Blade Runner 2049: the depiction of women

Objectively, Sci-Fi has long been co-opted by the patriarchy. The genre has, almost since its incarnation and increasingly so, been primarily seen as a genre that is designed for and appeals to, exclusively men. Arguably this perception is one that has been rather foisted upon the genre, rather than created by design, but there can be little denying of its impact.

As such, it is hardly surprising that much of the rhetoric surrounding Denis Villeneuve Blade Runner 2049 has focused on the depiction of women, receiving both acclaim and critique in equal measure.  The detractors note the proliferation of the commodification of sexuality with many of the women onscreen fulfilling the role of sex workers, or simply performing a narrative function.

Thus Mackenzie Davis’ character is afforded little real agency and is instead instructed by a more powerful character to carry out a specified task. Similarly, Joi (Ana de Armas), the AI technology that is entirely sold as a commodity, fulfils the role of female partner for Ryan Gosling’s Office K.

Joi, being a creation seemingly without true consciousness, is able to flit between roles. Indeed, when K first arrives home, Joi quite literally embodies a performative role, adjusting her dress and manner in accordance with his wishes in order to indulge his every whim. For those who have criticized the film, it is the character of Joi that has attracted the most derision. Her look, her very body, is one that is used by the corporation that created her. Joi’s appearance is not unique to the AI version that K has purchased, but rather is an image that is resold and redressed according to the desires of the buyer. It is this aspect, and her seeming lack of agency, that has seen the most discussion levelled.

Certainly, Joi’s character is problematic, but arguably, it is intended to be so. While some may not question the nature of her incarnation or existence, many will note that her character, and her desire to achieve physical realness, is one that affords her consciousness. Her relationship with K is one that achieves connection despite her lack of physical embodiment. Despite her incorporeal nature, her presence affords K an opportunity to feel something more. This is not to suggest that she is somehow subservient to K or is there to provide him with mere pleasure, her role is more than that. It is Joi that suggests the apparent nature of K’s parentage, and it is Joi, recognising the vulnerability she posits towards K, that insists on being removed from the hard drive in order to ensure his safety.

Similarly, it should be noted that Villeneuve intentionally subverts the rather tired trope of the heroic male. Rather than, as K almost too willingly believes, K being the projected leader of an impending replicant uprising, it is an unsuspecting, thoughtful and sensitive woman who is revealed to be the true miracle. This woman is a creator in a myriad of ways, capable of creating memories ready to be implanted into replicants. Her revolution, one suspects, will not be one of death and destruction, but rather one that empowers, much like the capabilities of the memories that she so lovingly develops and designs. Too often, it is the male protagonist who serves as the focal point of the film, but as Villeneuve seems to suggest, we have been paying attention to the wrong character. K, while a key role, is only the helper if considering Propp’s character types, it is this woman who is the hero.

There is much reference to the replicants’ ability to procreate being evidence of their humanity, and it is surely worth mentioning this. It is the maternal figure that will ultimately provide the replicants with their salvation, not a hyper-masculine, antagonistic hero.


The ‘good’ woman: Me Before You

As has been discussed at length, women are often categorised into two simplistic dichotomies: wholly good, and wholly bad. These two versions and ideas of womanhood are entirely reductive, not allowing for any subtlety. Encouraging reward and punishment for the good and bad respectively, they teach audiences that women are only one of two types.

Me Before You’s Louisa Clark is one such example. Entirely good, completely flawless and consistently exuberant, her unrelenting positivity is not only irritating saccharine but thoroughly damaging. Her character is so boringly good, that there is little else to define her aside from this identified ‘goodness’. Indeed, it is this kindness and unstoppable happiness that provides the very nature of her character and encourages admiration from other characters. Seemingly, this naïve positivity is supposed to be endearing, and encourage engagement, but in reality, it makes her character unrelatable, promoting her to a position of unachievable perfection.

Louisa, losing her job at the local café from which funds were used to support her family, applies for a job as a carer to Will. Will, paralysed in an accident two years previously, is initially antagonistic towards Louisa, but is soon charmed by her idiosyncrasies. These calculated idiosyncrasies include a predilection for brightly coloured clothing and slightly bizarre hairstyles, in an attempt to further highlight her endless positivity and sunny disposition.

While Louisa initially finds the job difficult, she continues, at the encouragement of her sister, to work for Will’s family. When discovering that Will intends to end his life, struggling with his disability (a decision which has received much-deserved criticism), she determines to create a bucket-list of sorts, intending to change his mind and show him that life is worth living. This decision and this bucket-list are only made possible by Will’s extreme wealth. A fact that is presented without question. Similarly, the superficial nature of this venture is never analysed or presented for critique.

Regardless of the events and experiences that Louisa organises, Will determines that he will still end his life, a decision which Louisa eventually accepts and supports. Louisa, demonstrating a total lack of agency, uses the money Will bequeaths to her to start a new life, following his instructions to visit Paris.

Louisa’s presentation is problematic for numerous reasons, and her innocuous nature demands further analysis. Her goodness and her continued ability to act good and pure is utterly unrealistic. She is entirely selfless, willingly contributing to her family’s income without any desire to fulfil her own ambitions. When this is questioned, she refers to having previously been offered a university place to study fashion, and there is a suggestion that she was compelled to rescind the place, but this decision is never interrogated. Her sister, presented as academic, is afforded the opportunity to renew her studies, leaving Louisa to continue to provide for the family without question or complaint. Louisa’s desires and needs are never fully realised, and her ambitions are refracted through others. Even at the end of the film’s narrative, now supposedly afforded the opportunity to travel and realise her aspirations, she is still carrying out the desires of others.

As her desires are never fully explored, Louisa is only ever a one-dimensional character. Will’s attraction to her seems to be based on a series of signifiers. Ones that highlight her as being slightly and endearingly eccentric, childlike, and continually optimistic. There are no shades of grey in Louisa’s character, and any moments of unhappiness are caused by her love and care for Will, rather than any decision or want of her own.

Presenting viewers with such a limited construct further emphasises the problematic nature of the representation of women in romantic dramas in particular. Will’s ex-girlfriend, who marries his best friend, is demonised for her decision to move on with her life after Will’s accident. There is a suggestion that Will was difficult, as she states to Louisa that she tried for months to continue their relationship, but the audience is led to believe that her character is somehow weak and shallow for embarking on a new relationship. There is no investigation or discussion surrounding this event, it simply uses a female character to juxtapose the goodness of Louisa. Emphasising Louisa’s perfection by contrasting her with a woman who has been found wanting is lazy and further contributes to the tired discourse of women continually battling against one another without support.

Young Adult: In praise of the selfish woman

Too often, women are forced into two opposing roles with little nuance. Frequently, they are either wholly good or wholly bad, with no room for subtlety. Those women that are good, are rewarded, often marrying or achieving career success at the end of a film’s narrative. Those that are bad are either punished in some rudimentary manner or, more commonly, compelled to learn something and to somehow develop and gain a sense of morality.

It is then, relatively rare to see a woman who is not only entirely selfish and destructive to others around her, but utterly engaging throughout a narrative. Young Adult features a protagonist who is entirely self-centred in her pursuits. Her ambition throughout much of the narrative is simply to reward themselves, caring little for those around them. The film features a woman who revels in her lack of self-awareness and, rather progressively, is not punished for it.

Creating such a character is more than simply writing in acts that render the character mean or hurtful. Indeed, despite the apparent lack of nuance, these characters are deftly and skilfully written. It is apparent in films such as Trainwreck, that characters that are simply egocentric do not manifest themselves are engaging. The protagonist of Trainwreck, regardless of her actions, lacks engagement. Her character may revel in her decisions, and profess to enjoy her lifestyle in which she engages in numerous short-term relationships, but she lacks the conviction and wit to persuade the audience. Without the ability to convince the audience, the viewer is left questioning the worth of these moments.

Young Adult alternatively, features a character whose dedication to her ambitions is entirely convincing. Deciding that her high school boyfriend is still in love with her, she returns to the town of her adolescence. Caring little for his marriage, or indeed the birth of his baby, Mavis (Charlize Theron) sets about attempting to orchestrate a reunion between the two. The success of her plan matters little to the film’s central plot. What makes the film so enjoyable, and eminently watchable is Theron’s central performance.

Theron’s Mavis, wrestling with her own problems, cares little for the problems of others. Her compulsive hair pulling, which seemingly indicates a response to stress for Mavis, is presented for the viewer to watch but asks for little active engagement. We are instead, invited to watch Mavis live her life, preparing herself for her numerous dates, and struggling to ghost write her last young adult novel. Her actions cause much pain to those around her, and her impact on those that she grew up with is revisited by many characters. Clearly, her cruelness left an indelible mark, which many of the characters have struggled to get past. Mavis is an expert in presenting herself and knows how to manipulate the emotions of those around her. Scenes show her carefully applying extensions to cover her bald patches, expertly applying makeup, and selecting clothes designed to highlight her attractiveness and success.

Mavis, in ghost writing her teen novels, has essentially never left high school and is still surrounded in that world. Several scenes show her eavesdropping on local teens, using their dialogue as inspiration for her writing. Not being able to move away from the polished prom queen image that she so carefully cultivated in high school, Mavis is stuck and remains so. The film, in the hands of a less skilled writer and director, would have concluded with some form of life lesson or punishment. Instead, rather joyfully, Mavis simply leaves, caring little for the results of her actions. Her unwavering selfishness feels entirely true to her character. She will never learn, and will never have to truly face that consequences of her actions, and that’s OK. This belief that all characters must learn something is clichéd and dull. It is Mavis’ lack of character development or progression that makes her characterisation feel real. There is no life lesson for her to learn here, and nor should there be.

The ‘goodness’ of 13 Going on 30

13 Going on 30 is a strange film. Its central conceit of a young girl, making a wish to be ’30, flirty and thriving’ is by no means original. Certainly, this manner of body swapping and time travel has been done many times before. But what makes 13 Going on 30 rather notable, is the power dynamics that are at play.

Presented, ostensibly, as a romantic comedy, the film follows Jenna, who embarrassed by the various social tribulations of being a thirteen-year-old, wishes to be a mature, successful thirty-year-old woman. Upon waking, she finds that her thirty-year-old incarnation, while successful as a magazine editor, is, as another character bluntly states, ‘a bitch’. She has retained a friendship with the popular girl in school, and together the pair work for the magazine Jenna so admired when younger. Her best friend, Matty, has fallen by the wayside, no longer deemed suitable company for the ambitious and determined Jenna.

What makes 13 Going on 30 questionable is the rather crudely belied message that it posits to its viewer. The women in the film are, entirely simplistic, either good or bad. Rather like Gilbert and Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic, the women in Jenna’s world are either wholly good or wholly bad: angel or whore. Jenna, in her adult manifestation, is bad. She has affairs with co-worker’s husbands, treats her employees with disdain, and has isolated childhood friends due to her behaviour. When bad, Jenna is afforded little respect by either the characters in the film or indeed, the audience themselves. We are clearly, and rather unsubtly, told to abhor this version of Jenna. Jenna only regains the respect of Matty, her assistant, and the audience, when she reneges on her previous behaviour.

Thus, the audience is treated to several cringe-worthy scenes in which Jenna, compelled to present her own conception for the progress of the magazine she so adores, pontificates on the importance of returning to childhood, to innocence and to fun. Carrying in her homemade mood board, complete with balloons and ribbons, Jenna meditates her voice, becoming almost child-like herself. This desire to return to childhood is presented in direct contrast to her rival’s ideas, which, in their purported edginess and futuristic appeal, are clearly intended to be perceived as almost sinister, without heart or meaning.

What then, is 13 Going on 30, attempting to suggest to its audience? Its narrative, with its hackneyed and awkward central romance, clearly indicates that in order to be happy and successful both personally and professionally, women have to be the embodiment of good.  Jenna is only able to embark on her relationship with her beloved Matty when she becomes good. Notably, this version of goodness seems to be a term that is transferable with childlike, or innocent. Jenna, in the body swapping narrative, is, despite her outward appearance, still the thirteen-year-old at the start of the narrative. Is this to suggest then, that it is this that Matty finds so appealing?

Her goodness is utterly saccharine. An incomplete idyll of congeniality and niceness. Her Jenna does not possess the ability to have shades of personality within her, rather she is without fault in this ideal state. Interestingly, it is only in this state that her career, hitherto stalling, begins to progress. Similarly, her personal relationships, which up to the start of the narrative have been largely been borne out of infidelity, is, with Matty, pure. This purity is not only entirely unrealistic but rather damaging in its conceit. Women are not simply good or bad, and to represent them as such is entirely reductive.
Of course, once Jenna achieves peak virtuousness, she is rewarded. Transported back to her life as a thirteen-year-old, afforded the opportunity to correct her mistakes, she marries the similarly perfect Matty. Thus, those who are wholesome are presented with what they desire, while those who do not embody such characteristics are found wanting.

The Girl on the Train – Review

Psychological thrillers are becoming increasingly ubiquitous, both in fiction and film. It is hardly surprising then, that after the literary success of The Girl on the Train, that a film adaptation quickly made its way to screen.

Emily Blunt stars as Rachel, an alcoholic whose dependency has resulted in increasing isolation. Travelling into the city each day under the pretence of attending work, she finds herself entranced by a young couple and their romantic interactions. For Rachel, this couple represents everything that she and her ex-husband could have been before the pain of infertility and his indulgence in extramarital affairs became too much. The proximity of this couple to her previous home, which is now inhabited by her ex-husband and his previous mistress, makes this illusion even more difficult and tangible.

The book, using names as chapter headings, is told from the first person perspective of three women. Rachel, Megan (part of the young couple who Rachel fantasises about) and Anna, Rachel’s ex-husband’s current wife. The film takes a similar, and rather lazy approach, using title cards to show which character we are currently viewing. Rather than relying on film visuals, the film chooses to heavily invest in character voice over, meaning that often, the film feels rather more like an audio book.

Thus, along with Rachel, we are privy to the inner thoughts of Megan, who is battling with a past incident and struggling with her current relationship. The contrast of Rachel’s fairy-tale version of Megan’s relationship, as viewed from the train, with the reality as told by Megan, is a nice touch, dispelling with the mythology that so often surround relationships. Yet, even when supposedly becoming intimately acquainted with Megan, hearing her express her fears and desires, we never get to truly know her as a character in her own right.

Megan becomes a fantasy figure, projected by both Rachel and Megan herself. Megan, in struggling with her own identity, constantly conjures a hypersexualised version of herself, yet this image is never really brought into relief. As a result, we never truly care about her character. This means that her disappearance, an event that apparently provides Rachel with a new purpose and obsession, feels inconsequential. Similarly, Anna’s story, which largely charts her domestic drudgery, is far from involving.

The film is hugely flawed, both in terms of its adaptive process, and its characterisation. The speed of the adaptation and subsequent production is telling, and immediately mars the transition from page to screen. The overreliance on voiceover merely demonstrates the inability to take risks by deviating from the source text in any form. It is understandable, if questionable, that an adaptation for a hugely successful book would attempt to directly render it onscreen, but in doing so, the adaptation becomes superfluous.

It would have been far more interesting to see the motivations of the characters depicted through visual means, rather than being explicitly told. Such an approach highlights a perceived lack of intelligence on the part of the audience, as if without being directly told how a character feels, we would not be able to understand.

The depiction of women too, is rather problematic. While it is certainly refreshing to see a film feature three lead women, it is only worthy of praise when these women are complex and fully formed characters. Each female character, despite their apparent individuality, are all motivated by similar aims and obsessions. Furthermore, each female character seem to hate other women. Rachel, rather than feeling anger towards her ex-husband for his affair, projects her rage towards Anna. Megan, in declining to start a family with her husband, is depicted as unfeeling and unempathetic. Her sexuality, rather than feeling empowering, is shown to be manipulative and dangerous.

The pacing is off, meaning that any tension that existed in the novel is lacking in its visual counterpart. As a result the film, in failing to involve and engage through its characters, as well as requiring some major editing to its overlong two hour running time, is simply dull. The tone is strangely pitched; taking itself far too seriously. Certainly the cast do their best, but the end result is a B-movie without any schlocky enjoyment.