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.