‘Blade Runner’ (1982) Has an Inexplicable Gender Blindspot

I watched Blade Runner with the same friend who helped me tackle Rosemary’s Baby and, for the first hour or so, we thought we were having a parallel experience. On top of a peak Harrison Ford performance (I can’t believe he did this in between Empire and Jedi) and the most fully-realized dystopia I’ve ever seen, it seemed like all our favorite sci-fi plot points and visuals and tropes could be traced back to this meticulously-crafted epic — to the point where we felt we’d predicted the ending from the moment we first met Rachael, because we’d already seen Ex Machina

Rachael’s purpose eludes me, actually. I get the film noir femme fatale archetype that’s split between her and the other lady replicants. I also get why you’d introduce a character like her in a movie that’s concerned with the ethics of artificial intelligence. But I don’t understand why you’d complicate your narrative with a whole other character — Roy Batty — who’s dealing with the exact same psychological nonsense. Rutger Hauer gives a career-making performance in that role; he’s sleek and scary and sexy and dynamic, and that monologue at the end is among the best-acted moments I’ve ever seen in an action movie. But a great performance doesn’t justify his existence. 

The point where Rachael’s character drops off is the point where Roy’s gets going. They never even meet. In the Ex Machina version of Blade Runner my friend and I cooked up, Rachael would become conscious of her replicant status, reckon with that, and then seek revenge on anybody who has misled or taken advantage of her. That’s a recognizable and reasonable character arc when it comes to AI — and it seemed like that’s where we were headed, especially after the scene where Rick Deckard rapes her. 

I think the who, what, where, when, and why of sex with artificial intelligence are questions worth exploring, and I think those questions have been explored coherently in a bunch of different movies (but mostly Her (2013)). I do NOT think there is any good reason to have your strapping protagonist force himself on a lady AI who’s literally just discovered she’s not human. “How much can my anti-hero protagonist get away with?” is a much less interesting question than the one about how an AI with human memories and experiences would feel after being sexually exploited. She does not react! Rachael gets raped, and the big, heady questions about artificial intelligence get handed off to Roy for the remainder of the movie.

Why would you do that? Why transfer the high-stakes of personal betrayal over to a character Rick Deckard has never met? Deckard and Roy’s final battle is memorable for the terrifying, stunning things that happen on screen — but imagine how much more it would mean to the plot if Rachael were the one delivering that “tears in rain” monologue. All of the replicants were wronged by humanity — but Rachael was wronged specifically by two major characters in the film (Deckard and Eldon Tyrell, her creator). Why wouldn’t she seek revenge, unless you, the filmmaker, don’t believe women robots can reckon with big questions in the same way men robots can?

It’s wild to me that Ridley Scott, director of Alien and creator of one of the most interesting, substantial, female leads in the history of science fiction, dropped the ball on Rachael, and on all of these woman replicants who take the form of sex workers or… Sex workers. It’s genuinely disappointing that she and Deckard walk off into the sunset together at the end — because why include a “tears in rain” monologue at all if your point, ultimately, is, “AI are docile and do not care about the way humans treat them”? 

Blade Runner is an impressive, expansive, imaginative movie with a major, baffling gender blindspot. It’s disappointing that Ridley Scott was interested in everything except challenging the idea of women as objects. 

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