This is part two of my look at Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049. If you want to read part one, which discusses the use of Asian culture (no spoilers) go here.
Note: Major plot spoilers ahead in Part Two.
Cyberpunk isn’t great, when it comes to its portrayal of women. For some reason, cyberpunk women wear plastic coats and not much else. In addition, their roles are reduced to pleasure bots and sex workers or sexy hackers who don’t wear many clothes or sexy, pleasure bot hackers…well, you get the idea. The original Blade Runner fell into that trap, but it was the 80s, back when shoulder pads were empowering. However, 30 years later, I expected Blade Runner 2049 to do better and I think it tries, but fails miserably.
The central theme of 2049 is the miracle of life and the central villain, Wallace, played by Jared Leto, is a blind Christ-like figure (complete with beard and hair) whose mission is to find the secret to replicant reproduction. His motivation is to create a population of slaves more efficiently to grow his business empire. In short, it’s a film about men trying to control reproduction, using artificial, slave women. Nice.
In case we were in any doubt that Wallace is a bad man, we witness one of his new, female replicants arrive via a tube, where she’s deposited on the floor naked and covered in slime on the floor, shaking. He checks to see if she’s pregnant and when she’s not, Wallace kills her by slicing her womb open and letting her fall to the floor bleeding.
Not only is it a brutal and violent death, but it’s also a scene which depicts a world where women are only useful if they can breed for the men in power. When this female replicant is found lacking, she is killed. Well, it’s hardly worth living if you’re a woman who can’t have children. That’s the message.
Granted, this is a bleak world and that means bad things happen to everyone, but it’s not the last violent death to befall the women in this film. In fact, all but two of the female characters with speaking parts meet a sticky end. The prime antagonist, is the killer fembot, Luv, who has an unfaltering loyalty to Wallace. She is a ruthless killer, who sheds a tear now and again, but generally she’s a chilling assassin with a good manicure. She meets her end in a lengthy fight, where she is finally strangled and drowned.
Another major female role goes to Robin Wright as police chief and K’s boss, Lieutenant Joshi. She’s your classic no nonsense police chief, demanding answers, loyalty and his badge when shit hits the fan. Of course, after a drink or two, she tries it on with K. He rejects her and Joshi is reduced to the sad, lonely, older woman of the piece. Oh and then she gets stabbed by Luv.
The film also resurrects Rachael, Sean Young’s replicant from the original Blade Runner. She is used as a bargaining chip for Deckard. Her scene ends quickly, when she gets shot through the head, complete with exit wound, for having the wrong colour eyes and therefore being a ‘fake’ Rachael. The film fails to consider Rachael’s existence because she doesn’t serve the story if Deckard rejects her.
Finally, there’s the woman who is literally kept in a glass box for the entire film. On the plus side she doesn’t have to kill anyone, doesn’t die and is used for her mind, rather than her body, so there’s that. But she can’t go anywhere or do anything and gets no dialogue, unless one of the leading men goes to visit her to ask her something.
It’s only towards the end that we get to see women with any real agency beyond the narrative of the central men. At one point, K is led to the one-eyed rebel leader, the only woman who has a story and motivation of her own. Don’t get your hopes up though, because she’s only in the film for one, short scene and hardly gets any dialogue. Instead, the woman we focus on is K’s love interest, Joi.
Joi is a holographic A.I. companion. We see adverts for Joi around the city; ‘everything you want to hear’ and ‘everything you want to see’ the slogans read. She’s the fembot of choice for our hero, K and their relationship is the romance of the piece. Note that there is no Jon or any other gender of AI companion.
K is a replicant who is grappling with his identity and humanity. He yearns for a relationship with Joi. When we first meet her, K has come home from work and Joi greets him first as a 50s housewife, then as a 60s ingenue, complete with Nabakov’s Pale Fire (rather than Lolita) in her hand. She’s always doting and loyal and only gets to exist when he switches her on.
In K’s defense, he does seem to care for Joi. He buys a portable transmitter device that allows her to go outside, independent of the system within his flat. However, K can still switch her off and she essentially becomes a ‘girlfriend in your pocket’.
There is a touching scene, which sees Joi goes out in the rain with K and she goes to kiss him, but he feels uncomfortable because he knows that pleasing him is part of her programming. Later, K meets Mariette, a prostitute, who offers him her services, but he refuses out of loyalty to Joi, we suppose. The only trouble is that Joi isn’t a physical being, so they can’t actually be together.
This is all very sweet, until these two female characters are brought together for the sex scene. It transpires that Joi has employed Mariette to have sex with K, but with Joi’s face synced over the top. So, what we get is an image of the whore and virgin becoming one. In its favour, the sex scene doesn’t focus on the bodies of K or the women he’s with. There is no nudity. Instead, we focus on the faces of the two women slipping over each other and K’s eyes, so it avoids the male gaze that usually dominates cinema and I think we’re supposed to congratulate the film for that.
It’s worth mentioning that the scene is a technical triumph of cinematography, thanks to Richard Deakins, making it easy to get swept up in the beauty of it. However, the virgin and whore dichotomy of womanhood is something I thought we might be able to leave back in the Victorian era. Of course, to complete the arc of a virgin, Joi is killed by the sexy assassin, but only once she’s had sex with her man and declared her love for him.
When it comes to representation of any kind, Blade Runner 2049 gets it wrong. Not only are women reduced to a few tired, misogynistic, cyberpunk tropes, but the world is still divided in binary gender terms. There is no suggestion of queerness or any non-binary characters, even in the background. All replicants appear to be only male or female, but why would that be the case if you are creating these beings? All the prostitutes in 2049 were women, including the AI companions, Joi. And the most powerful characters, K, Wallace and Deckard, were all white, straight men.
Considering we already live in a world, in 2017, where the binary gender lines are blurred, it’s more than odd that the cyberpunk world of 2049 ignores this. Cyberpunk is the perfect setting to represent different genders, but this film fails to consider anything other than white, male hetero fantasies.
Blade Runner 2049 is a beautiful film that revels in its leisurely pace and big ideas, but ultimately, fails to say anything really interesting about existence, humanity or creation because everything is seen through the narrow prism of white patriarchy. I enjoyed 2049, as I watched it, but the more I think about it, the more disappointed I am in its old-fashioned vision of the future.