8 Ways Bladerunner 2049 Is Not Sexist – SPOILERS

 

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. As well as exploring issues of humankind’s reliance on technology, the theme that was the most prevalent was that of the male gender’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. In fact, Ryan Gosling’s K/Joe spends the entire film being both manipulated by women who are both more powerful and intellectually superior to him. There are many reasons why this film can arguably be read as feminist. Here are 8 of them:

SPOILER ALERT

  1. K’s boss is a woman. He does everything she tells him without question. He even kills his own kind (he is a replicant) 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.
  2. 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 the results of a new recipe that she has made for dinner. This era is 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 Rather, it places K in the role of a man who has created an outdated fantasy for himself and refuses to see reality.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. 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.
  3. 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 meaning 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 with the synced up hooker is also not what it appears to be. She doesn’t really like him. It is merely a ruse to lead him to the rebels, who are…surprise…led by a woman.
  4. 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…another surprise…a woman.
  5. 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 untruthfully) with tears in her eyes that ‘’these things are true.’’ K (and the audience) read her tears as sympathetic to K’s difficult childhood. Later, it turns out that they were HER traumatic memories. 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 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 Joi, 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. He is little more than a puppet.
  6. The use of Las Vegas as an outdated, dead city as a backdrop. 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.
  7. 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’s bodies 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. x Even so, it is Luv who at the end of the film, 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. She is the ultimate traitor.
  8. 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 so 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. I would encourage the younger generation, to look for meaning in these images as they are presented within the narrative in relation to the characters and their actions.  History will be kind to this film. There is more going on here than meets the eye.

George A. Romero’s Feminist Themes

Yesterday, we lost the most influential filmmaker to the horror genre in generations. George A. Romero was single-handedly responsible for creating the zombie sub-genre with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. Known more for his themes of anti-consumerism, he also wove threads of the changing roles of women in society throughout the narratives of many of his films. On first glance, one might say that Night is outright sexist in its representation of women. I used to think this way. The adult female characters in are all ineffectual. Barbara is comatose from having witnessed her brother’s death, Helen Cooper speaks her mind but never really does anything and is constantly overshadowed by her loud-mouthed husband Harry. Worst of all, we have Judy who stupidly follows the lead of her boyfriend Tom all the way to her death.

But there is one more female that must not be overlooked. Karen Cooper, the feverish little girl who was bitten by a zombie prior to the start of the film. She is the future. It is surely no coincidence that she utterly destroyers the previous generation, stabbing and consuming them. Karen generates the biggest impact (and the biggest scare) of the entire film. Even today, with more almost 50 years of gore in its wake, the garden trowel scene loses no impact. Drawing a parallel with societal change, the scene is violent, painful and leaves the viewer shocked and slightly sad.

For the next 2 decades, Romero’s subsequent films consistently featured stories concerned with the role of women in society as perceived by both themselves as well as the men around them.

Season of the Witch (1971), which was originally titled Jack’s Wife, is not a horror film, although it does contain the plot device of witchcraft. Produced in 1971 Witch is very much a reflection of the period when feminism and the Women’s Liberation movement were gaining traction in America. The lead character of Joan (Jan White, who coincidentally shares her name with a very real famous witch) is very much “a product of traditional patriarchy who seeks individualism and freedom from oppressive conformity” (Wilson).

The first scene in the film is a dream sequence in which Joan follows her husband Jack (Bill Thunhurst) through the woods obediently. He ignores her and allows the branches he is parting to whip back and scratch her face as he passes through. Further on, Joan sees an image of herself swinging happily on a tree-swing dressed completely in symbolic white. Before Joan can reach out to her own self- image and grab happiness, Jack reaches into the frame, attaches a collar to her neck, and leads her around on a leash for the remainder of the scene. It ends with Joan receiving a smack on the nose with a rolled newspaper and left alone in a kennel while Jack is away. In match-cut that retains Joan’s seated position in the cage, she is suddenly sitting in her home, creating the visual association that Joan’s home is like a cage.

Joan is led around by a realtor, who describes her life to her as if it were everything anyone could ever want. The house is nice and up to date for the time period. Her kitchen has all the best appliances and her closet has “all the latest styles” but the dream turns into a nightmare when Joan once again encounters her doppelganger. Instead of being happy as she was on the swing, this time she is an old hag who has wasted her life being “Jack’s wife.” When Joan awakens in her bedroom, reality and the nightmare are the same. Reflecting Romero’s typical anti-consumerist stance, a seemingly deal socio-economic situation is actually a slow death for Joan where she will grow old and die lest she break out of her role as a financially dependent wife and mother and declare her independence.

Mirrors feature prominently within the overall mise-en-scene and help to illustrate the shallowness of Joan’s attempt at an internal transformation via external sources. There are many shots of Joan inspecting her face and other parts of her body as well as applying make-up to help turn back the clock. Beauty is only skin deep and therefore not very different from the labels that society places on women. To truly change and become happy, Joan will have to reject her social conditioning, and embrace an ideology more progressive for the time period.

Following a visit with her friend to a local self-proclaimed witch for a Tarot card reading, Joan is intrigued and immediately converts from Catholicism to Magick. She embarks on an affair with a younger man and eventually kills her abusive husband “accidentally” as she believed him to a be a prowler.

The dog imagery at the open of the film comes full circle to the end where she is tied up with a collar during her initiation rights into the local Coven. She is now making her own decision to be objectified, even if she is not consciously aware of it. True change was difficult for women in that time, even for those who desired it. Perhaps Romero is saying that changing our ideology does not make us any less a slave to it.

By 1978, Dawn of the Dead’s Fran (Gaylen Ross) has a career, speaks her mind, learns to shoot a rifle and becomes a helicopter pilot.  All despite being pregnant. She is smart and quickly adapts to the new reality of the zombie apocalypse, even when her macho male counterparts suffer from battle fatigue. In 1985’s Day of the Dead, we have a lead zombie-fighting, gun-toting scientist named Sarah (Lori Cardille), who was perhaps the most badass of all his female characters. It’s her movie and she carries it well.

1980’s Knightridgers gave us Romero’s most richly diverse cast of females. The film deals with highly principled motorcycle enthusiast Billy Davis (Ed Harris) who wishes to live outside the confines of an increasingly shallow and materialistic society. To accomplish this, he creates his own private Camelot in the form of a self-sufficient medieval style nomadic commune where the members move from town to town putting on motorcycle jousting shows for the local citizenry.

The group includes artistic misfits from just about every walk of life. There are bi-racial couples, homosexuals, doctors, entertainers and craftspeople, who have made a “conscious adult decision” to live under low-income conditions in exchange for the ability to live as they wish outside the stifling conventions of “normal” society.

The women inside the group are portrayed as strong and independent. At first, bike mechanic Angie (Christine Romero), puts up with a lot. She is constantly cheated on by her boyfriend Morgan (Tom Savini). Once she realizes her value as a human being at the behest of her gay friend Pip (Warner Shook), she speaks her mind freely and confronts Morgan telling him that although there is no one else she is interested in courting at the moment, “someday there will be.” Additionally, the lesbian character of Rocky, quickly identifies as one of the best bikers in the group.

Conversely, life on the outside in the straight world is portrayed as lonely and shallow for women. Julie Dean (Patricia Tallman) is a bubble-headed sweet teenager who runs away from her abusive home to join the group and embark on a whirlwind romance with Billy’s favorite knight Alan (Gary Lahti). The girl’s father is portrayed as an oafish drunkard who beats his wife, Helen (Iva Jean Saraceni) regularly. In the best shot in the film, we see Helen crying in her kitchen, dwarfed by large, neutral colored empty walls.

After realizing Julie is too young for him, Alan brings Julie home and leaves her crying on the curb in front of her house. When the light in the front room turns on, Julie raises her head with an expression of abject fear. Her father will beat her for running away. Rather than give the audience resolution on the matter, we never see this character again. It is an editorial choice that resigns the audience to the depressing fact that things like this happen all the time. Knights in shining armor aren’t real and sometimes, men just suck.

Although his output dwindled in quality over the last decade, George A. Romero will always remain a legend for creating the flesh-eating living dead sub-genre. I’d like to remember him as a feminist as well.

 

Works Cited

Belton, John. American Cinema American Culture. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2009.

Dawn Of The Dead. Dir. George A. Romero. Perf. Gaylen Ross, Ken Foree, Scott             Reiniger and David Emge. Laurel Entertainment, 1978.

Gagne, Paul R. The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh: The Films of George A. Romero.

New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1987.

Knightriders. Dir. George A. Romero. Perf. Ed Harris, Tom Savini, Christine Forrest and Patricia Tallman. Laurel Entertainment, 1980.

Nemiroff, Perry. “Interview: Survival Of The Dead Writer-Director George A. Romero.”

Cinemablend.com. May, 2010. < http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Interview-Survival-   Of-The-Dead-Writer-Director-George-A-Romero-18735.html

Season Of The Witch. Dir. George A. Romero. Perf. Jan White, Bill Thunhurst and Ray Laine.     The Latent Image Group, 1971.

Williams, Tony. The Cinema of George A. Romero: Knight Of The Living Dead.

Great Britain: Wallflower Press, 2003.

Wilson, Brian. “George A. Romero.” Senses of Cinema. November, 2006.

< http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/07/romero.html#biblio