Artificial Love: The Labour of Gender, Care, and Romance in Blade Runner 2049

On October 6th, 2017, Blade Runner 2049 was released as a sequel to it’s precedent film in 1982, grossing $92 million dollars within 4 months. In the face of science fiction having one of it’s biggest moments of the century, with the issuings of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Alien: Covenant, the success of space opera comebacks and nostalgic nerdiness seemed to have hit a high point that year as a hundred billion dollar industry.

Contrasting to its monetary triumph, 2017’s Blade Runner 2049 sparked controversiality. With it's predominantly white cast and largely one-dimensional women characters, scenes of prevalent female nudity and villainous, opportunistic women support-leads failing at the Bechdel test appear to be excused by the basis of the storyline being a fictitious dystopia that is supposed to give light to our current harsh society. Yet, in both movies, our heros always succumb to the environment’s oppressive nature (supported by the quintessential narrative of having complex and multifaceted characters), while non-white persona’s are scarce and female ones remain flat.

Let’s start with Luv. She is the villainous antagonist, still under the command of subservient industrialist Wallace, who wants to kill Officer K, our protagonist attempting to find himself. The development of her character is heavily gendered under the light of inherent evil; she plays the loyal assistant, calmly orders bombs to drop while getting her nails done, and screeches manically when she is defeated by K. Then there’s Mariette, who is a sex-worker and is “literally used as a puppet”1 by K’s artificial girlfriend, Joi. We also have Dr. Ana Stelline, but her freedom is limited by being cooped up in a sterile environment due to her weak immune system. Lieutenant Joshi’s hard and authoritative personality hints the only spark of a rounded character when she faces a challenge of letting Officer K escape by seeing him struggle with his identity. Everyone in this story is trapped, but K is depicted to be the only one with the ability to fight that.

Weak female characters come to not much of a surprise when comparing this to the Blade Runner in 1982. Replicant Rachel is cornered by main character Rick Deckard to kiss him, subsequently leading him to win her over nevertheless, and triggers legitimate criticisms over the movie’s sugar-coated sexual assault scene2. The justification of this segment as a humanization of robots through the lens of Rachel’s revealed vulnerability is irrelevant because we all know that Rachel has feelings whether she is human or not. In the 2017 sequel, we are exposed to the possibility of replicants having the ability to reproduce, despite never being engineered to do so, as her studied remains unearthed that she died in childbirth. In this light, the only interesting point to Rachel’s role is that it presents a type of anti-naturalist and xeno-feminist proposition of the futuristic malleability of childbirth and the alternation of biological norms through evolution or artificiality3.

Contrary to the popular, and certainly valid, disapproval of Joi’s character4, her relationship with K sparks a thought-provoking view on how love functions. She exists as an operating system that prevails through artificial intelligence and can be upgraded with more realistic performance. The care that she provides to K is fully automated and her presence, choice of clothing, or mood is at all times conducted by K. Here, we are introduced to the concept of programmed gender as Joi is controlled on and off screen; her behavior is fabricated by her coder, protagonist, and/or director. It demonstrates Helen Hester’s interpretation of feminine-voiced Intelligent Personal Assistants’ subordinate roles as being evidence to the fact that gender norms are a social construct rather than a biological or natural development5.

But what does this say about Joi’s loving and caring artificial intelligence? We are presented with the idea that her reproductive labour, just like any productive labour, is in a sense valorised and payed through it’s automated nature. In this self-operative future world of hyperemploymentibid, femininity, care work, and women’s labour is technologised and programmed. Given that social reproduction in the new Blade Runner is challenged to be a remunerated service, Joi’s character stresses the necessity of sex work, social care, and general reproductive labour, which leads to her roboticism to symbolise a very leftist agenda.

Since Joi is caring and affectionate, and her love is turned into an object through economic valorisation, she also sorely loves K. Her devotion, fascination, and warmth have been coded through classification and regression algorithms to such intricacies that she is wired to actually fall in love. Her AI effect, composed of an interpretation of K versus the world and an accumulative understanding of him, leads to an account where love is literally fabricated through learning, whether it is of the other or of the environment. Assuming that personality development is influenced by what one likes or dislikes, love can only be a consequence of this type of perception. Joi is intriguing because she presents us with the notion that we don’t happen to just fall in love, but instead we learn to love through intelligence, insight edification and enlightenment. Love is not an accident, something that we stumble upon, or fall into, but a result of our past experiences. If care functions as labour, then love functions as knowledge.

Joi’s loving and submissive personality is highly gendered, but quite opposing to most fictional gynoid femininities. The conception of the fembot figure is a direct outcome of a culture obsessed with essentialist naturalism which encourages oppressive biological separatism, primarily underscoring the idea that all women are sexually manipulative and secondarily emphasizing the world dominance of robotics, nanotechnology and automation. Characters such as the heartless Terminatrix from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, the polygamous and dejecting Samantha in Her, or the manipulative, deceiving, and perplexedly dangerous Ava from Ex Machina are the result of a combination of these two classic narratives seen too often in blockbuster movies. In this sense, Joi is undoubtedly more realistic than our typical, self-serving “robot bitch”. She is compliant, obedient, and represents unconditional love, something that can only be achieved through supervised (engineered) or unsupervised (experienced) learning, and is a perfect depiction of an artificial, man-made woman.

1. “[...] so why not explore that world’s treatment of women, rather than have it as a decorative backdrop, huge breasts and ballet-dancing holograms included?”
Is Blade Runner 2049 sexist - or a fair depiction of a dystopian future?, Anna Smith, 2017

2. Blade Runner 2049 Tries to Make a Love Story Out of the First Blade Runner’s Violence, Casey Cipriani, 2017

3. “Anyone who’s been deemed ‘unnatural’ in the face of reigning biological norms, anyone who’s experienced injustices wrought in the name of natural order, will realize that the glorification of ‘nature’ has nothing to offer us - the queer and trans among us, the differently-abled, as well as those who have suffered discrimination due to pregnancy or duties connected to child-rearing.”
Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation, Laboria Cuboniks, 2015

4. “Men also get killed, of course, but we don’t watch their eyes bulge for tens of gratuitous seconds - they are blunt, noble deaths, not desperate fetishistic ones.“
why blade runner 2049 is a misogynistic mess, Charlotte Gush, 2017

5. “In acknowledging that our devices or apps have to be actively programmed in order to mimic specific gendered behaviours – in recognising that their feminisation is neither neutral nor inevitable but the by-product of specific histories – we are invited to rethink the ways in which non-machinic gender might itself operate as an artificial and culturally programmed construct. When technologies “do gender” it is obviously not natural, but is instead visible as the product of deliberate choices about how best to relate, assist, or persuade the imagined technology user.”
Technically Female: Women, Machines, and Hyperemployment, Helen Hester, 2016