***************DISCUSSED WITH SPOILERS***************
I saw and loved Blade Runner 2049 on the night of its release and gave my thoughts on the film in my review, here. I was then dismayed to see a lot of interesting articles pick out many aspects of the film which, it was argued, demonstrated an inherent sexism and misogyny. In the majority of these instances, I had interpreted the same scenes or characters in completely different ways and even came out of the cinema taken with the film’s interrogation of gender roles. I found this especially with the character of Joi, who I felt was the heart of the film in a number of ways. I decided to write this blog not as a challenge to the readings of the whole film as sexist (I have linked a couple of good articles explaining this view below) but to clarify my thoughts on Joi and where they diverge from those which deem the film sexist because of the character.
The first thing to say is that the original Blade Runner holds some pretty rancid gender politics. There are only three female characters, all of which are either presented as sexualised beings or victims of sexually dominating behaviour from men. 2049 inherits the sexist backdrop of Blade Runner’s LA, including the giant, neon adverts featuring sexualised women. I do not mention this to excuse 2049 of its own failings, but rather to illustrate the film’s jumping-off point in its world building.
Secondly, the most evident rationale for the perceived sexism in 2049’s universe is that it is a dystopian vision of the future which is not intended to appear perfect or desirable. The film intends to amplify the flaws in our own society and reflect them back to us in a way which we recognise as morally wrong. Take the giant statues of naked women in the nuclear wasteland of Las Vegas, some obviously poised to perform oral sex; these have been criticised for their apparent irrelevance to the plot, an example of throwaway sexism adorning a dramatic landscape. I read these statues as a comment against Las Vegas in the present day, where objectification of women is perhaps only slightly subtler than these 60ft nudes. It would be lazy to explain away 2049’s issues of sexism with the ‘dystopian world’ argument but it is a key part of the film’s context, especially in the instances it acts as a reflection our own world.
A consistent criticism has been found in the character of Joi (Ana de Armas), an artificially intelligent hologram who is programmed to act as a virtual girlfriend to whomever purchases her. We see the image of Joi as an advertisement throughout the film – she is clearly a popular worldwide product and brand. Agent K’s (Ryan Gosling) version of Joi, however, appears to become more sentient as the film wears on and makes an astonishing attempt to be real for him. This scene is the most criticised in the film – Joi melds onto the body of Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), a sex worker, so as to be as close to physical as a she can for K and make love to him.
I found the character of Joi, and especially this scene, incredibly interesting and poignant. Criticisms of Joi’s character have read that it is fundamentally sexist that her existence is solely for the pleasure of K. While that is her programming, the interest for me lies in what this motivates the character to do. She is an artificial intelligence who dreams of being human, something shared by K, a replicant, who wrestles with the notion that he is soulless throughout the film. Both Joi and K are seeking a loving connection which is beyond their programming and, in this context, I found the love-scene poignant and tear-jerkingly tender.
After K’s Joi is destroyed, he is faced with a giant, holographic version of a Joi-advertisement who seems to taunt him with her attempted seduction. She appears completely naked, another moment which has been picked out for its sexism. It’s certainly a sexist advert in a sexist world, but the effect of the scene is far from that. K is instead faced unflinchingly with the emptiness of his ‘relationship’ with Joi. He recognises that he had dreamt of being a lover but was merely a consumer who bought the projection of his desperate fantasies.
This scene reminds me of the moment in Her (2013) where Samantha, an operating software voiced by Scarlett Johansson, reveals to Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) that she is simultaneously in love with thousands of other men. In these two moments, K and Theodore are forced to recognise the toxic idealisation of women by themselves but also by the consumerist societies which created artificial intelligence to complete the fantasy. Both are left crushed by this realisation, especially for K as he has only just stopped believing that Deckard is his father. This belief had given him a brief taste of a real connection with another real person which shines a harsh light on his ‘relationship’ with Joi, whom he could literally turn on or off at will.
It is this experience which inspires K to save Deckard, who had been captured by the terrifying Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) and will likely be killed. The end scene sees Deckard reunited with his daughter, Dr Ana Stelling (Carla Juri), in another touching scene. In this final moment we see the film return to the human emotion and physical connection between parent and child, a significant reunion in this world which K realised was worth giving up his life for. This scene alludes to what I believe to be at the crux of Joi’s purpose as a character – that is the film’s exploration of emotional intimacy in a world where physical intimacy has been replaced by artifice and commodity. The film is preoccupied with this question due to our own uneasy relationship with technology and virtual relationships. Blade Runner 2049 may labour this point and the presentation of female sexuality to illustrate it, but it is not to the extent where Joi can be seen as a symptom of the film’s sexism.
‘Is Blade Runner 2049 a sexist film or a fair depiction of a dystopian future’, The Guardian –> http://bit.ly/2yzLrKg
‘Blade Runner 2049 is visually stunning but subtly sexist’, Daily Dot -> http://bit.ly/2yBsmJL