“Blade Runner” deconstructed whiteness and masculinity before it was cool

It’s been a while since I’ve done any philosophy here, so I thought I’d pick up where I left off in January, on a sort of autobiographical note: In a threepart series, I drew on my own experiences and reflections, in dialogue with the critical race theory of Charles W. Mills, to give an account of what it’s like to be “Not Quite White” as an unapologetically Eurocentric Iranian American.

A lot of the memories and reflections had to do with the phenomenon of “passing”. Passing is usually understood as creating or maintaining the illusion that one belongs to a privileged group. But in my analysis, it becomes clear that people don’t just pass for what they are not – they also pass for what (they think) they really “are”. 

I basically conclude that while I and other Americans of Middle Eastern descent often “pass” as white, there’s also always a deeper and more unconscious form of passing at work, in which I actually pass to myself.

That is, I – for understandable and hardly unique reasons – convinced myself that my ethnic identity is stable and non-contradictory, a reliable and clearly defined reflection of myself that I can fall back on in moments of isolation and self-doubt. Over the years, I passed to myself as both “white enough” and as Iranian/Middle Eastern (which is to say, not white).

I think this points to something crucial about the very essence of identity – that all identity is constructed and unstable, even the dominant identities (white, male, heterosexual, etc.) we critique as being the “default”, “neutral”, or “universal”.

The only “default” identity is a painful lack, an inability to see and know for sure what it is you “really are”. The only universality is the impenetrable darkness at the core of our being.

I can’t think of a popular movie that illustrates this more vividly or powerfully than Blade Runner (specifically, the edits known as the “director’s cut” and “final cut”).

If you’re not familiar with it (warning: the rest of this post is one big spoiler), Ridley Scott’s loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? follows bounty hunter Rick Deckard as he hunts down four renegade androids (“replicants”) in the Los Angeles of 2019, which – like the rest of Earth – is a dark, polluted, overcrowded wasteland.

The people who live there are those without the power and privilege to escape to off-world colonies, where the elite use replicants as slave labor. They are identical to humans in every way, except for emotions – but as it turns out, replicants can develop those too. As a failsafe, the corporation that makes replicants designed them to have a four-year lifespan.

That precaution proves insufficient, though: These four replicants revolt, kill their masters, and travel to Earth to find their creator and make him change what he created. They don’t want to die. The immediate problem for them is that replicants are illegal on Earth, hence Deckard’s assignment. By the time their leader, Roy, learns that their genetic coding can’t be changed, they’ve been picked off one by one.

Throughout the film, the mutineers have to “pass” as human to avoid detection. There are plenty of examples that I won’t go into. Much more interesting, though, is the replicant Deckard meets when he visits the corporation: Rachael, assistant to the corporation’s head and chief designer, doesn’t know she’s a replicant. She’s so advanced that she almost fools the apparently foolproof Voight-Kampff test, which uses emotionally provocative questions to see if you’re human based on pupil dilations or something.

Unlike the other replicants in the film, Rachael has to come into consciousness, not of her essential humanity, but of her (supposed) lack of it. She lived her life as though she were just like everyone else when in reality, her very life on Earth is criminal.

What Rachael has to come to grips with is the same terrifying experience of identity-as-lack-of-identity that drove Roy and the other replicants to revolt in the first place: that they are not really what they “are”. Despite knowing that all they have in this world are implanted memories and a preset expiration date, they nonetheless have a subjectivity, a full personhood, that yearns for a freedom that will never come.

“Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it?” Roy asks Deckard during their final showdown. “That’s what it is to be a slave.” Rachael’s earth-shattering realization that she, too, is a “slave” is only possible through unconscious passing: Every day of her life, she’s passed for human to herself.

What’s the message here? The “director’s cut” and “final cut” both contain versions of a sequence, commonly referred to as “the unicorn dream”, that makes it clear. After Deckard and Rachael hook up – and after she asks him if he’s ever taken the Voight-Kampff test himself – the “final cut” intercuts a scene of Deckard, awake and staring ahead in his apartment, with a sun-bathed vision of a unicorn galloping in slow-motion.

These cuts, like the studio release, also show a mysterious minor character called Gaff (seemingly a sort of middle man between Deckard and his boss) making little origami figures at different points in the film. When Deckard returns to his apartment after his showdown with Roy, he finds Rachael there; they agree to run away together, but as he leaves his apartment for the last time, he notices a little origami figure on the ground. It’s a unicorn.

The inclusion of the “unicorn dream” unleashes this final scene’s explosive implication: that Deckard himself is a replicant, with implanted memories and dreams well known to Gaff, the man responsible for keeping an eye on him.

Deckard’s plotline actually charts a steady undermining of the basis of his self-identification as human: While searching the apartment of Leon, one of the replicants, Deckard finds some photos, which Leon has kept despite knowing they’re of someone else’s life.

Later, the film cuts from the unicorn sequence to a shot of Deckard’s own photographs in his apartment. In light of the final revelation, this cut acquires a new meaning that was already latent: Deckard’s pictures, too, are really someone else’s, no less a fantasy than the unicorn implanted in his mind. He, like Rachael, learns that he’s been passing for human, not to his boss or his handler, but to himself.

It’s crucial to note that by the end of the film, there are no major characters that have not been “outed” as replicants, whether to themselves, to other characters, or to the viewer. Why does Leon keep his photos even though he knows he’s a replicant? Because the knowledge that he’s not “really” human doesn’t negate his essentially human desire for identity and connection.

That’s the radical lesson of Blade Runner: We are never fully who we imagine ourselves to be, and it’s precisely that gap that makes us who we are. That gap makes it possible for us to pass even for what we think we already are.

It’s a nice philosophical point, but as always we have to ask – why does it matter?

If we plot the film as a racial or gender allegory, Deckard and Rachael aren’t white people/men who learn they aren’t really white/male. They’re white people/men who come into consciousness of whiteness and masculinity as constructs, ideals that restrict them and that they inevitably fail to embody.

Their identities aren’t simply given as a default, but a social determination; their memories aren’t really their own, but the reflection of cultural memory. What this means for political struggle is that no identity, not even the dominant identity, is free from the oppression of the social construction of difference.

Our identities are most constructed and fragile in those cases where we think ourselves certain of belonging to a privileged class.

In other words, the struggle against patriarchy can’t claim as its goal a society in which everyone is treated like a man, and the struggle against white supremacy can’t envision one in which we are all treated like white people. It’s precisely masculinity and whiteness that are the biggest fakes of all – so our project has to include convincing those who identify with those constructs that their behavior is actually restricted, their sense of self mutilated, by the systems of domination that seem to benefit them.

Liberation depends, in part, on the realization of the oppressors that they too are not free.

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