The best science fiction literature and films deal with modern cultural and societal issues. They frequently do so set against the backdrop of a distant technologically superior albeit dystopian future. Bladerunner 2049 succeeds in this respect. For instance, it explores issues of humankind’s reliance on technology. But, the theme that was the most prevalent was that of man’s diminishing role in the new world and the emerging importance of the female. Much has been written over the generational gap of understanding of the film. Several reviews have noted that demographically, only people over 40 were interested in seeing the film to begin with and those younger people who did go to see it, decried the film for being sexist. Yes, there is female nudity and representations of male-created ideals of femininity. Yes, there is violence perpetrated against females. But this shallow criticism shows a lack of ability to read beyond the surface images and apply meaning to them within the narrative of the story. True to my over-40 status, I’m going to go ahead and say that these people apparently did not watch the same film that I did. In fact, Ryan Gosling’s K/Joe spends the entire film being both manipulated by women who are both more powerful and smarter than him. There are many reasons why this film can arguably be read as feminist. Here are 8 of them:
- K’s boss is a woman. He does everything she tells him without question. He even kills his own kind because it is what he believes he was made to do. A belief she reinforces regularly. He does not question her, even when he is questioning his own identity. It is implied several times that he is a ‘’good boy’’ placing him in an inferior position.
- K has a virtual holographic girlfriend. Joi is young and beautiful. The first time we see her, she is dressed in typical 1950s housewife attire fretting about her recipe that she has made for dinner. Considered by many American males as being the ‘’good old days’’ when women knew their place. The fact that she is entirely a creation of K’s fantasy version of a perfect woman is not meant to be ironic or demeaning and it is far from sexist. Rather, it places K in the role of a man who has created a fantasy for himself and refuses to see reality. It makes him seem ridiculously old-fashioned. It is even explicitly said at one point that he ‘’doesn’t like real girls’’ and that Joi is nothing more than a product manufactured for his shallow needs. She holds no relation to anything close to a real woman. She feeds his ego over and over and it is though her suggestions that K ultimately comes to believe that he is the first replicant child born naturally. In other words, it is because of her that he believes he is special through a majority of the film. When she gives him a human name, she calls him ‘’Joe.’’ Because he’s just an average Joe. This is true in every way possible.
- K is led to the group of rebels by a female prostitute with the aid of Joi. In other words, a female who is seemingly exploited every single day, uses the manufactured image of ‘’Joi’’ (the male’s ideal girl) to get what she wants from him. She exploits his need to fulfill his sexual fantasies by ‘’syncing’’ up with Joi. Here the word ‘’syncing’’ takes on a possible double meaning. One is technological, combining the virtual and the real. The second, conceivably comically refers to the long-held common male-originated myth that women who reside together can ‘’sync up their menstrual cycles.’’ Like this myth, K’s sexual experience is also not what it appears to be, as it is merely a ruse to lead him to the rebels, who are…surprise…led by a woman.
- The leader of said rebels informs K that no, he is not the special child. It’s a lie whose idea was planted by a fake woman and reinforced by the actual special child, who is…surprise…a woman.
- When he visits this woman, Dr. Ana Stelline, he finds her to be a memory maker. In other words, she creates the identities of and is therefore responsible for the psychological make-up of every single replicant on the planet. She is a creator. When K asks her if his traumatic childhood memories are real, she answers vaguely (but not untruthful) with tears in her eyes that ‘’these things are true.’’ K (and the audience) read her tears as sympathetic to K’s difficult childhood. Instead, it turns out that they are HER traumatic memories all along. She was crying because of her own trauma and K was so wrapped up into his own need to feel special that he (and we) completely misread her emotions and her response. Despite her having a compromised immune system, she is emotionally and technologically superior to every human on earth as she is the first of her kind. She cannot be touched, hugged or physically exploited as she lives in a hermetically sealed bubble. She is untouchable. She is the special person and the one who will bring revolution. The future does not, therefore lie in the hands of the average Joe because he is little more than a slave to his own antiquated ideals. At the end of the film, when confronted with a giant nude, over-sexualized holographic image of a seductive woman, K comes to the realisation that his entire purpose, unbeknownst to him up until that point, was to fulfil the mission of the replicant rebellion led by a females. The memories that he thought were real, were actually those implanted by the true miracle, who is female.
- The use of Las Vegas as an outdated, dead city, which K enters flanked by large dominating statues of female figures. He is small within the frame and they look as though they are going to eat him. Once inside the city, we are bombarded with images of old -school masculinity. There are holographic showgirls, and Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley sing the songs that gave them their reputations in their time, of being ‘’man’s men.’’ Even Deckard, who, in the first film was at his peak in terms of stereotypical maleness, limps along slowly and is flanked by a lame old dog. It is obvious that their time is over. The entire city is covered in a layer of sand and dust waiting for the last winds of change to cover it over forever, with only the women at the entrance remaining.
- Corporate magnate Wallace is a blind man who both physically resembles and speaks like a religious prophet. The first thing we see him do is to create a woman replicant. When he discovers that she is incapable of breeding, he destroys her by stabbing her in the reproductive organs. The film then immediately cuts to the reaction of his female replicant assistant, the very strong, but mercenary Luv. She sheds a single silent tear. Wallace represents every old-school man that clings to religion and wealth and attempts to exert control over womankind in 2017. Luv’s tear can be read both as sadness from seeing a fellow replicant cut down but also as sadness for having participated in the cutting down of a fellow female literally at the start of her existence. It is never made clear whether she may also feel sadness for being a traitor to her own kind, which she most definitely is. Even so, it is Luv who at the end of the film, who obliterates the old male ideals of the feminine when she literally stamps out the existence of Joi by stepping on K’s emulator where she is stored.
- When Wallace meets with Deckard, he makes it perfectly clear that Deckard’s falling in love with Rachel in the first film was entirely outside the realm of his own agency. Whether possible because he was programmed to do as a replicant (which is highly hinted at in the Director’s cut of the original film) or simply because he is a human male is irrelevant. Deckard was simply the sperm donor falling prey to his own idealized view of women. It was Rachel who was more important as she would would give birth to the child who will bring revolution in a chapter as yet unwritten in the Bladerunner universe.
Visually, Bladerunner 2049 is stunning. Those striking visuals include both nude and scantily clad female figures. But this does not automatically signal sexism. Rather, I would encourage the younger generation, to look for meaning in these images as they are presented within the narrative in relation to the male characters and their actions. There is more going on here than meets the eye and I have no doubt that like its predecessor, this film will be analyzed in classrooms by future students of film and media. In my opinion, history will be kind.