Blade Runner 2049 (Villeneuve, 2017) is undoubtedly a beautiful looking film, achieving something few thought possible – successfully building and expanding upon Ridley Scott’s grim vision of a dystopian future. The pairing of Denis Villeneuve and Roger Deakins has ensured a sequel that looks as dazzling as the original and has the pathos to match.
The film has been showered with (almost) universal adulation, but there is something concerning at the heart of this film and even its critical reception. Blade Runner (Scott, 1982) had its issues with misogyny and its treatment of its female characters, but unfortunately, instead of side-lining these negative traits, Villeneuve has made a film which is just as problematic as the original – if not more so. But, what’s been truly disappointing is that very few critics have bothered to acknowledge the issue or perhaps they just don’t feel that there is a problem. It appears that Blade Runner 2049 has an awful lot in common with 2017.
Villeneuve’s world is inexplicably filled with titillating imagery of women, whether they’re giant neon-pink holographs, projections on skyscrapers, or stone statues of big-breasted, butt-naked women. These structures – like the female replicants – are disposable constructs, ‘playthings’ for their male masters.
The female characters fall into one of three types: housewife; prostitute; or as an aggressive, masculinised woman – whether it’s Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) or angry android, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). Women in the world of Blade Runner 2049 exist solely to delight in the kitchen, pleasure in the bedroom, and comply with the whims of their subjugators.
Joi is played by Ana de Armas and she’s the female character with the most screen time, but all she’s given to do is pout, undress and deliver clunky dialogue. Joi is a holographic housewife, a hologram that is literally unable to leave K’s (Ryan Gosling)
kitchen flat until he purchases the required upgrade. Unfortunately for Joi, when the shackles are eventually removed, she can’t just wander off. Joi is tethered to K by the proximity of the gizmo. K goes from having a woman kept in his kitchen, to having one in his pocket. A literal Polly Pocket.
Joi is a product to be consumed and the film expresses this explicitly with its hammy script, with lines like; “Experience Joi, everything you want to hear, everything you want to see”. Joi is a fanboy’s wet dream; a subjugated woman, a woman that can be switched on and off as easily as a PlayStation or PC. This is Weird Science (Hughes, 1985) updated for the art-house crowd.
Then there’s Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), a sex worker, not un-similar in appearance to Daryl Hannah’s Pris from Blade Runner. In the original film we are told that Pris is a “pleasure model” but what we’re shown is a woman who knows how to manipulate men for her own ends. It also appears that Pris is in a monogamous relationship with Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) – another contrary element of the prostitute archetype. Pris isn’t the stereotypical sex-worker; she possesses a depth beyond her physical appearance or initial characterisation. In direct contrast then, Mariette is just a prostitute. Mackenzie Davis’ character has no other definable qualities – she exists solely to be desired, leered at or fucked. This goes way beyond mere implication, when her only actions on screen are limited to just solicitation. This is shown through the character’s actions, the script, and later, in a nauseating ménage à trois with Joi and K.
Blade Runner 2049 repeatedly tells us and reinforces the idea that the primary currency that women possess is their sexuality.
Aside from the mystery at the heart of Blade Runner 2049, the film’s main antagonist is Luv. Luv is a replicant modelled on the T-1000 but with a ton of pent-up emotion. She might not be tied to the kitchen sink, but her existence is still one of servitude. She might be able to unleash her own remote-missile strike – while getting her nails done – but she’s still acting on the behalf of her master, relentlessly carrying out the will of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). She’s a tool, an accessory – henchwoman 2.0.
But, it isn’t enough for Villeneuve to just roll out these tired, lazy and chauvinistic stereotypes. While all the male protagonists make it through the film unscathed, all the film’s female characters are murdered. All of them. Male characters do die on screen – although obviously not the protagonists – but the camera doesn’t linger on them as they desperately struggle to take their final breath. The only central female character to make it through the film is the heavily infantilised offspring of Rachael and Deckard, Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri). Ana is essentially kept locked away in a goldfish bowl, dreaming of better days. Women are permitted to dream in this world, but they’re not allowed control of their destiny, they aren’t allowed true agency.
Even a CGI cameo from Sean Young’s Rachael can’t escape death (for a second time) and it’s another bloody, fetishised death – the kind that is reserved strictly for female characters.
One of the most frustrating things about Blade Runner 2049 is that other than a few questioning voices, the critical reception of this film has largely been open-mouthed awe. The majority of those reviewing it skipped any criticism of its latent sexism. The ignorant might suggest that that’s because it isn’t there or that the writers who did raise the issue were over-emphasising it to serve their own agendas. If that were the case, that the sexism and misogyny presented in Blade Runner 2049 solely exist because of the dystopian future, then there should have been some form of criticism of that culture within the film itself. That would have alerted the viewer that the filmmakers were aware of this negative trope, and that they weren’t just further perpetuating this misogynistic view. All they needed was one well-written, fully developed female character with multiple layers. That doesn’t occur. Instead, all we got was archetypes, needless nudity and fetishised deaths.
Maybe the reason why this has gone unquestioned by critics is because the sexism at the heart of this film is the world we inhabit. They haven’t questioned it because the roles outlined and how the female characters are shot conform to our society’s implicit expectations (to a certain degree).
When a male character is graphically stamping on a woman’s face, it is easy to be repulsed and question the film’s politics. Aronofsky’s mother! (Aronofsky, 2017) did just that and it was criticised accordingly. However, when a film presents a view that aligns with the expectations of our society – but is still inherently sexist – it often goes unquestioned or critiqued. Our society is complicit with the objectification and violence that is committed against women, so why would film critics – the majority of which are male – choose to identify and criticise an element that reflects the status quo they accept?
Some will argue that this is a case of art imitating life, but how will things ever change if we don’t dare to dream a little bigger? If we can envisage a world where Pan Am and Atari are still successful multi-national businesses, why can’t we have female characters with the same depth, emotion and control over their lives as their male counterparts?
Representation matters, and cinema deserved better from Villeneuve, particularly after his last two films had such well-written, three-dimensional female characters.
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Instead we were treated to another futuristic world where women are subjugated. The film might have its positive qualities, indeed it does, but it’s a travesty that critics and audiences alike chose to completely overlook the misogyny at the core of Blade Runner 2049.
The point to all of this is that women need to be portrayed in a more balanced light. The characters shown onscreen need to reflect actual women; i.e. characters with depth, a mixture of emotions (not related to men), agency over their own lives, and a backstory that doesn’t rely upon tired, out-dated clichés. Female characters need proper representation. They shouldn’t just be the ‘ideal’ according to a white fifty-year-old dude or the male, twenty-to-thirty year-old cinema-going public. Women are not one-dimensional beings and this should be reflected in the characters that we see in cinema. We need equality, in our cinema and in our society.
It says nothing positive about men or our society when a President can make lewd comments about grabbing a woman by the “pussy”, or when movie producers like Harvey Weinstein can abuse their position of power. All of this is intertwined with the patriarchy and the entitlement that men feel they have over their employees, colleagues or strangers but specifically women. Men act in the way – as the aforementioned did – because such actions have been implicitly condoned, swept under the carpet or explained away for decades. You might still just think that this writer is picking on Blade Runner 2049 but misogyny, sexism and the patriarchy need to be challenged, and fought wherever they are found, otherwise nothing will ever change. Films like Blade Runner 2049 reinforce negative stereotypes and position women as second-class citizens. It is that simple.
Cinema deserves better but more importantly, women and our society deserve better.