By Ebba Wester
“If nature is unjust, then change nature!”
Significant plot spoilers follow.
35 years after the release of Ridley Scott's seminal sci-fi love story Blade Runner, an updated imagining of Philip K. Dick’s A.I. dystopia returned in 2017 when the highly anticipated Blade Runner 2049 hit theatres.
While enthusiastically lauded by a harangue of ecstatic film critics, Denis Villeneuve's BR sequel also received considerable scrutiny for its lack of diversity and ‘problematic’ representations of race and gender.
While I fervently agree that the notable absence of non-white characters is yet another distressing display of relentless Hollywood whitewashing - especially in a filmic setting that rehashes the dubiously fetishistic Asia-futurism of the original Blade Runner (and right on the heels of an uncomfortable, Johansson-led Ghost in the Shell ) - the discussion surrounding the gender-politics in 2049 has dominantly been, in my view, frustratingly superficial.
Giant, neon, sexdoll fantasies
Firstly, many critics found the misogyny of Villeneuve's BR world ‘problematic’ and criticised the film for being populated with female prostitutes and holographic fantasy-girls. Conversely, I find the visual and narrative representations of gender in 2049 are totally appropriate for an imagination of a patriarchal capitalist dystopia. Giant, neon holograms of sexualised women's bodies, female-replicant prostitution, and fantasy-girlfriend artificial intelligence are signals of a world gone awry. They’re extrapolations of the contemporary objectification, commodification, and oppression of women's bodies that, while visually dazzling, are intended to denote a twisted and monstrous future patriarchy.
One particular misunderstanding (as I would see it) of the film’s central theme, articulated in an i-D article, particularly grates: “ [...] Not to mention that the ultimate dividing line between human women and the hyper-human replicant women is that real women can give birth. Did you get that? If you don't give birth, then sorry, you're not a real woman.” A deeper delve into the films thematic exploration of birth, reproduction, and naturalism struck me as missing from the dominant feminist critical conversation; more considerate analysis might lend to a reading that unearths more complex, radical political ideas in the film.
In 2049, reproduction, rather than empathy, is the new border of contention between humans and so-called replicants, and the capacity to reproduce stands as an underlying justification for humans enslavement of the latter. It’s a society built on a ‘naturalist’ hierarchy whereby the ‘born’ out-value the ‘manufactured’:
Replicants = bioengineered ‘humans’ = unnatural = “non-valuable” life = slaves
Humans = born = natural = “valuable” life = masters
Replicants are manufactured by Wallace Corporation, a total (albeit clichéd) embodiment of unaffected capitalist evil. The Wallace tower is depicted as drenched in golden liquids while the rest of the planet succumbs to a dusty and bone-dry desert apocalypse. Replicant ‘birth’ at Wallace Corp is visualised as a degrading process whereby the replicant falls out of a ziplock-bag amniotic sac, dumped into the world motherless and covered in syrupy liquid. The process is halfway between biologically mammal and artificial manufacture.
Giving hierarchy a C-section
The human-replicant hierarchy is disturbed, however, when K - a replicant blade runner whose job is to ‘retire’ outdated models of his own kind (replicants, who are not ‘born’ are not allowed to ‘die’ either; they are ‘retired’ instead of killed) - discovers the buried body of a replicant who had apparently undergone a cesarean section, the child's body missing from the grave. The body reveals that replicants can somehow ‘organically’ reproduce, something previously thought impossible; a transgression which in turn validates replicant identity according to the currently instated natural-artificial hierarchy, and thus threatens to topple the final pillar upon which humans justify their superiority to, and enslavement of replicants. K’s boss, Lieutenant Joshi, fears that the information could start a war between humans and replicants and orders K to find and destroy the child.
In 2049, the human-replicant dichotomy whereby value is ascribed to an identity according to ‘naturalness’ and capacity to reproduce is not intended as implicitly true or acceptable. The crushing mistake in the aforementioned i-D articles take, is that she refers to human women as ‘real’ and replicant women as not.
This is to miss the point of the film entirely. The natural birth / artificial manufacture dichotomy is not intended as a valid distinction between the real and nonreal identity, but constructs the naturalist oppressive power structure that underpins the social injustice of the BR dystopia. The plot reveals an underground rebel group of freedom-fighter replicants rising up against their enslavement in a world that is clearly corrupt, evil and unjust. Joi - K’s holographic girlfriend - is not merely a male-gaze fantasy. She is a nuanced character who yearns for freedom, who risks her own mortality for that freedom and whose eventual death is meaningful, despite her un-embodied, ‘artificial’ identity.