Return of the Sarkeesitron: Film Theory’s Reckoning

Hey, guys! Anita Sarkeesian is desperately trying to be relevant by “critiquing” the new Blade Runner movie on her Twitter, and I thought I’d address her points real quick. She thought it was a beautiful movie with an impactful score and inspired set design, and I’m just pulling your leg. She thought it was racist and sexist! What do you think her life is like outside of internet commentating? Do you think she goes grocery shopping and stands in the produce aisle looking at cantaloupes, trying to pick out the least racist, sexist, homophobic melon from the bunch so she can finally finish that fruit salad back home?

Here’s what she had to say:

I thought Blade Runner 2049 kinda sucked. It’s a film about oppression and slave labor that centers white men, only using people of colour and their cultures as background texture. It’s relentlessly brutal to women, killing off so many of them in ways that serve only to fuel the story arcs of the central male characters. A love interest of Officer K is pure male wish fulfillment fantasy, and the film never examines the underlying gender dynamics. Its attempt at discussing what it means to be human ultimately fails because it was unwilling to examine the sexism and racism it perpetuates.

You can read my review of Blade Runner 2049 on my nerdy media blog right here. If you don’t feel like clicking that link: I fucking loved that movie, and am mad that people are totally willing to shovel out money to see the million and twenty-seventh MCU film but can’t be bothered to go watch something more artful, with a bit more thematic gravitas than, “Still waiting for Thanos to put on that fucking glove!” This is why we don’t get nice things. I’m burnt out on comic book movies, can you tell?

As for Anita and her comments, I’m burnt out on them too. The idea of Anita Sarkeesian and her disingenuous, Tipper Gore-style moralizing and pearl-clutching still distresses me at a very visceral level as someone who is an artist and who enjoys the work of other artists. I always say that there’s no One True Interpretation of a creative work and that no opinion is a wrong one, but I have to call into question the legitimacy of someone’s interpretation when it seems entirely bent on promoting their particular moral worldview to the point of being brazenly unconcerned with the actual content of the work they’re interpreting. It’s like the Christians who insisted that Sympathy for the Devil was evil and needed to be banned because they read the title. Those people are just as disingenuous as Anita and her more modern ilk in their attempt to shape art into something that promotes their own morals or pays the consequences. I have a strong dislike of both of them.

Anita specifically, though, I can’t bring myself to hate that much anymore. I just feel kind of bad for her at this point as I watch her desperately flail to be seen as someone other than “the Jack Thomson with tits who crashed and burned at her own UN summit  meeting.” Her commentary on Blade Runner 2049 is pretty par for the course. “There were no black transsexual midgets in wheelchairs, therefore it gets an F- – -, because that’s all that matters when it comes to assessing quality.”  Nothing new to see here.

It’s a film about oppression and slave labor that centers white men, only using people of colour and their cultures as background texture.

Fun fact: The original Blade Runner is one of the key players that popularized the “Tokyo and Beijing crashed into LA and New York” aesthetic of cyberpunk futures. It’s heavily based upon a Japanese conception (popularized by many Japanese authors and creators in the late 1970s-1990s) of the future that visualized the haphazard combination of Eastern and Western cultures as the end result of capitalism and overpopulation. I highly recommend reading the original Blade Runner script; it goes into much more detail about how the cultural mishmash happened and how their language, a combination of multiple international languages, works and can be translated. It’s pretty cool. But fuck them for world building, right?

Three years after the release of Blade Runner, Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World was released, a Japanese cyberpunk novel that was written concurrently with Blade Runner and had a final draft heavily influenced by the Blade Runner aesthetic. If the inclusion of Asian cultures in Blade Runner and 2049 is “background texture,” then I guess Haruki Murakami’s constant use of American rock n’ roll and jazz is also just culturally appropriative background texture.

I’m not even going to address the horribly inaccurate implication she makes about how people of colour are apparently the only ones who have ever been slaves or oppressed. It’s funny, because the supplemental anime featurette, that you can watch on YouTube anytime, about the history of this world shows that a black replicant was pretty much the cause of the replicant revolt. He doesn’t count, I guess. Something tells me that if the main character was a black guy, Anita wouldn’t be happy because it’d be too evocative of the painful memory of African slavery or some shit. This also totally ignores that you really can’t have the main character of 2049 be a person of colour if you want the plot to work. You know, Anita. Plot? The whole story is that Officer K thinks he’s Racheal and Deckard’s kid, which wouldn’t make any sense if he was anything besides a white guy.

It’s relentlessly brutal to women, killing off so many of them in ways that serve only to fuel the story arcs of the central male characters.

This is an example of Anita having her cake but not wanting to eat it. Most of the important characters in 2049 are women. You have Officer K and Deckard (who doesn’t show up until Act III), and Niander Wallace, who is pretty much in the background for most of the movie. Every other plot-relevant character is a woman. Da Police Chief, K’s girlfriend, the replicant resistance leader, the main antagonist, the human sympathizer, and Deckard’s secret kid are all women. Not to mention Racheal, who pretty much starts this entire plot and creates the source of replicant revolution post-mortem.

And when you have that many plot-relevant female characters, they’re going to die. And they’re going to die brutally if the plot calls for brutal deaths. Joshi (the policewoman) dies because she’s a Reasonable Authority Figure/Mentor character who would be too helpful if she stayed alive (This is usually a very masculine role, so you think Anita would be happy at the swapping of genders here, but nope). Also, she dies at the hands of the female main antagonist Luv, with Joshi’s death serving Luv’s character development more than anyone else’s. None of the dudes even figure out she dies, I’m pretty sure. Luv dies pretty brutally because she was the villain of the picture, and she manages to kill K by stabbing the fuck out of him. Also, Officer K’s entire point as a character by the end of the film is to serve the emotional character arc of Deckard . . . and K is a guy. So how does that fit into the rest of your complaint?

There’s Joi’s death, I guess. But the emotional impact of that actually was integral to the plot. That pesky plot again. Joi is a hologram whose sentience is left intentionally ambiguous. She loved K, but that was what she was programmed to do, and it’s never clear if she ever grew beyond that even though K clearly loves her like a real person. Her death is important. And the following meeting he has with another hologram of her that makes him question how “real” their relationship was is what prompts him to do the whole “become a tool for Deckard’s story arc” thing and help Deckard have a real relationship with his real kid. In short, you’re acting like these deaths served no real purpose, and that is false.

A love interest of Officer K is pure male wish fulfillment fantasy, and the film never examines the underlying gender dynamics.

Joi is literally made to be a male wish fulfillment fantasy. She’s a virtual girlfriend. That’s the entire point of her character. And the gender dynamics are brought up all the time with multiple characters making comments about “real relationships” and “real women” and stuff like that. She’s an emotionally impactful character because she’s an AI who winds up coming across as more genuine and compassionate and human than the humans in the story. She and K are both artificial life forms that you really want to have a real connection with each other because it would be one example of at least one thing going right in this bleak, bleak world presented. And it being ambiguous as to whether or not their connection mattered adds to the story. Just, fuck . . . did Anita watch this movie? I’m starting to think she read a plot synopsis and called it a day.

Its attempt at discussing what it means to be human ultimately fails because it was unwilling to examine the sexism and racism it perpetuates.

“This movie didn’t whip itself in the mirror for perpetuating -isms, John the Savage-style, therefore I hate it!”

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