My post about the first Blade Runner (1982) is still one of my favorite pieces on this site. (I know there aren’t a lot of pieces to choose from, but bear with me, I’m trying.) Blade Runner is a classic movie, in which I see a lot of negative things about women. Having recently seen Blade Runner 2049, twice now, I want to talk about this sequel and how it treats women.
There’s two ways we can do this. We can go about this tick-for-tack, or look at the broader picture, or both… so let’s try both. Broader picture: Blade Runner 2049 is an improvement over the original in its treatment of women. That’s a low bar, but it passes. It even passes the Bechdel test, a feat the original is far from accomplishing. The original never gets two named female characters in a room together, not even Pris and Zhora who are ostensibly in the same boat as runaway replicants. 2049 accomplishes this a handful of times. (Though, only Joi and Mariette’s conversation passes the test. “You can go now, I’m done with you.” “Careful now, I’ve been inside you. Not as much there as you think.”) Luv is also seen talking to an unnamed female character, wherein she’s basically selling slaves to a customer; worth mentioning but not a Bechdel-test candidate.
I feel like I’m sliding into tick-for-tack territory, so why not dive in?
- Blade Runner has three named female characters: Rachael, Pris, and Zhora. Two out of the three end up dead, or 66%.
- Blade Runner 2049 has seven named female characters: Lieutenant Joshi, Joi, Luv, Freysa, Mariette, Dr. Ana Stelline, and *spoilers* Rachael. Four out of the seven end up dead, or 57%… hardly an improvement.
- Blade Runner presents two out of the three female characters as antagonists (I’m counting Pris and Zhora as antagonists). Even if you feel a great deal of sympathy for Zhora for getting shot in the back, part of Decker’s mission is to hunt and kill her.
- Blade Runner 2049 presents one out of the seven female characters as an antagonist. Mariette may be rude to Joi, and Freysa presented as mysterious, but only Luv is a villain.
- Blade Runner features a disturbing sexual assault committed by its male protagonist, Deckard. (Blade Runner 2049 makes that even weirder by having Deckard and Rachael go on to have a child together.)
- Blade Runner 2049 does not feature sexual assault. That being said, a “newborn” female replicant is murdered by being stabbed in the abdomen by her creator after being shamed for infertility.
Blade Runner 2049 sharpens the focus on humanity and their violence against replicants, but it’s hard to ignore how many women it kills in telling its story. Robin Wright’s Joshi is killed by Luv, on her mission to find “the child.” Joi is killed by Luv, for no reason other than to hurt K. Sean Young’s Rachael dies during childbirth, *eyeroll* then remade by Wallace only to be killed again by Luv. After Luv kills three named female characters, she herself is drowned by K. It’s a scene you’re not exactly happy about; K fights viciously to get the upper hand on Luv. it’s not clean, it’s not victorious, but it’s still violence worth examining.
Coming out of Blade Runner 2049 the first time, I found myself thinking about how our movies have to do better than making the “strong female characters” the villains who themselves have violence visited upon them. Two times in the movie I felt sympathy for Luv: once, when she’s crying while watching Wallace murder the newborn replicant, and again when she lashes out at Lt. Joshi for attempting to kill the miracle-born child replicant. In both scenes, you really feel like she has the replicants’ best intentions in mind, even if she’s subservient to Wallace. She’s destroyed that her creator can’t match Tyrell’s accomplishment, and furious that Joshi’s first instinct is to destroy a miracle just to keep peace between humans and replicants. When K finally drowns Luv, it’s not as tragic as it should be — because she destroys Joi out of sheer cruelty — otherwise her death might have matched that of Roy Batty’s.
Another death I keep reflecting on is’ Rachael’s. It’s devastating, quick, and brutal – and it shows how little Deckard’s learned in 30 years. He rejects this replicant created by Wallace, because her eyes are the wrong color — brown instead of green. It’s a way of throwing this “gift” in Wallace’s face, but it’s so cruel of Deckard. She’s immediately killed by Luv, because Deckard rejects her, and what did he think would happen? The movie doesn’t linger on this, but if it really cared about replicants as people, or women, it may have explored how Deckard basically got someone killed because of her eye color — a person with memories, feelings, and a potential future. (It’s also worth noting that Blade Runner 2049 opens with a shot of a green eye opening.)
Walking out of the theatre a second time, an older woman commented: “That was good, but pretty sexist. I get that the older movie was sexist, but why did this one have to be too?”
Blade Runner 2049 is an amazing movie, and a great sequel that stays faithful to the original universe, so much so that it falls into the same traps as the original. Violence against women is constant and predictable, the threat of sexual violence lingers in the air, women are used as sexual decorations in every corner of the cyberpunk city scape, and we continue to have a preoccupation with male protagonists. Again, I love the movie, but these things really matter! They matter to viewers, a larger number of whom are looking out for these things nowadays, and if you make viewers happier by representing women in better ways, you might also sell more movie tickets! Instead of generating conversations like “Wow, that was some old-school sexism” imagine if Blade Runner 2049 had started conversations like “Wow, their vision of the future is bleak, but at least it wasn’t especially bleak for women!” I like to imagine that movie, and it’s too bad 2049 wasn’t that movie.