The Future Is Female: How ‘Blade Runner 2049’ Uses Gender

With Blade Runner 2049 now in theaters, we wanted to talk about some specific aspects of the film, which means going into spoilers.  If you have not seen Blade Runner 2049 yet, STOP READING NOW and come back after you see the movie.

Image via Alcon Entertainment / Warner Bros.

The male trying to figure out if he’s human or a replicant has now (thrillingly) been done twice in the Blade Runner universe. In the long-awaited sequel, K (Ryan Gosling)’s journey leads him to discover that hope can throw him off his baseline but also lead him down a path of sacrifice (which is very human). That’s an interesting story on its own, but Denis Villeneuve has surrounded him with various female characters—human and replicant—who show many different shades of humanity (or near-humanity) as well. Some were born that way simply because they were born but most were manufactured that way. Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t tick the comfy feminist box because it keeps almost all of its women in box but it’s the acknowledgment of that box throughout human history that makes these characters truly register. This isn’t a woman is strong because she kicks ass feminism, this is Patriarchy 8.0 through technical advancements.

The glass-ceiling workforce was broken but another ceiling is placed higher above. It’s the ceiling of the whole goddamn universe and how men feel like they should own it. “The future is female” is a common rallying cry in our modern culture in response to governments attempting to go backwards in “society values”, in response to oppressive scandals such as Harvey Weinstein’s abuse of power and to tyrannical figureheads who silence anyone who counters them. For the purposes of this article, it’s the female presence in various forms that’s the most interesting human angle in Blade Runner 2049 and the route that they should take if there ever is another sequel: the future is female.

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner gave us female pleasure models and it’s not regressive to show that by 2049 there are many different types of pleasure models. In a gross awareness of the likely future—how many animated male sex dolls have you reach about in comparison to female? There’s a race to make the most “realistic” female companion already underway—there are hologram women named Joi. Humans and replicants alike can purchase their own Joi to make a man feel better. In many ways it’s easier to be doted upon, be asked questions, and bask in the glow of someone who possess the agreed upon perfect femme physique via a realistic program than it would be to enter into a relationship with a human woman who might challenge, not always worship, nor find her partner attractive at all times. But you’d lose your humanity in the process, right? Because it places your needs on a shelf without compromise or concession.

Image via Alcon Entertainment / Warner Bros.

Many have called the relationship between Joi (Ana de Armas) and K (Ryan Gosling) a love story—but it’s a little more revealing when it’s not. K has a shame in his reliance on the hologram woman. We are introduced to her in standard 50s fashion. He comes home from a hard day’s work, she is cooking and asks him about his day (“how was your meeting?”), offers to take his coat that could use some fixing up and lights his cigarette. When she sees that this approach isn’t changing his mood she changes between athletic and disco outfits in her program catalogue—while giving rote Wikipedia-style info about the music she’s picked out. Every time we see K call up Joi he attaches shame to it. That’s very important because although she treats him very lovingly he’s aware that she’s programmed to do so and so his shame in her presence isn’t far from the realm of a regular man seeking out a street-walking pleasure model. But his shame is not rooted in a desire for sex in a desire for a connection and this one could easily be proved to be false.

K even encourages Joi to remain false because it would become too difficult to process otherwise (similar to a relationship with “a real girl”). After she’s downloaded to a device called an Emulator which let’s her leave the ceiling track of his apartment and join him in many different places, she stands on a rooftop, looks at him romantically while rain exposes both her breasts and digital data and says, “I’m so happy when I’m with you.” K responds by saying “You don’t have to say that,” because he’s skeptical of what might be her program and what might become real; it’s safer to K’s individual being to assume that feelings are programmed rather than a response to emotion. Because emotions can change interactions.

Joi’s emotions might very well be real and Blade Runner 2049 might very well become a love story when K’s response moves from shame to love and loss. Her response might be real because female replicants are built to be the most human, not just for sexual reasons, but also for emotional adulation. When Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), the most entrusted replicant to the company that manufactures them (hence given a name), is filling an order for a client she recommends that the male labor models not be given too many human characteristics but that they should add some pleasure models to the order to give them a more authentic human companionship. The reason why women replicants are the most complex is because their intimate traits create desire, but the same traits that make one desirable—such as an inquisitive nature—are the same traits that make them dangerous. To have more feelings means to have more sense of justice, more attachment to memories, more psychology.

Warner Bros. and Alcon Entertainment

When K and Luv watch the replicant test between Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachael (Sean Young), K notes that he’s showing an interest in Rachael by how he’s asking an intimate question and Luv cunningly uses that against K by noting the invigorating equation of being asked something and being found desirable. She immediately asks him a question with a smirk. Luv is aware that K has Joi in his pocket, she’s already asked him if he’s satisfied with their manufactured product. K’s response is a little dismissive, “she’s very real.” It’s an awareness that he was manufactured to complete a job, hunting old models of rebellious replicants, and nothing else. And Joi’s been manufactured to keep him company and exalt him. Yet her intimate traits make her feel more human than he is.

It’s important to note the moments in which K calls up Joi. After he nearly dies on Dave Bautista’s protein farm, he returns home and Joi makes it sound like it’s been days since his last return; he needs her then. He presses a button to bring her to his side after he’s rebuffed the sexual advances of his superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), of whom Joi feels slightly jealous but knows she’s not a real threat because K didn’t tell her the entire story of his implanted memory and how it ties to the current case. The first scenes with Joi show a pattern of calling her up for emotional support when he needs it. Where their relationship starts to change is when he invites her onto a journey where she’s not actually needed. It’s then that he starts to move from shame about himself and about her and attempts to make their relationship real by including her in his day-to-day life, not just whenever he needs a flicker of support and worship. Perhaps this is the reason why she suggests that he upload her being onto the Emulator and break the antennae; her intimate traits can see he is pushing to become closer to her and being programmed to love him it’s this movement that pushes her toward potential sacrifice—an awareness that he’s no longer ashamed of their coupling.

Stepping out from shame and into vulnerability with Joi, K does feel loss when Joi is swept into the ether with one stomp of the boot from Luv. Villeneuve visits Joi again, as a blank slate hologram who, nude, steps off a building advertisement that promises that she’ll give a man “everything you want to hear/everything you want to see” and uses the same regular “Joe” name that his Joi had given him when they both believed he was half human. When a relationship ends and one re-enters the dating pool there is a projection of the past partner upon any new potential match. This projection has to be a partial sadness that K feels when he sees Joi selling herself in this manner to whomever passes by, but that feeling would be compounded by a human awareness that they are both programs and the “realness” of his relationship is blurry just like a memory of a past lover can become skewed.

Remember that K and Joi’s belief that he was at least partially was sparked by an implanted memory is what took him off his stable replicant baseline. It’s hope that seems to have the power to push them closer to humanity and it began with an implanted memory. Because K learns that there is a half-replicant-half-human hybrid out there who could process more of this experience than he can, he moves to sacrifice himself for Ana, who is also held in captivity, because the only evolution beyond K, Joi and all the others rests with her.

Image via Alcon Entertainment / Warner Bros.

Programmed love is also the threat that Wallace (Jared Leto), the maker of the modern Nexus models, levies against Deckard when he introduces a reconstruction of Rachael and says that she was programmed to specifically love Deckard. Villeneuve and his screenwriters, Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, get around the Deckard human or replicant debate by having Wallace insinuate that Rachael was programmed similar to Joi. Deckard points out that the new visage has the wrong color of eyes and she is instantly killed in front of him, calling back to when Wallace kills a replicant at the moment of its birth simply for being barren. He laments that he’s only populated nine planets because they “should be ruling the stars.” And Wallace is attempting to show Luv, who views each replicant “birth” to be a significant moment, that her kind is currently meaningless if he cannot find a way to naturally repopulate.

For K, “Madame” Joshi is his Wallace, but the power that she wields over him includes some personal consideration. They both need results but Wallace, the man, considers himself a God. Madame doesn’t exert that spatial power of boss and submissive unless absolutely necessary whereas Wallace always maintains that separation. And, again, whenever K is threatened by Madame, either by her orders or by her flirtation, he summons Joi immediately after. He is a yes man and Joi is a yes girl and he gets to control her. Together they embark on a journey to be real a boy and a real girl but they can only achieve that by relinquishing some control of each other. Sounds kinda like a human relationship that occurs once he goes off his baseline, doesn’t it?

Joi, herself, permeates the entire movie. She reveals K’s internal progress, she is used as attacking leverage, and she is dismissed by the outdated replicant pleasure model, Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) who says, after Joi summons her to fuse with her body to make love with K, “I’ve been inside you, you’re not as deep as you think.” Every woman in 2049 feels jealousy. And that might sound like a gender stereotype and not forward thinking but indeed it is a gender stereotype that if forward thinking tech companies were making a woman, they would include it. It makes sense that the male models are dulled to feelings because they’re made for labor. It’s the coding of gender stereotypes. And in this way, it doesn’t bother me that Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test (the simple screen test for a movie that features two female characters in conversation have at least one exchange about something other than a man).

This week has already exposed a massive scandal in Hollywood gender relations and power dynamics via the number of women who’ve come out against Harvey Weinstein and the number of men who’ve remained silent. As Gosling himself stated on this matter, “men should stand with women and work together until there is real accountability and change.” The tech industry is another industry of immense gender imbalance in powerful positions and unless their leads work together until there is real accountability and change the patriarchal system could become further upgraded via technology. And that’s the world of Blade Runner: pleasure models and pleasure holograms. Female replicants built to please their overlands. It only makes sense that, as hard as it might be to stomach as a progressive audience, that these interesting women would only talk about their masters.

Image via Alcon Entertainment / Warner Bros.

However! Don’t despair, because in this bleak gender dystopia the very pleasure programming might bring about real change. If replicant men are built solely to follow orders for labor and women are built for the emotional reassurance of the male ego it makes sense who would lead the replicant revolution: the female replicants. Mariette reveals to K, in perhaps the biggest hat tip that 2049 is more than just a sequel but perhaps has more movies to come, that she’s part of an underground revolution who all know of Deckard’s child. The chosen one is revealed to be Dr. Anna Stelline (Carla Juni), who made the memory that convinced K he was the chosen one, but it was actually her memory, just swapped gender so that it couldn’t be detected as real. Deckard and Rachael’s replicant-hybrid child could have been either sex but to Wallace it’s only womankind that can help him reach the stars by giving birth; and for the revolutionaries it’s womankind who possess the manufactured emotional capabilities that can awaken the replicant slumber. And Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t so much end with the threat of a replicant vs. human war, but instead a replicant vs. Wallace war for their own personhood, which feels indirectly akin to a Woman’s March, wanting replicant bodies to choose their own destiny, have equality with man.

Image via Alcon Entertainment / Warner Bros.

In the first Blade Runner film, Joanna Cassidy, Darryl Hannah, and Sean Young played various pleasure models; though Young’s Rachael is advanced she was still created to look like a doll—the physical replicant manifestation of the entitled expression “the type of girl you marry.” In 2049, there are many advanced variations of the pleasure models and Young’s previous perfection is here made expendable because of one physical blemish. Is this forward thinking in regards to females? No. I think it’s unfortunately and horrifically more honest than we’d like to admit in 2017. Tech is the industry that will shape our future and it’s immensely male dominated. And time has proven again and again that if men aren’t willing to build empires alongside female input, they’ve certainly never been able to get rid of their desire for adoration and ego strokes from a beautiful woman.

In the contaminated zone of Los Angeles that’s been left vacant, a statue of two women with exposed breasts and open mouths bend toward each other, their high heels providing that extra layer of kink. That’s the entrance to a fallen empire. And it’s not a relic. Currently in Greater Los Angeles, a nude Joi walks from building to bridge attempting to sell herself.

In regards to gender, Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t give us wish fulfillment of seeing strong women dust the floor with oppressors. Sure there’s a few kickass women, but instead, this universe shows us the dirty truth of thousands of years of patriarchy and male creators and how even recent advances in gender in the workforce cannot compete with the speed of technology which finds many new ways to reinforce and box in gender stereotypes: men work, women provide emotional support and a womb. It’s not like Mad Max: Fury Road which had women breaking free from sex slavery, but there’s some under the surface femme fury in this universe. In 1982, it was Hannah’s backflips, using her private parts to kill, the very pleasure zone she was built for has evolved to expiring others. In 2017, Luv’s anger seems to stem from her creator, a man who will kill her kind simply because they cannot extend his legacy throughout the entire goddamn universe because they can’t give birth. The resistance and Wallace want birthing capabilities for different reasons. One for replicant freedom and equality and one for universal colonialism done in his name.

Due to the box office so far, we’re not sure if Blade Runner 2049 will get a sequel. But like the original, it already has a passionate fanbase who’d no doubt like to continue in this world. And it’s perfectly set up with a chosen woman and a revolutionary faction behind her. Replicant women were programmed to be the most likely to lead the way for equality and now their future is female. I think that’s something we should all really want to see. Step off a building and smash the (manmade) patriarchy.

Blade Runner 2049 is currently playing in theaters nationwide.

Image via Warner Bros.

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