Is Blade Runner 2049 a feminist film?

Having recently re-watched Blade Runner 2049 I thought it would be apt to share this piece that I wrote for the UCL Gen Fem Soc about whether we can call this a feminist film.

Image result for blade runner 2049

Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 follows in the style of Ridley Scott’s original sci-fi classic not only in its breathtaking visuals and intriguing plot – but also, it seems, with the wide debate surrounding it. Such debates centre around one seemingly simple question: is this a feminist film?

Immediately, a number of cinema-goers will say “no, it isn’t” since the central plot of 2049 stems from a love story in the original between Deckard and Rachel which is famously problematic and continues to be criticised today. However, I had not yet watched the original before dipping my toe into the Blade Runner universe so I won’t explore that angle here.

The proliferation of a lack of strong female leads in Hollywood has led to an increased exploration of female representation in film. The Bechdel test, a mode of gauging such gender inequality in film, was created by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in her 1985 graphic comic Dykes to Watch Out For; the test proposes that 

there must be at least two named female characters who have a conversation about something besides a man. The Mako Mori test, on the other hand, emerged more recently on Tumblr and posits that a female character needs to have a narrative arc that isn’t directly supporting that of male characters. With the Bechdel Test, it’s a bit unclear whether 2049 passes or not. Yes, there are two female characters. In fact, there are plenty, and with names too. Yes, some of these characters do speak to one another, but in the two scenes where this does happen, they are talking about a man. You might say that in one of the conversations, between Robin Wright’s Lt. Joshi and Sylvia Hoeks’s Luv, as the characters aren’t expressly aware that they are talking about a man it doesn’t count, but both of these women serve and are working for other men. In fact, if these men weren’t present in the film, this scene would not take place at all. Applying the Mako Mori test has a more clear result; however, it’s sadly not a positive one. Despite there being a plethora of female characters with a lot of action to do during the film, none of them are working for themselves and none of them have their own motives except for pleasing a man in a higher position than themselves. Mackenzie Davis’s Mariette is the only character whose superior is a female, and also who has a choice in whether she wants to work for her or not. But can you call her few scenes an arc? I don’t think so.

Image result for mackenzie davis blade runner 2049Mackenzie Davis as Mariette in Blade Runner 2049

Right, it’s not going too well, is it? However, sometimes, these tests aren’t always the most effective when considering a film’s feminist presentation; sometimes you need to delve a little deeper into the film’s composition and what better way to do so than by examining the female characters themselves. First up: Lt. Joshi. Lt. Joshi is a very interesting character when it comes to gender representation; she holds a high position of power within the police department and is neither afraid to be assertive nor to show her softer side, emphatically telling Ryan Gosling’s K that he’s “doing fine without [a soul]”. But this kindness borders on desire, evidenced by a later scene wherein she invites herself into K’s home, pours herself a whiskey, and toys with the idea of staying over – entirely inconsiderate of whether K likes this idea. Journalist Helen Lewis pointed out how if this scenario was played out with the two characters’ genders being switched, the whole dynamic would change. It would emulate an uncomfortably real situation. Wright’s performance instead allows this idea to hang in the air. But when it is tethered with a desire of companionship, as opposed to solely pleasure, I think these complex layers are great for female representation, as well as building dynamic characters. She’s confident and considerate, she’s powerful and vulnerable, but she’s never pitiable.

Then we have Luv, played by the brilliant Slyvia Hoek, who takes the screen and fills it. Her presence is palpable; she is always calm and composed, yet ready to strike at any moment like a snake in a basket. Simply put: Luv is a badass. She’s more skilled than any other replicant when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, drone combat, and use of technological weapons for combat. Unassuming in her day job as a PA figure to Jared Leto’s Wallace (the leader of a company providing for the new replicant boom), her strong looks show an unyielding loyalty to her master, fuelling her descent into pure rage as she fails, again and again, to carry out his orders. And sadly, this is where the problem lies. Every action she undertakes is for a man, a master and father-like figure all rolled into one. Despite her position as a strong female figure and a wonderfully interesting antagonist, she is ultimately an employee. Nevertheless, since Leto is very rarely on screen, you’re almost tricked into forgetting this, allowing you to internally cheer as she kicks ass. It’s only on reflection that disappointment rears its ugly head.

You might think that the character Joi, brought as alive as can be for a holographic AI by Ana de Armas, would have a lot to do over the course of this movie especially with her being the only female in the posters plastered over the London buses. But surprisingly (well perhaps not that surprisingly) she doesn’t. As I mentioned, Joi is a holographic AI that K has bought at some point prior to this movie, and who is in a relationship with him, if you can call it that. Again Joi’s presentation in the film has a lot of people divided; on one side she is humanised to the extent that when she tells K “I love you” both K himself and the audience believe it. However, we also see K cringe when his Joi-stick buzzes in public, revealing his shame in his own need of her. We then see how Joi can alter her appearance and behaviour depending on K’s emotional needs and in a bizarre moment of intentional pathos we see a building-sized Joi parading a naked store-use form of herself in attempt to encourage passers-by to invest in a hologram that “says everything that you want to hear”. Here it’s a similar situation as with Luv – despite all her characterisation you’re too often reminded that she is something that can be bought, and maybe K uses her honourably by truly falling in love with her, but she’s still being used, and for me that uncomfortably undermined their relationship as well as her characterisation.

Image result for ana de armas and ryan gosling blade runner 2049
Ana de Armas and Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049

Mackenzie Davis’s Mariette, known for San Junipero/ the best Black Mirror episode, plays a replicant prostitute created, like Joi, for pleasure. She’s a tough one, biting back when insulted or intimidated by others and playing others when they think she’s the one being played, and she’s also very intelligent. It quickly becomes clear that she’s playing the long game. Davis’ performance is so nuanced and I loved seeing her onscreen, I just wish we had seen more of her. Of all the characters, I think Mariette was most obviously a feminist. Her small narrative shows her doing what she needs to do not only to survive but also to help stand up for replicants as a race; she is fighting against what original creator Ridley Scott called “patriarchal technology” in search for equality! Isn’t that what it’s all about?

When I left the cinema theatre I admit I was disappointed, not only by some of the female representations and near total lack of BME representation, but also by the plot itself. I didn’t understand why it mattered whether Leto’s character found the ability to create replicants capable of giving birth, or why people cared if he did. But whilst I’ve been reflecting on it I’ve understood this more and more and have now come to appreciate it as an important and intriguing central theme to have in 2049. Villeneuve shows the power of women through a simple biological fact, but in this dystopian world where the idea of humanity is constantly questioned, this ability alone gives women and replicants something to fight for. What’s more, in Leto’s character we see a power hungry man, driven mad with jealousy of women because there is still one thing he himself cannot do, – to procreate in order to create more replicants than ever before to therefore allow humanity to spread onto more than just the “9 planets [but also into] the stars”. He is an example of art imitating life, a symbol for a misogynistic world that seems increasingly plausible.

So what can we say, is this a feminist film? It certainly isn’t a total failure, but then again it isn’t a total success. We have some positive representations and some negatives, we even have some that truly depend on the sensibilities of the viewer. Perhaps this was the whole point. Feminism isn’t as rigid as some might think and there are always going to be some grey areas. I genuinely cannot decide where I stand on the question myself; I think I’ll just have to see it again, as should you if you’re at all intrigued! I will say that I’m excited by the set up for a female-led sequel. We could go further in-depth into the gender roles in this dystopian future, especially seeing as a female-led ‘replicant’ rebellion seems pretty likely to occur. Whether we see that or not, I do hope the creative team decide not to include anymore gratuitously gory death sequences of our badass girls.

Originally published on Shine Zine

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3 thoughts on “Is Blade Runner 2049 a feminist film?

  1. Really enjoyed this post. I did enjoy the film as a whole and as you said there is some beautiful shots and cinematography. However I definitely felt that parts of the film were problematic in terms of the female characters. Whilst most of the females are strong characters it is a shame they all serve men. I often think about the bechmal test when watching films, it’s mad how many fail it!xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you enjoyed it ☺️ Yeah, I definitely enjoyed it more the second time around after having thought a lot about the film but still am hoping that if they make a sequel they’ll give it to the girls! And yeah, the amount of successful Bechdel test films is so poor, even in the big blockbusters, it’s such a shame. xx

      Like

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