“Sometimes to love someone you gotta be a stranger,” Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) gruffly professes over whiskey (that most masculine of drinks) after a rousing but nonsensical fight with K (played by Ryan Gosling), the replicant who thinks this hermit in an abandoned casino might be his daddy. The two men fit neatly into every stereotype we’ve ever seen of men in the movies: walking wounded heroes who feel their pain but hide it. In this case, K is a replicant designed to kill other replicants in order to prevent them from revolting against their human masters, but he really hates his job. Deckard abandoned his lover and newborn child years ago as a part of some convoluted plan to protect them, and he does not feel great about that. In order to have a genuine heart-to-heart and get to Deckard’s gem of a quote about love, the two men have to prove their masculinity first — they must earn this emotional moment via a violent fight. Only once they have expressed their chest-beating virility can they sit down and have a drink.
Deckard’s view of love is a sad one, but makes a lot of sense in this film. Blade Runner 2049 depicts a world so steeped in misogyny that the women are mostly either naked and helpless or murderous bitches. The men don’t fare much better: they march along melancholically, covered in blood and dirt, following orders. Some are human, born of mothers, but many are replicants, powerful bioengineered androids created for human use, made to look, act, and even feel convincingly human. This is a world where no one’s body really belongs to them, so loving can truly only mean being a stranger. In this way, Blade Runner 2049 does what the best speculative fiction does: it warns us about the dangers of the world we already live in.
The pornification and technologization of the Blade Runner universe is a barely distorted reflection of our own world. Women’s bodies are commodified and objectified, and men are sold a capitalist fantasy of upward mobility that keeps their bodies at work. “No one’s free who isn’t free to love,” the poet George Elliott Clarke wrote. When our bodies do not belong to us — when they are controlled by capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy — we are not safe to be vulnerable, or to look deeply at another person (let alone ourselves) and love what we see at the core.
Many of us would rather text than talk — we already live in a world of overwhelming technological advances and more choice than we know what do with. It’s easier than ever to connect with others solely through carefully curated online avatars, and we are taught to see women’s bodies as objects to be used for men’s pleasure. When pleasure model Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) notices that K is carrying around his holographic girlfriend in a device in his pocket, she points out that he doesn’t like “real girls.” Of course he doesn’t. Why look for something real when “perfect” looking women who ask nothing of men are on the menu?
But even K is not free. He is a replicant designed to obey. He does not have the right to his own emotions, let alone a connection with another sentient being.
In All About Love, bell hooks quotes psychologist John Welwood, who says:
“When we reveal ourselves to our partner and find that this brings healing rather than harm, we make an important discovery — that intimate relationships can provide a sanctuary from the world of facades, a sacred space where we can be ourselves, as we are.”
But most of us don’t get that far. It is our weaknesses, our pain, and our ugliness that allow for love and connection — the assurance we are accepted for who we are, not how we are useful.
The women of Blade Runner 2049 do not have the luxury of ugliness or weakness. Their bodies barely exist — Joi (played by Ana de Armas), a hologram, is literally transparent. Even Rachael, Deckard’s lost love from the first Blade Runner, the first replicant to become pregnant, remains a perfect, young image in Deckard’s memory (he ran away before she had a chance to get cranky during her pregnancy or, you know, age).
As K, Gosling wears the pain and disconnection he feels as a replicant, built to kill, on his face. He cannot speak his desire for love. It only finds voice through his non-corporeal girlfriend Joi, an emotional labour product whose tagline is “EVERYTHING YOU WANT TO HEAR. EVERYTHING YOU WANT TO SEE.” She whispers his deepest desires into his ear: that he is special, born, wanted, loved. But the truth is that you are not loved when your body exists only for someone else’s use.
K feels something for Joi, but he seems to understand the emptiness at the heart of it. “I’m so happy when I’m with you,” she gushes, recently “freed” from his apartment through the use of his emanator (a device that allows her hologram to project wirelessly instead of within the confines of the equipment at his apartment). “You don’t have to say that,” he says. She leans into him, and their intimate moment is interrupted by a phone message from his boss. Joi freezes mid-embrace, eyes closed, mouth open, for a long, uncomfortable moment. He answers the call and turns Joi off.
Mariette and Joi are not the only bodies in the film that are engineered for men’s pleasure. Women’s bodies are displayed, desired, fucked, watched, and inflated to huge proportions — they are designed, drowned, and sliced apart. Indeed, females are “born,” fully formed as adult women, dumped from a bag of goo at Niander Wallace’s villainous indoor island office. So close to being all-powerful, Wallace is so enraged by his inability to create a female body that can reproduce that he slices into his replicant’s shivering womb and leaves her lying in pain in her own blood.
The central tension of the plot is the idea that a replicant — Deckard’s Rachael — can and did reproduce. The leaders of the replicant revolution believe this affords them human status, with a right to freedom. Wallace, on the other hand, sees their reproductive potential as a cheaper way to create more replicants for slave labour.
This is not a new concept. Black women were raped frequently by their white slaveholders in order to create more slaves. (It’s worth noting that the only black actress in this film does not speak a single word…) In the 16th and 17th centuries, famine and plague led to a population crisis that meant there weren’t enough bodies to do the labour of capitalism, so reproduction was in high demand. This contributed to the witch hunts, which targeted, tortured, and killed those who could help women gain any control over their reproductive ability, including contraception and abortion. Babies can not truly be an expression of one’s bodily autonomy, freedom, and “humanity” under patriarchy and capitalism — they are political entities.
The commodification of bodies and the impossibility of love in the film is probably most poignant in the strange threesome scene, where Joi hires Mariette, a pleasure model and a “real girl,” to have sex with K. The holographic Joi steps into Mariette’s body and their faces phase in and out of sync, the perfect mix of madonna and whore — patriarchy’s perfect fantasy playing out through the innovations of capitalist technology designed to sell people what they think they want. “A plausible evolution of pornography,” Scott Meslow calls it in GQ.
Whether or not the intense misogyny of Blade Runner’s dystopia is intentional, it’s incredibly uncomfortable to watch. As a “real girl” with emotions, pain, baggage and, you know, skin, it was pretty hard to sit through a threesome scene that looks like every man’s madonna/whore fantasy even knowing it’s not (currently) technologically possible. Despite the scene’s visual magnificence, the threesome seems uncomfortable for everyone involved. Joi wants to please K, most likely because she is programmed to do so. Mariette has also been designed for pleasure, though she clearly has consciousness and sentience (plus a secret spy agenda). K seems kind of confused by the whole thing, eventually reluctantly consenting as if he’s saying to himself in his head, “This is the part where everyone pretends they care about me.” The composite Mariette/Joi face slips between determination and sadness as she takes off her clothes and walks towards K.
It’s not totally clear whether Joi has consciousness and sentience. The film almost passes the Bechdel test after the threesome when Joi says, “You can go now, I’m finished with you,” to Mariette, who responds, “Quiet now. I’ve been inside you. Not so much there as you’d think.” The one moment where Joi seems to flash into brief self-conscious independence is when she names K “Joe,” a masculinization of her own name. Until that moment, his only designation was KD6-3.7, a sort of slave name for his replicant purposes. Perhaps there was something in her that wanted to leave a mark, to name him, to take some control over her holographic world. If Joi is capable of love, she loves K because he gives her a chance at a little autonomy. Even Joi’s “love” is contingent on whether or not someone is useful to her.
Blade Runner 2049 ends on a note of hope… sort of. K sacrifices himself so that Deckard can finally meet his daughter, the miracle of replicant reproduction. K does not do as he was told by Freysa (Hiam Abbass), the leader of the replicant revolution: kill Deckard so that the potentially compromising information he has never gets back to Wallace. K may intuit that any child born into this world will not be free — it will either be forced into slave labour, on the one side, or military service for the replicant army, on the other. Or perhaps he understands that no one is really free if they aren’t free to love. Maybe he simply wishes to die knowing he facilitated some kind of connection, in this case between Deckard and his daughter Stelline. That connection represents the best these characters, and perhaps any of us, can hope for, and it happens through a wall of sterilized glass.
Julie Peters is a writer and yoga studio owner in Vancouver, BC. She has an MA in Canadian literature from McGill University and writes about poetry, yoga, pop culture, and mythology from a feminist perspective. She has a bi-weekly column for Spirituality and Health Magazine, and her first book, Secrets of the Eternal Moon Phase Goddesses: Meditations on Desire, Relationships, and the Art of Being Broken was published by SkyLight Paths in 2016. Learn more at www.jcpeters.ca.