Illustration by Juliet Halasz
Science fiction’s representation of women has frequently been the subject of scrutiny and criticism. In a recent article for Little White Lies magazine, Katie Goh notice that science fiction’s female characters fall into two main categories. They are depicted as either the ‘strong female characters’, such as Sarah Connor or Dana Scully, or ‘naïve ingénues’ with the bodies of sexy adult women. The critically praised Blade Runner 2049 does not escape these dichotomies. Many reviews notice that the film reduces women to tired archetypes, with female characters occupying limited roles treated mostly as objects of the male gaze, placed into roles of servitude. This applies no less to characters who aren’t even real women. These women are either evil, sex workers or simply naked.
Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), K’s boss, doesn’t get enough screen time before her death. Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) is devoted to her sinister male boss Wallace (Jared Leto). Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) is a sex worker who shows great potential to become the ‘strong female character,’ but only until we realise that she is little more than a minor piece in a much bigger game - Mariette also participates a bizarre threesome with Joi in the modes of Her, but while in Her the threesome fails by Theodore’s (Joaquin Phoenix) ethics, in Blade Runner it goes for longer than seems necessary. In addition, sexualised images of women are everywhere in these futuristic scenarios, from electronic avatars to giant statues of naked women. One argument that many reviewers used is that the film’s sexism is a projection of a pessimistic dystopia where the sex dolls of today are the hyper-realistic sex robots of tomorrow.
Additionally, Helen Lewis notes in her review for The New Statesman that the film can be seen as a feminist allegory for ‘labour under capitalism,’ arguing that humans project their own humanity - and, consequently, their own gender roles - when building robots: ‘The men were killers, miners, manual labourers, soldiers. The women were for recreation.’ And the allegory works if we think that, in the future depicted in the film, women have been reduced to their reproductive abilities. In this manner, Blade Runner 2049 carries a resemblance to the recent television adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet, while The Handmaid’s Tale is focused on women’s experiences, Blade Runner 2049 focuses on those of K (Ryan Gosling) - a heterosexual white male.
K himself is not into real girls, owning instead a holographic girlfriend called Joi (Ana de Armas) who is programmed to take on the role of the stereotypical housewife (therapist, sex companion and domestic servant). When we are first introduced to her in K’s apartment, Joi brings K his dinner; “hard day, honey?” Joi is programmed to support and entertain without asking for anything in return. She can change costume and character as she likes - or as K likes, since his happiness is the reason for her existence. She evens consider herself a “real girl” once K places her into a holographic project which enables her to exist outside of K’s apartment.
But, even though she is not confined to the home anymore, Joi still can only leave the house in K’s pocket - like his cellphone or his car keys. Despite K and Joi’s relationship being depicted as a love story, Joi is actually K’s property, created and purchased to be his love interest. That being the case, to what extent could we consider this owner/property relationship consensual? As Katie Goh argues, “Joi is not a real girl. At best, she’s a sexual fantasy; at worst, she’s a smashed iPhone that K failed to back up on the Cloud.”
Blade Runner 2049 honours the science fiction tradition of depicting fantasies of female servitude, indicating that, for all our technological advances and concerns about artificial intelligence, when it comes to female representation on film and television, we continue to adhere to standards that perpetuate outdated gender roles.