Box Office Whoa
In a week in which *that* news broke about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein broke, you’d be forgiven for missing that BLADE RUNNER 2049 apparently bombed at the box office.
Of course, this may not be that big a deal in the long run … After all, the original also bombed back in 1982. What’s more, apparently the original didn’t review well, unlike 2049 which has that hallowed FRESH rating on Rotten Tomatoes (88%, no less). Once Awards Season and ancillary markets are factored in, there’ every chance 2049 will earn its place in popular culture – and the KERCHING! that involves – just like the original.
But this article is not about the shortsightedness of relying solely on box office tallies to prove ‘success’, especially in the transmedia age. It’s not even about the marketing fail of the BLADE RUNNER 2049 campaign, which relied on Geek nostalgia over a strong story hook in its trailer (which, btw, was a bad move).
Instead, it’s about the female characters in BLADE RUNNER 2049. Ready? Then strap yourselves in. Let’s go.
Almost as soon as the positive reviews rolled in for BLADE RUNNER 2049, a flurry of femcrit thinkpieces exploded all over the interwebs. You may have seen them: ‘Why Blade Runner 2049 is a misognistic mess‘ wrote Vice; The Daily Dot called it ‘Subtly Sexist‘; ‘Blade Runner’s Problem with women remains unsolved in sequel‘ wrote The Conversation; ‘Blade Runner 2049 may be set in the future, but its treatment of women is stuck in the past‘ wrote The Telegraph; and The Pool asked us to ‘Imagine a future in which women are *still* sex objects’. There are plenty more where that comes from, too.
All of these thinkpieces – and I’ve had the pleasure of reading all of them listed here (and several more besides) – have the following issues with BLADE RUNNER 2049:
- The female characters – including peripherals – are overtly sexualised
- The male gaze is employed (Don’t know what this is? CLICK HERE).
- The death of the newborn replicant
- The notion ‘real’ women give birth
- The female characters are bought and sold quite literally, like Joi the digital girlfriend or Mariette, the sexbot replicant
- The female characters are not holistic
Perhaps you feel similar? Whatever the case, I will address all these points, next.
Where We’re Headed
It’s true that BLADE RUNNER 2049 is a dystopian future in which the female form is currency. It’s a startling reflection of the world in which we live in NOW, where women are routinely objectified and this is passed off as ‘normal’.
The fact our protagonist K and all this story world’s inhabitants walk around almost blind to GIANT NAKED FEMALE STATUES AND PROJECTIONS tells us so much about the state of the world today. That’s what good science fiction does – it holds up a mirror and says, ‘This is where we’re heading, if we continue the way we are now.’
That’s why an article like this one in The Pool misses the point royally when it says:
“If you want to show us a future dystopia where sex work is prolific, show men selling their bodies too. That wouldn’t be a utopia, but at least it would show that you’re not thoughtlessly exporting sexism into the future. All these visions where women’s bodies are still objectified – literally, in Blade Runner, with those statues – and where sex is still commodified, but only by those presenting as women and apparently only for men, shows a startling lack of vision and imagination.”
What’s ‘startling’ for me is the ‘lack of vision and imagination’ the Pool critic is displaying. The idea presented in BLADE RUNNER 2049 here is NOT just that ‘sex work is prolific’. It’s that we live in a patriarchy NOW and if it goes on unchallenged, it’s going to get worse and worse … So by this time, thirty years from now, this – depicted by BLADE RUNNER 2049 – is what we’ll end up with.
It’s chilling and truly dystopian – a warning, if you like. Again, something Sci Fi does frequently when envisaging bad futures. We don’t watch stuff like The Handmaid’s Tale or Mad Max Fury Road and think of it as a ‘How To’ Guide, FFS! We don’t require Margaret Atwood or George Miller to overtly state that sex slavery is bad. Le duh. We all know this.
Of course, some would argue that Blade Runner 2049 is almost indiscernible from ‘normal’ sexism – but then couldn’t that also be argued an EPIC SCORE in the movie’s favour? Maybe all the more reason to listen to BLADE RUNNER 2049’s warning, then!
Again, it’s true that a masculine POV is employed at the heart of BLADE RUNNER 2049. Most movies have male leads (who are also white, able-bodied and straight), so it is unsurprising that we ‘see’ the Blade Runner storyworld from K’s POV. This is in part responsible for the sexualisation of the female characters – we’re seeing the world via patriarchal norms and values.
It’s possible we could have had a female Blade Runner at the heart of this story. Luv, our female replicant antagonist is as hardcore as K and able to carry out all number of unpleasant duties. So it’s not outside the realms of possibility that she (or one like her) could have been in K’s place – and perhaps this is what is at the root of many of the femcrit pieces: disappointment.
However, would Luv’s viewpoint as protagonist instead of K have made a significance difference to the dystopian landscape? Since the filmmakers want to make a commentary on patriarchy and debunking male superiority, it would seem a bit strange to have a female lead. Swapping K out for Luv would literally interfere with the storytelling here.
What’s more, some of the strongest scenes in the movie are between K and the women on the ‘good’ side, who counsel him on how he needs to reject his replicant-slave roots, signified in his ‘baseline’. That ominous test with the repetition of the words CELLS and INTERLINKED said – to me, at least – that K is just a cog in the machine. By rejecting his baseline, he is standing up at last: a true ally.
Born To Die
The birth – and slaughter – of the newborn replicant has proved to be one of the most controversial scenes of the movie and for good reason. The scene makes use of what Hitchcock called ‘the unstable space’: the audience is a voyeur and it is very uneasy, unpleasant viewing. It’s literally meant to be.
Every effort is made to present the newborn replicant as almost calf-like: from the awkward way she lands and lies on the ground, through to her wet gasps for air as she fights to breathe. Yes, she is naked, but she is also covered in goo. She has no flowing locks; no fluttering eyelashes; nothing that says to me we are supposed to find her sexy or alluring … ‘Cos literally, WTAF. She’s just been born! Even the way Wallace handles her – pulling back eyelids, pushing on her neck – is what farmers do to ‘test’ livestock for hardiness.
And this is what replicants are … Livestock. Property. Slaves. That’s always been at the heart of this story and it’s no wonder Wallace is so cold. He kills the newborn because she is disposable. Also, her gender is a major signpost for something else in the story, which comes clear at the end.
Lastly, the newborn is also a warning. Without her death, Luv’s own motivation for pleasing her master makes no sense. She will do everything to do be ‘The Best One’; she will NEVER be the one bleeding out on the floor at his feet. That’s why Wallace named her.
Femcrit is always leery of any female character giving birth, wanting children, being a mother or any other ‘traditional’ emotions and elements associated with this idea. We saw the biggest backlash recently over Black Widow’s ‘monster’ comments in The Avengers: Age of Ultron … So I’m only surprised this part of the debate burned out so quickly.
Or maybe not, when we consider this part of the ‘debate’ is pure unadulterated BS. There is no suggestion in the movie that ‘only’ real women give birth. Instead, the notion is that replicants who can give birth have added value.
Think about it: replicants are slave labour … and slaves who can replicate themselves bring more slaves! This is great business: no wonder Niander Wallace is so keen to track Rachel’s baby down. Alternatively, it could be argued Wallace is concerned about fertile replicants rendering his models obsolete. Either way, he needs that baby – either to monetise the new line or to suppress it. Helen Lewis at The New Statesman nails it when she says BLADE RUNNER 2049 is about ‘controlling reproduction‘, something we can see today when right wingers try to withhold abortions and even contraception from women.
The notion of fertile replicants also brings with it yet more troubling questions of a philosophical nature. These ponder not only on the nature of the replicants’ humanity, but also what bringing replicant-kids into the world would mean to the replicants themselves. Sitting in the audience, watching that scene, I was thinking of Toni Morrison’s Beloved when protagonist – and slave – Sethe feels compelled to kill her children to protect them from slavery.
I would wager the confusion about ‘real women’ comes from the fact the word ‘real’ is consistently employed throughout the movie – not just with reference to birth and women but to EVERY part of the storyworld.
There are multiple allusions to Pinocchio: ‘Just like a real boy/girl’. K asks Deckard if his dog is ‘real’ (‘I dunno. Why don’t you ask him?); plus Joi and K, ‘I want to be real for you’/ ‘You are real to me’; or K’s memories ‘I KNOW it’s real!’… Right through to the tree K and Mariette talk about on the photos, which is one of my favourite moments in the entire film:
Mariette: I’ve never seen a real tree before. It’s pretty.
K: It’s dead.
It’s all there. It’s applied to every last thing.
Disposable / Indispensable
There’s been a lot of commentary about the nature of the female characters and how they’ve been cast as sex workers; or asking how we’re supposed to feel about a character like K who BUYS his digital girlfriend, Joi.
Again, it’s true that sex worker characters are overrepresented in the thriller genre – but then so are addicts, megalomaniacs, murderers, hitmen, cops, henchmen and government agents. If we’re going to complain about overused tropes, then at least bring some equality to the debate.
Similarly, sex worker characters are often disposable: brought in to stories as bodies or eye candy only. It’s fine to have a problem with that, but to discount sex worker characters as standard makes no sense, especially in the case of BLADE RUNNER 2049. Mariette, a sex worker character (denigrated as a ‘marionette’ in some femcrit) displays her own mind from the offset. When her colleagues give K a wide berth on account of being a Blade Runner and warn her off, she tells them she knows what he is. Similarly, she tells Joi something similar about her in the apartment.
What’s more, Mariette is absolutely INDISPENSABLE in the plotting; without her intervention K would be left for dead at one point. The rest of her people, though peripheral and existing on the fringes of society, have a key role to play, with the Madam delivering a key element of exposition.
Lastly, when it comes to Joi, the virtual girlfriend, I saw not in K not a man who buys sex, but a tragic love story. It’s key that she’s a GIRLFRIEND, not merely a sex object. She asks him about his day, brings him his dinner, tries to get involved in his actual life and mission (but can’t, blinking off at inopportune moments).
Like K, I wanted her to be real so badly. ‘I’m so happy with you’/ ‘You don’t have to say that.’ K tries to give her autonomy via the emanator, but succeeds only in signing her death warrant. But also, what is real? Is Joi just a chat-bot? Is she down the scale, lower than a replicant? Or is it all just an illusion? I keep changing my mind … which shows what a great idea, philosophically, this was.
Ciphers For Theme
Finally, it’s true that the female characters are not holistic in the ‘classic’ sense … That’s because they are thematic. The entire movie is thematic, so this includes the likes of K and Deckard too.
Everything here is about that meaning I have already described: the notion of ‘what is REAL?’, bringing forth other powerful ideas of a dystopian future brought to us via the objectification of women and crushing men into their ‘place’ in the machine. We are ALL slaves to the patriarchy and only by making a stand against it and throwing off our shackles can society move on.
So if BLADE RUNNER 2049 is a thematic movie, rather than a ‘classic’ story, it’s unsurprising some people failed to ‘get’ what it was about. Once you understand the nature of what it is, you can see ALL the characters within it are ciphers for that meaning. Nothing more … but nothing less, either.
Some might reflect on all this I’ve covered and say they found BLADE RUNNER 2049 wanting because it should have been both a thematic AND ‘classic’ story. After all, a movie like Mad Max Fury Road is both thematic and a classic chase thriller: you can see its layers, or simply enjoy the ride.
But then the Mad Max franchise is known for its chases and epic set pieces, plus the original movie helped kick off the fascination with the revenge thriller. But then thirty years passed and revenge is now pretty hackneyed by 2015 standards. A radical overhaul was needed, but Mad Max Fury Road still stayed true to its roots.
In the same way, BLADE RUNNER 2049 stayed true to its roots too. I loved that BLADE RUNNER 2049 was unafraid to bring forth big ideas on the nature of humanity, with a side-order of commentary on the ruins of patriarchy for both men and women. Whilst it was arty and ponderous, the original was both arty and ponderous too.
Had they turned BLADE RUNNER 2049 into a hardcore blockbusting rip-roaring thrill ride, there would have been some very angry geeks and cinephiles – the core demographic the movie was literally aimed at. What came before helped inform what came next … because that’s the point of sequels!
So by all means dislike BLADE RUNNER 2049 for being too long or too slow … The run time of 163 minutes was madness (I feared my kidneys would explode Grampa Simpson style for the last forty five minutes, I needed a pee that bad).
Dislike it for the sudden leap in logic when Deckard hunts K for seemingly no reason at the midpoint other than as an opportunity to have a big macho fight.
Or dislike Villeneuve’s fancy-pants direction; Ryan Gosling’s rubber lips, or the fact Harrison Ford is revisiting all his classic roles as a wizened old geezer.
But disliking it for sexism, on the basis of feminist ideals? That’s an own goal.
For more like this
Then check out my book, Writing Diverse Characters For Fiction, TV & Film, out now from Creative Essentials. Available in paperback and ebook, from Amazon and all good book stores. Click HERE or the pic for more details.
Wasn’t Deckard defending himself after thirty years being hunted and having a natural distrust of a Bladerunner turning up out of the blue. Regardless of being a Rep or not?
I expected him to have a problem with K turning up, sure. It just all felt a bit forced. Maybe it was the Elvis thing that bothered me – I frigging hate Elvis, lol
True on the anti Elvis feelings though.
Great article, since I didn’t mention it.
Yeah, that’s really interesting. I didn’t quite see it like that. I still didn’t love it. I hate that they brought Rachel back and I didn’t need to see Elvis, Marilyn or Frank. I would complain about the open-endedness of the film. Like, what happens next. Does K die? Do Deckard and his daughter go for a picnic? What exactly would this replicant uprising look like? And what happens to Wallace? But I suppose the original was pretty open-ended too. Just not nearly as frustrating.
K dies. He’s looking at snow and so is the memory maker if you recall – suggesting she can read replicants’ minds or send them thoughts (intriguing notions there of whether K is her avatar, out in the world). The rest will be in the next one I think
I enjoyed the heck out of this but didn’t exactly find myself disagreeing with the femcrit. What you say makes total sense, I think the problem is actually the film’s in that it doesn’t really make its stance on this clear. That doesn’t mean it has to state “sex slavery be bad” but something like the Handmaid’s Tale is very clearly against the system of oppression, it’s opinion is clear, what is happening here is wrong. Blade Runner”s dystopia focuses more on the oppression on replicas in general and I believe any message on female oppression is lost underneath. The lack of clarity of the film’s message here is what I believe is causing people to interpret in the wrong direction. So while I agree the film isn’t sexist, it definitely has story telling problems that have made it easier to interpret it as such.
The responsibility of a story is not that ‘everyone’ gets it. People will bring forth their own thoughts, experiences, worldviews and agendas when decoding it too. Also worth remembering is that most femcrit approaches movues and Tv like this: ‘female lead and female stuff? FEMINIST!’/ ‘Male lead and male/patriarchal stuff? SEXIST!’ It can’t be relied on for intriguing readings or discussion, unfortunately as it’s too often just clickbait.
I liked Joi. For me she raised the following questions.
1. Is love of less value if it is artificial? To me K genuinely loved her.
2. At what level of complexity does an artificial develop real emotions, meaning Joi not K.
3. How much of Joi’s motivation is because she wants to protect K and how much because she has been programmed to be what he wants her to be.
4. When he sees the giant Joi advert and it spoke her phrases to him, did he realise it was all fake and he had been deluding himself?
So at what point does emotion overcome programming and Joi become a real person.
Read my book Do Robots Dream of Love? 😉
Really interesting article, thanks.
Now… in my opinion, the big statues of women out in the desert were directly inspired by (or even copied from) Pasolini’s ‘Salo’. Image here: https://goo.gl/images/UnsHt5
If this is so, then, a) referencing ‘120 days of Sodom’ is a pretty damning indictment of the future society, and b) it confirms the film’s critical stance on the relationship between sex and power.
Wow! Certainly striking resemblance there and certainly seems likely I agree