Updated: Aug 12, 2022
On June 24, the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, allowing individual states to ban abortion, which many promptly did. Following this revocation that erodes the right American women won 50 years ago, in 1973, women across the US—and Canada, as elsewhere—took to the streets in protest. Women’s bodily autonomy is not only under attack in the United States. In England, as just one example, Tory MP Danny Kruger told the House of Commons on June 28 that he disagrees “that women have the absolute right to bodily autonomy” in the case of abortion. Overturning Roe v. Wade may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but it is simply the latest blow in the recent, gradual erosion of women’s hard-won rights.
Before this outrage against women’s right to bodily autonomy, American and Canadian governments have, since the 2010s, stripped women of several long-standing rights and regressed to such an extent that they can no longer even define the word ‘woman’. How can you defend a group’s rights when you are incapable of accurately defining the group? In Canada, the federal agency responsible for women, created in 1976 and originally named Status of Women Canada, is now called Women and Gender Equality Canada. Its vision is: “A Canada where people of all genders, including women…” Even at the federal agency created specifically for women, the Canadian government doesn't center women. The Canadian Department of Justice now defines women as: “All people who identify as women, whether they are cisgender or transgender women.” “Cisgender” is an offensive term that means non-transgender. Imagine if whites expected blacks to define themselves as non-whites or if Christians asked Jews to define themselves as non-Christians. The things so-called progressives tolerate when it comes to women, they would never tolerate toward other groups. “Transgender women” refers to men. So, according to Canada’s Department of Justice, ‘women’ means: women and men. American federal agencies, too, can no longer define the word woman. The newly appointed US Supreme Court justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson, made headlines in March when she dodged the question “Can you define the word woman?”, saying, “I’m not a biologist.”
Previously, I discussed how two Hollywood feature films—Lars and the Real Girl and Her—muddied the water concerning our understanding of what a woman is (spoiler: a woman is an adult female human). Like these two films, Blade Runner 2049, released in 2017, normalizes artificial women—and men owning artificial women—by presenting a man-made creation as a female and treating it like a real woman. It also reinforces the idea that women can be used as surrogate sexual partners to facilitate sex between men and their artificial intelligence (AI) “girlfriends,” which was also depicted in Her (2013). Like Her, Blade Runner 2049 encourages viewers to consider feminized AI as women—and to see women as objects. Leading viewers to see women as less than human (i.e., to objectify women) promotes a greater lack of regard for women—while real-world examples of an absence of regard are piling up and becoming glaringly obvious (e.g., the revocation of Roe v. Wade). Blade Runner 2049 dehumanizes women while normalizing synthetic humans, paving the way for the biotech industry’s post-humanism, which bypasses women as the source of life.
Blade Runner 2049, the Oscar and BAFTA award-winning sci-fi from Québécois director, Denis Villeneuve, made over US$258 million at the worldwide box office. The dystopian sequel to Blade Runner (1982), set in an incredibly bleak Los Angeles, stars then 37-year-old Canadian actor Ryan Gosling as ‘K’ and 75-year-old Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard. K and Deckard are ‘replicants’: “bioengineered humans,” according to the opening captions (and slave labor for humans). This is the story of K’s search for a child born of two replicants. K is a Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) ‘blade runner’: an officer who kills rogue replicants. His hierarchical superior at the LAPD, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), believes it is imperative to find and kill the child to avoid a war between humans and replicants, who are unaware replicants can procreate. The screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green is based on characters from the Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Blade Runner 2049’s lead female is K’s love interest: a feminized holographic AI named Joi, played by 29-year-old Cuban actress Ana de Armas (also seen in last year’s James Bond film, No Time to Die). His second “love interest” is a street prostitute replicant named Mariette, played by 30-year-old Canadian actress Mackenzie Davis, with whom he has sex (off-screen)—to facilitate sex with bodiless Joi. However, K’s only romantic relationship is with his AI.
The filmmakers use various devices to normalize men owning artificial females and encourage viewers to consider feminized AI as women, including anthropomorphizing language, a lifelike portrayal of the feminized AI, and presenting feminized AI as the way of the future.
Anthropomorphizing language encourages viewers to consider the feminized AI, Joi, as a woman. K calls it “honey” and “sweetheart.” He uses female pronouns to refer to it. For example, when he says to ‘Luv’, another replicant (34-year-old Sylvia Hoeks), “She’s very realistic. Thank you.” This anthropomorphized language serves to humanize the feminized AI and normalize men owning artificial females.
A lifelike portrayal of the feminized AI further encourages viewers to consider it a woman. The AI, depicted as a young, attractive woman (Armas), is introduced in K’s apartment, initially wearing a 1950s-style dress—its outfit changes as it speaks to him—and serving him supper. It kisses his cheek and says, “Just put your feet up. Relax.” It expresses emotions. For example, it says to K, “I’m so happy when I’m with you” and “I love you.” When it says to him, “I wanna be real for you,” K replies, “You are real for me.” K kisses the feminized AI and tries to have sex with it. Viewers are led to be saddened—not impassive—when Luv stomps out Joi’s existence. And yet, there is no reason we should be touched by a man losing his computer program. Viewers affected by the AI’s destruction have been successfully groomed to see it as a living being—not simply a thing.
The filmmakers also present feminized AI as the way of the future. In this Los Angeles of the not-so-distant future, the Joi AI, a male-fantasized version of a woman, is ubiquitous. In 2049 it appears on billboards, and men owning these feminized AIs has been normalized. Unlike women—who are capable of independent thought, can refuse consent, and do not exist for men’s pleasure—these feminized holographic AI exist solely to please men. An ad for the Joi AI, a naked, giant hologram version of Armas, approaches K in the street and says to him, “Hello, handsome… You look lonely. I can fix that.” This hologram moans and gets on all fours in front of K. The neon billboard beside the hologram reads: “Everything you want to hear. Everything you want to see.” In this vision of the future, males have almost completely done away with women—beings who say things men do not want to hear and do not meet men’s beauty ideals. These AI are not the only replacements for women that men have created.
This future also includes feminized synthetic humans—and they, too, exist for males’ use. Some of them are “pleasure model” replicants. None are well treated. One example will suffice: the ‘Rachael Performance Double’ character, played by Loren Peta. When the villain, Wallace (Jared Leto), presents Deckard with a replicant that is Rachael’s double—Rachael is Deckard’s “deceased” love and the “mother” of his child—he says, “An angel, made again, for you.” Despite this praise, Rachael's Performance Double is destroyed within minutes because it fails to pass as Rachael; Deckard points out that it has the wrong-colored eyes. Without further ado, Wallace’s assistant, Luv, shoots it in the head. The feminized synthetic human’s existence depended on Wallace’s use of it.
In addition, the line is blurred between women and these feminized synthetic humans. When K’s conversation with Mariette is interrupted by a call from Joi, Mariette says, “Oh, you don’t like real girls,” implying that Mariette is a real girl. As Mariette walks away from K, “she” says suggestively, “Well, I’m always here.” Later, Mariette enters K’s apartment and agrees to act as a surrogate to allow bodiless Joi to have sex with K. The AI synchs with Mariette’s body. Joi’s face is superimposed on Mariette’s but not consistently—so their faces keep alternating as if K is about to have sex with two women. They kiss, and when Mariette undresses, it appears Joi is helping “her.” It is implied that Mariette has sex with K. In the next sequence, “she” gets up, naked, from K’s bed and puts on a bra while K is in the bathroom. Joi says to Mariette, “I’m done with you. You can go now,” and Mariette replies, “Quiet, now. I’ve been inside you. Not so much there as you think.” The line between women and feminized synthetic humans is blurred here, as the line between women and feminized AI is blurred in other scenes.
It is noteworthy that the hologram AI (Joi) is treated better than female characters that more closely resemble humans, like Mariette. After K and Mariette have sex K does not speak to “her” before “she” leaves—but he offers bodiless Joi a coffee (no coffee for Mariette, who looks poor and malnourished). Other examples include the treatment of Rachael Performance Double and ‘Female Replicant’ (Sallie Harmsen). In this future, the artificial females that most closely resemble women are the ones treated most deplorably.
No film analysis is complete, in my opinion, without consideration of female viewers. Blade Runner 2049’'s female viewers are not served well for many reasons—not just the ones mentioned above. It includes sexualized violence against women, and the female characters are objectified, hypersexualized, harmed (murdered), and silenced. Also, there is little congeniality between the female characters. There is, however, (deadly) antagonism between them.
Blade Runner 2049 is full of (deadly) violence against women. The first of several female characters to be killed off, a feminized synthetic human credited only as ‘Female Replicant,’ is introduced, falling naked from a plastic tube emerging from a hole in the ceiling onto the floor. It gasps and shivers, curled up in the fetal position. Then its fully dressed creator, Wallace, brings it to its feet, speaks to/of it a little, stabs it in the belly, then kisses it on the mouth, and it falls to the floor, dead. Before murdering Female Replicant, Wallace says of his company, a manufacturer of synthetic humans: “We make angels in the service of civilization.” Joi, Joshi, and Rachael Performance Double are “murdered” by Luv, who is in turn “murdered” by K. When he shoots Luv, the blood splattered behind “her” head makes “her” appear dead (“she” is not). When Luv revives, K fights “her,” punches “her.” K grabs Luv by the throat and chokes “her” before pushing “her” underwater and continuing to choke “her” (the choking lasts nearly one and a half minutes).
The depictions of females are hypersexualized and cater to male fantasies. Consider the following examples: the giant, dancing hologram of a ballerina in a tutu, projected in the sky; the life-size, dancing hologram of a woman in a bikini top and micro-mini skirt that doesn’t cover her panties, projected in a busy street; the naked, blue-haired, giant hologram of a Joi AI projected in the sky; holograms of Rockettes in bikini-like costumes and go-go dancers in short dresses and knee-high boots, performing onstage; the giant statue of a naked woman; two kneeling, naked, giant statues of women in high heels, facing each other in the desert; and the scantily clad street prostitute replicants, wearing bikini tops, panties, garters, bustiers, knee/thigh-high boots, standing outside a brothel (behind the frosted glass window a naked woman is screwed from behind as we hear a few women moaning and orgasming). A female voice-over that promises male buyers: “Joi is anything you want her to be. Joi goes anywhere you want her to go” accompanies the giant Joi billboard. These hypersexualized depictions cater to male viewers—not women.
The exchanges between the female characters, too, have little to offer female viewers. There aren’t many, and the ones we do get aren’t congenial. The first exchange between two female characters is one-sided and short, as are subsequent exchanges. For example, when Freysa (Hiam Abbass) speaks to Mariette, the latter makes no reply. There is more antagonism than congeniality between the female characters. Joi and Mariette both tell the other to be quiet. As Luv crushes Joshi’s hand Luv says to her, “You tiny thing.” Then Luv slices her abdomen with a knife and stabs her. Joshi falls to the floor, dead. Then, to gain access to her computer, Luv holds the corpse’s head up to the retina scan. Once the scan is successful Luv carelessly drops Joshi’s head on her desk, and it falls to the floor. In a scene featuring K, Freysa, and Mariette, the "women" do not speak directly to each other-only to K. None of this silencing and antagonism caters to female viewers.
Female viewers should also note that Blade Runner 2049 bypasses women as the source of life through its synthetic humans. In the imaginings of many male filmmakers, including the ones behind Blade Runner 2049, women will one day be superfluous to the creation of life. Whether it was intentional or not, this film is a gift to the biotech industry and its move toward transhumanism. It normalizes artificial women and dehumanizes women, encouraging viewers to see women as objects. This dehumanization of women benefits industries that use women as objects, like surrogacy. Interestingly, Blade Runner 2049 also normalizes men using women as surrogates—though as surrogate sexual partners here, not surrogate mothers. Like other movies that groom viewers to objectify women, Blade Runner 2049 merits a spotlight on its acute misogyny. As previously noted about the Spike Jonze film, Her, there are similarities between the dehumanization of women in Blade Runner 2049 and in real life in the gender identity industry, which also treats women as parts for men’s use. Filmmakers like Jonze and Villeneuve do women a disservice by normalizing artificial women in this manner.
Alline Cormier is a Canadian film analyst and retired court interpreter with a B.A. Translation from Université Laval. In her second career, she turns the text analysis skills she acquired in university studying translation and literature to film. She makes her home in British Columbia and is currently seeking a publisher for her film guide for women. This year her articles on women in film/TV have appeared in Women Making Films (India), Feminist Current, 4W, and Gender Dissent.