The Dubious Portrayal of Women in ‘Blade Runner 2049’
Is it possible to criticise social and political discourses through media, whilst simultaneously displaying them in said media?
This is a question that comes to mind when watching Blade Runner 2049. This Denis Villeneuve film attempts to offer a social commentary on issues such as sexism, sexualisation and racism by displaying them within a dystopian setting. But are the film’s critiques successful when they are presented to the audience with only subtext serving to criticise the issues? This problem is evident in the treatment of women in Blade Runner 2049.
In the film, nude female bodies are everywhere, in the form
of advertisements, prostitutes, huge statues in suggestive positions, newly
born androids and more. In a scene that makes this exhibitionism most apparent,
a giant, pink, nude projection of Ana De Armas’s character, Joi, walks out of
an advertisement, and seductively coos to Ryan Gosling’s K, flaunting her bare
breasts, legs, and backside. What is the intention behind this scene? Are we
supposed to look at this huge, naked female body and think about the
implications of sexually objectifying women? Or are we supposed to ogle her?
Who is the target audience, and what is the intended reaction? The answer sadly
The women of Blade Runner 2049 are treated dubiously. As
well as often being subject to sexualisation, their purpose is usually linked
to men, and they are all killed unfairly.
Joi is an AI, a hologram made for the pleasure of the
consumer – who in this case is K. In this way, she is a literal
commodification. Joi is his perfectly designed girlfriend. She is able to
change her outfit at will to suit him, and she can appear and disappear as he
sees fit. When he wants her, he can summon her with a device. She has no
external purpose. Is this intended to be a critique of the traditional gender
roles that tie women to men and domesticity? Or is the fact that Joi has been
created to fit into these traditional gender roles too problematic to be
considered a critique? Regardless, she is killed as another female character
stomps on the very device K stores her consciousness on, and her last words are
“I love y-” Her life revolves around K, even at the point of death.
Similarly, Luv works for Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace. Her
every action is tied to him, and to serving him. Her character is exciting in
her ruthlessness, but she doesn’t act out of her own desires. She is, brutally,
simultaneously drowned and choked by K. She is a worthy opponent, but is beaten
and subjugated, forced underneath a man, where she “belongs.”
Lieutenant Joshi is fantastic as K’s boss, but still has her
pitfalls. She has agency, yes, but she is underused. It is also hinted that she
is attracted to K. In this way, she is also tied to men. Not all female
character’s narratives have to be linked to men! Continuing the murder of the
female characters in this film, Joshi is killed by Luv, her corpse gruesomely
thrown around by the latter. This brings to mind the Bechdel test, a feminist
idea that measures the representation of women. It requires that a film to have two female characters who
converse about something other than men. Perhaps this scene fulfils this
requirement But the act of a woman killing another woman does not speak of
Mariette is a sex worker, used by K as a puppet to make
sleeping with his hologram girlfriend physically possible. He cannot touch Joi
until she is merged with Mariette. Although she has a more lively and
individual personality than most of the female characters, she is still used by
men, and there is not much more to her character besides her link to K.
Then there is Ana, Deckard and Rachel’s impossible child.
She is perhaps the only speaking female character who is not sexualised; she is
a creator of memories, the best in her field, and she does it fully covered.
Not that there is anything wrong with women showing skin; however, it should be
her choice. Ana’s character certainly stands out. But, yet again, she is tied
to Deckard, another male character.
Finally, Rachel, Sean Young’s character in the
original Blade Runner, is re-created for Deckard. She is promptly killed when
Deckard deems her to not be accurate to the real Rachel. None of the women in
Blade Runner 2049 exist solely for themselves.
From one perspective, the world of Blade Runner 2049 is a
dystopian one; a critique of artifice, racism, and environmental disregard. The
endless, fluorescent advertisements. Anti-robot terms like “skinner” and
“skin-job” that are thrown towards K in a metaphor for modern racism. The
dangerous smoggy atmosphere. All of these elements of the film take today’s
issues and exaggerate them, projecting what global warming and materialism may
evolve into in 30 years time.
The same could be
said about the blatant objectification and sexism present in the film Perhaps
in the future, literal products like Joi could become a reality. So, perhaps
the questionable displays of the women in this film are simple parodies of the
way we treat women today.
But you can’t fight fire with fire; similarly, you can’t
combat sexism with the display of sexism.
Blade Runner 2049 is a big step up from the original Blade
Runner’s questionable depiction of women, with the most notorious example being
the sexual assault scene. Deckard forces himself onto Rachel, using violence
and force when she tries to leave. He forces her to give him consent to kiss
her, even when she expresses her disinterest through her cold body language. It
is a highly uncomfortable moment, yet disturbingly framed as romantic via the
soft score. By comparison, the sexist portrayal of women in Blade Runner 2049
is highly progressive.
So, commenting on the sexualisation and objectification of
women by sexualising and objectifying the women on screen is effective in a
way. However, on the surface, it is still sexualisation and objectification. Do
you really expect the casual viewer to look past the surface level of visual pleasure?
Once you apply a critical lens, Blade Runner 2049’s
commentary on the treatment of women is relevant and effective. But on the
surface, it simply subjects women to more of the sexualisation that they have
suffered historically in cinema and in society.