I'd been excited for Blade Runner 2049 for a long time. It's a safe bet that a sequel to a classic is going to be a cataclysmic disappointment, but I went into 2049 with my heart wide open. Even if it was a disaster, I was prepared to love it. I adored the world (not to mention the director and cinematographer) too much.
But 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 entire history of cinema is littered with gender issues. From the start, it's been a male-dominated industry making movies for, mostly, themselves. Mad Max: Fury Road was a watershed moment, like suddenly Hollywood woke up and realized that you could put together a dystopian sci-fi that wasn't exclusively populated by dudes 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 and so on. It raised the bar, but only because the bar was so damn low that even equal treatment felt distinctly progressive.
It wasn't about the number of women on screen, or even how novel the characters were — hell, the majority of women in Fury Road were sex slaves. That would be as reductive as you can get, if it was literally the entirety of their character. But these weren't the things that defined them.
The women in 2049 range from sex toy to foil, only existing in the context of their male counterparts.
2049 has almost as many female characters Fury Road, but while we have a wide range of interesting and complex male characters, the women in 2049 range from sex toy to foil, only existing in the context of their male counterparts. Or, sure, they're 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. Unless you're willing to reach, 2049 even fails the Bechdel test — a tongue-in-cheek measurement for how sexist the bulk of movies are. 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.
You could make an argument that the sexist writing is deliberate 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?
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. 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 per cent complicit in whatever it might be condemning. The movie never suggests that they might be anything more.
I've also seen the argument that the movie treats women poorly because it's setting up a reversal: our future depends on them, because men can't create new life. But again, this isn't the problem. It doesn't explain why the women are 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, it's just another sexist stereotype, reducing a woman's value to a healthy and functioning uterus.
The solution to this sexism is, of course, entirely in the hands of the writers.
All writers need to be a little queer. When we 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. 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.
I struggle with having better passive representation in my stories. These things don't always come naturally.
We need to do our best to understand these characters in a way that's completely divorced from our beliefs about gender — views that often aren't even true. Characters need to be human 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.
Writing characters who aren't clones 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. These things don't always come naturally.
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.
I'm aware that my voice is 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.
We shouldn't accept stories like Blade Runner 2049. If we're going to spend $150 million telling the world a story, we need to do a hell of a lot better.
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