Isaac Asimov is one of the godfathers of science fiction, a visionary who predicted developments like robotics, video calls and self-driving cars. But many of his stories are near-unreadable nowadays, because they’re filled with complacent 1950s sexism. His men are casually patronising, assured in their supremacy and unthinking of their privilege, and their Stepford wives are devoted but their little heads are flummoxed by technology. The same is true of Arthur C. Clarke, his contemporary, who predicted satellites and the internet but didn’t truly grasp feminism. These guys were not the most sexist men of their era – not even close – but their failure to consider social as well as technological breakthroughs has made their otherwise groundbreaking work dated. And somehow our modern sci-fi visionaries don’t seem to have learned from those mistakes, as shown in this week’s Blade Runner 2049.
The film, by Arrival director Denis Villeneuve, stars Ryan Gosling as K, a “blade runner” hunting down rogue replicants just as Harrison Ford’s Deckard did in the 1980 original. And just as in the original, artificially created women abound. Sylvia Hoek’s Luv is a replicant who, we’re told in the opening crawl, cannot disobey her creator Wallace (Jared Leto).Then there are sex workers, including Mackenzie Davis’ Mariette and – in a new touch – a holographic girlfriend (Ana de Armas’ Joi) that seem to be a cross between Scarlett Johanssen in Her and Pinocchio.
There are better female characters here and there, like Robin Wright’s police chief, but by the time Gosling spends a good five minutes wandering in a deserted forest of gigantic statues of naked women in sexualised positions, it all feels a bit much. The biggest female roles are the abstractly-named Luv, Joi and Mariette (like “marionette”?), who are all beings created to satisfy the whims of others, just more slave girls to male desire. Never mind the future: aren’t we beyond this now?
There’s an impression that titillating the men in the audience is more important than investing anything in a vision of the future that includes an equal place for women
And this is the third big-budget science fiction film of the summer from a “visionary” male director to feature sex workers in at least one extended scene. All tried not to look exploitative of real women by using sci-fi surrogates, but they all had solely female-identified prostitutes with apparently all-male clients. In Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2 they were robots. In Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets there was a shapeshifting squid-alien who chooses to look like Rihanna (that, at least, is a solid life choice). Now in Blade Runner 2049 they’re replicants, artificial beings “more human than human” apart from serial numbers in their eyeballs and bones.
What do filmmakers think of women in general if they choose to focus so overwhelmingly on those who sell sex? Why are those the most interesting women you can see? Prostitutes are over-represented onscreen to almost the same extent that they are stigmatised and marginalised in real life. If we were learning anything nuanced and honest about sex work from these depictions that would be valuable, but generally we’re just watching gorgeous women in revealing costumes draping themselves over men. There’s a nasty sense of objectification in all these films, even Blade Runner, and an impression that titillating the men in the audience is more important than investing anything in a vision of the future that includes an equal place for women.
Worse, it already feels regressive. If you want to show us a future dystopia where sex work is prolific, show men selling their bodies too. That wouldn’t be a utopia, but at least it would show that you’re not thoughtlessly exporting sexism into the future. All these visions where women’s bodies are still objectified – literally, in Blade Runner, with those statues – and where sex is still commodified, but only by those presenting as women and apparently only for men, shows a startling lack of vision and imagination.
Defenders of all three filmmakers – at least two of whom have created truly great female characters in the past – will argue that sci-fi is a male-dominated genre. Yet their own best work shows otherwise, and the genre’s pioneers include Mary Shelley, Octavia Butler and Ursula K. LeGuin. Women make up over 50 per cent of US cinemagoers, over 50 per cent of gamers and a whopping 80 per cent of fiction readers. If women aren’t consuming your stuff, it’s because you’re actively trying to alienate us.
Don’t get me wrong: Blade Runner 2049 is a gorgeous, atmospheric and often thought-provoking film. It’s beautifully shot, and both Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford are on great form. But it’s ironic that in a film that wants us to ask what makes a person truly human, they’ve largely forgotten half of humanity. We need better visions.