Disability in Blade Runner (ICFA 2016)

Thursday, 21 January 2016 15:59

I'm just going to pretend that it hasn't been 6 months since I last posted here. I have reasons!

My favourite conference (and the only one I go to these days), ICFA, is coming up in March. This year I decided that I want to present on one of my all-time favourite films, Blade Runner. Here is my paper proposal:

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“I want more life”—Disability as a Generative Narrative in Blade Runner

One of the pivotal moments of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) happens when the founder of the Tyrell Corporation, Dr. Eldon Tyrell, denies the replicant Roy Batty’s plea for “more life” by saying “the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long." In the face of Tyrell’s cruel dismissal, Batty’s desperate violence becomes understandable. Disability studies scholars have taken up Blade Runner as a film about cure (Johnson Cheu) and the consequences of genetic engineering (Michael Bérubé) as they focus on how it recuperates ableist narratives of disability. In her recent book, Disability and Popular Culture, Katie Ellis addresses the ways in which science fiction (SF) films are “producerly texts,” stories that depict stereotypes of disability but that also “offer the possibility of thinking differently about ourselves [...] and offer positive alternatives” (11). Following Ellis’ approach to articulating counter-narratives and using a disability studies framing, I consider Blade Runner as a SF text that unsettles our sense of what disability looks like and what it can be. While I agree with Johnson Cheu’s conclusion that the replicants in Blade Runner (like the disabled today) “are considered second-class citizenry and are stigmatized as such” (204), I want to problematize this straightforward argument by reading the replicants—as represented by Leon, Batty, Prim, Rachael, and Deckard—as generative of a diverse disability identity. Many popular SF narratives focus on the cure or elimination of disability, but Blade Runner places emphasis on the inhumanity of removing individual agency in the process of medicalization.

Alison Kafer, in Feminist, Queer, Crip, asks: “What is it about disability that makes it a defining element of our imagined futures, such that a ‘good’ future is one without disability, while a ‘bad’ future is overrun by it?” (10). Whether the viewer reads Blade Runner as a “good” or “bad” future (Cheu, for instance, calls it a utopia), depends on which characters are the most relatable. I propose that, through the ambiguous figure of Deckard, the audience is forced to confront the experience of disability as both impairment and as a social construction. By recognizing the replicants’ vulnerability and right to autonomy, it becomes clear that each is worthy of “more life.” I will discuss the ways Blade Runner engages with notions of shared human vulnerability and shared bodily difference. The ideal but unrealized outcome in the film is in the proliferation of disability, not in its eradication. By moving the normate/able body out of the centre in favour of the replicant, I hope to show the potential of SF films like Blade Runner to be generative sites of disability narratives about the future.

 

 

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