The Sci-Fi Heartbreak of Blade Runner 2049

Damn, Science Fiction. And you were doing so well.

I’ve loved you since I can remember. Was time-traveling in A Swiftly Tilting Planet my gateway drug? Was it watching reruns of the original Star Trek, with its crew in faded primary colors roaming the universe in the Enterprise? Or was it the Twilight Zone that wrapped its arms around me and pulled me toward you that very first time?

Whatever started it, Sci-Fi, you had me. I fell for you, young, and hard; so hard I didn’t think twice about donning a bathrobe in the social minefield of junior high to perform a book report on Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. What did I have to lose: I’d already cemented my geekhood by writing and illustrating a six-page edition of an alien newspaper inspired by Nor Crystal Tears. My bookshelves were stuffed with Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein, and all the rest down the alphabet. Even now, thinking about the blocky, retro-futuristic lettering on the covers of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthology series fills me with a sense of wonder and nostalgia. I even started writing what would have been a truly embarrassing YA sci-fi novel in junior high.

Yes, I admit it, Science Fiction: at one point, I thought I had outgrown you. I left all my books behind when I went away to college. And I confess, after graduation I let the exigencies of work and life get in the way, but deep down I always loved you. I was secretly glad when one of my nephews got into you too and kept my old books. It wasn’t a breakup, really; just a hiatus. Sure enough, I came back to you as a grown woman, re-reading you in my thirties, smiling at the fresh wonder of you—even writing you again.

But something had changed. Or maybe it was me that had changed. Growing up, I wore both jeans and dresses, played with dolls and video games, wore high heels while blowing into my trombone, and felt as comfortable in calculus class as in English and art. Maybe that’s why I never noticed that you weren’t written for me, Science Fiction. When I read you as a kid, I could be the captain on the bridge, or the scientist making the discovery, just as well any of my male friends could. But coming back to you as a woman, I began to notice how you really saw me: rarely the scientist, and almost never the captain. Instead, I was the simple-minded female who couldn’t grasp the concepts her brilliant doctor/boyfriend/husband was trying to explain to her. Or I was running around the universe in impractical miniskirts when the men got to wear protective pants. Or I was the sexy, pliant green alien to whom the captain had to demonstrate “Earth love.”

As I rediscovered you, Science Fiction, I found myself having to read past Dick’s tired trope of passive, materialistic housewife to Decker’s stoic, noir detective in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (the novel that inspired the movie Blade Runner). I rolled my eyes at Huxley’s preoccupation with “pneumatic breasts” in A Brave New World, and couldn’t even finish Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land because I got tired of the smart, capable female assistants doing all the work while the blowhard producer/mogul Jubal, lounging around with his bikini babes, got all the credit. I came upon the hard realization that you, Science Fiction, the genre I’d loved so much, were primarily about white men discovering, exploring, and philosophizing. Women were either objectified or an afterthought, and people of color barely existed at all. As I reacquainted myself with you, Sci-Fi, I realized that while part of me was still that eager, wide-eyed explorer, walking/flying/teletransporting through your halls of wonders, another part of me had become the very thing you always seemed to ignore: a woman.

Yes, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley owned Alien—who could forget her holding a blaster in one arm and a child in the other; or climbing into the giant robotic exoskeleton and snarling, “Get away from her, you bitch!” at a hulking alien with multiple sets of jagged, slime-covered teeth. And yes, Nichelle Nichol’s Uhuru was a professional on board the Enterprise—a Communications Officer, an equal member of the crew. But here we’re speaking of exceptions. It took a bit of searching to find strong, intelligent, realistic women in your pages, but I found them in Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood, and Samuel Delaney—pages written by women and people of color. And now, in the current time, both you and I are catching up, with more movies featuring smart, powerful female characters, like Ex Machina and Gravity and Arrival, and writers like Nnedi Okorafor and N.K. Jemisin and Nalo Hopkinson claiming top awards like the Hugo and the Nebula and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

So why, then, did you have to take such a big step backward? You see, I went to see Blade Runner 2049. And that’s why I’m writing to you today.

I wanted to love it. I really did. My stomach fluttered when I saw the previews, and I clenched a celebratory fist when Harrison Ford emerged from the shadows in the trailer. I even re-watched the original Blade Runner from 1982 in preparation, diving back into Ridley Scott’s dark, gritty, neon-saturated LA of the future. Sure, this time I was a little surprised by the love scene between Decker and Rachel. I hadn’t remembered it being so—rough. I squirmed a little as he slammed the door to prevent her from leaving, shoved her against the wall and kissed her, then forced her to say “Kiss me” and “I want you.” I knew that by today’s standards, that would be called a rape scene. But, I thought, it was filmed at a time when the whole idea of consent was a little fuzzier. And Decker was merely forcing her to embrace her own humanity—right? I finally made the excuse to myself that they both knew she was an android, and could have beaten him to a pulp if she really didn’t want to be there.

Re-watching the original, as a woman rather than as a kid, I was conscious of the ubiquitous scantily-clad prostitutes (it’s the seedy city, right?), and the graphic scene where Decker shoots a half-naked android as she crashes through multiple full-length windows (that’s his job, right?), and the scene where the camera lingers on the spectacle of Darryl Hannah flopping and writhing in a skin-tight leotard as she dies (again, that’s his job, right?), before Rutger Hauer’s android dies in a dignified manner with the great questions of life and humanity on his lips. But at least they did away with Decker’s needy, hollow-eyed wife in the movie. I suppose that was my one consolation. And it was decades ago, I told myself; things are better now. Sci-Fi, you are better now, I thought. Blade Runner 2049 will surely be better.

Which is why, Sci-Fi, it hurt so much when I discovered it was actually worse. Blade Runner 2049 should have known better, but it simply didn’t care. This movie is not for women. It was not made with a female audience in mind. It’s all about our bodies, but it’s not for us at all.

Yes, it’s set in a dystopian future in which human-like replicants (androids) are worked and abused like expendable machines. So, of course, there will be scenes of replicants being worked and abused and, because it’s Blade Runner, being killed. I was prepared for that. And yes, the Earth has become a cold, dark, cruel, toxic place where only those who couldn’t get permission to live off-planet are left behind. It wasn’t surprising that there would be a certain rough and tumble “mining town” ethos to the planet, and I was prepared to see the usual gaggle of hookers that directors always drag in to establish that kind of setting.

Knowing the noir sci-fi dystopian genre, I was prepared for a certain amount of the male gaze. I was willing to sit through it to engage with the greater questions of humanity’s complicated relationship with technology, the corrosive dehumanization of capitalism, modern social and ecological degradation, the definition of life and the soul—and some kick-ass CGI.

But damn, Sci-Fi, this time you outdid yourself—in the wrong direction.

Early in the film we see the protagonist, an android cop named K, in his apartment with his virtual companion Joi, something like Siri with a hologram component. She’s serving him his dinner and pirouetting in various outfits ranging from 1950’s housewife (yes, in 2049 this is still the ideal) to slinky sex kitten in an attempt to please him. Joi is portrayed by the luminously beautiful Cuban actress Ana de Armas—because it only makes sense for the objectified female to have a perfect body and a seductive, exotic accent. She’s a housebound system until K buys an upgrade, granting her a strange, limited kind of “freedom” traveling around with him via a remote drive in his pocket. She is programmed to love him as realistically as possible, going so far as to hire a physical replicant prostitute with which she syncs herself so they can “make love” in a virtual three-way. The seduction scene is uncanny, with two women’s bodies layered over one another, their movements slightly out of sync as they strip for the protagonist (and for any interested members of the patriarchy who might also be watching the film).

Both this scene and the initial housewife scene last quite a while, giving the audience ample time to ooh and ahh over the technology and the beautiful bodies involved. Joi is, as critic Sara Stewart describes her, “a sci-fi fanboy’s wet dream.” Yes, as many male movie reviewers have been quick to point out, this is a thought-provoking commentary on our increasing reliance on technology for companionship. But Science Fiction, don’t you see, it’s an equally disturbing commentary on the limitations of men’s conceptions of the ideal woman.

But this is how a dystopian future would be, you remind me. Of course we would use machines for sexual pleasure, you say—but whoa, K himself is also a machine, sending us down a fascinating philosophical rabbit hole. But that’s not what I’m focusing on here, you say, just go with the imagery for artistic purposes. Okay, but then isn’t it a little rich that when the female police lieutenant shows a modicum of sexual interest in K—her subordinate in this dystopian future, who has to obey her commands—she is rebuffed out of hand? Or as critic Anna Smith insightfully puts it in her review in The Guardian, “Meanwhile [Robin] Wright’s Joshi appears attracted to K, but she is not permitted to use him for her sexual pleasure. Where is her holographic lover, her Joi?” This future, it seems, is dystopian—but not so degraded that a woman would be allowed to take advantage of a male android to satisfy her needs.

Never mind that, you say. There’s another scene I want you to see: A new replicant—a naked, idealized, adult female—slips out of a suspended plastic womb and crumples into a pile on the floor. She’s shaking, weak and vulnerable, slick with artificial amniotic fluid. The male villain, fully-dressed, commands her to stand. He examines her, as do we through the camera’s close-up shot, panning slowly up her shapely, shuddering, powerless body. The villain delivers a purposely creepy monologue, in which he criticizes his creation for her barrenness while he “proceeds to fondle her abdomen” as critic Jill Gutowitz reminds us. There were once androids who could conceive and give birth, the villain explains to the audience. Despite his engineering efforts, his new creation is not one of them. He kisses her, then slices her open where her cold empty womb is (paraphrasing his words). After an agonizingly long time, her knees buckle and she slumps to the floor to bleed out.

You tell me, Science Fiction—or at least, your male movie critics tell me—that I need to understand this intellectually. This is a dystopia, after all, and this scene was meant to show me that this is A Bad Man. Interesting. With all of the creative resources at your disposal, Sci-Fi, was this really the only way you could tell me that this is the villain? I get it: he’s a messianic lunatic who wants to control the future of planetary expansion by harnessing the power of android reproduction. If replicants can create more replicants, the supply of slave labor is limitless. Chilling, yes. But really, Science Fiction: for all of your innovation, could you really not imagine any other paradigm for reproduction than the existing female body? Could you not think of any other way to determine the worth of a female body than by its ability to bear children? And could you not think of any other way to telegraph evil than to slaughter a female android for the failings of the man who engineered her?

Oh, but I’m ignoring the Chosen One narrative, you tell me, the thread of the search for the android who has been born rather than engineered; the idea being that a replicant who is born might have a soul, like a human. Setting aside the fact that the Chosen One narrative is nothing new (honestly, Science Fiction, this again?), do you need to linger on the cutting apart of a female body to make that point? Because, Sci-Fi, what pushes me away from you is not just the what, but the how—the what being the retrograde social constructs within which you still too often live, and the how being the loving care with which movies like Blade Runner 2049 craft—indeed, insist and linger upon—the visuals of those constructs.

You ask me to just go with it in scenes like the ones above; and with the director Denis Villeneuve’s fascination with prostitutes and their Johns fucking behind frosted glass; and with his wasteland of old Las Vegas littered gratuitously with giant statues of women in servile sexual poses, on their knees, mouths cupped open ready to receive, unclothed save for stiletto heels; and with the holographic billboard of a skyscraper-tall, naked Joi cooing and posing for the protagonist—and for the gaze of your intended male viewer. And although the stylish image of the lieutenant’s murder was effective, there was a certain uncomfortable sense of lingering on the scene where K drowns Luv, the only other female android as powerful as he is.

Why, Science Fiction, do you think Villeneuve held these shots longer than needed to make their points? Do you think, perhaps, that he was relishing in the cinematic beauty of the abuse and debasement of female bodies, with no thought of the women who already know, all too well, what degradation and powerlessness mean? It’s not just me being “too sensitive,” Science Fiction: Google search will complete your entry when you start to type in “Blade Runner misogyny,” and loads of articles like the ones I’ve already quoted pop up. Now, some of the reviews were written in defense of the film’s female imagery, lest we viewers of the weaker sex get too emotional to comprehend the meaning behind our on-screen abuse. Those reviews tend to be the ones written by men, but to be fair, not all men. Critic Devon Maloney cuts through the baloney in his review for Wired: “[F]or all the attention paid to updating the sequel’s physical details, its three-hour plot does little to concern itself with anything beyond the depths of its white male protagonists, reducing white women to tired archetypes and utterly sidelining nonwhite characters.”

One ray of light, Sci-Fi: at least you didn’t make me sit through the requisite strip club scene again. The closest we came to that were the holographic Vegas show girls, but they were still clothed. Slow clap to this film for at least not succumbing to that one scene in every movie involving an investigation where topless women grind on poles while the male lead(s) search for clues and ruminate on life.

But still, Science Fiction, you of all genres: I thought you had more imagination. I thought you knew better. Were better. Hell, even Villeneuve was better—he managed to direct the visually stunning and thought-provoking Arrival without having to disrobe his strong, complex, intelligent female lead. Amy Adams isn’t afraid of deploying her body in a role, but this role didn’t require it, so neither did the director. No, she got to be a holistic blend of brain and heart, a sought-after linguist who decodes an alien language no one else could break. She was the real deal: a determined and motivated scholar, who was also—not primarily—a wife and mother, and could see into the past, present and future. Your boy Villeneuve did all that and still got to have his amazing visuals.

And now this, the regression into woman as stage prop for space-age machismo that is Blade Runner 2049.

I know you can do better, Sci-Fi. I mean, look at what you did with Westworld. You put lots of sex and nudity into that, along with plenty of reminders that androids are only there to allow humans (mostly men) to act out their basest instincts. You also made the actual human-android point by portraying equal nudity: both male and female androids of all ages and body types—not only young, idealized, Caucasian female bodies—are regularly unclothed/dehumanized for servicing. That’s intellectual honesty as opposed to titillation (okay, I know you need some titillation for ratings, so go ahead). But at least it’s not lingered on and fetishised like soft core porn—or snuff porn, like that one needlessly long scene I won’t go into again.

I thought we had an understanding, Sci-Fi. I thought you were ready to move beyond the just-be-happy-with-Le-Guin-and-Butler-and-Atwood stage. Wasn’t it you that went ahead and released a female-centered Ghost Busters, despite all the fanboy howling that it would ruin their childhood memories? Wasn’t it you who went ahead and released a Star Wars sequel with a female and a black lead, despite everyone who vowed to boycott it? Wasn’t it you who stopped the “Sad Puppies” and “Rabid Puppies” from voting down the female writers and authors of color they felt were sullying their precious Hugo awards?

Yes, that was you. I saw you doing all that.

So why did you have to go and backslide with Blade Runner 2049? You were doing so well, and then you let me down by devaluing me, slicing me up, and staging my body as an element of scenery. Award-winning movies with dazzling visuals do not have to be synonymous with the degradation of half of humanity (just ask Gravity over there with its multiple Academy Awards). Just as African-Americans don’t need to see an alternate history of slavery via a series like Confederate, women don’t need to see future images of our bodies abused and dehumanized. Both parties know all too well what it means to be powerless.

And I haven’t even really gotten started on this angle: the only black people in Blade Runner 2049 are a replicant prostitute, a child-sweatshop boss, and a black-market dealer. Apparently, not many of us make it to the future. Or maybe we’re just off-planet.

Le sigh…

And yet…

I still love you, Science Fiction.

I can’t help it. Here I am, a grown-ass woman writer in my forties, and I’m still involved with you. My brain imagines you, my fingers type you, my eyes watch you, and my feet take me to your movies and your conferences. But too often, the only parts of my body you care about are my breasts to tantalize you, my legs to bend before your heroes, and my womb to bear your Chosen Ones. You’re trying to be better, I know, but there are still too many times I don’t exist in your pages or on your screens; or when I do, I’m relegated to prize, helpmate or whore.

Science Fiction, I’m here for you—too often despite you. I’m here for what you show me you can be. I’m here for your stories about the wonder of space exploration, the unknown mysteries in our oceans, and the untold worlds under our microscopes. I’m here for your ruminations on the tweaks we twist into DNA—and the tricks it might play on us in return. I’m here for the what-ifs: What if we could clone dinosaurs? What if we found another form of life in the stars? What if we created a new form of life here on Earth? What if, what if, what if?

I’m still here because of the work you’ve already done to outgrow the gender and racial myopia in your past. And I won’t go back to those days when I had to continually overlook the absence or degradation of my gender in order to enjoy you. So now, I’m writing your stories myself, and making them better. I’m voting with my dollars by reading Atwood, Hopkinson, Le Guin, Delany, Butler, Jemisin, and Okorafor, and going to movies like Arrival and Ex Machina and Gravity—and notice how clever I am, taking this opportunity to repeat their names so you can do more like them. I’m also rooting for women like Gal Godot, the actress who refused to work on the next Wonder Woman movie unless Brett Ratner, the producer accused by multiple women of sexual harassment, was out of the picture. Oh, and I’m poo-pooing the purists who would scrunch up their noses at bringing Wonder Woman into a sci-fi battle. Sorry boys, we women have our lassoes out, and we’re not backing down.

So how about it, Science Fiction? Why not keep fighting the good fight with us? Let’s show everyone why I still love you.

I’ll even let you throw in some kickass CGI.


Tara Campbell (www.taracampbell.com) is a fiction editor at Barrelhouse and an MFA candidate at American University. Prior publication credits include SmokeLong Quarterly, Masters Review, b(OINK), Booth, Spelk, Toasted Cake Podcast, and Luna Station Review. Her debut novel, TreeVolution, was published in 2016, and her collection, Circe’s Bicycle, will be released in spring 2018

 

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