Do Oriental women have to be Asian or biologically human?

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Much has already been written about Blade Runner 2049. Critics have examined the film through the lens of gender (International Policy Digest, Jan. 20 2018) (Collider, Oct. 13, 2017) and the lens of race (The Stranger, Oct. 6 2017) (Vulture, Aug. 4, 2017), with particular focus on how 2049 follows a trend within the science fiction and cyberpunk genres of using Asian cultural symbols but not including Asian characters (Slashfilm, Oct. 12, 2017) (Motherboard, Oct. `10, 2017). But while there has been some examination of the character of Joi from a gender perspective, I have been unable to find an critique of Joi specifically from the persepective of race.

In this post, I explore the character of Joi in 2049 from a racial lens, arguing that although Joi, portrayed by Ana de Armas, a Cuban actor, is not of Asian descent, we can see the character from an Orientalist perspective.

As Nadine Naber wrote in “Decolonizing Culture”: “Edward Said argued that ‘Orientalism’ is a European fabrication of ‘the East,’ that ‘the Orient’ is shaped by Eupoean imperialist attitudes and assumes that Eastern or Oriental people can be defined in terms of cultural or religious essences that are invulnerable to historical change.” (Arab and Arab American Feminisms, pg. 80) Here, I construct Orientalism along the lines that David Eng, in his critique of M Butterfly, alluded with his identifying of the “lotus blossom fantasy”: Oriental women are portrayed as being submissive, passive and subservient to a (often imperial and white) man.

Joi eptimoizes these traits with her on-screen behaviours. She is first introduced to the audience through a classically patriarchal style: When K, portrayed by Ryan Gosling, returns to his apartment, Joi cooks for him, asks about his day, takes his coat and lights his cigarette; when she realizes this isn’t cheering him up, she switches between several outfits instanteously, asking K which one he likes best. The scene firmly establishes her nature as a hologram and her role as a servant to her male master/owner, an identity that is reinforced later when billboards advertise Joi as an entertainment product and when Luv, who is employed by the company that makes Joi holograms, asks K if he was “satisfied with our product.”

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A billboard projection of Joi points at K (Ryan Gosling) in a scene from Blade Runner 2049.

Joi begins as a character confined to the apartment, but through technical limitations rather than socially constructed rules. She cannot leave the projection range of the holographic ceiling track until K presents her with an Emulator, a device which allows her to leave the apartment with K: the first time this happens, Joi and K make it to the roof and it rains, revealing both her breasts and her nature as a holographic projection — then Joi says to K, “I’m so happy with I’m with you.” Later, when Joi suggests breaking off the antenna so her existence will be confined to the safety of the Emulator rod, she says that K will have to protect her — like “a real girl.” Both these examples are repetitive performances of an Orientalist attitude and depicts Joi as subject to and subservient towards K.

The strongest connection with Orientalism can be drawn from the scene where Joi calls a prostitute, Mariette, to act as the physical body for K to have sex with. In this scene, Joi wears a qipao (or cheongsam, depending on your preferred dialect of Chinese), the same as in the film’s promotional materials — and a determinedly Chinese article of clothing. While I will avoid exploring whether or not this constitutes cultural appropriation (as the dispute over an American teenager wearing one to her prom have sparked), it is clear that 2049‘s filmmakers are drawing upon Orientalist ideologies to develop Joi’s character as a subservient pleasure-providing sex product. The fact that she wears this clothing during the most sexually charged scene between K and Joi serves to further validate the notion that Orientalist attitudes are used to construct the character of Joi.

But simply borrowing Orientalist ideals to create a subservient woman-character does not prove that the film is Orientalist or that Joi is Orientalized. After all, the actor who portrays Joi is not ethnically Asian. A full examination of Joi through a racial lens necessitates acknowleging the character’s status as a hologram, and therefore an ontological lens must be utilized as well.

This is perhaps the greatest artistic accomplishment of Blade Runner, both original and 2049: the films force a examination of what human-ness means in a contemporary context. From a biologically essentialist perspective, Joi is not human; she is a holographic projection, dependent upon artifically-manufactured technological products (the ceiling track, the Emulator) to even exist. She can only interact with the world in a limited setting (Joi can light K’s cigarette, but cannot cook food, move a plate, or open a car door) and needs another person to give her physical form so she and K can have sex. Yet K demonstrates both romantic and sexual desire for her, including experiencing a significant sense of loss when she is destroyed by Luv. If we are willing to disassociate the physical body from our sense of what it means to be human, then Joi is as human as any other human being.

Within 2049 — where there are Asian characters are few to none — we can critically examine race as a sociocultural categorization rather than interpreting it as a biologically essentialist category. I therefore argue Joi is “Asian” in the Oriental sense of “Asian-ness,” epitomising the pinnacle of an Oriental woman as viewed from a white colonialist gaze: a fetishized sex object.

Viewers may find the future Los Angeles depicted in 2049 to be largely acceptable — after all, Joi is just a manufactured product. As long as actual human women aren’t being treated as fetished sex objects, everything’s OK. Yet such an attitude merely shifts the problems of white colonialism, Orientalism and issues of race/gender/sexuality relations onto another frame of biological essentalism and a debate on ontology.

We now recognize an intersectional framing of social oppression on the axes of race/ethnicity, sex, gender, nationality/citizenship and more. I will not be surprised if there is a day in the future when discussions of social oppression include bioessentialism, and we fight against the distinction of bio-humans versus others in the same way we are fighting against the socially constructed distinctions of gender, race, sex and identity today.

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