Director Ridley Scott’s beloved cult-classic Blade Runner, as well as its long-awaited sequel Blade Runner 2049, both situate its theme of “what does it means to be human?” at the forefront of their films (Slade 13). This intricate exploration of what true consciousness entails is undeniably engrossing, yet an equally intriguing component of the Blade Runner universe which is absent from philosophical debates and academic papers are the films’ sex politics.
Scott’s classic is immediately recognized as a science fiction film, but at the same time elements of film-noir are indisputably expressed through its dark lighting, claustrophobic frame space, distorted angles, jazzy and somber score, urbany city space, rainy locales, leading detective protagonist, and most notably, the presence of femme fatales and redeemers—two female roles intrinsic to the genre (Zetiz 76). As a neo-noir, therefore, the images and representations of women in Blade Runner should come into question. Does the film reinforce stereotypical noir representations of women or subvert them? Are women actively engaged with the film’s complex exploration of consciousness or passive actors in this space (Zetiz 75)? Unlike the Blade Runner universe , this paper will situate female characters at the central of its discourse by questioning if their images and representations have progressed, remained static, or regressed from the original Blade Runner to director Denis Villeneuve’s 2017 follow up Blade Runner 2049. Further analysis of the first Blade Runner reveals the film reproduces the politics of male dominated hegemony on screen. Yet, Villenueve’s sequel is quite empowering to the feminine as it attaches the popular “chosen-one” character, a title customarily tied with men, to a woman.
The Women of Blade Runner (1982)
The original Blade Runner is a loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” and is set in Los Angeles of 2019. In this dystopian future, the Tyrell Corporation has created a series of Nexus 6 replicants, androids virtually identical to humans, who were designed to work as slave labor on “off-world” colonies. After a bloody revolution was sparked by replicants on a distant planet, they were all deemed illegal back on Earth. In response to their four year expiration date, six fugitive replicants travel back to Earth hoping to expand their lifespan. If spotted, a special police force known as “Blade Runners” are ordered to “retire”, or kill, replicants on sight. Two replicants died on the journey to Earth leaving four Nexus 6 fugitives roaming at large—Roy Batty, Leon, Zhora and Pris.Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a Blade Runner, reluctantly agrees to hunting these four replicants down at first but in true noir fashion is persuaded by his chief to take on the case. Before beginning his search, Deckard is sent to the Tyrell Corporation where he is to utilize the Voight-Kampff (V.K.) machine—a polygraph like device able to deduce if a subject is human- on a Nexus 7 model, Rachael.
Rather than transport viewers to the anticipated V.K. test through a temporal edit, director Ridley Scott chooses to film several moments of Deckard in a flying vehicle, or “Spinner”, gliding over a golden soaked Los Angeles at the prime of dusk. If there is any moment which showcases Blade Runner’s ability to coalesce genres, it is precisely when the film swiftly cuts from Deckard gliding over L.A. in his Spinner, and hence from images of science-fiction, and jumps to his silhouetted figure in the dark and undisputedly noir space of the Tyrell building. A woman, who we soon know to be Rachael, emerges from the shadows and sports a padded suit, red lipstick and loud hairstyle (Kellner et al 4). Her entrance prompts a shift from the ethereal score of the last scene and becomes more delicate and chime filled. Here, both non-diegetic sound, as indicative of the sensual sounding score, and Rachael’s appearance construct an image of her which is striking semblant to the representations of femme-fatales present in noir films of the 1940s (Kellner et al. 4). Similar to these femme-fatales, or “fatal women”, Rachel successfully “draws the male protagonist’s as well as the audience’s attention to herself” through her central frame positioning (Zetiz 81). Thus, when she approaches Deckard and the camera when the two exchange a few words, Rachel is both appealing to his attention and the male audience member’s as her body acts as the central object of several frames. Eldon Tyrell, the architect behind replicants and hence the creator of Rachel, soon joins the space and proceeds to monitor Deckard’s V.K. test. Deckard insists that he perform the test on a Nexus model, yet Tyrell wants to see the test fail and offers Rachel as the subject. At this moment in the film, Deckard does not suspect Rachael as a replicant.
Scott’s direction calls for a attention to be drawn towards Rachel’s eyes as the V.K. test transpires. Firstly through a telescreen piece of the V.K. machine which enlarges her eyes, and secondly through the low-lighting and stark shadows present in the interrogation space which accentuate a golden and synthetic glow emanating from her pupils. The colour of her eyes explicitly illustrate her artificialness and externalize her potentially fatal intentions through their fierce and ferocious appearance. On the very last question of the test, the V.K. machine seemingly malfunctions and Tyrell politely asks that Rachel leave him and Deckard to speak privately. Tyrell proceeds to inform Deckard that Rachael is in fact an experimental Nexus 7 model replicant who is only recently beginning to suspect her artificiality. Rachael, quite like most femme-fatales in noir-film, is both thematically and literally ejected from the central politics of the film, or “what does it means to be human?”,which is left to be discussed by two men, Deckard and Tyrell. A similar scene in Deckard’s apartment seems to highlight Blade Runner’s insistence that women have no right to engage with discourse encircling its central themes. In this scene, Rachael brings a photo of her mother to justify her birth to which Deckard, speaking from knowledge gained from his previous conversation with Tyrell, impatiently states that she is a replicant and reveals the little girl in the photo to be Tyrell’s niece and not her (Parker-Flynn 2) . As opposed to having a complex character arc which prompts viewers to actively orient her around a philosophical exploration of consciousness, as many of the male characters in the film are provided, Rachael’s identity is candidly revealed both to the audience and to herself. Rachel leaves the apartment abashed by Deckard’s statement and is absent in the film until later in its second act, when the other female replicants are explored. Unlike Rachael, who soon rejects the fatale role and becomes a redeemer, or the male “ safe haven”, the other female replicants, Zhora and Pris, are killed by Deckard (Zetiz 80).
Earlier in the film, Deckard’s chief shares the bios of the four surviving replicant fugitives roaming at large in L.A. Contrasting the combat oriented off-world occupations of Roy Batty and Leon, the two male replicant fugitives, Zhora and Pris are said to have functioned as an “assassin” and “pleasure model” respectfully. Zhora shows no explicit interests with expanding her nearing expiration date and chooses to spend her last living days working as an exoctic dancer at a city night club. In the short scene viewers are introduced to Zhora, her naked body is painted orange and decorated with glitter. Her reptilian esque appearance ironically compliments the python she champions around her neck. An undercover Deckard poses as a labor rights worker and casually follows Zhora into her dressing room after a show. After washing off her makeup and body paint, she politely asks Deckard to dry her body and suddenly turns around to strike him in the gut and neck. As she closes in on a disoriented Deckard, her eyes widen in lust and she grits her teeth. The slight hiss of her python in the background is mixed into the sound design and appears to be coming from her own lips. She proceeds to choke Deckard by his tie and shortly sprints off after witnesses amass. A stylized chase sequence ends in Deckard retiring, or killing, her character after he plugs several bullets into her back. For the short screentime she possesses, Zhora effectively embodies the “sexualized, active danger to men” femme-fatales represent. The film links her sexuality, and more specifically her female body, with violence as seen through (1) her wearing of the python which successfully externalizes her hostility and (2) the moment she distracts Deckard with her body only to viciously attack him (Kellner et al. 7). At a surface level reading, Deckard kills Zhora simply because he is ordered as a Blade Runner to retire replicants, but when reading this scene in context with the moral codes of film-noir, Deckard, as many male protagonists do in the genre, “ousts” Zhora as her fatale role represents a larger threat to patriarchal order (Zetiz 81). Pris, the “pleasure model”, is handled in a similar way.
Pris is shown to have the most difficulties assimilating to human society on Earth in comparison to her replicant counterparts. She roams the streets of the L.A. almost like child who has lost her parent until J.F. Sebastian, a toy maker who happens to work for the Tyrell corporation, brings her into his home after finding her laying in a pile of garbage bags. Provided that Blade Runner extensively explores the fictitious race relations between humans, (the oppressors) and replicants (the oppressed), Sebastian’s saving of Pris exemplifies the sexist politics of the movie. Sebastian’s gesture does not only implicitly argue that a woman in need is incapable of saving herself when in need, but also his helping human hand subordinates Pris as a replicant. Roy and Leon certainly behave in an anomalous fashion similar to Pris, but they are in need of no human guidance when landing on Earth and continuously attempt to fight, or even, kill their oppressors—further elucidation to come. Pris does not challenge the human race but is, rightfully so, threatening towards the Patriarchy. In Pris’ first and last encounter with Deckard, she completes a series of acrobatic back flips and successfully lands both her thighs between his head. This scene, as the earlier sequence with Zhora had, associates Pris’ body, and undeniably her vagina— as Deckard’s position in-between her legs indicates—with violence (Kellner et al. 7). When Deckard breaks free of Pris’ hold he shoots her several times in the stomach. While a literal reading of Pris’ retirement can be understood as Deckard fulfilling orders, a more thematic comprehension of her death could be identified as an ultraviolent attack on the female body; Deckard not only kills Pris but lashes back at the vagina which almost murdered him by shooting her in the womb. The deaths of both Pris and Zora, therefore, are a consequence of two sets of political worlds. The first, and the more explicit one, is the political world of 2019 L.A. which deems these fugitive replicants illegal and orders Blade Runners to retire them on sight. The second and more implicit political world is that of film noir which kills Zhora and Pris as their sexually violent personas have no place in a patriarchal world which demands for a domesticated and compliant female partner (Zetiz 75). A possibly third political world, not tied to genre, is Blade Runner’s distinct sexist politics which constructs layered male characters who each contribute and engage with the film’s overarching themes. Audiences are actively challenged to deconstruct their character arcs and meanings while no such similar treatment of Zhora and Pris’ characters exist. In the same way replicants are treated as lesser to humans in this dystopian future, it can be said that female characters, in terms of narrative power, are subordinated to male characters.
A quick overview of the male characters in Blade Runner reveals that their engagement with the film’s deeper, underlying meanings is much more thorough than the female characters’. Roy Batty, although psychotic and violent at first, clearly acts to extend his life expectancy and builds upon many of the film’s subtexts. For example, Roy’s crushing of Tyrell’s eye sockets symbolize a greater implicit meaning which argues that humans hold no true power over replicants, although the former may be subservient. Interestingly, Tyrell designed his replicant eyes but Roy maintains his synthetic pupils hold power as, he tells Deckard in a later scene, they have, “seen things you little people wouldn’t believe”. Roy stresses his apparent uniqueness and critiques the mundane lives of humans, the “little people”, who will never know the beauty of the universe he experienced off world. In their later encounter, Roy outsmarts and outmuscles Deckard proving replicants are superior to humans. Deckard,in an attempt to escape, attempts to jump from one rooftop to another and only manages to get a hand on the edge of a building. Roy completes the same jump, grabs Deckard’s hand and pulls him to safety. Whilst Roy delivers a powerful monologue in the rain, Deckard stares back baffled that he didn’t kill him. Roy smiles at Deckard as he enjoys his last living moments. He dies and a dove, which he grabbed in a previous scene, soars to the sky. Although Roy does not get to extend his life expectancy, his death is both symbolic and poetic. Provided that doves often are associated with life and peace, the animal’s ascension could be read as Roy’s journey to eternal life thus deconstructing the notion that replicants are lesser than humans as both hold a spot in heaven. Quite poetically, Roy fully becomes a self-realized and free acting being by renouncing his militaristic and psychotic programming and instead choosing to be kind and sympathetic by saving Deckard’s life (Kellner et al. 6) . This renouncement and the ascension of the bird prompt the question if Roy, and replicants therefore, are equally sentient to humans.
Leon is by no means the leader of the pack, but actively engages with Blade Runner’s politics unlike Zhora and Pris whose short lived screentime ends in their brutal retirements. For example, Leon is shown to have a strong sentimental attachment with several photographs. The content of the images are never explicitly revealed but it is understood that his character cares deeply for them as they are physical reminders that he has experiences and memories. His photographs are a small keepsake, and honestly insignificant to the larger narrative, but they represent a larger conquest and fight to be fully human.
Leon’s moment of self-realization never comes about as he is prematurely retired by Rachael in his brawl with Deckard—a fight which almost resulted in the latter’s death. It should be noted that after this fight, the castrated and emasculated Deckard reasserts his dominance by sexually advancing on a reluctant Rachael, passionately whispers “kiss me” as she attempts to leave his apartment, and quickly forces himself on to her after she echoes “kiss me” back. Rachael fully rebukes the femme-fatale mantle which actively challenges patriarchally instated social order as she helps Deckard retire an illegal fugitive and pliantly offers her body to him for sexual pleasure. This later character transformation is clearly derivative of the sexually submissive and domesticated “redeemer” archetype present in noir-films (Zetiz 81). The theatrical cut of Blade Runner ends with Rachael and Deckard driving away from the urban cityscape of L.A. Natural light engulfs the frame and, distinctly dissimilar from the clastrophic dark spaces of the city, the two characters are surrounded by nature (Kellner et al. 7) It is heavily argued that this studio mandated ending holds two symbolic meanings: (1) that Rachael and Deckard have refuted the violent and exploitative late stage capitalist city by escaping to the more peaceful world of nature and (2) that their escape from capitalism’s economic violence also solidifies a traditional hetersexual romance (Kellner et al. 10). Rachael has the privilege to become a fully self-acting being, and thus act against her programming(Tyrell Corp), but instead conforms to patriarchal programming by choosing to, possibly, start a family with Deckard.
When contextualizing Blade Runner with the cultural moment, we understand that Scott’s science-fiction masterpiece is largely echoing the sexual politics of its contemporaries. The original Blade Runner emerges from a family of brilliant 1980s science-fiction titles—Aliens, Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, The Terminator, E.T, Back to the Future I & II, and Ghostbusters —which decorated the decade(Faludi 188). Similar to Blade Runner these film each consists of female characters who are tied to traditionally feminine, and oftentimes, regressive images (Faludi 188). Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Aliens, for example, is a space-engineer who saves an orphan girl who calls her “mommy” and also protects her from vicious alien monsters. Ripley’s empowering militant and strong half, therefore is undermined by the maternal figure the film reduces her to (Faludi 116). Quite regressively, Dona in Ghostbusters, also played by Sigourney Weaver, is introduced as an independent musician at the start of the film but is soon reduced to the hyper-sexualized, symbiotic demon Zuul. In the fifth chapter of “Backlash: the Undeclared War Against Women”, Susan Faludi speaks generally of the conventional representations of female characters in 80s films. She writes, “…women’s lives were framed as morality tales in which the ‘good mother’ wins and the independent woman gets punished” (Faludi 113). Her words are extremely pertinent to the world of Blade Runner which reinstates the traditional maternal figure (Rachael), produces regressive images of its women and even, in an extremely noir fashion, kills female characters who challenge male hegemony (Zhora and Pris).
Blade Runner 2049: Subverting the “Chosen-One”
Director Denis Villeneuve delivered a masterful, gorgeous and brilliant follow up to Scott’s original film in Blade Runner 2049. Villenueve’s film functions as a direct sequel but is stylistically dissimilar from its predecessor. The dark, claustrophobic frame spaces, distorted angles, jazzy and somber score of the first are instead replaced by vibrant colors, wide shots and an roaring electric soundtrack. 2049 has no visible trace of the multi-generic world of Blade Runner and is an established hard science-fiction film. The production design of 2049, however, looks as if it was made in the 1980s as large Atari logos and holograms which sprawl the letters “U.S.S.R.” are incorporated into the production design—both Atari game consoles and the Soviet Union were widely popular and still existing respectively at the time of the first Blade Runner’s release. 2049 seems to be derivative and distinct from Blade Runner, the question to ask, however, is whether Villenueve’s sequel replicates the sex politics of the original.
Set 30 years after the events of the first Blade Runner, 2049 explores the unfolding revelation that a deceased replicant, Rachael, was able to give birth to a child. The investigation is helmed by a LAPD Blade Runner, and the film’s central character, Officer K (Ryan Gosling) who is ordered to find this child and retire them on sight. Blade Runner 2049 is interestingly pertinent to Marilyn Frye’s postulation of why abortion is detrimental to patriarchal order in her book “Some Reflections on Separatism and Power”. Frye writes:
“…patriarchal loyalists should be disturbed about abortion on demand; a major on one being that it would be a significant form of female control of reproduction, and at least from certain angles it looks like the progress of patriarchy is the progress toward male control of reproduction…” (Frye 102)
If provided the genetic code to synthetic reproduction Niander Wallace, the 2049 equivalent of Tyrell, insists that he can proliferate his production of replicants, consequently expand off-world exploration with a larger work force and, as the pure capitalist he is, earn more profits as a result. This patriarchal lust for reproductive control Frye mentions in her text is explicitly present within Wallace as he is the current mass producer of Nexus 8 replicants. Frustrated that his products cannot naturally reproduce, Wallaces refers to the stomach of a newborn female replicant as a “barren posture” and “a dead space between the stars” (Baker 22). He slices the replicant across the womb and asks his subservient replicant, Luv, that she bring Rachael’s child to him. Similar to Deckard’s retirement of Pris, this scene could be read as an ultraviolent attack on the female body or simply, from a writing perspective, a way to showcase Wallace’s, or even capitalism’s, inhumane and violent nature. Arguably, this scene, and 2049 for that matter, does not reinforce the politics of male hegemony, as seen in the first Blade Runner, but exists simply to develop the diegetic politics of a late stage capitalist world. As Christina Parker Flynn suggests in her essay “Joe and the ‘Real’ Girls: Blade Runner 2049”, thorough analysis of female images in the film will not lead to a greater understanding of its sex politics as the film critiques and subverts dominate modes of storytellin which are, by nature, narratively male oriented.
Within the first 10 minutes of the film, K is already revealed to be a replicant consequentially subverting audience predictions that he may be the son of Rachael and Deckard—this is suggested in how Gosling and Ford are parallely positioned in the film’s poster and how the “k” in K’s name may have been derivative of the fourth letter in Deckard’s. K’s holographic partner Joi, who seems to validate the image of women in the household only to subvert this stereotype by actively engaging with the politics of the narrative, insists that he is in fact a human man. Evidence supports this claim as a DNA test conducted later on his investigation reveals that Rachael gave birth to twins but one of them, a girl, died in childbirth while the other, a boy lives. Additionally, K finds a toy from his supposed childhood that he believed was only an implanted memory suggesting that he was a kid once and was thus born. K also visits a memory designer, Ana, who confirms that his memories do belong to someone and are real. Provided that his sentience has been deconstructed, K, who had been inexpressive for most of thee film, kicks his chair across the room prompting Ana to cry at, what audiences members at this moment, believed to be a response to his aggressiveness. It is not until later in the film that Freysa, the leader of an underground replicant movement deconstructs K’s sentience again by revealing that the child “born of woman” is in fact Ana and not him. The memories K possesses are designed and owned by Ana but she merely states that they belonged to someone, and not herself, in order protect her identity.This plot twist acts as more than just a subversion of the “Chosen-One” arc, as various critics believe, but is an entire undermining of leading male saviors which dominate popular storytelling—think Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker of Star Wars. K’s character journey is indeed the central of the narrative, it is Ana, not K, who represents the symbolic “Chosen-One” often stringently attached to a male lead/actor. As the first “replicant-born”, Ana is forefronted at the heart of a larger social movement fighting for the equal treatment of replicants. Similar to Rachel, her mother, Ana’s future also renounces the economic violence of capitalism by, implicitly, being part of a replicant social movement which actively seeks to challenge their profit-driven oppressor Wallace Corp which subordinates their race to slaves. The politics of Blade Runner 2049, however, do not restrict Ana to a domesticized partner, as Blade Runner had done with Rachael, and associate her character with a larger, symbolic meaning. Vastly dissimilar to the women in Scott’s classic, it is Ana who actively broadens our understanding of what it means to be human.