*Note: this is an analysis, not a review. I spoil everything.
One of the earliest arguments to originate from the Mediterranean basin is the male/female dialectic of the woman providing the flesh and blood of humanity, the man the soul. Espoused by Greek philosophers, eventually translated into Jewish and then Christian doctrine, this element of the woman as the conveying vessel for humanity – evident even in the concept of the Virgin Birth – has had the effect of reducing women to the corporeal, of making the importance of women existent only in their ability to bear children. A barren woman is a hollow husk, devoid of her most basic function, while a fertile woman is reduced only to the function. This simultaneous valorization and dehumanization of motherhood has informed Western thought and art for centuries, so it’s hardly surprising that a contemporary film should enthusiastically reflect the same dialectic.
Blade Runner 2049 makes use of this dialectic in rendering women the conveying vessels of the humanity of replicants. But female bodies are more than just baby-machines – in Blade Runner 2049, they are also the repositories of male desire, sexual, religious, cultural, and social. The film indulges in the fragmentation and destruction of female bodies without bothering – or apparently desiring – to restore them. Women are robots, holograms, and advertisements; the only human female, Madam, is deliberately de-sexualized, her humanity reliant on her lack of (visual) femininity that also makes her easy to eliminate. In the commodification of the female form and image, there is hope for subversion, a questioning of the patriarchal superstructure that forces women into the “hollow vessel” role. Perhaps the film is setting up a vision of a world in which that commodification becomes the source of rebellion?
Perhaps not. The women of Blade Runner 2049 continue to be (at times literally) pulled apart, their bodies the repository of male desire with no hint of human autonomy – or soul. This is not merely a result of the actions of the male characters, but of the camera eye itself, which consumes women and fragments them, emphasizing their physicality and discardability. When the new designer of replicants Wallace witnesses the “birth” of a new replicant, he bends to caress her, the camera tracking his movements as he strokes the naked body of the young woman. The woman stands, shivering, and the camera eye itself focalizes through Wallace, sweeping up her body, dwelling on the curves of her ass, her stomach, and her breasts. Finally, Wallace stabs her and blood pours down her thighs – a visual reference to both menstruation and miscarriage, created by the male villain. But because the camera has taken Wallace’s perspective, and participated in the sexualization of the newly born replicant, any deliberate subversion is undercut by its evident participation in the replicant’s violation. The violation of the female body is made to seem horrific, but it is still the violation of a symbol, a symbolic rape and dissection that renders the existence of female humanity itself moot. Wallace caresses and then punishes the female body, and the camera participates in that punishment.
Wallace is the villain, and so his efforts at dehumanizing his creations might very well be indicative of his villainy. The same cannot be said for the film’s protagonist K, a replicant police officer in the mold of the original film’s hero Deckard. K might be a replicant existing within the system, and so absorbs all the system’s beliefs. But the film never provides him the opportunity to break free of those beliefs, instead attempting to provide him with a “love interest” in the form of a hologram program named Joi. At no point does he truly break free of that system or question the role of women – or female figures – within it. Joi is something that he has purchased and that he wishes to make “more human.” She eventually inhabits the physical body of a prostitute Mariette – herself a replicant – to provide the physical connection that K desires. But the film never makes it clear if Joi herself needs or wants that physical connection, because her programming means that she only acts on K’s desires. Joi is missing a part of herself – she is only an image, a thing that K can modify (literally upgrade) according to his needs, whims, and desires. Her personhood does not exist because it cannot; she can only ever be “half” a human being, the other half – the all-important physical body – provided by a woman who sells herself.
The frank attempt at eroticizing this scene, at stating that this is something that Joi wants, falls flat in the images we have of K modifying and altering Joi as he sees fit, in order to provide for himself that emotional and, eventually, physical catharsis. Joi cannot give consent any more than the prostitute can, because she has no external will – it is only K’s will, and Joi can only, at best, act as a symbolic repository for his desire. Her value is physical – any emotional or psychological connection the two share is treated as secondary. Her “gift” to him is to try to inhabit the physical body of Mariette, and it is a gift that he accepts, largely as his due. The film figures Joi as not being enough for K until she becomes physical – another devaluation of female existence down to the simple fact of the physical body.
Again, this division of the image and the corporeal might have provided sexual and gender dynamic commentary, but Joi once again is forced to occupy a symbolic space. Her union with Mariette is about providing K with a connection to his humanness, the sex act establishing him as more human than robot. While some emphasis is given to their emotional connection, the relationship between K and Joi is not really codified until Joi becomes momentarily corporeal. Her existence as a female image with artificial intelligence is not enough – there must be a female body for K to sleep with. Afterwards, Joi discards the body, telling Mariette “I’m done with you.” Joi herself can only find value in her existence when it becomes physical – and K is more than willing to accept the “gift” of a prostitute in order to achieve physical catharsis. Joi’s greatest act of personal autonomy is in the purchasing of a female body for her “husband.” When she is finally destroyed, Joi tells K that she loves him – but the film never spends any time investigating Joi’s potential humanity, and her “death” is primarily figured as a symbolic loss for K.
Both Joi and Mariette are things that K has purchased to fulfill his desires, but it is Mariette who is able to gain some agency outside of the human/replicant, male/female dialectic. But even her apparent autonomy is short-lived. She is given a voice as a prostitute, mocking K for his “love” of Joi and Joi for her holographic emptiness, but once Mariette joins the replicant rebellion, she becomes faceless, another female body among many female bodies, acting as a single entity. She is used as a medium of exchange, her body providing a connection between K and the rebellion, to draw him in and introduce him to Freysa, who provides further plot exposition about K’s assignment in the rebellion. Freysa, in her turn, is merely a conduit for information to K and to the viewer. The total trifecta of the “good” female replicants/AIs are as conduits, vessels, and sources of information for the male protagonist.
Blade Runner shares a few affinities with the contemporary Bond franchise, among them the use of a female henchman for the villain. Tortured and likely abused by Wallace, Luv exists to reinforce the patriarchal structure as Wallace’s slave who becomes as evil as the man who abuses her. As K drowns her, the camera brings us up close to her suffering, indulging in her contorted face until she finally dies. This might be moving, even pathetic, were the film interested in summoning up more than a cursory interest in her psyche. Rather, it becomes simply the destruction of a villain by the comparative hero, another instance in which the female body and face is made to undergo cleansing pain in order for the men to, finally, go free. Luv hints at a deeper characterization, but the film never follows through on it, instead turning her into an abused woman who gleefully abuses others, a relatively banal character type whose violation is turned inward, transforming her into a monster. Wallace himself is never particularly punished for his treatment of his replicants, including Luv. K’s anger is enacted against the female body; it is female suffering that gives meaning, and catharsis, to the male.
The other female character who could have potentially complicated Blade Runner’s view of women is Madam, K’s human superior. There are undertones of S&M dominance in Madam, down to her name and the deliberate representation of her physicality as largely androgynous. Her costuming and behavior renders her largely sexless – as the only female character possessed of autonomy, she must also not be seen as feminine. Madam is not an object of desire and therefore is human, but she is also disposable – she sacrifices her life for K’s, eliminated by Luv in yet another exhibition of female suffering, this time in defense of the male protagonist. While Madam has a character name, Lieutenant Joshi, she is rarely referred to as such, her being reduced to a title that recalls a dominatrix, a woman operating for male pleasure.
The crux of Blade Runner 2049 does indeed offer up women as the salvation of the replicants, the proof of their humanity. But again, it is only the physical female body that is important here; female replicants remain soulless. Rachael’s only presence is as literal bones, a total fragmentation of her body and her image. The imprint of birth on her body – a mark from a C-section on her pelvis – confirms her ability to bear children and thus her humanity. The question of her having a soul is fairly moot – she is merely a vessel to convey salvation into the world, a symbol of replicant humanness. Moreover, the question of Deckard’s humanity further complicates an understanding of the child that has been produced. If Deckard is human – and I think there’s a good argument for that – then what has been proven is that a replicant woman can carry a human child; but even more than that, it allows Deckard to provide the humanity, the soul, to the replicant body. The film’s unwillingness to answer the question of Deckard being a replicant – at least with any degree of clarity – muddies the waters of cinematic meaning. If Deckard as a human can produce a child with a replicant woman, then all that says is that female replicants are capable of child-bearing. If Deckard as a replicant can produce a replicant child, then there is greater flexibility for understanding that relationship.
The importance of female physicality is once again emphasized as Deckard refuses Wallace’s offer of a “new Rachael,” because her eyes are the wrong color. With a single word, a supposedly human figure is destroyed because the physical body does not match male desire. While the film uses this as a source of horror, it does not follow through on it – once again the female body is merely the site of male need, important only to evoke a sense of horror in the viewer. The destruction of the feminine, the horror of watching a female body rendered, is meant to evoke a quick emotion, to impress upon the viewer the evilness of Wallace and, perhaps, the coldness of Deckard. But those bodies are still dehumanized; once again, the female body is a symbol of exchange and bargaining, not a living, autonomous thing. Rachel is executed and the film moves on, confident that it has made its point.
The child, likewise, is merely symbolic – she cannot ever move outside of the world that she creates for others, and her major connection to the story is in providing her own memories to the male hero – completely removing a part of herself and injecting it into his psyche, because she cannot act on her own memories or desires. Both Rachael and her daughter are symbols of humanity without having humanity themselves; they are devoid of autonomy neither are fighters, soldiers, or rebels, and their eventual role in whatever replicant uprising that is about to take place will, again, only be as symbols. Rachael, because she is dead, and her daughter, because she can never move from outside her confines.
While Deckard’s daughter does indeed inject elements of humanity into the replicants, she can only ever act as a symbol for their humanity, because she has no autonomy outside of that. The ending of the film “gives” her to Deckard, as K tells him to “go see your daughter” – she is his possession, a thing that he has created (though he never participated in her life), and that is there to prove the humanity of the replicants, to act as their symbol for the coming age. She is merely a cog in the male narrative, seen through male eyes, and given importance via male desire.
To subvert patriarchy, a film has to do more than simply represent it. And patriarchy, in Blade Runner, is neither positive nor negative – it simply is. Wallace might be the villain, but it is the camera that fragments and assaults the female body. Female value is formed only through women’s ability to act as symbols for a male-driven narrative. It is the male that is most fully human, the woman a simple vessel for his needs and desires, a physical proof of the human/robot dialectic. To make child-bearing the sole mark of humanity – the indication of the soul – means to reduce female existence to the ability to have children. Female autonomy, emotions, desires, needs, are nothing in comparison to being a symbol for the progress of humanity/replicancy. The female body is merely a vessel to convey information, a thing in which the male can implant information. The backwards nature of such a foundational plot element renders Blade Runner 2049 into something viciously, insidiously anti-woman, an argument that turns female bodies into corporeal vessels, repositories, things to be controlled, mutilated, or venerated, but never to be understood as autonomous beings. The men provide the soul, the women provide the body…and nothing more.