Is it possible to criticise social and political discourses through media, whilst simultaneously displaying them in said media?
This is a question that comes to mind when watching Blade Runner 2049. This Denis Villeneuve film attempts to offer a social commentary on issues such as sexism, sexualisation and racism by displaying them within a dystopian setting. But are the film’s critiques successful when they are presented to the audience with only subtext serving to criticise the issues? This problem is evident in the treatment of women in Blade Runner 2049.
In the film, nude female bodies are everywhere, in the form of advertisements, prostitutes, huge statues in suggestive positions, newly born androids and more. In a scene that makes this exhibitionism most apparent, a giant, pink, nude projection of Ana De Armas’s character, Joi, walks out of an advertisement, and seductively coos to Ryan Gosling’s K, flaunting her bare breasts, legs, and backside. What is the intention behind this scene? Are we supposed to look at this huge, naked female body and think about the implications of sexually objectifying women? Or are we supposed to ogle her? Who is the target audience, and what is the intended reaction? The answer sadly isn’t certain.
The women of Blade Runner 2049 are treated dubiously. As well as often being subject to sexualisation, their purpose is usually linked to men, and they are all killed unfairly.
Joi is an AI, a hologram made for the pleasure of the consumer – who in this case is K. In this way, she is a literal commodification. Joi is his perfectly designed girlfriend. She is able to change her outfit at will to suit him, and she can appear and disappear as he sees fit. When he wants her, he can summon her with a device. She has no external purpose. Is this intended to be a critique of the traditional gender roles that tie women to men and domesticity? Or is the fact that Joi has been created to fit into these traditional gender roles too problematic to be considered a critique? Regardless, she is killed as another female character stomps on the very device K stores her consciousness on, and her last words are “I love y-” Her life revolves around K, even at the point of death.
Similarly, Luv works for Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace. Her every action is tied to him, and to serving him. Her character is exciting in her ruthlessness, but she doesn’t act out of her own desires. She is, brutally, simultaneously drowned and choked by K. She is a worthy opponent, but is beaten and subjugated, forced underneath a man, where she “belongs.”
Lieutenant Joshi is fantastic as K’s boss, but still has her pitfalls. She has agency, yes, but she is underused. It is also hinted that she is attracted to K. In this way, she is also tied to men. Not all female character’s narratives have to be linked to men! Continuing the murder of the female characters in this film, Joshi is killed by Luv, her corpse gruesomely thrown around by the latter. This brings to mind the Bechdel test, a feminist idea that measures the representation of women. It requires that a film to have two female characters who converse about something other than men. Perhaps this scene fulfils this requirement But the act of a woman killing another woman does not speak of feminism.
Mariette is a sex worker, used by K as a puppet to make sleeping with his hologram girlfriend physically possible. He cannot touch Joi until she is merged with Mariette. Although she has a more lively and individual personality than most of the female characters, she is still used by men, and there is not much more to her character besides her link to K.
Then there is Ana, Deckard and Rachel’s impossible child. She is perhaps the only speaking female character who is not sexualised; she is a creator of memories, the best in her field, and she does it fully covered. Not that there is anything wrong with women showing skin; however, it should be her choice. Ana’s character certainly stands out. But, yet again, she is tied to Deckard, another male character.
Finally, Rachel, Sean Young’s character in the original Blade Runner, is re-created for Deckard. She is promptly killed when Deckard deems her to not be accurate to the real Rachel. None of the women in Blade Runner 2049 exist solely for themselves.
From one perspective, the world of Blade Runner 2049 is a dystopian one; a critique of artifice, racism, and environmental disregard. The endless, fluorescent advertisements. Anti-robot terms like “skinner” and “skin-job” that are thrown towards K in a metaphor for modern racism. The dangerous smoggy atmosphere. All of these elements of the film take today’s issues and exaggerate them, projecting what global warming and materialism may evolve into in 30 years time.
The same could be said about the blatant objectification and sexism present in the film Perhaps in the future, literal products like Joi could become a reality. So, perhaps the questionable displays of the women in this film are simple parodies of the way we treat women today.
But you can’t fight fire with fire; similarly, you can’t combat sexism with the display of sexism.
Blade Runner 2049 is a big step up from the original Blade Runner’s questionable depiction of women, with the most notorious example being the sexual assault scene. Deckard forces himself onto Rachel, using violence and force when she tries to leave. He forces her to give him consent to kiss her, even when she expresses her disinterest through her cold body language. It is a highly uncomfortable moment, yet disturbingly framed as romantic via the soft score. By comparison, the sexist portrayal of women in Blade Runner 2049 is highly progressive.
So, commenting on the sexualisation and objectification of women by sexualising and objectifying the women on screen is effective in a way. However, on the surface, it is still sexualisation and objectification. Do you really expect the casual viewer to look past the surface level of visual pleasure?
Once you apply a critical lens, Blade Runner 2049’s commentary on the treatment of women is relevant and effective. But on the surface, it simply subjects women to more of the sexualisation that they have suffered historically in cinema and in society.