Hello, friends. Today, I’m excited to bring to you my thoughts on a rather controversial topic in entertainment lately: the gender politics of Blade Runner 2049, and if the film really deserves the flak it has been getting since it’s release.
Firstly, though, I want to make it known that I don’t believe that gender was the focus of this film. Rather, I think that the film’s primary focus was, like its 1982 predecessor, on the core idea of what it truly means to be human, to be alive. I think it’s undeniable that this gender theme was a secondary (but nonetheless prominent) aspect of the film.
Also, be warned. Spoilers lie ahead!
With those little disclaimers out of the way, let’s jump right into this.
Society in the Dystopian Future
Blade Runner 2049 clearly creates an atmosphere in which society is divided into what you could consider common societal stereotypes. Agent K represents what I like to call the “aggressive” male — he frequently goes out in order to (ironically, considering the fact he’s a replicant, too) retire replicants as per his role as a Blade Runner, or to investigate matters of importance. He embodies the strong male who enters the outside world and tenaciously engages with it. We can see this throughout the film itself as he retires Sapper Morton and launches an investigation into Rachael’s remains that he found on Morton’s farm.
Joi, however, fills the role of the “passive” female. She essentially exists to cater to K as a doting, supportive girlfriend. In the early stages of the film, Joi eagerly tries to please K, serving him dinner and dressing herself in a way that he approves of. Her existence revolves around him. Her sole purpose as a holographic housewife is to be everything that K wants when he returns from his hard, tiring day of blade running.
The setting of 2049 in general enforces this idea. Throughout the entire movie, the areas in which the film takes place are filled with examples of how women are meant to exist as servants to males in this universe. The cyberpunk cityscapes are littered with sexual, suggestive images of women — many of which largely consist of advertisement for the “Joi” software. “Everything you want to hear…everything you want see” is the program’s tagline, clearly intended to entice men looking for the comforts of a woman who will cater to their desires.
This is, for the most part, a consistent depiction throughout the movie. In fact, there’s almost no other characters in the film who contradict this (K’s Joi does, but it’s a development over time, which I’ll get into later) aside from Lieutenant Joshi. Mariette, a woman in the narrative, is a prostitute who — like the portrayal of women in the setting — fills the role of appealing to men. She’s certainly a free character (after all, she’s revealed to be a member of the replicant resistance movement later on) but that doesn’t change the fact she still works a job that exists entirely due to male sexual desires. But even more notable then that is Luv, an agent that serves the film’s main antagonist, Niander Wallace.
Some people consider Luv, like Joshi, to be an outlier to the patriarchal society that 2049 establishes as reality. That, because of her intelligence, cunning, and skill in battle, she goes against the numerous depictions of females in the submissive role.
I admit that I too thought this, but after a second watch of the film I realized that Luv is, in fact, the opposite.
You see, Luv is essentially K’s Joi that “went the other way”. Instead of being the passive, supporting housewife figure that Joi is for Agent K, Luv is instead a strong, fierce, and active servant for Wallace, who shaped and molded this stereotype-dominated society in the first place, which we learn at the film’s beginning.
Programmed to believe in Wallace’s ideals, she fights for them with unwavering loyalty, striving to be the best she can be so that she can help Wallace the most, even going as far as to vocalize her belief that she is superior during her fight with K.
Both Joi and Luv serve their male masters, just in different ways. Both of them wish to please their male superiors, and both of them actively attempt to do so.
This leaves us with Lieutenant Joshi, who (aside from Joi later in the film) stands as the only female who has achieved equal footing with males in this society. Serving not only as an officer in the LAPD, but as a lieutenant, an officer, is a testament to the fact that she stubbornly refuses to conform to the world that surrounds her.
Something interesting to note is that Joshi’s uncommon position ends up not being tolerated by the world she lives in. Firstly, she tries to come on to K, but is rejected. Considering the fact she holds a strong era of authority over K during the other points in the film, it’s quite unique that she is denied her desires by him here, and that’s an intentional point the film makes in order to build up its setting. What the women want isn’t important. What the men want is.
Secondly, she’s killed by Luv in a rather gruesome way, a stabbing. Obviously, her death wasn’t due to her existence as an authority-holding woman; rather, it’s in regards to the plot about the miracle child born from Rachael. Still, though, I believe that the painful and uncomfortable death Joshi experiences is a sort of hidden message: Wallace’s idea of a perfect world does not tolerate when those in it rebel against the standard.
Putting all of these characters and this setting together, I personally think that what the film creates is objectively a sexist environment.
However, just because the move portrays this future in a sexist light, doesn’t mean that it supports it.
This is where I think the film’s critics are wrong. The movie is not an appraisal of the way the setting objectifies and limits women. Rather, it’s critical of it.
To understand this, though, we have to look deeply into the narrative of Joi and K.
A Love That Transcends the Boundaries of Stereotype
Initially, the relationship between K and Joi is exactly what Wallace intends (she is made by his corporation, after all) in that Joi exists solely to cater to K. As the film goes on, though, K reciprocates the way Joi appears to feel for him. Whether or not Joi really loves K or if it’s just programming is a question that the film does not answer for quite a bit of time.
However, we get a clear indication that what Joi feels for K is more than simply what the Wallace Corporation installed into her when she starts a sexual encounter with him. Joi herself hires Mariette in order to mimic her movements and try to emulate lovemaking as much as possible. Joi herself expresses — and acts — on her desire to be intimate with K.
This is significant because Joi, who represents what is arguably the clearest picture of female submission in the entire film, becomes an individual in this scene. K is everything she wants to hear, and K is everything she wants to see. For the first time in this movie, what a woman wants is acknowledged, and accepted. K , a figure that (aside from the other themes in the movie about identity and meaning) represents a male in this patriarchal society, takes what Joi wants into account and accepts it. This is the start of the rejection of Wallace’s programming by both K and Joi. Instead of the relationship being all about what K wants, it becomes about what they both want.
This change, this new idea, continues to be explored when Joi insists to K that he’s special to her. This is, to be fair, expected of the Joi software given what we know of how they try and pander to their male owners. However, Joi takes it a step further: she gives K a name. She bestows upon K the name of Joe.
This is a very symbolic moment. The name “Joe” is often used as a way to describe your average run-of-the-mill people. The phrase “Average Joe” is the perfect example of this. Considering the fact that K spends the majority of this film searching for a purpose and searching for his identity, a name like this isn’t exactly helpful to that; perhaps that’s why he initially dislikes it. But from Joi’s standpoint, K is her Joe. K is somebody that Joi truly loves, and as a result really does think is special, in contrast to the artificial “love” that the rest of the Joi AIs feel for their owners. In turn, Joi is K’s Joi, his Joi.
The two own each other, not in a possessive way but in an emotional one. Both K and Joi feel genuine love for each other. Joi is his, and K is hers. In this duality, they exist as equals. Yes, K literally owns Joi, but that’s not how it feels anymore. Joi, by this point in the film, has become unique and special by breaking free of Wallace’s suppression. K has as well; though he doesn’t approve of it at this time, K is no longer just a number or letter to the outside world. Joi considers him one-of-a-kind, and gifts him with identity.
The theme of these two breaking free of Wallace’s stereotypical dystopia climaxes when Joi makes the decision to completely sever her ties with her system in K’s apartment, and instead travel with K wherever he goes via transfer device that K obtained earlier in the story. Once again displaying individuality, Joi decides that instead of being K’s companion in the home, she instead would rather be his companion everywhere.
This is a hugely important moment in the movie because in this final act of defiance to Blade Runner 2049’s society, Joi completely abandons the domestic environment and becomes K’s “equal”.
Though she still isn’t capable of physically interacting with the world, she can now travel with K, see what he sees, and go where he goes. K, just as he did with the sexual encounter, and just as he would come to do with his new name, accepts this, and thus, completely disregards the idea of the patriarchal society itself. In this moment, Wallace’s suppression of individuality has failed in both K and Joi. They have become unique individuals, bound together by love and the desire to be at each other’s side through thick and thin.
This is what the film supports. This display of equality achieved in a world that wants to stomp the idea of it into the ground is what the movie is portraying as right. And while this is a powerful statement made in it’s own right, it’s only enforced by the narrative’s conclusion.
The main plot of this film revolves around the possibility of the existence of a child mothered by the replicant Rachael from the original Blade Runner, and the ramifications the existence of such a being could have in this universe.
K, who as we’ve established, spends a hefty amount of the sci-fi epic trying to find an identity, discovers evidence that suggests he is, in fact, the miracle child of Rachael and Deckard. Naturally, he believes in this idea, as it both makes sense given what he knows and would also fulfill his yearning for a meaningful life.
However, in a twist, it is revealed to him that Dr. Ana Stelline is the child, and not him.
This is a massive reason why Blade Runner 2049 isn’t promoting sexism. It’s objectively not.
If it was, then the Prodigal Son archetype wouldn’t be being fulfilled by a female.
Of course, you would think this would absolutely crush K, as he learns that the one likely thing that made him special is not true. But it doesn’t. And the reason for this is because K realizes that Ana Stelline being the “miracle child” represents a change of the world for the better, both for gender and racial equality.
This is where K finally finds a true purpose. Despite the fact he’s technically not special at all to those around him, K is one of the only ones that understands why Wallace’s vision for society is wrong. What this dystopian patriarchal society represents is not love or emotion, but rather objectification and domination for both women and replicants. The former are considered by this society to be objects of pleasure, while the latter are enslaved.
In a conclusive scene, a massive holographic and sexualized version of a Joi attempts to entice him. “You look like a good Joe,” she says, trying to convince him to enjoy himself with her.
But K has already rejected this. He is not a Joe. He is, simply, Joe. And to him, Joi is not a Joi, but rather Joi is the person he grew to love and care for prior to her tragic destruction at the hands of Luv. In this moment, we are made aware of the fact that K understands that his Joi, the one that walked with him side-by-side and existed as his equal, NOT his inferior, is what’s worth fighting for. K turns and walks away from the Joi, and in turn walks away from this society and its structure.
K then goes on to sacrifice himself for Deckard in order to allow him to reunite with his daughter, Ana. In doing so, he has fulfilled his purpose, the purpose of keeping Deckard and Ana, sparks of hope for change in an overwhelmingly bleak world, alive. There’s a good reason that Roy Batty’s theme plays over K’s peaceful death; both Roy and K gave themselves away to a noble cause.
And that is ultimately why Blade Runner 2049 is not a sexist film. Rather, it’s a feminist one, and an egalitarian one, because of the way that it beautifully illustrates why sexism and racism is wrong, and why equality and unity are the best chances for a better future — both in Blade Runner’s universe and in our own.
This article was a really fun experience to write. I wanted to throw my hat into the ring on this topic, and as I finish writing this now, I feel confident that I’ve made a very good case deconstructing this movie and proving that it’s not promoting sexism in the slightest.
Let me know what you think, either here or on Twitter. I hope you enjoyed the read!
Next up on my list, I’m gonna be doing another of the Snapshot In Time series of articles. I’m debating between the new Overwatch Reinhardt cinematic and a chapter from my all-time favorite book, The Things They Carried. I’ll likely be talking about which I decide on Twitter, so stay tuned there if you want to know what I choose before actually writing it up.
That wraps it up for me, folks. Thanks so much for reading! And remember…
All memories will be lost…like tears in the rain.