Blades and Guns: Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Threat of Violence in Blade Runner, Gabrille Friesen
In LeiLani Nishime’s “The Mulatto Cyborg: Imagining a Multiracial Future,” the cyborg figure is posited as a stand-in for bodies of color in popular culture. Cyborg narratives then become narratives about white “anxiety over the blurring of racial categories and classifications”–the fear that multiracial people will be able to pass as white and infiltrate and subvert the system that keeps whiteness dominant (Nishime 36). The cyborg figure is a hybrid, “not completely the Other. Rather, its narrative power comes from its ability to blur boundaries by blending the Other and the human” (Nishime 35). Because of the cyborgs’ inhabitance of the liminal space between the Norm and the Other, they can disrupt dominant narratives about what it means to be human, which is often linked to whiteness, by inhabiting them and exploding them from the inside. “It is only a short leap, then, to read anxieties about the incoherence of the body of the cyborg as a parallel to the confusion and concern that centers on the body of the multiracial human” (Nishime 35).
Using Nishime’s framework and her reading of the cyborg figure as a representation of bodies of color and fears about them passing as white, the cyborg can also be read as a queer figure passing as straight. Similar to the way that Nishime reads the cyborg figure as coded as bodies of color and fears about passing, the cyborg can also be read as a queer figure passing as straight. With this queer lens in mind, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner can be read as a narrative about a heteronormative police state fearing and punishing queer bodies, or replicants, who are struggling to survive and pass as straight in a punitive, heteronormative state. In the world of Blade Runner, human is to straight as replicant is to queer, and replicants/queers found passing as human/straight must be punished for queering or decentralizing heteronormative hierarchies.
Throughout the film, Rachael’s (Sean Young) replicant status can be read as code for lesbianism, which requires constant correction by the blade runner Deckard (Harrison Ford) and the (heteronormative) state. While Rachael is never given an explicit sexual orientation, the film gives numerous clues that her sexuality, on account of being a replicant, is viewed as deviant, and needs correcting. This correction is violent, carried out by an agent of the state, and pervades the film. When Deckard goes to Tyrell, the creator of the replicants, to question him, Tyrell demands that Deckard give Rachael the Voight-Kampff test to assess whether she is a replicant or human. During the test, she wonders whether it is testing for replicant status or her sexuality status when she is asked how she would react to finding a full-page nude spread of a woman in a magazine: “Is this testing whether I’m a replicant or a lesbian, Mr. Deckard?” Deckard does not directly answer, but instead responds, “Just answer the questions, please” (Blade Runner). Deckard’s failure to provide an answer is telling; he is in fact testing for both, as both are equally as undesirable and in need of monitoring and correction.
Rachael’s correction comes in a later scene when Deckard sexually assaults Rachael in his house. This scene is evocative of real-world “corrective” rape. The dominant human (straight) society employs rape and the threat of rape to keep replicants (queer individuals) in check. As Rachael tries to leave, Deckard slams the door, presses her violently against a wall, and tells Rachael to repeat key phrases. The phrases imply consent, such as “Kiss me” and “I want you,” but all of the lines are being fed to her by Deckard (Blade Runner). Deckard, as a blade runner exhibiting power over a replicant, is forcing her to collude with the dominant (in this case his) society’s desires. The scene is evocative of real-world corrective rape to punish lesbians for transgressing heterosexual norms; only, in this case, it is enacted against a replicant for transgressing humanity’s norms.
The film ends with the continued threat of violence by an agent of the heteronormative state hanging over Rachael. The last scene in the director’s cut shows Rachael fleeing from the state, indicating that Rachael will be on the run from a state that will hunt her down for fleeing, and she is in the company of her rapist. Their escape hinges on them being a couple, meaning Rachael must continue to pretend to be straight with Deckard. Shortly before the two flee, Deckard comes back to his apartment from the fight with Roy in order to collect Rachael. Rachael is sleeping with her face covered by a blanket. Deckard stands over her and pulls back the fabric, using the hand that is still clutching the gun that killed Pris, another queer replicant whom he had to correct. The seemingly tender action of Deckard uncovering Rachael is overshadowed by his phallic, corrective weapon and the continued threat of his violence should Rachael deviate from normality.
Rachael, revealed by the Voight-Kampff test to be a lesbian and a replicant (interchangeable terms, in this world) is then saved from the overarching violence of the state only because the individual violence of one of the state’s operatives is enacted on her first. The film ends with the possibility that she and Deckard leave the oppressive city and its state apparatus, but she is only freed from the larger social structure, while still being watched over by an individual agent of that same state. Her escape is then an incomplete one. She is out of the direct view and corrective desires of the entire police force, but only through the similarly corrective desires of an individual member of that police force. Rachael only survives the movie because heteronormative forces believe they have “corrected” her into heterosexuality.
However, Deckard, the heteronormative state operative, 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 validation of his straightness and humanness manifests itself in the hoarding of photographs, similar to the replicant Leon Kowalski (Brion James). Deckard also 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 also allows for a reading of Deckard as queer, and that he is semi-aware of this fact, while trying desperately to prove his humanity/straightness. Within such a reading, Deckard’s rape of Rachael is his attempt to both prove and reclaim his humanity/heteronormativity by engaging in a violent, straight, and sexual act to punish a transgressing replicant/lesbian body. Deckard is a queer body/replicated body struggling to fit into a system that wants him only to the extent that he is a tool against others like him.
Of the four rogue replicants hunted by Deckard during the film, the replicants Roy (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (Daryl Hannah) successfully pass as straight for most of the film, and therefore, survive the longest. While Roy and Pris are in a relationship that appears straight, because they are replicants their relationship will only ever be regarded as queer by the anti-replicant state. However, their relationship serves as a cover to negate some of the intrusive, heteronormative gaze for a time. When the two of them are together, they are able to convince the straight human J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson) to help them and are twice as cunning overall. Additionally, Pris was constructed as a “basic pleasure model” replicant, which is “a standard item for military clubs in the outer colonies” (Blade Runner). Her main programmed function was to exist as a literal item for masculine heterosexual consumption. She later uses her knowledge of performed heteronormativity to her advantage, placing herself in the role of damsel in distress to get invited into Sebastian’s home, where she throws him seductive glances and wraps her legs around him, catching him within his own heterosexual masculine desire. Pris engages in this performance of heteronormativity in order to get Sebastian to help Roy become closer to Tyrell to ask for prolonged life, which results in the death of both Sebastian and Tyrell.
While Zhora (Johanna Cassidy), the first replicant to be hunted down by Deckard, attempts a similar survival strategy of performing heteronormativity as Pris, she fatally misinterprets what entails a heteronormative state. She finds work in some sort of strip club/sex show performing an act with a snake, attempting to hide in plain sight under the heteronormative gaze in an attempt to continue living as her own subject on Earth. Zhora’s attempt is ultimately unsuccessful–leading to her chase and murder by Deckard because of her misinterpretation of heteronormativity. While she correctly performs sexuality, and performs sexuality for a presumably male gaze, her performance is decidedly queer as it involves not a human man, the correct partner under heteronormativity, but a snake, making her performance not only queer but sacrilegious as well, since the snake is the catalyst for ultimate sin in the Adam and Eve story. It is the snake (the signifier of her queer performance) that leads to Zhora’s downfall, as Deckard is able to trace her down by using one of the scales from the snake to find her. While Zhora attempts to play heteronormativity in a way similar to Pris, she misunderstands what exactly heteronormativity entails and instead performs a queered heteronormativity, which gives her away and allows Deckard to “retire” her.
In one of the film’s most explicit moments of queer encoding, Roy’s most “villainous” moment as a rogue replicant coincides with the most overt instance of homoeroticism in the film. As Roy goes to Tyrell (Joe Turkel) to ask how to extend his life, Tyrell reveals that he is unable to help. In a rage and immediately before committing the only two murders that the audience is aware of, Roy kisses Tyrell. The only crime the audience sees Roy commit–the only real onscreen murders by his hand–comes after the kiss. The kiss and its homoerotic undertones then become the flashpoint for later violence and the signifier of Roy’s sociopathy. It is not just the kiss or the murders on their own that condemn Roy, but the fact that Roy has committed a triple taboo: incest, homosexuality, and the murder of the creator/god figure of the world. Roy has kissed and killed God, who is in this case embodied by Tyrell, the creator of the replicants’ life. Roy has not only committed a murder, but a murder by route of his queerness, linking the two actions. To complete the transgression, Roy is then depicted as a queer Christ figure at the end of the film, complete with nails through his hands mimicking Christ’s stigmata, doves flying about him, and his merciful rescue of Deckard. Roy’s downfall arguably begins after Tyrell’s death scene (as punishment for this triumvirate transgression), as Deckard closes in on him and Pris.
Within the context of Nishime’s “Mulatto Cyborg,” Blade Runner can be read along similar axes of passing and dominance. The replicants can be read as queer bodies attempting to survive, and in some cases rebelling against a violent heteronormative state. The replicants who are capable of passing most effectively survive the longest, but ultimately the transgression of being queer catches up to them, and they are either killed by the end of the film or are implied to live out the remainder of their lives with great individual violence enacted against them. Blade Runner is then a dystopian vision of a powerful heteronormative state that violently suppresses its queer-identified denizens.
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.