Less Human Than Human: Blade Runner and Gender

An abridged version of this article appeared in Huffington Post

I’d been excited for Blade Runner 2049 for a long time. I’m a huge fan of the original, and even if the new movie had the potential to be awful, I knew I’d go into it with my heart wide open. I’m always desperate for more cyberpunk in my life, and I’m willing to go through a lot of pain to make that happen.

But despite the fact that I was willing to overlook almost every issue for the sake of one of my favourite genres, 2049 had a fatal issue that I couldn’t get past: it spent three hours demonstrating that a number of its characters were less than human, ruining the entire movie for me.

No, not the Replicants.

The women.

The entire history of cinema is littered with gender issues. Yes, there’s the harassment–pervasive, sustained, and finally being dragged into public view. But the problems the industry has with gender has always extended to content as well. We have no shortage of movies written by men, for men, and very few movies that even consider women to be part of their “target demographic”, never mind their creators. Thankfully, there are signs that things are changing.

Mad Max: Fury Road was a watershed moment, like suddenly Hollywood woke up and realized that you could put together a dystopian sci-fi with women in leading roles and still make a good movie. Still, Fury Road wasn’t a female-dominated film. It had a male lead, the male’s name in the movie title, a male villain, a male writer/director, and so on. It was just…more equal. It raised the bar, but only because the bar was so damn low that even a half-step towards equal treatment felt distinctly progressive at the time.

Fury Road should have been the new standard for gender representation. It wasn’t about the number of women on screen, or even how cliché aspects of their stories were—hell, the majority of women in Fury Road were sex slaves kept around specifically for the purpose of breeding. That would be as reductive as you can get, if it was literally the entirety of their characters. But these weren’t the things that defined these women. This was backstory, not character traits, and the movie worked hard to transcend the clichés and give each of its women life.

Blade Runner 2049 had almost as many female characters Fury Road (7, to Fury Road‘s 10), but it’s worth mentioning that (unless you’re willing to reach) 2049 fails the Bechdel test—a tongue-in-cheek measurement designed to demonstrate sexism in the movie industry. The only requirement for passing the test is to have two named female characters who, at some point in the movie, talk to each other about something other than a man. The director, Denis Villeneuve, said that the large amount of female roles was one of the things that attracted him to the script, but this drives home the fact that having women on the screen doesn’t mean they’re complex or autonomous characters. They may be there, but they’re walking uteruses, or eyecandy, or sex slaves, only existing in the context of their male counterparts. Or, sure, metaphors for how we destroy nature. But “we let them be a metaphor” is barely a scrap from the table when the men get to be both metaphors and fleshed-out characters at the same time.

You could make an argument that the sexist writing is purposeful commentary. After all, we live in a patriarchal society, isn’t this just an extrapolation of how we might treat women in the future if this continues to go unchecked? Could the movie be purposefully trying to make us feel gross about how it treats women, and reflect on that?

Except that’s not the problem. Like I said, you can stack your movie full of sex slaves and still have them be complex characters. Fury Road did that just fine. The problem with 2049 isn’t that the men treat the women like walking gender stereotypes—the women are their stereotypes. If there’s any message or commentary to be found, the movie itself is 110% complicit in whatever it might be condemning. The movie never suggests that they might be anything more than what’s presented on-screen.

I’ve also seen the argument that the movie treats women poorly because it’s setting up the idea that the future of both the human and Replicant species is dependant on procreation, and therefore women. An entire sex might be marginalized, but they’re also the most vital half of society. That’s interesting commentary, right? But again, this isn’t the problem. This doesn’t explain why the women are flat and simplified foils to the men in the story—a quality of the writing, not the world. And if this is really the point the movie is trying to make, that women are the tool we need to build the future, it’s just another sexist stereotype, reducing a woman’s value to a healthy and functioning uterus.


Course correction

So, how could this have been done differently? Let’s take a look at another case where gender representation went wrong, and managed to course-correct.

Overwatch is a game released last year by Blizzard Entertainment. It was instantly popular, and got a lot of praise for pretty much every aspect of the game, including character design. When it was first released, the game featured twelve main characters, all given essentially equal footing. Five of those characters were women, seven were men. In an industry (not to mention game genre) dominated by male leads, it was refreshing to see so many women on the roster from day one.

The designers were conscious of this, too. All the way back in 2014, when the game was first revealed, designer Chris Metzen had this to say about his work on Overwatch:

We’ve heard [from] our female employees and … even my daughter tools me out about it. We were looking at old Warcraft stuff on YouTube, a cinematic … and my daughter is like, “Why are they all in swimsuits?” And I’m like “Ugh, I don’t know, honey.”

I think we’re clearly in an age where gaming is for everybody. We build games for everybody. We want everyone to come and play. Increasingly, people want to feel represented, from all walks of life, boys and girls, everybody. We feel indebted to do our best to honor that. There’s a lot of room for growth, but specifically with Overwatch, over the past year we’ve been very cognizant of … trying not to over-sexualize the female characters. I don’t know that we’ve over-sexualized the male characters. But it’s something that we’re very sensitive to. (Polygon, 2014)

This is great. This is awesome. And clearly, it was more than lip service. The female characters were front and centre from the start, equally featured in both the game and its marketing.

But despite the best intentions, Overwatch had a problem. You’d be forgiven for not seeing it–for a lot of us, it wasn’t obvious until someone explicitly pointed it out.

(Thanks to commenter StingRay02 on Polygon for creating the original comparison)

While the male characters ran a huge gamut, from human to dwarf to robot to gorilla, from tiny to colossal, the women ranged from…slender human to slender human.

Every woman in the game was hourglass-figured, and even an almost identical height. The male characters, however, were a wildly diverse selection of body types, ages, and even species. This led to a lot of interesting questions. Did the designers, subconsciously or not, assume that non-humanoid characters were male by default? Why would men be represented by a number of different body types, when all the women looked the same?

Of course, Blizzard had its defenders. People argued that women found these hourglass figures empowering. And people like playing as sexy women, so what’s wrong with having all the women be sexy? And then, of course, there’s always Artistic Freedom–if this is what the artist wanted to create, who are players to tell them otherwise?

Lots of people made excuses–but the Overwatch team listened. Despite how hard they’d been working on diversity, they had missed their target. So, they took the criticism to heart, figured out how to address it, and got back to work. They introduced a variety of new female characters featuring a much wider range of body types, as well as ages–the oldest woman currently in Overwatch is now a badass 60-year-old sniper. They introduced the first non-human woman, breaking from their earlier “male by default” designs.

And then they kept going. They worked on better LGBTQ visibility in the game, canonically making one of the original characters (and arguably the game’s mascot) a queer woman. New characters have been from a huge variety of underrepresented ethnicities. Just two months ago they announced their first gender non-binary character. Their goal was diversity and representation, and they haven’t stopped pursuing that.

Overwatch is a perfect visual example of the gender problem in media. In a lot of movies (and TV shows, and games, and so on), women are relegated to being very specific types of characters, and serve very specific roles in the story. Even when women get on-screen, writers, directors, animators, and designers often miss the mark. Women are stuck being prostitutes, or love interests, or mothers. Men, on the other hand, get to be pretty much anything in the universe, represented by any shape or size, age, demeanor, career, relation, or story role. They can be anyone, and serve any purpose.

Diversity means more than just putting people on the screen–it’s about ensuring that these characters are given the same consideration and nuance as everyone else.


Men writing women

As a cis male writer, I’ve been trained from the start to be bad at gender representation. I’ve been taught to be lazy. But we can do better.

All writers need to be a little queer. When men write male characters, we write them as men. When we write women, we often still write them as men writing about women, defining them by our perceived differences. Which is fine for an internal monologue, but a travesty when it comes to actually thinking through who these characters are. We often don’t think of female characters as, primarily, unique human beings. Instead, we start with their gender and extrapolate their characters from that. But in the same way that, as men, our gender is so close to our face that we treat it as a filter and not a foundation, we need to learn to write women as though we were women ourselves. We need to do our best to understand these characters in a way that’s completely divorced from our beliefs about their gender—views that often aren’t even true. Characters need to live and breathe as humans first and foremost, rather than only existing as “a straight white male approximation of X” or a reductive stereotype. Maybe their gender is a huge part of who they are, but it’s rarely the first and only thing that defines them. When we write male characters, the first question we ask is never “what does it mean for him to be a man.” We write them as complicated, complex, contradictory people. Oh, that happen to be male.

Writing characters who aren’t facsimiles of ourselves is unbelievably hard. It takes research, conversations, and endless amounts of rewrites. It’s something that I work on constantly as I write, and I know I probably still get it wrong most of the time. I have a hard time writing black characters who show any evidence of being a part of black culture. I worry that writing about sexual lesbian relationships as a straight cis male will just come across as fetishising them. I struggle with having better passive representation in my stories in a way that doesn’t just come across as baiting. I try to be aware of my own failings, and work hard to address them.

But this is just the work that you need to do to get to some sort of default, some neutral ground where you aren’t actively treating anyone who isn’t like you like trash. When something like 2049 comes along and puts in zero of that work, that pretends that writing throwaway women is fine, it does active damage. It perpetuates sexism, it holds women down, and it makes it a no-brainer for others to do it again, and again. It sends the message that you don’t need to put in the effort, that straight white cis men can make movies for other straight white cis men, and anything that we think falls outside that sphere isn’t our problem.

With 2049, $150 million was poured into a movie that the studio assumed women wouldn’t watch—and that if they did, they’d be fine with a movie that revolved entirely around men, at the cost of female characters. We need to kill off the assumption that there’s some ideal male target demographic, and that this is what they want to see. The particular set of genitals someone is carrying has no relation to what kind of movies they enjoy or what kind of stories they want to hear, and it’s time to recognize that. If you want to have your characters as metaphors, if you want to abuse them, if you want to ratchet up the male gaze to show how slimy gender relations can be—you need to write your characters as humans first. All of them.

I’m aware that my voice is pretty much the last thing that’s needed right now. The world has had enough of the straight white cis male perspective, and it has enough stories that cater to me at the exclusion of all others. The best thing I could possibly do as a writer is point people at stories that are more in need of being told, and towards voices that more deserve to be heard. But while having more female writers is important, it’s not the entire solution. The other half of the equation is to have men competently write women, instead of drowning them out with our own ignorance and apathy. Stories with well-written women should not be a subset of writing, and it’s not the responsibility of women to fix representation.

One thought on “Less Human Than Human: Blade Runner and Gender

  1. Ty says:

    thank you, Aaron. I enjoyed the director’s cut of your essay more than the one on HuffPost. Mostly, I really needed to hear these words. Keep sharing your thoughts!

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