The hidden feminist message buried inside 'Blade Runner 2049'

Spoiler alert: This post contains plot details for Blade Runner 2049.

Blade Runner 2049 is a cinematic marvel full of haunting, vivid, messy messages about what it means to be human. 

As a solemn odyssey through the anxieties of modern man, 2049 tells the story of a futuristic capitalist society finally reckoning with its systemic oppression of mother nature and, by extension, women.

Don’t get me wrong: Blade Runner 2049 is far from a bastion of feminist cinema. 

Many have lobbed valid critiques against 2049 and its predecessor — which purport to be allegories for slavery, while only concerning themselves with the perspectives of white, straight men. But that doesn’t render them incapable of scrutinizing patriarchy, or the male psyche. 

If anything, the film’s insistence on the male perspective serves as a window into the psychological unease of a technology-based, male-dominated society as it watches its long-held dominion over the kingdom of man slipping.

Taking a page from the playbook of many feminist scholars, director Denis Villeneuve uses visual language to link the subjugation of women (particularly their bodies, sexuality, and reproductive rights) to man’s destructive commodification of nature.

In contrast to the bustling claustrophobic cities that mimic the structures of a motherboard, 2049 also luxuriates in the melancholic abyss of barren wastelands that mourn the last vestiges of organic life.

The commodification of female sexuality

The commodification of female sexuality

Image: wb studios

Villeneuve essentially envisions the moment when the establishment can no longer ignore the irrevocable damage mankind has inflicted upon all of humanity. 2049 fixates on the power struggle between man-made creation (like the replicants and other technologies), and indomitable natural forces — which remain squarely in the female domain, despite the best efforts of the film’s antagonist, played by Jared Leto.

On one side, there is the miracle of natural procreation. In the opening scene, buried beneath a lone white tree, the bones of a female body carry a secret that could destroy the very fabric of 2049‘s society. Life always finds a way, even in replicant wombs.

Later, the leader of the replicant resistance almost quotes the title of Adrienne Riche’s famed feminist text Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience, when she tells Ryan Gosling’s K that to be “born of woman” is the irrefutable proof of one’s humanity.

On the other hand, there’s Leto’s coiffed, Silicon Valley-esque villain Niander Wallace, whose wealth is only surpassed by his hubris and masked rage. 

As 2049‘s official timeline explains, Wallace first rose to power after creating genetically modified food that solved the global famine and allowed people to cling to life on earth. Now, he obsesses over gaining control over the female body, hoping to create bioengineered wombs in replicants.

It’s the futuristic version of an old patriarchal dream: swapping out the necessity of real human women (with their pesky autonomy) to procreate, and replacing them with heteronomous females that come barefoot, pregnant, and Stepford Wived right out of their plastic packaging. 

In a video interview with the New York Times (below), Villeneuve explains that in filming K’s arrival in Las Vegas, the director “wanted the frontier between reality and dreams to be blurred,” as K finds himself, “in a garden of erotic statues in a dead city.”

Walking past these gigantic, fallen idols of female objectification — in a city that would never have existed in the first place if not for the sheer greed, willpower, and arrogance of capitalism — K comes across an unimaginable miracle: life. A true, undoctored, organic bee hive buzzing in the toxic glow of what used to be Vegas’ red light district. The entire city’s color palette stands in contrast to the rest of the film’s neon blue undertones, signifying the characters’ metaphorical prison of electric dreams.

The most eerie aspect of 2049‘s dystopian vision is how it carries uncanny resonance for this particular moment in human history. Far from science fiction, the film stays with you because it presents the believable, logical conclusion to the seismic shifts already changing our real-world society. 

Those who know about advancements in VR porn and sex robots, of example, can’t help but shiver at the film’s prescient AR billboards with blank-eyed, customizable, naked women promising to be your toy for the right price. 

Or, if you own an Amazon Echo — or have read about a Japanese analog, Gatebox, which boasts a holographic assistant (who’s really more like a stand-in girlfriend) — it’s not hard to imagine an imminent future when the feminine labor of wives and secretaries is digitized, like Joi. 

Most prominently, 2049 reminds of our own reckoning with mother nature, as we watch natural disasters swallow real world cities week by week.  

Luv and her Silicon Valley creator

Luv and her Silicon Valley creator

Image: wb studios

In the film, earth appears in revolt against man’s instance on inhabiting the home it continues to exploit for resources. As the film’s timeline explains, in the three decades since the original Blade Runner was set, “climate change has caused the sea level to rise dramatically,” leading to the need for a “massive Sea Wall… to protect the Los Angeles basin.”

Meanwhile, record-breaking fires rage on in IRL near Los Angeles, and Blade Runner 2049 imagines the climactic shift to when those fiery graves turn into a watery tomb. During the confrontation between K, Deckard, and Sylvia Hoeks’ Luv in the third act, everyone struggles for air as wave after wave of mother nature’s ire crashes against their pod, which resembles a sort of artificial embryonic sac in its circular design. 

And, sure enough, our male heroes K and Deckard survive their harrowing rebirth from the ocean as changed men. The realize now, more than ever, that they are not the future, and are willing to sacrifice everything for the naturally-born female child who is. 

Meanwhile Luv, the physical embodiment of the patriarchal need to control female bodies and nature through increasingly sophisticated technological tools, suffocates in her man-made womb.

You don’t have to look far to see parallels between the exploitative oppression of women and the environment in the real world. Take our president, who not only ignores climate change and actively hinders research on it, but also happily enacts policies to strip women of control over their own bodies

Trump has already undermined women’s access to birth control, Planned Parenthood, and sex ed; revealing the fraught, frightened psychology of a white, patriarchal, capitalist system that fears its own irrelevance amid the changing tides of progressivism.

The world of new capitalism — a term used by social scientists to describe how technology is taking over as the central pillar to our global economy — not only does unspeakable damage to our planet, but also fuels a culture that reduces all of natural life into a collection of consumable gadgets.

In 2049, Joi commodifies domesticity and love. Pleasure models commodify female bodies and sexuality. Wallace commodifies sustenance. K is a commodification of justice and labor. The replicants as a whole commodify the full spectrum of human existence.

But perhaps the film’s most frightening aspect is the fact that these increasingly powerful tools don’t just spring from the ether (or womb) fully formed: They are designed by people who imbue them with their own flaws, social constructs, and unconscious biases. And despite the tech industry paying lip-service to diversity, it remains a field dominated by the design principles and labor of men. (Who seem just fine with that.)

The disembodiment of bought, holographic love

The disembodiment of bought, holographic love

Image: WB STUDIOS

But Blade Runner 2049 demonstrates what a future overrun by those male-dominated technological advancements will look like. Consequently, it’s a movie drenched in anxiety, from its methodical, throat-clenching pace, to the disquiet of its desolate scenery and sparse audio design.

While the film’s ending proves a bit more muddled, Blade Runner 2049 does not waver in its assertion that to be born of woman — and to bow to the indomitable power of mother nature — is key to what makes us human. And, equally, that the intangible, holographic promises of a patriarchal, tech-driven society will inevitably erode our souls, if we let them. 

Granted, the Blade Runner franchise would do well to hand its narrative reins over to a female perspective; especially since 2049 certainly seems to suggest that women will be the ones to start the revolution that brings humanity out of this man-made hell (while, in actuality, still treating its female characters as an afterthought.)

But, in an inversion of Hollywood’s typical male-driven fantasies — perpetuated by blockbusters like The Matrix, Star Wars and Harry Potter — by the film’s end, it appears our hero has resigned himself to his own irrelevancy, realizing that he’s actually the footnote in someone else’s story.

K is not special. He is not the chosen one. He is not the miracle that will change everything. His sister is.

Because, at its heart, Blade Runner 2049 recognizes that in order for us to survive on this planet, our future will need to be female.

WATCH: Here are 7 things you didn’t know about the neo-noir sci-fi film ‘Blade Runner’

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