Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 has been a resounding success. Critics have already heralded the movie as a future classic, and although it is not doing as well as expected at the box office, it is still doing well — considering it is a nearly three hours long, slow, and meditative sci-fi movie.
But Blade Runner 2049 (spoilers for both Blade Runner movies ahead) has been accused of having two-dimensional female characters, something not exactly uncommon in sci-fi movies. This was something that the first Blade Runner movie was undoubtedly guilty of, but has the sequel also failed at the decent depiction of women? With male protagonists, male writers, a male director, plus violence against some of the film’s female characters, who are all archetypes, the case doesn’t look that promising for the sequel.
The criticism of the Blade Runner movies for its portrayal of women is not without reason. Female archetypes are most definitely not in short supply, the movie includes a whore, a mother Mary, a matriarch, a femme fatale, and a doting girlfriend/wife. There is also plenty of female nudity, several fairly gruesome murders, and a failure of the Bechdel test (some argue it’s a pass because Mariette and Joi talk don’t talk directly about K, but that’s pretty dubious to me).
What these criticisms miss is that Blade Runner 2049 subverts these archetypes. The female characters are, for the most part, complex and non-conforming to their stereotypes. Robin Wright is particularly good as K’s boss, Lieutenant Joshi, and the moment she seems to nearly command K to sleep with her sits well next to Joi having to do whatever makes K happy.
Joi is without a doubt a two-dimensional female character, and purposefully so, she is completely undeveloped as a character. K is trying to fit in with society and is told that she is what he needs. In opposition from Joi, we have Mariette (played by Mackenzie Davis), a prostitute who takes part in what has got to be one of the weirdest threesomes in the history of cinema, but who is obviously a three-dimensional character with her own motivations and personality, even though she is a replicant like K.
Where Blade Runner 2049 appears to fail women it is merely exposing bad male behavior in the movie — and in society. Luv is there to expose Wallace and his God complex as nothing other than a bully, Joi exists because K is lonely and the cutout of a housewife is what this world has to offer a non-human. The use of gender and these archetypes in the movie allows a deeper examination of the themes of slavery and subjugation that the movie is preoccupied with.
The Pitfalls Of The Past
Like the first Blade Runner, 2049 examines themes of identity, ideas of slavery, and asks what it means to be human. Slavery and what it means to be free is something that informs every moment of the movie, and gender is used to explore that further. Blade Runner 2049 goes a whole step further than the first movie, by adding the added depths of Joi (Ana de Armas), a hologram girlfriend there to give Ryan Gosling’s K whatever he wants to hear/see. This gives us not only the idea of the replicant but also a computer program created to serve as a cure for loneliness or a way to get off. When Joi tells K that she is so happy when she is with him, K replies that she “doesn’t have to say that”. We have to ask ourselves if Joi has autonomy, or is she simply a slave — is she truly intelligent and her own being and loves K, does she have to pretend she loves him or is she simply a set of responses with no actual identity?
The gender politics in Blade Runner 2049 are intentional. The movie is about secondary citizens. Replicants. Orphans. Women. Slaves. Just by depicting these secondary citizens in subjugation doesn’t mean that it is supportive of these depictions — they are a condemnation. The future in Blade Runner 2049 is not now the future we are heading to, but the future we were heading to when Phillip K Dick wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and Ridley Scott made the original movie. Blade Runner 2049 is the perfect place to examine the out of date portrayal of women, because, whilst we like to think we have completely moved on, that attitude is still prevalent in society.