Blades and Guns: Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Threat of Violence in Blade Runner

-by Gabrielle Friesen, student staff

(portions of this post taken form a paper written for the class “Dystopias” in Spring 2013)

“Is this testing whether I’m a Lesbian or a Replicant?” Rachael questions Deckard from behind a wafting cloud of smoke. The hint of a smirk plays across Deckard’s face, as he fails to answer. He makes no other response, leaving the question hanging – is he testing for queerness or for replication? He is in fact testing for both, as in the world of Blade Runner both queer bodies and robot bodies are equally as undesirable and in need of monitoring and correction.

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Rachael blowing smoke while being administered the Voight-Kampff test

Leilani Nishime, a professor of American multicultural studies at Sonoma State University, posits in her work The Mulatto Cyborg: Imagining a Multiracial Future that the cyborg in modern cinema can be read as a white audience/creator’s fear of racial mixing. The cyborg is posited as a person of mixed race who is able to pass as white/human, making the cyborg genre about fears of white supremacy being subverted and attacked from within by passing bodies. One of the films Nishime analyzes is Blade Runner (Dir. Ridley Scott, 1982). While not attempting to overshadow or derail Nishime’s piece (which can be found here), but to add to it, the replicants in Blade Runner can also be read as queer figures passing as straight. If the cyborg/robot body can be read as a mulatto body, and carries with it the threat of passing as white, then the cyborg/robot body can also (in conjunction with) be read as a queer body. Queer bodies can similarly pass as the norm, in this case the straight body, and most be policed by the privileged, due to a perceived threat of infiltration. Blade Runner can be read with both readings in mind, Nishime’s articulation of the mulatto cyborg, as well as the queer reading. With the queer lens in mind, many of the movie’s scenes can be read as straight policing bodies attempting to destroy or “fix” queer bodies.

The policing begins with the aforementioned scene. It is implied that being a lesbian is both equally as testable as being a replicant, and that both are equally as deviant. Deckard’s failure to answer affirms that it doesn’t matter. Human is to Straight as Replicant is to Queer, and he is looking for proof of either to affirm the other.

Of the escaped replicants, Roy (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (Daryl Hannah) survive the longest. This is in part due to their ability to pass as a straight couple (relying on each other, both of whom are shown to be highly cunning), but underneath they pose the highest risk, because they are still queer/replicants. Their relationship, as replicants, can never be straight, because straight is human. Therefore while they can approximate straightness, their relationship will always be queer, ultimately leading to, and necessitating their deaths in the heterosexist world of Blade Runner.

Returning to Rachael (Sean Young) as a queer figure, a different iteration of the need for a heterosexist society to violently suppress/destroy that queerness can be found. Rachael, already established as being queer/replicant, goes to Deckard’s (Harrison Ford) house, and upon trying to leave is raped. She attempts to leave, or get away from Deckard a few times, but Deckard holds her. As she whimpers, Deckard orders her to say consent-type phrases. The scene changes, but leaves us with at least the sexual assault of Rachael, if not the implication of her (corrective) rape at the hands of Deckard. At the end of the film when Deckard returns to his apartment, he finds Rachael sleeping under a blanket. As he pulls back the sheet to reveal her face, he still clutches his gun, combining a moment of supposed tenderness with the threat of violence. The two then leave the city (in both the director’s and edited versions), presumably as a romantic couple. However, their couple-status was built upon violence against Rachael and the continued threat of violence against her –demonstrated in the scene with the gun- should she deviate too much (return to queerness in any way).

However, the heteronormative state operative, that is Deckard, may also be read as a replicant, and if Deckard is being read as a replicant, then many of his actions can also be categorized as actions undertaken in order to hide his queerness. Throughout the film, Deckard has fits of nostalgia, a sure sign of passing, according to Nishime: “the act of passing creates the need for nostalgia…the anxiety created by the destabilization of categories creates a void into which rushes a nostalgia for certainty and the real (Nishime, 42).” Deckard’s nostalgia for guarantee of his straightness and humanness manifests itself in the hoarding of photographs, similar to the replicant Leon Kowalski (Brion James). Deckard also frequently dreams of a unicorn, a potential lapse into awakening about his own true identity as a replicant. The unicorn, a fantastical beast, could only exist in an implanted memory and not in a memory of the nature-less, waking world. A reading of Deckard as a replicant then also allows for a reading of Deckard as queer, and of being semi-aware of this fact, while trying desperately to prove his humanity (straightness). Within such a reading, his rape of Rachael is then his attempt at both proving and reclaiming his humanity/heteronormativity, by engaging in a violent straight sexual act, and by punishing a transgressing replicant/lesbian body. Deckard is a queer body/replicated body struggling to fit into a system that wants him only so much as he is a tool against others like him.

Using the framework of Nishime’s piece – the cyborg figure as a stand-in for the mulatto figure and all of white America’s surrounding fears — an additional and collaborative reading can also be made of Blade Runner. The replicants in the film can also be read as queer specters, passing in a straight society, and being violently punished once their queerness is discovered, whether that correction be complete destruction or corrective rape. The replicants in Blade Runner can be positioned at the intersections of race and sexuality, figures attempting to pass and survive in a racist, heterosexist world.

Nishime, LeiLani. “The Mulatto Cyborg: Imagining a Multiracial Future.” Cinema Journal. 44.2 (2005): 34-49. Print.

Scott, Ridley, dir. Blade Runner. 1982. Film. 10 Feb 2013.

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