Depiction and Endorsement in 2018 (or, how to criticize Blade Runner 2049)


I first envisioned this post as a “New Year’s Resolution,” but I got too bogged down with other stuff in January to post it then. Better late than never, though.

Now that Blade Runner 2049 is out on video formats (meaning that I can take some lovely screenshots of it), I wanted to revisit the critical reception the film was greeted with back in October 2017. Partly, this post is about Blade Runner 2049, and its legitimate faults. But I also consider the film’s reception to be emblematic of trends in political criticism that were ascendent in 2017. I personally consider these trends to be leaning in a direction that is, shall we say, unproductive. Buckle up.

Within 72 hours of its release, a backlash had solidified against Blade Runner 2049. Feminist critics didn’t like its treatment of women. New York Post critic Sara Stewart established the trend early with her October 4th article “You’ll Love the New ‘Blade Runner’—Unless You’re a Woman.” By October 9th, this particular gripe had spread like wildfire, spawning think pieces like Rosie Fletcher and Sam Ashurst’s “Can We Talk About Blade Runner 2049’s Problem With Women?” and Charolette Gush’s “Why Blade Runner 2049 Is a Misogynistic Mess.”

These headlines are clickbait-y. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they were written by an editor, with no say at all on the part of the author. The actual articles beneath the headlines are more nuanced. Still, though, let’s be realistic. It’s the late 2010s. Plenty of people share articles on social media, hit “like” or “angry face,” offer up their own hot takes, and draw lines in the sand based solely on clickbait headlines, without ever reading the articles in question. It is impossible, in this day and age, to truly separate out the quality of the criticism in these individual pieces from the realities of the ecosystems in which they circulate.

Anyway, within days, lines had indeed been drawn in the sand. (At least on my social media feed.) Blade Runner 2049 was proclaimed to be problematic. It had “iffy politics” that “aren’t that futuristic.” That is to say: it didn’t imagine a future that was particularly progressive. Blade Runner 2049 quickly became a Bad Object, something that no one was willing to defend, less they themselves be labeled “problematic.”

I am not going to defend Blade Runner 2049 in this post. In fact, I am going to criticize it. (Quite harshly, at that.) But, along the way, I’m also going to criticize the dominant forms that cultural criticism had begun to take in 2017. I think that those forms are bad, and I think that we can do better in 2018. Prepare yourself: this is going to be a long post.

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