Why the future is not female in science fiction cinema

Films like Blade Runner 2049 project male fantasies by placing women in roles of domestic servitude.

Words

Katie Goh

Science fiction has a women problem. Despite producing some of cinema’s most iconic heroines – Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, Dana Scully and the women of Star Wars – the genre’s representation of female characters has repeatedly been the subject of criticism and controversy. Science fiction’s women fall into two camps. They are either lone Strong Female Characters who take on typically masculine characteristics or naïve ingénues, born into the bodies of sexy adult women as evidenced in the Born Sexy Yesterday trope.

Sometimes they aren’t even real women. Science fiction has become increasingly concerned with AIs and robot automation. As our contemporary technolHeogy progresses, the God question has become an increasing anxiety: ethically, do humans have the right to create and control life outside the womb? If so, what happens to this now redundant womb? What role do women now occupy within the patriarchy?

Blade Runner 2049 wrestles with these questions. In Denis Villeneuve’s film, the boundary between humans and replicants is even more blurred than in Ridley Scott’s 1982 original, resulting in some ambiguity over what constitutes reality. The film’s hero, K (Ryan Gosling), is not into real girls. Instead he has purchased a holographic girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas).

True to name, Joi is a sickening delight. We first meet her at K’s apartment. Dressed as a ’50s housewife, she dances around K, “makes” him dinner and plays house (“Hard day, honey?”) Noting that K isn’t reacting to her ’50s get-up, she changes costume and stereotype. Joi is an AI programmed to be the ultimate wife, performing the role of secretary, sex companion and domestic servant. K’s happiness is the sole reason for her existence.

Despite K and Joi’s relationship being sold as a love story, Joi is legally owned by K. While she appears to have some agency in what she says (K doubts whether her affections are real), she has been created to be K’s love interest. Selling the muddy consent and power imbalance between owner and property as a love story is disturbing, particularly as the film’s release has coincided with recent allegations of sexual abuse within the film industry.

When Joi is disconnected from the mains and placed into a holographic projector, she proudly calls herself a “real girl” (if the projector breaks, she will be lost for good). But Joi is not a real girl. At best, she’s a sexual fantasy; at worst, she’s a smashed iPhone that K failed to back up on the Cloud.

Blade Runner 2049’s other women fare just as poorly. As noted in our review, the film’s women occupy limited roles: they are either evil, sex workers, or simply naked. Occasionally they are all three. However, the argument can be made that the film’s sexism is a realistic projection of a nightmarish dystopia. Pleasure models and sex robots are surely only a stone’s throw away from 2017’s sex dolls and VR porn. Helen Lewis notes that the world of Blade Runner is a feminist allegory for labour under capitalism: “When humans built robots, they made them look human, and they also projected their own gender roles on to them. The men were killers, miners, manual labourers, soldiers. The women were for recreation.”

And, to an extent, this allegory works. It is hardly surprising that in the future, women have been reduced to their reproductive abilities. The film’s obsession with mothers and wombs runs parallel to its obsession with sex. These are the only two options for women’s bodies. In the future, there are no real women.

What is so problematic about Blade Runner 2049 is not the world it is representing but how the filmmakers have chosen to represent this world. Compare Blade Runner 2049 to the recent television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Both are set in patriarchal futuristic dystopias in which women are reduced to their reproductive abilities. Yet while The Handmaid’s Tale is rooted in the women’s experiences, Blade Runner is concerned with K – a heterosexual man – and his perspective of this world.

We are supposed to be titillated, not outraged, by the recurring images of naked women in submissive poses, looking at them from a voyeuristic male gaze. The only ‘pleasure models’ and sex workers in the film are female. Blade Runner 2049 is not so futuristic in that its porn, like 2017’s, is designed with a heterosexual male client in mind.

K and Joi’s relationship borrows heavily from Spike Jonze’s Her, the utopian flipside of Blade Runner 2049. In the film, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) develops a relationship with his operating system, who is named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Like Joi, Samantha has been designed to assist Theodore’s every need. She is his secretary, reminding him of appointments, therapist, listening to his every concern, and, eventually, his girlfriend.

Effectively, she is a fantasy version of his now-divorced wife, programmed to entertain, support, and assist without asking for anything in return; a hyperbolic analogy of emotional labour. While Blade Runner 2049 does little to critique this relationship trope, Jonze’s film is much more self-aware. Theodore’s ex-wife (Rooney Mara) calls him out on his new relationship: “You always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of actually dealing with anything real […] It’s perfect.”

Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is similarly set five minutes into the future, speculating on what will happen when man is able to create consciousness in the lab. The film ensures we are made fully aware that the men – Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer, and elusive CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) – are creative geniuses. Caleb discovers that Nathan has managed to create consciousness in the form of beautiful robot femme women. There are no human women in the film.

Ex Machina is an allegory for patriarchy: Ava (Alicia Vikander), one of the robots, is kept behind a glass wall and Caleb is tasked by Nathan to test her for signs that she is developing a mind of her own. Ava and her sister-bots have been designed to be Nathan’s domestic and sex slaves. Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) is another femme-bot whose sole existence is to serve dinner, entertain, and have sex with Nathan, complete with robot vagina. Ava and Kyoko are perfect women: they are beautiful, silent, and, most importantly, have an off-switch. They can be dismantled, reprogrammed, and tinkered at by their male creators. They, like Blade Runner 2059’s Joi, are a male fantasy.

Since the birth of the genre with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818, science fiction has asked what will happen when man is able to create life. In Shelley’s novel, Dr Frankenstein, a nervous and nerdy young man, experiments with technology (electricity was the 19th century’s equivalent of the 21st century’s AI tech), and envisions giving life to a beautiful creature. Instead he creates a grotesque monster. Most monstrous of all, it develops autonomy from its creator and a mind of its own.

Ex Machina is a contemporary Frankenstein. Nathan’s vision of creating the perfect woman turns ugly when his femme-bots begin developing their own consciousness. Ava and Kyoko become monsters: they turn on their creator, murder him, and seek freedom. Caleb, who was tricked into assisting with Ava’s escape believing himself to be her knight in shining armour, is betrayed. The tables turn and Ava walks out of the house leaving Caleb stuck behind glass. Caleb is furious and aghast. He can’t believe Ava has tricked him. In The Sadeian Woman, Angela Carter famously wrote: “A free woman in an unfree society will be a monster.” Ava is a monstrous woman because she doesn’t need Caleb. She escapes the patriarchy.

The fantasies of female servitude in Her, Ex Machina, Blade Runner 2049 may be easy to scoff at, yet science fiction has always held up an ugly mirror to its present moment. A recent survey found that while in 1994, 83 per cent of young men rejected the conventional gender role of man-as-breadwinner, this number had fallen to 55 per cent in 2014. In the last year, a rhetoric of rose-tinted nostalgia for “simpler times” has dominated political discourse. Within this context, it is not so surprising that in these films’ futuristic worlds, men have programmed the perfect ‘50s housewife.

In his video essay on cinematic AIs, Luís Azevedo argues that science fiction is as concerned with the past as it is with the future: “In cinema, whenever mechanical beings achieve human-like consciousness they look to the past to find their identity; the reason behind their programming.” Devoid of a personal past, our cinematic AIs look backwards at the history of humanity in order to form an identity. Having been intentionally gendered female by their creators, they specifically look at the history of womankind. Ava, Joi, and Samantha adopt stereotypes because this is how gender has historically been represented in mainstream media. Despite being set in the future, Blade Runner 2049, Her, and Ex Machina are just as much about their past, and, therefore, our present.

While technology advances, the patriarchy morphs with it. In 2017, the STEM industry has a major gender imbalance (currently, women make up 24 per cent of the industry). If these statistics aren’t improved upon, our future may well end up looking like the nightmarish dystopias of these films. Perhaps our present already does.

Published 3 Dec 2017

Tags: Alicia Vikander Ana de Armas Denis Villeneuve Ridley Scott Ryan Gosling

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