October 28, 2018, 9:02 pm.
Warning: The following contains some spoilers for Blade Runner 2049 (2017).
As Jared Leto's character caressed and then killed a quivering, terrified, naked woman in Blade Runner 2049, I frowned at the screen.
"You haven't earned this, Denis Villeneuve," I thought. "You haven't convinced me that this imagery serves a purpose."
The frames of Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 are replete with naked female bodies. The most prominent female character, Joi, is a sexbot designed to service the protagonist's every need; giant naked holograms of Joi walk the streets of 2049 Los Angeles; naked and barely-dressed women pout their lips in ads all over the city; scantily-clad prostitutes cluster around the protagonist. Everywhere the eye falls, breasts and thighs are bared.
I absolutely believe that movies can depict the exploitation of women. But I think that filling a movie with naked women does take a toll, and in order to be worth that toll, you have to unequivocally condemn the way your movie treat those women. And I don't think Blade Runner 2049 manages to do so.
Loading a movie with visuals of naked women has a cost. It's a cost you can't measure by analyzing each movie individually — you must step back and view cinema as a whole. Across all films, the imbalance of naked women and naked men is staggering. One would be hard pressed to find a movie without a naked (or almost-naked) woman; meanwhile, movies without naked men abound. This shapes how we think; this affects the minds of young girls. We start to believe that becoming a good sex object is essential to a woman's purpose.
And still more harmfully, movies only exhibit naked women of a certain body type (with precious few exceptions). Cinema bombards our eyes with one version of female nakedness, thrusting women deeper into the abyss of insecurity and self-doubt.
Therefore, I believe movies must not take lightly the decision to expose naked female bodies. A film may have the best of intentions, and I believe that Blade Runner 2049 did, but putting naked women on display normalizes the objectification of women nevertheless. The movie still joins a chorus of voices that tell women to strip naked, and to look a certain way when they do so.
I left the theater still meditating on the depiction of women in Blade Runner 2049. To my excitement, Denis Villeneuve addressed the topic in an interview with Vanity Fair soon thereafter, and this interview helped me understand what he was going for.
"Cinema is a mirror on society," Villenueve explained. "Blade Runner is not about tomorrow; it's about today. And I'm sorry, but the world is not kind to women." Villenueve evidently sought to highlight the modern-day mistreatment of women by exaggerating it in 2049 Los Angeles.
In fact, I agree with him — I think visions of the future that highlight the inequality of today have a huge capacity to be groundbreaking.
But if you're going to depict a dystopia that treats women horribly, you must truly focus on women's lives. For instance, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale paints a dystopian future that certainly acts as "a mirror on society." The difference is that the lives and emotions of women drive Atwood's story, and Atwood critiques women's exploitation unambiguously.
In contrast, Blade Runner 2049's attitude towards the treatment of women in its world is much more passive. The film doesn't explicitly condemn the sexualization of women; rather, it uses women's sexualization to symbolize the isolating nature of society. As described by Devon Maloney from Wired, when K (the protagonist) stares at a giant naked version of Joi, the scene emphasizes his loneliness, not her oppression.
And in the absence of a strong stance against the sexualization of women, one begins to wonder if the real function of Blade Runner 2049's naked women is to titillate the presumed heterosexual male viewer. As a woman watching the film, I did not feel that the naked women served to call attention to my oppression. I had the sneaking suspicion that they were designed to entertain the men sitting next to me.
Blade Runner 2049 puts women's bodies in the spotlight without putting their emotions in the spotlight, too. Therein lies its problem.