Like the work of David Foster Wallace and the film Pulp Fiction, the Blade Runner franchise is something that a woman engaged in film and literature is almost guaranteed to have a man ask her about at some point in her life. It’s a favourite of male cinematics and it was no surprise that when Blade Runner 2049 hit the theatres, the demographics skewed decidedly . It was a bit surprising for me then, to discover a number of feminist elements to the film, despite immediate reactions towards how women in the film are portrayed.
When I first watched the 2049 in theatres, I was definitely uncertain about the representation of women. The film has many scenes with naked women as decoration, and also definitely displays the mistreatment of female characters. We’ve all seen sci-fi films featuring scantily clad women as set decoration, and it’s hard to not see that as an offensive representation. However, a woman’s body should not in itself be cause for offence. The director of 20 , Denis Villeneuve, claims that “Blade Runner is not about tomorrow; it’s about today. And I’m sorry, but the world is not kind to women.”
After going home, considering heavily all that I had seen, and poking through articles and tweets from women and men that exposed 2049 for its misogyny, I actually came to a different conclusion. Blade Runner 2049 is a lesson in feminism. And if that decidedly male audience is truly paying attention, they’d come away with distinctly feminist takes on male ego, the patriarchy, and the agency of female sexuality.
To start off, there’s a pivotal part in the film where K realizes he is not the child of a replicant. This is after a long period of the plot where he thinks that he is, even grows comfortable with this idea that he is this special person, but at the end we find him lying in the snow, on the steps, settled into the realization that he is not and embracing death. The child of the replicant turns out to be a woman. Ana, the dream maker. She is Rachel and Deckard’s daughter, and as far as we can see, she is indifferent towards this identifier.
During the lead up to this moment, it’s not that difficult to predict that K isn’t the one. The audience, for the most part, sees it. But K doesn’t see it. K wants to be special. It’s a distinctly Blade Runner-like move for the film to make this shift. In another pop sci-fi film, we might watch a male lead be labeled as “special” and follow through with that perception of him without question. Luke Skywalker is the hero. While Leah plays her part, there’s no moment in those classic films that you expect her to jump up and defeat Vader, who is also her father. That’s Luke’s destiny to fulfill.
2049’s twist on this expectation is brilliant in that it’s deceptively not unexpected. We’ve watched decades of male leads as heroes, and have grown to expect this, but here 2049 takes a shift away from this so easily and slyly as if to say “well of course, why would you think otherwise.” The man thinks he is the hero because ingrained masculinity expects him to be so. His ego makes the mistake.
Then, of course, there’s Wallace. A power hungry, cruel, and patriarchal male villain and CEO of the replicant manufacturing company. Wallace represents everything that is wrong with the patriarchy. Power used against the powerless, in shockingly cruel ways. The film as a whole shows a distinctly anti-patriarchy stance, and it’s not just because Wallace is a clear villain.
When K encounters a group of revolutionaries who know about the replicant child, they clearly explain that they are not looking to raise this person up as a leader. The Blade Runner universe is deeply patriarchal, and this group opposes that world. Even a leader who is a woman can take on a patriarchal role. Bell Hooks taught us that long ago. “A female who remains wedded to sexist thinking and behavior infiltrating feminist movement is a dangerous threat” (Feminism is for Everybody) and that’s a lesson that 2049 now shares with a male audience here. Feminism is about equality and the end of power being used against the powerless. Not replacing cruel male leaders with cruel female ones.
Ana is not power-hungry. She is not looking to spearhead the revolution and create a new patriarchy. She is acknowledged as having importance by those who are looking to end the patriarchy, but they also don’t want to raise her up. She goes quietly about her job despite who she is, unlike K, who throws his life apart in order to understand what his potential “specialness” means.
This topic of power figures brings us to the power dynamics of sex in 2049. K’s boss, Lieutenant Joshi, is relatively warm towards K, considering he is a replicant and also considering that he quite seriously breaks the rules. In one scene, Joshi is drinking and asks K some questions. Even prepositions them as “orders.” She asks him to tell her about his memories and he does. Joshi is clearly sexually interested in K in this scene and goes so far as to show K that she can order him to do whatever she wants and he will have to obey. But she doesn’t push that power. That would be cruel. It would be patriarchal. Joshi has power and shows how that power can be controlled. A stark contrast against the havoc-wreaking and thoughtless power of Wallace. Though, we Her choice not to is the film saying that this would be a wrong. It would be a villainous act.
Then there’s Joi, K’s love interest who is also a holographic AI. At first, she can’t even leave K’s home, as her base unit is attached to it. But K loves Joi so he acquires a tool that allows him to carry her with him outside. The question of the authenticity of K and Joi’s love could be interpreted on the level of “what is real when it comes to replicants?” And that expectation is where 2049 once again surprises us. A replicant loving an AI is one thing, but what does it mean when the hologram has almost more agency than the replicant? When the manufactured female love bot pursues her own sexual desires?
Joi has agency because she pursues options without even really knowing (and possibly caring) if it’s what K wants. Does K want to have sex with Joi while she embodies the physical body of another woman? It’s not really clear. The only person who makes a solid move in this direction, and does make it happen, is Joi.
Careful watching will even reveal that Joi listens to K’s conversations with women when she is hidden away in the mobile emitter. Is this because she’s jealous or is it a power move? She gains information about K by doing this without him knowing that she is gaining it. It’s how she knows which woman to pick out for her physical stand-in. Someone K is interested in but not too interested in. No one to whom he has emotional attachment.
Joi calls K “Joe,” an affectionate name that we take as developing out of their intimacy. Near the end of the film, there’s an important scene where K is wandering across a bridge in a state of depression upon the realization that he is a nobody. Everything he has done to alter his life in recent events was for nothing. He’s even lost Joi, whose mobile emitter is destroyed by Luv (a female replicant employed by Wallace). While on his stroll, K comes across an enormous female hologram with blue hair. An advertisement version of the Joi hologram. She talks to K, tries to provoke his interest. She says to K: “you look like a good Joe” and we realize that Joi’s pet name was not affectionate, but manufactured. Does this mean their love was not genuine, but manufactured? This is a possibility that K must now face, alone. That Joi manipulated him for her own needs.
This brings a feminist spin into the classic Blade Runner question: do androids dream of electric sheep, or, do sex bots pursue their own sexual desires? It remains an open question.
2049 approaches female desire without fear. It is the looming holographic woman, standing enormous over K. She is looking for him, not hiding her desire. Not coerced into affection after repeated nos. She does it for herself.
by Angela Caravan
Angela Caravan has a degree in English and Publishing, which she makes use of for a day job in arts marketing and for evenings writing poetry and fiction. She lives with a boy and a man and sometimes has trouble telling the difference between the two. A few of her favourite films are Kiss Me Deadly, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Find her on Twitter at @a_caravan.
Categories: Feminist Criticism