Nudity, ‘Blade Runner 2049’ and the Hollywood Gaze

Blade RunnerThe biggest problem with Denis Villeneuve’s misfire of a sci-fi sequel Blade Runner 2049 (2017) is not its sizeable length. Nor is it the fact that the music at the climax misguidedly referenced Vangelis’ wistful primary theme from Ridley Scott’s original 1982 film Blade Runner—a melody that calls attention to the fact that Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score in the newer movie is less inspired.

WARNER: SPOILER ALERT

These are significant issues, but they pale in comparison to the most pronounced one, which offers evidence of a disturbing mode of thinking that is, sadly, pervasive in Hollywood and has, perhaps, become even more sizable in recent years. That issue is the inclusion of gratuitous female nudity in a scene toward the end involving Ryan Gosling’s policeman “K” and Ana de Armas’ none-too-discreet hologram of desire Joi, a sequence that reflects everything that is wrong about the dominance of the male gaze—and manifestations thereof—in contemporary cinema.

The segment has a lot to dislike about it. After K’s more customized hologram love interest Joi is stamped out by one of the villains, he turns to a supposed advertisement for what appears to be a prototype for the character: a gigantic, building-tall nude representation of Joi, who interacts with him on a seductive level but offers none of the intimacy his personalized significant other did prior to her demise. The immense figure has blue hair and a pink body. The film leaves nothing to the audience’s imagination in the display of her attributes. This hologram is a fantasy figure in the science-fiction universe.

As such, it presents a major dilemma. There is no reason for Joi to be naked here except to titillate the audience, especially when one considers that the actress who plays her wasn’t fully undressed in prior scenes. Here, she could have been clothed and offered the same or even a stronger message: that K is lonely without her. But nude, she makes it clear that there’s something else going on, a different kind of filmmaking choice.

That choice is the objectification of women. And it’s not a valid one to make in this or any case.

Right now, we’re seeing the fall of a great many once-powerful men in the movie industry who used their status to harass, abuse, and rape women. The collapse of these dominoes followed that of Harvey Weinstein, whose villainous behavior toward members of the female sex has finally hit the public consciousness. He certainly wasn’t the first to have engaged in this kind of monstrousness—after all, this is Hollywood, where the casting couch has been a dreaded, well-known tool used by directors practically since day one—and he won’t be the last, sad to say. But his activities have brought to light attitudes that showcase a perturbing vision of how women are perceived, not only in the entertainment sector, but also in other industries. In law. In finance. In publishing. In tech.

Basically, there’s no leading arena where women haven’t been treated as sex objects or continue to suffer such treatment. My argument here: Pictures such as Blade Runner 2049 aren’t helping; even worse, they’re supplying more cause for concern by seasoning their celluloid with sequences containing female nudity that isn’t at all necessary while conveying the truly dubious notion that idealized representations of women are made for male consumption. This is a very unsettling and potentially dangerous idea. Do we really need this kind of salacious, disingenuous sophistry in a world of Harvey Weinsteins and Louis CKs?

Blade RunnerTrue, there were glimpses of the male genitalia in Blade Runner 2049—specifically during a scene showcasing a variety of museum-like replicant displays. Such shots, however, were much less suggestive, as well as more fleeting, unlike the segment involving the massive naked Joi near the ending. The difference between those two types of nakedness is like the difference between a diorama in a glass case offering an “educational” view of prehistoric man/woman and a softcore erotic thriller on cable TV. We know which one is which. We know which one aims to excite.

That, unfortunately, is what Blade Runner 2049 tried to do, and it fell creepily flat in doing so. Through such an attempt, it succeeded, though, in broadcasting the male gaze to its audience, and furnishing an objectified perspective of womanhood that should make us all shudder. Because if we’re not on our way toward such a direction already, we’re heading into that type of thinking both in film and outside it. For all our denouncements of the Weinsteins of the world, we’re still actively promoting the culture he represents, and we’re doing so by watching flicks such as Blade Runner 2049.

We can’t afford to do this anymore.

Nudity has a definite—and extremely important—place in the cinema. Without it, we wouldn’t have the denouement in King of Hearts (1966). Or the surrealism in The Phantom of Liberty (1974). Or the linking to cuisine in Tampopo (1985). When used correctly, nudity makes a helluva lot of sense. It’s a critical utility in the creation of movies.

When used poorly, however, it becomes transparent, and the motivations behind it become suspect. In that regard, Blade Runner 2049 is no different from exploitation pictures such as Deep Throat (1972) or The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959)—and probably a lot worse, given the cynical rationale behind the content in Blade Runner 2049 and the more “artistic” aspirations of the latter pictures. Maybe we can even consider Blade Runner 2049 to be pornography of a sort. It certainly has a lot in common with the genre.

Moviegoers see films for various reasons. Some like to see things blow up. Others like to laugh. Not a few folks like to see naked bodies. We’re not going to be able to stop that. We can, however, stem attitudes associated with such content that put women at risk, and we can do that by not seeing flicks that communicate such messages. If we are to pat ourselves on the collective back by putting the likes of Harvey Weinstein behind bars, then we also should look at the bigger picture and address the perspectives that people in his mold have used to dominate and hurt women. We refrain from doing that, and we’re only addressing the symptoms, not the full, overall disease infecting the system.

There’s a lot more to be done. Perhaps soon we can make it happen. And movies like Blade Runner 2049 are just the starting point.

The finish line should, at this juncture, be right in sight.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse (criticalmousse.com) that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

3 thoughts on “Nudity, ‘Blade Runner 2049’ and the Hollywood Gaze

  1. Thanks Simon, I am working on a post for my own blog (Momentary Cinema) about the history of misogyny and female brutality on the film screen and although a slightly different subject, the things you speak of here can be related. The main relation of course is the male dominance of proceedings behind the scenes. These are all things that come from the male perspective, no matter what way you look at it. Even mine and your thoughts here are too – its a male opinion even if there is a feminist conscious behind it. The only way things can change is if we are offered more of a direct female perspective in film, with more female directors and producers in the grips of power.
    On Blade Runner 2049 though, perhaps Villeneuve was giving us a subtle message about the failure of a male dominated future? Despite all the classy photography, i’d imagine its a pretty shitty place to live, particularly as a replicant. The sexualised companion hologram for K is a construct of the society that 2049 has (d)evolved to. Isn’t the replicant that Wallace creates, and then disembowels, a woman? The world here is controlled by men – nothing new or progressive there.
    Indeed this is not the central message of the film though and you would be a fool to not think the nudity (and that weird threesome scene) are selling points for the sex-thirsty public! It is disappointing but nothing appears to be changing too fast but maybe, as you allude to, with the abuse and assualt scandals flying thick and fast, there maybe change afoot and we wont have to rely on people like Paul Verhoeven to tell us how to deal with a rapist anymore (see Elle).

  2. My reading was different for this scene. The hologram WAS meant to titillate the viewer (K in this case) with a nude model, but instead K felt empty and lonely. He wasn’t titilated. Maybe he even realised that what he had wasn’t real, that love couldn’t be bought or manufactured. My point is, the hologram was meant to be gratuitous. This is film for adults, not children, and I felt like we were being shown something that was meant to titilate, but was meloncholic to the hero. When you look at it from K’s pov, there’s more to talk about here imo than just the male gaze. The replicant gaze, is something else in this context.

  3. Because I love the original film so much, I have avoided watching the new film, so far. As a result, I have no opinion on it.

    But on the general point, I confess to often being excited by female nudity in films, though generally when this was the intention of the film-maker, rather than by accident, or in-passing.
    I am old enough to remember when such cinematic nudity was rare, and the province of ‘specialist cinemas’ in certain areas of London.
    These days, seeing a near-naked housewife preparing breakfast in a run-of -the-mill TV drama tends to pass unnoticed. Almost every film has a scene where characters have sex of some sort, often wildly out of context. Unnecessary love interests are injected into historical films, sometimes with farcical results. Are we inured to this now? Does it really matter anymore?
    Maybe it does. Maybe if young actresses are manipulated into feeling uncomfortable displaying their bodies in totally gratuitous and unnecessary scenes, then perhaps it should stop.
    But I doubt it will.

    Best wishes, Pete.

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