The Future is Not Female: The Limited Women of Blade Runner 2049

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By Zoë and Marisa.

WARNING: Spoilers for Blade Runner 2049.

Blade Runner 2049, the long-awaited sequel to the cult classic Blade Runner (1982), has been praised by critics for its cinematography, special effects and bold philosophical concepts. However, during our viewing, its representation of women was cause for a large amount of eye-rolling. At risk of being feminist killjoys at the party of gushing praise for this film, we just couldn’t let this slide. 2049’s representation of women is tiresome, disappointing and unoriginal. The women of 2049 are solely defined in relation to men, written as tired stereotypes without any depth. This is evident not just through the limited character development of individual women, but also the broader representation of women in this film as objects for decoration and the male gaze.

Blade Runner 2049 (source)

Blade Runner 2049’s female characters are one-dimensional archetypes, and with a couple of exceptions (we’ll get to those later), 2049’s female characters perfectly express the limited thinking of the virgin-whore (or Madonna-whore) dichotomy. First coined by Sigmund Freud, the Madonna-whore dichotomy was a complex held by men who could not maintain sexual arousal in a loving relationship, although they could with mistresses. The problem, Freud determined, was that these men divided women into two categories: pure, virginal Madonnas and sexually voracious ‘whores’. Because the man views sex as something to do with devalued women, he can’t do it with a woman he loves. The virgin-whore dichotomy is still evident today in culture. And it is this way of thinking -- that women are either pure or slutty -- that permeates 2049. As Ruby Hamad writes, conceptualizing women this way negates “the idea of sex [as] simply something that a woman does, like eating a meal or wash her hair, rather it becomes the thing that defines her.” Crucially, it defines her in relation to men, and how her sexuality impacts them.

Let’s start with Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) the sex worker, a sort of dystopian Pretty Woman with shabby clothes, smudged eyeliner and flawless skin. She has sex with K (Ryan Gosling) after his girlfriend Joi recruits her, her blank face giving no hint of her desires as she undresses for him. The later reveal that she’s part of a replicant resistance movement had the potential to elevate her from a fetishized caricature to a truly interesting character. However, the film quickly moves on from this revelation in favor of giving more screen-time to Jared Leto’s scenery-chewing.

Mackenzie Davis and some of the women of Blade Runner 2049 (source)

On the flip side, we have Dr Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), pretty much the only woman in the film who doesn’t proposition, kiss, or engage sexually with K. She also has a complete lack of autonomy, having been trapped in a glass box since the age of eight because of an illness. Waif-like and dressed all in white, she cries silently, the very image of purity. She’s clearly brilliant and skilled, but the main focus is her connection to Deckard (Harrison Ford). Dr Ana, a woman who apparently managed to get a PhD while living inside a glass box, is reduced to what’s most important: her relation to a man.

Rachel (Sean Young), the lead female character from the original film, is a clear Madonna here: she conceives a baby miraculously, through the power of true love. (An eye-rolling cliché, and a surprise to many who watched Blade Runner. Sexual violence and lack of other options can turn into true love, girls!). Once she’s fulfilled her duty by giving birth, she’s no longer needed. The reappearance of Rachel in 2049 would have been thrilling. But why do that, when you could stuff her in a fridge off-screen to fuel Deckard’s emotional angst?

Finally, we have holographic Joi (Ana de Armas), the male-fantasy FitBit who serves (literally) as K’s girlfriend. Joi is sweet and demure, but she’s also sexy. But rather than being a three-dimensional character, she inhabits these traits at K’s whim: she’s literally his fantasy. She switches between forms of femininity depending on what he wants, inhabiting what feminist Robin Morgan calls “the unbeatable Madonna-whore combination”.[1]  When she brings Mariette over for sex, she tells K she’s doing it because she feels bad that she can’t have sex with him. There’s no active sexual desire for him, just an expression of guilt. Whether she’s a 1950s-style housewife or dresses more revealingly, Joi remains passive.

Joi and K (source)

In fact, what all the above-mentioned characters have in common is their passivity. Not only are they constrained by social structures, glass boxes or software, they’re largely blank slates. We get no sense of what they want or feel. They want whatever K wants, whatever suits him. 2049 may sort its female characters into narrow categories based on their sexuality, but at least they all have something in common: whether virginal daughters, dead mothers or devoted girlfriends, their defining feature is how they relate to the men of the film.

While not all of the female characters in Blade Runner 2049 fit into these narrow categories, and not all of them are passive, the female characters who actually exhibit some agency aren’t necessarily more complex or better-written characters. The female characters that don’t fit into ‘virgin’, ‘whore’ or ‘Madonna’ still exist clearly in relation to men. Let’s start with Luv (whose name we had to Google as when we were writing this article we realized the female characters’ names just weren’t memorable). Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) is a classically masculine ideal of what a ‘strong’ female character should be, but her passion and determination to succeed in her task are only present because her boss, Wallace (Jared Leto), has deemed this mission to be vital. Her sole purpose is to fulfill the orders of Wallace, and she meets her end carrying out this mission. Her badass aura and get the job done attitude portrays her as practical and logical, stereotypically masculine traits. However, we must still be reminded of her womanhood, demonstrated through the shot of her controlling highly powerful weapons whilst simultaneously getting a manicure. Luv’s active and disciplined characteristics mask her submission to Wallace.

Hoeks as Luv (source)

In hope for some redemption of this film’s poor female representation, let’s move on to the head of the LAPD, who had the potential to be a fully autonomous female character. Lieutenant Joshi’s (Robin Wright) power in her role cannot be denied. She is the head of a whole police task force, which apart from her, is very male dominated. It is great to see a strong female character in an important role. However, one night she visits K in his apartment, and talking about work leads to her attempting to seduce him. This unnecessary pass at K undermines Joshi’s professionalism. Rather than having a sexuality of her own, Joshi’s sexuality exists only in relation to K. It feeds into a male fantasy that assumes almost every female character is interested in K sexually. Competition between the women in this film is a recurring theme and reiterates that a large part of their characterization is reliant on men. Both Luv and Joshi show a level of agency and authority, but it is only exemplified through participating in stereotypically masculine acts of violence and domination. Luv’s violent persona, and Joshi’s casual attitude towards killing anyone the LAPD needs dead, demonstrate again a level of one-dimensional character development that reinforces a misconception that if a woman does anything a man does, she is empowered. To be a woman in 2049 is to be either passive and docile, or active and violent, neither of which encapsulates the true potential of female empowerment.

The way that individual female characters are represented in 2049 is completely reflective of the attitudes towards women as a gender, and the film portrays them as sex objects for male benefit. Objectification of the female body is nothing new in Hollywood, and in this film we see it so blatantly time and time again. In the birth scene, while Wallace delivers a monologue detailing his drive to find a way for reproduction in replicants, a naked female body is hanging from the ceiling in the background. The camera pans around the room, often following Wallace, with the hanging body decorating the frame. It could be argued that this nakedness is being used to symbolize the natural process of birth. However, Wallace’s behavior sexualizes her naked state by kissing the woman, before slicing her stomach open. The camera lingers on her blood-covered thighs, further eroticizing her murder. The whole scene demonstrates a female body being used for dramatic effect and then discarded.

In the scene where K arrives in the deserted vast landscape, the frame is full of large, broken sections of female statues. Fragmented body parts, high heeled shoes, and sexualized open mouth poses are some of the formations of the statues, with no context given; another use of the sexualized female body as decoration in the mise-en-scene. Later, the scene of K looking at the advertisement for Joi, an enormous naked female body accompanied by the slogan “anything you want to hear”, demonstrates that more than just her nakedness is commodified. A product to be bought, in the form of a woman, that is interchangeable, submissive, and of course, sexualized. Then there’s the scene establishing a brothel, where exaggerated sex sounds are heard. The camera pans across a number of women, reduced to silhouettes and shadows, hands against the wall, all the same, while simultaneously highlighting the invisibility of the men. Repetition alludes to their lack of individuality; fragmenting body parts evokes an image of broken and fractured women. Objectification reduces the human body to an object. Feminists have long argued that once objectified, it is easier for violence to be carried out on that body[2] and objectification in itself is a violent and dehumanizing act.[3] The representation of the female body collectively in 2049 demonstrates how this fictional dystopian culture views women as subordinate, reflecting our own contemporary society.

An easy rebuttal to this analysis might be, “but it’s a dystopia”. In an overpopulated, impoverished world full of suffering, is it ridiculous to expect truly empowered female characters? Surely in a dystopia it makes more sense for the women to be downtrodden and oppressed?

While it’s true that the dystopian setting justifies the oppressed position of women, this doesn’t rationalize 2049’s lazy treatment of female characters. Perhaps you’ve heard of a show called The Handmaid’s Tale? Like 2049, it depicts a world steeped in misogyny, where women are valued only for how they can serve men. Unlike 2049, it shows us the women’s perspectives, allowing the audience to learn their motivations and desires. Even women who aren’t protagonists in The Handmaid’s Tale are given rich characterizations. The script presents them as more than mere objects, even though that’s how the show’s universe sees them. 2049 could have done the same, rather than the script reinforcing the women’s subordinate position. By showcasing trapped and constrained women, but not affording them motivations or wants that aren’t catering to men, the film reinforces sexism rather than condemning it. A scene of giant pornographic statues in the desert isn’t a condemnation of the objectification of women: when it’s presented without irony or commentary, it’s just objectification.

Blade Runner 2049 ultimately both reflects and reinforces sexist views of women. By presenting female characters who only exist in relation to men and playing into the tired stereotypes of virgin/whore/Madonna, the film shows no interest in the personhood of women. Furthermore, by showing women as only passive and vulnerable, or dominant and violent, the film suggests they can only become empowered by exerting control over others. In conjunction with the endless objectification of the female body, this portrayal of women is tiresome and disappointing. While it aims to show us what the future could look like, this film, through its script and mise-en-scene, inadvertently emphasizes the misogyny of our present.

[1] Carina Chocano, You Play The Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Princesses, Trainwrecks and Other Man-Made Men, (United States: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), 9.
[2] Catharine A. MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified: discourses on life and law (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1987), 138.
[3] Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women, (London: Women’s Press, 1981), 109
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