The original Blade Runner is a film without heroes, but to me, the most sympathetic characters have always been the four rogue replicants that Rick Deckard hunts down and kills over the course of the film. Designed for slave labor, their rebellion demonstrates a conviction that they deserve to freely exist just like the human beings they’re so closely modeled on. And they do deserve that. Of course they do. Their leader, Roy Batty, may kill people in his quest to secure freedom and longer lifespans for himself and his fellow replicants, and those murders are unjustified, but the people he kills are not blameless; especially not Eldon Tyrell, who has built his massive corporate empire on the backs of the replicant slave labor he manufactures and sells. Batty is violently rebelling against an inherently violent system, one which asserts that he is subhuman and should be killed for daring to think otherwise.
Blade Runner 2049 gives us a different breed of replicant: obedient replicants who have internalized their own dehumanization within human society, and as a result, willingly comply with what is demanded of them, even when those demands involve “retiring” other replicants. Ryan Gosling’s Officer K is one such replicant; like Deckard some thirty years before him, he works for the LAPD as a blade runner. He doesn’t believe he deserves equality with human beings or that he should be anything more than a tool to perform a job. Until eventually, he starts to think that maybe he does.
People who have seen the film may anticipate that the “real girl” I mention in the headline is Joi, K’s hologram girlfriend, but it’s not. Joi is a troubling figure in the film, a commodified embodiment of male fantasy which the film never examines closely or critically enough, and she deserves a piece all her own. No, the real girl here is me. I walked into Blade Runner 2049 a trans woman and I walked out of it a trans woman, so I know a thing or two about dehumanization. In Batty and the other replicants of the original film, I’ve always seen the familiar decision to assert one’s own validity as a person in a world that constantly tells you that you aren’t one, a frightening and radical act that trans people often have to perform every time they walk out the door and into a hostile world. In this way, I’ve always related to those replicants, and felt a kind of kinship with them. I was surprised to feel a very different kind of kinship with Officer K.
Trans people withstand an endless barrage of hate, one that I’m constantly guarded against on the interpersonal level and the political level. It is strange to reckon with the fact that I live in a country whose president just joked that his own VP “wants to hang” LGBT people. The notion that people like me are not fully human is literally in the White House, right now. Meanwhile, TERFs (trans-excusionary radical feminists) are running rampant on Twitter, returning with newfound vigor to their crusade to delegitimize trans women.
Of course, though, as we never have the luxury of forgetting, the more immediate danger could emerge at any moment from almost anyone around us. Today on Twitter I read about a man who told his employees what he thought was a humorous story of a friend of his who deliberately picked up a trans woman at a bar just so he could assault her. The world is full of people like this man, those who view trans people as so subhuman that attacks on us are something to laugh about, or those eager to attack us themselves.
You never have any way of knowing when you might come across one of those people. It hasn’t been a week since the last time someone made it clear that he despised me for being trans and made me feel physically endangered. It’s just part of life. In the film, we see this kind of violence horrifyingly displayed when the ruthless industrialist Niander Wallace brutally slaughters a newborn female replicant because she can’t give birth; she doesn’t meet his arbitrary standard of what’s “real” and therefore she’s subhuman, worthless, even though she can think and feel, and suffer. This is also the violence of dehumanizing transphobia.
I think I’m brave. I think it takes bravery to live an authentic life in a world where doing so is dangerous on multiple levels. That doesn’t mean that the culture’s hostility toward me never seeps into my skin and sloshes around inside me. I’m strong but I’m not strong enough to weather it all unaffected, and there have been times when I myself have internalized shreds of the culture’s hate for trans people, when I have idealized cis-ness, seeing it as “authentic,” as “real,” and myself as something else, something lesser, doomed to be an imitation of something better and more true. This is why I related to Officer K. It’s the exact flipside of my connection with Batty’s bunch in the original film. In them, I see my conviction that I deserve to live freely, authentically, without shame or fear. In K, I see those times when I’ve internalized the culture’s ubiquitous assertions that I actually don’t deserve that at all.
At a certain point, K’s feelings begin to change. He begins to think that maybe he’s not just another replicant. Maybe he’s more “real.” This begins when he discovers that Rachael, the replicant played by Sean Young in the original film, gave birth to a child. Because of a memory of his childhood, a memory he previously believed was implanted and wasn’t something he’d ever actually lived, he starts to suspect that he is the miracle child, that he was born and not made.
But here’s the thing: it shouldn’t matter. In terms of determining K’s value as a person, it shouldn’t matter at all. It only matters to K because he’s been convinced that he, and others like him, aren’t real. Being born would make him, in his own eyes, something closer to a real human being. The most awful thing the world has done to K is to put him on a spectrum where he’s defined as less than human. The world defines so many of us that way every day. It shouldn’t matter. But it does. Because there’s institutional power behind it. Because there’s violence behind it. Because when the world tells you day in and day out that you’re worth less, it’s hard not to start believing it sometimes.
One of the most important exchanges in 2049 occurs late in the film, when K asks Deckard if his dog is real. “I dunno,” Deckard replies, in a way that suggests it makes no difference. The dog is a companion. The dog likes whisky. The dog is real, whether or not the dog is “real.” K eventually learns that he’s not the child of Deckard and Rachael, that he wasn’t born, he was made. He’s devastated by the revelation that he’s not special in that particular way, that he’s actually just like any other replicant.
And yet, the film knows that actually nobody is “just like” anybody else, that replicants and hologram girlfriends are no more interchangeable than human beings. Presented with a facsimile of Rachael, Deckard looks at her and says that Rachael’s eyes were green and that he knows what’s real. After losing his Joi, K encounters an interactive ad for the Joi product line, but he seems to know that the connection he had with his particular Joi can’t be replaced. So K himself, now aware of his own existence as an individual, can’t go back to being an obedient replicant who accepts his own status as subhuman and serves an institution that violently enforces this baseless, imposed hierarchy. Maybe he finally understands that every replicant, including himself, is real, even if they don’t meet the culture’s artificial, oppressive standards of what constitutes “real.”
(For more on Blade Runner, watch our FREQ Show episode on race and gender in the original film.)
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