Future Female

13 Aug

Girls, geisha, cyborgs: sexy robot women in Blade Runner and beyond

I love Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. It’s the kind of movie you could never be ashamed at listing in your top five – it’s a film buffs’ film, the kind of iconic picture that comes along rarely and then lingers in the canon, setting the bar for pretty much everything that comes next. Style (the 40s-meets-80s neo-noir), music (Vangelis’ sweeping electronica), detail (the columns Scott demanded be turned upside down to show the design, much to the annoyance of the set dressers); Blade Runner is at once derivative and original, to brilliant effect. That, and it’s a thrilling story that raises a host of questions about the nature of human (and not human) existence.

But Blade Runner is also a problematic fave. The lazy use of Asian culture to create a hostile and unfamiliar ‘LA’ atmosphere is one thing. Then you have the women. Blade Runner, like many sci-fi movies (like many movies full stop) has a serious issue with its representation of females. I say females, because there are no significant human women in this story. Let that sink in. One of the most iconic movies ever made has no human women in the narrative. Where females appear, their roles are highly sexualised and suggest that the female future is both limited and bleak.

Blade Runner is not alone in this, and not the greatest offender. In fact, the original movie, read in a feminist light, offers much food for thought, despite its ultimate inability to truly challenge the oppressive capitalist patriarchy it establishes. But its influence is undeniable, and begs the question: why is our culture so unimaginative when it comes to the future female?

Blade Runner: ‘Your basic pleasure model’

One of the most enduring images of Blade Runner is the Geisha advert, many storeys high. A throwaway detail, maybe, one of those bits of Asian culture lobbed in to lend a sinister air, or a reminder that LA of 2019 is a consumerist hellhole in which the downtrodden populace are taunted with images of things they can’t have. But the choice of a geisha/maiko is an interesting one. In the (incorrect) Western imagination, the geisha is akin to a prostitute, albeit a very beautifully dressed, probably pleasingly submissive one. She can be purchased for an evening of ‘companionship’, and then who knows what else might be bought?

The image establishes the dominant theme when it comes to females in this universe. Despite technology advanced enough to take humans to far-off colony worlds, and create replicants that are in many ways indistinguishable from people, society seems to have made little, if any, progress.

Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto‘ was published in 1984, almost concurrent with the film’s release. In it, she posits the development of cyborg technology as a fundamental challenge to the traditional order. The cyborg offers opportunities for liberation, especially from gender. She draws a powerful image of ‘transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities’, and the cyborg self emerging as one ‘feminists must code’.

Blade Runner finds us on the flip-side of this ideal, as humanity has very clearly been unable to throw off the shackles of the old world. Our three main females, all cyborgs/replicants, are identified by and valuable for their sexuality. Pris, most obviously, is ‘your basic pleasure model’, and even in her murderous rage chooses a route of highly sexualised violence as she attempts to strangle Deckard between her thighs. Zhora is an assassin (curiously, although we never find out more about this intriguing tidbit); on Earth she dances as a stripper complete with snake. Both women are intensely beautiful, as well as strong. Of course. This cyborg future has only room for perfect female bodies, pliant female bodies, female bodies made to be brutalised. There is never a sense that either Pris or Zhora resent these roles, and indeed it is interesting that assassin Zhora ‘chose’ to become a snake dancer when she could have done literally anything else with a lot less danger of exposure. The replicant women are made to be abused. In fact they seem to enjoy it. The camera enjoys it too. Why else does Zhora make her final dash for freedom in a see-through coat and not much else?

This is epitomised by our third woman, Rachel. Rather than unfettered, licentious sexuality, Rachel portrays fragility. She is by turns cold and confused. This is ideal for our hero, Deckard, who is himself in a constant state of breakdown. Their ‘love’ scene is nothing less than rape as Deckard stops her from leaving, then forces her to beg for him. Though soundtracked by Vangelis’ sultry sax ‘Love Theme’, the scene is more disturbing with every watch.

Yet one must ask, what is consent between cyborgs? When Rachel says she loves Deckard, the words come out robotic, as if programmed. Does the robot believe what she has been programmed to say? Does the flash of electrical circuits to say ‘yes’ hold any real meaning? The film dangles these interesting questions before us but never attempts to answer them.

The females of Blade Runner are like the dolls in J.F. Sebastian’s workshop. They are playthings, without agency. Their existence is to satisfy the desires of men, mainly sexual, but developing further as Leon, Roy and then Deckard ‘fall in love’ with their perfect female forms – thereby moving the story forwards with emotional stakes. In every sense they are objects.

Blade Runner 2049: It gets worse

With such a bleak and depressing outlook for future females on show in Blade Runner, one might wonder if the 2017 sequel, Blade Runner: 2049, would take a different tack. No such luck. 2049 not only dials up the patriarchy, but also does the absolute least to deconstruct the depressing future it conjures. It’s also a terrible movie with very little to recommend outside some pretty visuals, so it doesn’t even have much going for it.*

2049 does actually have one (probably) human female character, Robin Wright’s police chief, who is sort of a refreshing gender flip of a tired character trope, even up to the point where she creepily hits on Ryan Gosling’s K. Aside from her, we have Joi, K’s sexy holographic girlfriend; Luv, sexy psychotic killer robot; Mackenzie Davis (queer lady catnip) as Mariette, sexy grunge prostitute robot; a rebel leader with no personality other than spouting meaningless, enigmatic twaddle; and the ~*@~magickal~@*~ child of Deckard and Rachel (more on that later).

Joi is the next level of consent-free shenanigans up from Rachel in the original. This is a hologram specifically designed to luuuuuurve and adooooooore whichever lonely person sets her up – a kind of souped-up Alexa. This is not a particularly original idea, but in this movie, with its dearth of actual human women, it’s nauseating. Joi is set up as a legitimate love interest for K, and we’re perhaps meant to find it endearing when he engineers a squicky threesome with replicant prostitute Mariette just so he can get his rocks off for real. Also, she’s swiftly fridged (killed off to further the hero’s manpain). The film toys with the idea that this relationship is gross when it has K get mopey over her giant holographic advert, but at the same time wants to eat its cake too by lingering on Ana de Armas’ supernatural beauty. If any of the other women in the film had a hint of personality, the nastiness might be softened, but Luv, one of the main antagonists, is nothing but a cold killing machine acting on behalf of nonsensical villain Niander Wallace.

So, females in this film exist to further the stories of men. Plus ca change. But there’s worse. Blade Runner may be problematic, but at least there is no discussion of pregnancy, wombs, childbirth etc. etc. In 2049, the entire plot is based around the characters’ bizarre obsession with being born of woman. This starts with the ludicrous retcon that Tyrell engineered Rachel specifically to get Deckard to both fall for her and reproduce with her, a tale that tries to paint Rachel and Deckard’s relationship both as a great romance (which it is not – see above) and a ‘miracle’. We then find that Wallace has spent years trying to make replicants have babies, a colossal waste of time he justifies with quasi-religious exposition that frankly makes no sense whatsoever.

The female future in 2049 has expanded from one of sexual exploitation to one of extreme physical fetishisation. Congratulations, women! You can now be sex-robots AND baby factories.

(For the other side of the argument, see an interesting discussion of the overlap between environmental exploitation and female bodies here. To me, this is plausible, but not enough to take away the horrible taste of sex robots + mystical pregnancy)

Domo Arigato, Mrs. Roboto: Sexy robots everywhere

Robot liberation stories are a staple of science fiction, and have been since Mary Shelley and maybe even Pinocchio. There is something fundamentally fascinating about the artificial human’s rise to consciousness, and the terrible consequences that might bring. This is a tried and tested tale, but far from played out, especially as real technology gains pace with the imaginary.

And yet, we keep coming back to the sexy fembots.

In Battlestar Galactica (2004), the Cylons, a human-created race of robots, return to wage war on their creators with an ace up their sleeves. No longer ‘chrome domes’, they now look (and feel) human. This is important, because one cannot have a satisfying sex scene involving a toaster.

The first Cylon we see is Six, played by former model Trisha Helfer. To start off with, she is the femme fatale trope played absolutely straight. She’s a killer, but she’s a smoking hot one, unafraid to use her seductive powers to gain access to important people and information. Galactica would like us to sympathise with the Cylons to some extent, because they were enslaved by humans and rose up; at the same time, we are invited to ogle Six and her perfect artificial body. Note the first male models we see: ordinary Aaron Doral and the slightly crumpled Leoben Conoy. The male Cylons are not required to be hunks.

Galactica lampshades this in season 2 when an abused Six is discovered on board the Pegasus, and Helfer is given greater range (as it turned out she was an incredible actress). Gina’s fate is a horrific consequence of her seductive nature and it shames the audience for their previous complicity in the show’s presentation of the character.

Nevertheless, Galactica also goes down the ‘robots just want to have kids’ route and there are several plotlines involving reproduction, mystical pregnancy and female bodily exploitation, many of which are never really explained beyond ‘[the Cylons] have a plan’.

Of course, Galactica’s female future also includes lots of human women, of all varieties, and of a complexity rarely found in other dramas. This is not the case with Alex Garland’s 2014 film Ex Machina, a stylish and atmospheric thriller set in a remote mansion where Oscar Isaac’s smoking hot but massively arrogant typical tech bro asshole has developed an articial intelligence. Which, naturally, he houses in the body of a beautiful woman.

The film is in large part about Nathan’s creepiness, and the naivety of the other main character, Caleb, as he falls for Alicia Vikander’s Ava. The exploitation of the cyborgs’ bodies is manifest in the way Nathan often plays with just a pair of legs, for example, or the different bodies he has strung up in his closet like Blackbeard. The climax (look away for spoilers) is in part gratifying because Ava and Kyoko get their bloody revenge on the men, and Ava’s final escape leaves us hanging as we ponder the sinister implications of unleashing this intelligence on the world.

And yet, some problems. Kyoko is your stereotypical mute Asian who never gets much of a chance to develop. Ava is a very dangerous and scary character, but she is still the femme fatale. She is still powerful because of her sexuality, and the hold that gives her over the men. What would Ex Machina look like with a totally female cast?

There are many, many more examples. Channel 4’s Humans treads well-worn ground in terms of robot (‘synth) – human relations so I’ll admit I only watched the first season, in which Niska had to work as a prostitute and there was a scene in which a human man tried to install a sex upgrade into his family cyborg. I’m sure the show has done more with the concept since then. But still, our default story is female = abuse.

Conclusion

 

In 2001, Spielberg released the almighty turkey, A.I. It was tremendously dull and I suspect most people have forgotten it.

All the same, I have to conclude that A.I. was a groundbreaking and mould-breaking work. Why? Because Jude Law plays a male sexbot called ‘Gigolo Joe’. And despite the fact that it’s 2018, one year from Blade Runner, that’s still something remarkable.

Please, please, please – can we get back to our feminist cyborgs? Imagine a future beyond patriarchy? Beyond limits? I know it’s hard. But unless we do, we might be trapped in the same old fembot rut: watching boring movies, at best, and limiting our own technological progress at worst.

 

 

 

*Can you tell how much I hated 2049?

 

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