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.
Learning from disobedient daughters
The political-ontological dilemma at the center of 2049 recalls the radical anti-naturalism of the collective Laboria Cuboniks manifesto, Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation. XF (for short) are the self-proclaimed “disobedient daughters” of ‘Cyborg Manifesto’s Donna Haraway, a “polymorphous xenofeminist collective” who “advances an affirmation of abstraction as an episto- political necessity for 21st century claims on equality [and] espousing reason and vigorous anti-naturalism [...] seeks to dismantle gender implicitly”.
Though they draw inspiration from Haraway’s 1984 manifesto, their anti-naturalism behaves quite differently than Haraways pre-post-gender cyborg who “skips” an ‘original nature’ in its formation of identity. XF proposes an anti-naturalism that, rather than “skipping” the natural, simply denies the natural its deified or determinist status. ‘Nature’ exists and we are born into it, but it should not by its inherent nature-ness occupy a God-like status: nature is not ‘pure’ or inherently just, while artificiality is not. They write:
0 x 0B “A sense of the world’s volatility and artificiality seems to have faded from contemporary queer and feminist politics, in favour of a plural but static constellation of gender identities, in whose bleak light equations of the good and the natural are stubbornly restored. While having (perhaps) admirably expanded thresholds of ‘tolerance’, too often we are told to seek solace in unfreedom, staking claims on being ‘born’ this way, as if offering an excuse with nature’s blessing.”
Here, XF asserts that the ‘born this way’ naturalism of a particular - if well-meaning - liberal feminist rhetoric that intends to ‘justify’ queer identity, is actually a redeployment of the same naturalism used by the alt-right (and those otherwise inclined to misogyny and homophobia) to oppress trans and queer identity and control women's bodies.
XF argues that a conception of identity that requires nature’s “blessing” is ultimately essentialist and deterministic, and returns nature to its role as God, a controlling figure by whom we must be validated. Instead, XF purports that gender and identity is “plural”, “mutable”, “spontaneous”, and that “nothing should be accepted at fixed, permanent, or ‘given’ - neither material conditions nor social forms”. Only through an anti-naturalist stance whereby nature is not held as sacred, can we progress towards a utopian future in which identity has true freedom:
0 x 01 “Anyone who’s been deemed ‘unnatural’ in the face of reigning biological norms, anyone who’s experienced injustices wrought in the name of natural order, will realize that the glorification of ‘nature’ has nothing to offer us—the queer and trans among us, the differently-abled, as well as those who have suffered discrimination due to pregnancy or duties connected to child-rearing.”
The missing child?
As we follow K’s investigation of the missing child, we are convinced through a series of clues that it must be him himself, and that he is the miracle son of Deckard and Rachel. We thus embark on a form of ‘chosen one’ narrative whereupon K escapes his police-work enslavement to find his ‘father’, the audience all the while encouraged to become increasingly invested in his specialness and the prospect of an oedipal reunion. The film subtly places us in a comfort-zone wherein we are aligned with what we think is a special, ‘natural’ replicant, one who was naturally born.
Thus we are, in some way, subtly persuaded to buy into the reproductive hierarchy and agree that born-ness, ‘naturalness’, is a sign of validity and value in K’s identity. Yet, as the mystery unravels and new information comes to the fore, the film ends by undercutting its own protagonist when it is revealed by the group of replicant freedom-fighters that K is in-fact, not the child. The films narrative reverence for, and the audience’s identification with K as the ‘chosen one’ is totally erased, our expectations of a ‘natural’ replicant hero overturned.