CW: Major Spoilers for Blade Runner 2049 and the anime Cowboy Bebop.
Listening to an upcoming podcast from General Intellect Unit about the newest Hollywood cyberpunk movie, Blade Runner 2049, elicited the following thought experiment.
Recently, the film has been criticized for many things, one of which is the character: Joi.
She is an incorporeal commodity that people purchase to have various needs met. The main character of Blade Runner 2049, K, is a replicant and has purchased Joi, a "product", to satiate his need to feel human. We never find out just how much intelligence Joi actually possess but empirically she seems quite human, and so it is up to the person consuming the content to gauge just how "real" she may be based upon whatever criteria they wish.
The most polarizing scene by far from the movie is one in which Joi procures the services of a sex worker that K has previously had an interaction with. Joi, having seen K's reaction to her previously, wishes to merge with Mariette in order to become a tangible entity that can satiate K's perceived desires. Presumably anyways, because in some ways Joi does only seem to reflect K's desires, making it hard to gauge just how much free will Joi truly has. He envisions an everyday retro-American life that casts Joi in the role of his wife. Cooking for him and appearing as 50's housewife. These interactions would signal to Joi that what he wants and needs is a normal life and a partner that can provide the things only a physical one can.
However, K does not ask for this sexual interaction from Joi, in fact throughout the scene he is just not into it... at all. His body language and what he says during the scene make it pretty clear that this is something that makes him uncomfortable. My reading of this scene is that he does this for Joi. While there is also the argument that is she merely doing this to fulfill her programming (without getting into a philosophical debate as to if that makes her purely non-human) that is not how I personally read the scene. The fundamental nature of Joi's origin is to be a product that pleases her owner though, and that cannot be discounted.
Following this awkward scene K leaves (and Mariette has planted a tracker on him that Joi presumably is aware of but does not mention?) and the two women have an interaction that is the main thrust as to why people do not think Joi is a very well realized character.
Joi tells Mariette to leave, done with her now and it is overall a nasty, painting what could have been positive sex scene and interaction... ultimately as a negative one. Joi's reaction is very human, though, and seems uncharacteristic of an entity who just wants to make sure K is happy. It feels beyond programming to me. There is no programming that we are aware of as an audience that would have her be resentful or say the things she does to Mariette. This makes me think that while it is not what audiences would have hoped for, in terms of female character interactions and depictions, it does sway me into believing that she is more human than A.I, perhaps this sexual encounter is the very thing that moves her beyond it. If the programming is to make her user, K, happy and his desire is for her to be human, in emulating humanity does she become human, even if she possesses no body and is an Artifical Intelligence? We would consider replicants as human, I think. The only difference is embodiment, then.
Mariette snarks at the end of the interaction, “I’ve been inside you, and there’s not as much there as you think.” The implication is clear. We are also left to continually wonder throughout the movie just how "real" K is, just as we did with Deckard (depending on the cut of the film, I suppose).
What is interesting about this to me is because we want Joi to behave in a different manner, people may essentially erase her character from the narrative. They announce a failed Bechdel test and because they believe it to be poor writing, we then effectively label her as having little to no purpose beyond being a prop to explore K more. The movie is very well thought out and this supposition feels at odds with the care in which the narrative was crafted, though.
Later, after an admittedly shitty and foreshadowed death where she professes her love for K while she is about to be killed, there is a scene where K comes upon an advertisement for the Joi "product" which has the line, "You look like a good Joe". A line that she uses during an interaction with K where he is contemplating if he is human or not. Humans have names, not numbers, she says, goes on to say he "looks like a Joe."
There are numerous implications that Joi could be considered somewhat of an empty shell, one that only reflects K's desire back at him. She asks him to read a book to her, for instance, and he says she hates that book. Does she hate the book or does K? His baseline test that makes sure he is in compliance and a functioning unit of society comes from that very same book. It is more likely that he doesn't like the book. Unless the scene is signaling that he used to love it and no longer does.
This subjective advertisement, as well as the supposition that she does not know what to name K other than what she has been programmed to name all her male companions, does not necessarily discount the idea that she moved beyond her manufactured purpose before her death. How "real" she is will always be subjective, just as in the original movie it is subjective as to if Deckard is a replicant or not. We don't know if she calls everyone Joe, or if this ad is tailor-made to the person consuming it. In a futuristic society like this though, I am inclined to believe that it is the later.
So then; if it is subjective and we must decide for ourselves if she is real and the poor interaction, but ultimately very human reaction, convinces the audience that she is not. Do we then, to an extent, become complicit in killing her by erasing her from the story simply because we as an audience see her as this manufactured and imperfect caricature of a person?
The movie is undoubtedly about late-stage capitalism and post-cyberpunk ideologies that are a natural extension of the original. It is now beyond the supposition of a long asked question, "are androids real?" This has been asked and subjectively answered many times over now, posed by the original Blade Runner, in fact. This sequel is more concerned with showing a possible future of post-capitalism and other societal structures. It parallels our own world and diverges in others.
We are shown waste. We are shown the suffering of minorities linked directly to our hunger as consumers. We are shown basically no minorities as main characters and very few in the world at large. This is a story then, about being a minority and that struggle with little to no people of colour. There is a very healthy target on the backs of marginalized individuals in the movie, including all women. We are made aware of who benefits and who does not throughout the film. And, for the sake of argument, let's say we are also possibly made complicit in erasing Joi from the narrative, depending on your read of the film.
When the Rachael replicant is brought into the story she embodies the nostalgic love and adoration of the original film, which, is continually framed in a poor light throughout 2049; she is then almost immediately executed, failing to serve her purpose when Deckard says she has the wrong eye colour and refuses their offer. Of course she has the right eye colour. It is highly unlikely that they would have gotten it wrong, they have the recordings and various records of her, displayed on the monitor for a time. Nostalgia is really what is embodied and then executed and it is done for the audience's benefit, drawing lines in the sand as to what the movie is about.
Rachael is executed to reinforce the power structure continually depicted throughout the film. Joi was also executed in a similarly cold way by an extension of the same person and power. Even K's superior officer is killed in a way that echoes this. The only people who ever pay are marginalized people, with the implication that perhaps in this world, that parallels our own in many ways, all of the marginalized individuals are dead or gone, and the rest subjugated, both here and off world. There are no marginalized identities because when a blackout happens and the world starves, it isn't the rich who die hungry. Whenever anyone must pay for the consequences and hubris of man, it is always the marginalized. They are, essentially, executed.
Now, I had the same initial reaction to Joi as a character as a lot of other people have already written about. I thought it was a shame that the interaction was so crappy between her and Mariette and was very conflicted about the sex scene, in general.
I now also am tinkering with the idea that later, when the advertisement asked me what I thought about Joi, displaying her as a product and revealing that K "looked like a good Joe", it may have used my confirmation bias to have me be complicity in the death of Joi. Perhaps I was the one that executed the embodiment of an idea: we are only "real" people so long as we have free will, replicant, or A.I, or human; when I labeled Joi as being a poorly written character, assuming her singular purpose was to reflect K. Society programs us all the time, capitalism unequivocally does, too. Is it so that our perception of Joi's programming intentionally has us invalidate her in the narrative, and her inability to perform to our expectations of female depiction and interactions in film erases the idea that she has moved beyond her programming by being asked to emulate humanity?
Just as nostalgia was embodied in a marginalized personhood in Rachael, we pull the trigger on Joi long before her "body" is crushed and killed. How much choice and agency do the other characters get? They are certainly a little more explored. But the implications of our assumptions do pile up, at least for me they did. What if this is all intentional?
In the end, K also dies. An ending that is parallel to the anime Cowboy Bebop, where the main characters' do not truly become realized until they choose to assert their own agency and attempt to live their own lives after continuing to watch everyone else do so throughout the entire series. In that show, the main character Spike finally decides to do something and live again instead of continuing to be a shell of a person and then pays for it with that life. The entire show the main characters are B characters in everyone else's life. At the end of each normal episode of the show, there is a subtitle, "See you space cowboy". In the last episode, though, this changes to "You're gonna carry that weight". This tells the viewer that they are the ones who must carry the weight instead of the cast of the show now.
If that is to be applied to this movie as well, perhaps the weight is the notion that our structures always benefit non-marginalized people; something obvious and reinforced continually in Blade Runner 2049. But... perhaps there is also the very subtle hint that beyond our privilege we also have become complicit in the death of Joi, and we must carry that weight.
Just a thought.