flood from LA’s peripheral dam, in a glaring metaphor of what is about to happen. Clearly aware of the cracks in the barrier, Joshi reacts by losing her temper multiple times and at times sympathizing with K, which makes her not that robotic after all.

      Then comes Mariette, described as a “loving prostitute” driving K or the story towards some kind of happy ending. Let’s just say that what the movie actually shows is a human character serving the cause of the replicant rebels: she’s far from stereotypical for the roles established by Blade Runner 2049’s society (human masters Vs. replicant slaves), and if anything, she ends up bringing K in front of a tragic personal truth and a dramatic choice. She doesn’t care one bit about stepping into K and Joi’s sentimental relationship, as long as it serves the ultimate purpose of establishing a contact between him and the rebellion. Once Mariette accomplishes that, she has no other input on the movie’s ending whatsoever.

      Speaking of the ending and its alleged lack of real hope (“The film calls revolution all along, but falls short of providing real hope as the scenario is scripted, robotic”), it’s worth noting how K is caught between a handful of hard choices that were carefully weaved throughout the movie’s lengthy runtime: serving Ana to either an almighty corporation or an underground revolutionary movement, suppress her for the greater good or reconnecting her with the only real thing she has left in the world – her family. Do we need to point out the most hopeful among those options, considering it is (a) made by none other than a replicant, (b) of his own free will and (c) after the world has failed him multiple times because of his nature? With all due respect, I think this is the more hopeful a fundamentally dystopian movie like this could ever aspire to be.

      I think Melancholic Cyborg’s opinion piece already contains the answers to your concerns about sexism, so I’ll jump straight to the “narrative driven conscience being slowly swallowed up by aestethic waves”. Let me be blunt: I think that description applies more to the original Blade Runner. The 1982 movie had this pervasive sense of visuality, lighting and environmental storytelling aimed at heightening the emotional impact of an ultimately simple story. Deep questions were asked through this suggestive language, and part of its charm and intelligence lied on the fact that the answers were left to the spectators’ judgement.

      Where Blade Runner dared to ask questions, Villeneuve, Fancher and Scott dared to provide a possible answer by shifting the focus from “what does it means to be human?” or “what is a soul?”, to “what’s the true nature of feelings?” as a key determinator in what really sets humans and replicants apart. Replicants are well acquainted with hatred, submission and derision, hence their longing for love, respect and affection: they can’t have it from humans, so they resort to surrogates. But when a machine becomes able to feel, and starts making decisions that accounts for both rationality and spontaneous sentimental impulses, how are they different from us? What other barrier separates humans and replicants when the dam is finally broken, and the water of chaos invades reality as it once again does, metaphorically, during K’s final confrontation? Blade Runner 2049 has all the drama, melancholia and depth one could desire from a sequel without having to extensively ape the first movie. The punk aspect manifests itself in K’s voluntary choice to make his own decisions despite having three much greater forces breathing down his neck. Through his will and the experiences he matured in his journey (those are real, not implants!), he shaped his identity and embraced the serene death of a being who has found himself – not replicant, not human. Just as special as Ana.

      But of course, i get it’s simpler to think of a shallow work made to support a vacuous corporate conspiracy than, you know, actually read into the movie.

  5. Damon Massado

    Thank you for this. I felt as if many of the people who are upset about the portrayal of women in this movie missed the point of the film. I also felt that Joi was the most emotionally intelligent person in the whole film.

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