This is a companion piece to my BBC Radio 3 essay on Blade Runner and Sexbots: Zhora and the Snake. It’s a previous draft that explored some ideas about BR and canon that didn’t make the final discussion on the ethics of sexbots and slaves:
“Ladies and gentlemen. Taffy Lewis presents Miss Salome and the snake. Watch her take the pleasures from the serpent that once corrupted man.”
The first time I watched Blade Runner, I was too young to understand exactly what Miss Salome was doing with the snake. In the ’80s and ’90s, I had access to far too much ‘grown-up’ science fiction at much too young an age. I would watch quietly from the back of the lounge as yet another VHS cassette that had been doing the rounds at my brothers’ school was premiered. Maybe then I have my brothers and their friends to thank for my current career. In any case, I was certainly too young to notice that whatever it is the rogue replicant Zhora – ‘Miss Salome’ – is doing with the snake it is too much for the replicant hunting detective, the ‘Blade Runner’, to watch. We, the viewers, only get to see a slight grimace as Deckard looks away from the stage.
The dance is left to our imagination. But Zhora’s Salome dance is generally the exception, not the rule in Blade Runner. In other scenes, nudity and sexuality are foregrounded. Immediately after her performance, Zhora, played by Joanna Cassidy, is approached by Deckard who is pretending to be a representative of “The Confidential Committee on Moral Abuses”. He plays at checking her dressing room for peep-holes while allowing the viewer a chance to ‘peep’ at her showering after the dance, wearing only some stuck-on gems. Moments later, and we get to see Deckard, his ridiculous put on voice easily seen through, shoot the fleeing Zhora in the back. And she dies, naked apart from a transparent coat and the blood that covers her, in the middle of a shop window full of mannequins. This time Deckard does not look away, and neither can the audience.
In 1982 Blade Runner brought the trenchcoats, gravelly voice-overs, and dark rain glistening streets of Film Noir to the world of science fiction. A world that had so far focussed on wowing audiences with colourful ‘what ifs’ and shining bright chrome utopianism. And with that splicing of Film Noir, DNA into Science Fiction came the ‘Femme Fatale’ and ‘the Redeemer’, a somewhat limited binary of options for female characters in that genre of cinematic storytelling, identified by Janey Place in her work, Women in Film Noir, from 1978. Zhora, seductive but deadly, a “beauty and the beast type” according to Deckard’s boss Bryant, fulfils the former role. The fourth escaped replicant, Pris, dismissed by Bryant as “a basic pleasure model”, initially appears to the genetic engineer J.F. Sebastian as a waif-like innocent. But she later reveals herself to be just as deadly as Zhora. Pris is almost animal-like in appearance and combat style as she takes on Deckard towards the end of the film. She clambers over him and squeezes him between her thighs in a sexually suggestive manner. She too dies amongst other artificial beings, surrounded in her death spasms by J.F. Sebastian’s bio-toys. Rachael, the replicant who suspects she isn’t real, has the hair and clothes of a 1940s Film Noir femme fatale. But she is eventually transformed from the rigid ice woman who controls Deckard’s gaze in her first scene at the Tyrell Corporation to a passive passenger in his car in the ‘happy ending’ of the theatrical release version of the film.
Blade Runner is, however, not just a recombination of genres. It gives us a temporal folding together of different eras and the attitudes that come with them. 1940s Film Noir is folded into the 1980s of the film’s production and release. ’80s cinema gave us both the businesswoman and the murdered babysitter and sexualised both of them. “I’ve got a mind for business and bod for sin”, Melanie Griffiths tells Deckard, I mean, Harrison Ford, in Working Girl in 1988. Zhora and Pris are working girls of another kind, and their deaths – stalked by the Blade Runner before dying screaming or covered in blood– could also place alongside the victims and scream queens in the Halloween series of films.
That Blade Runner is set in our present-day of 2019 folds in yet another era and society. Watching Ridley Scott’s imaginary 2019 now we can measure it against our actual 21st-century experiences and standards, including in the light of #MeToo and the Time’s Up movement. That Blade Runner holds on to elements from the 1940s and its contemporary 1980s, especially in its representation of women as subjects of the male gaze and of violence, has led Kate Devlin in her recent book, Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots, to claim that “Blade Runner has a woman problem”.
I don’t entirely disagree. Of the five female speaking roles in the film, three are sexualised replicants, and the other two are ‘Cambodian Woman’ and a gruff one-eyed bar-worker with no given name in the script. The Bechdel Test arrived three years after Blade Runner’s release. However, I don’t think that the test’s creator, Alison Bechdel, ever thought about whether the ‘at least two named women speaking to each other about something other than a man’ needed to be human. Nonetheless, even if we grant the replicants personhood – as I think the film certainly does – Blade Runner just does not pass the test at all. Add to that, the 80s style violence, and a very disturbing scene where Deckard violently forces Rachael to consent to him, and Blade Runner is very problematic in the real 2019.
However, rather than just giving Blade Runner a pass as being only a product of its time, I think there is the potential to reclaim the film in 2019 from its multiple entangled, and sexist, influences. The key to this reclaiming is Zhora’s dance with the snake. The dance that Deckard looks away from and which we never get to see. Being left to our imagination gives us power over the scene. And by looking into the history and themes of the dance and its reception, we can find spaces in which to exercise that power.
Zhora’s persona on stage, ‘Miss Salome’, is an obvious reference to Salome. You might think you know Salome, but much of the story has been embellished and transformed by a long line of writers. First, in the New Testament gospels of Mark and Matthew, we read of King Herod and his daughter. Her dance pleases the guests of the King, and he is inspired to grant her a wish:
“Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask, I will give you, up to half my kingdom.”
Herod’s daughter asks her mother what she should have, and she tells her to ask for the head of the prophet John the Baptist. Which she gets, on a fine platter.
However, the gospel authors never referred to the daughter of Herod by name. Later sources, such as the Antiquities of the Jews from the first century CE, identify her as Salome. Likewise, her dance is not described in the Bible at all. In the 19th Century, however, Oscar Wilde wrote his adaptation of the story in French, Salomé, and gave the daughter of Herod the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ to perform. The dance was retained by composer Richard Strauss in his 1905 German operatic interpretation of Wilde’s play, and the success of the play and the opera allegedly led to cases of ‘Salomania’. This was a “vogue for women doing glamorous and exotic ‘oriental’ dances in striptease”, according to Rachel Shteir’s 2004 book, Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show. In Oscar’s play all we know of the dance is a single line of instruction for the cast:
[Salomé dances the dance of the seven veils.]
The subjects of so-called ‘Salomania’ were inspired by Wilde’s staging of the dance, but also came up with their versions, drawing on their visions of the near east and its culture. Whether accurate or not. Many other interpretations of Salome’s story and her dance have appeared in other forms of media and popular culture.
For example, the rock band U2’s 1991 song, Salome, emphasises the dance’s shaking movements, as well as referring to Herod’s promise of fulfilling her desires:
Baby don’t bite your lip
Give you half what I got
If you untie the knot
It’s a promise
Shake it shake it shake it Salome
Shake it shake it shake it Salome
Salome… shake it shake it shake it Salome
As I’ve said, I was too young to know what the snake was doing the first time I watched Blade Runner, but I have a pretty good idea now. But because Deckard looks away, that’s just my interpretation, just as Wilde gave his interpretation of Salome’s dance as a dance with seven veils. In 2012, the actress who played Zhora, Joanna Cassidy, also gave us her interpretation of ‘Miss Salome’s’ dance, posting a video on YouTube of her performing a dance with a real snake (we presume!). The video is called, “What Might Have Been”, expressing a desire to reclaim a lost moment.
Responses online in the comments were very positive. “This is pretty amazing. I’ve never seen an actor do an almost interpretive re-envisioning of a scene like this. Gives a whole new dimension to the character that is translated in a complex yet very simple way. I dig it supremely,” wrote one viewer. Another said, “Zhora Zhora, I thought Rick Deckard got you. I was so sad; fortunately, I was wrong.” Joanna Cassidy has been involved in other re-enactments of the dance since Blade Runner, with more to come, such as a live performance with the dance as a starting point. So, Zhora does indeed live on in re-interpretations of the missing dance, outliving both her end in the film and her replicant end date.
This longevity is possible because of the absence of Deckard’s gaze at this point in the film. Vision, sight and gaze are recurring themes in Blade Runner. The film frequently shows us close-ups of eyes. The eyes of the subjects of the Voight-Kampff test that can determine whether someone is a replicant or not depending on microscopic pupil dilations and reactions. Deckard looks for peep-holes in Zhora’s changing room. Leon and Batty visit the genetic engineer Chew, seeking answers about their longevity problem, and a terrified Chew explains that he only works on eyes. “If only you could see what I have seen with your eyes,” Roy says before Chew tells him to seek out the creator of the replicants, Tyrell. The already myopic Tyrell is then completely blinded and killed by his own creation, his eyes pushed into his skull by Roy’s thumbs. Shades of Frankenstein’s monster and his revenge on Victor obviously haunt the screen at this point. But the emphasis on vision also leads us back to our own, real, 2019 and the modern concept of the male gaze.
According to Janey Place, the Femme Fatales of the 1940s “direct the camera (and the hero’s gaze, with our own) irresistibly with them as they move”. They have a certain power in captivating the camera. In 2019 the male gaze refers more to objectification, often sexual objectification. And in Blade Runner, we can see a transformation of Rachael from the controller of the male gaze in her first scene to a passive, observed, redeemer. She is increasingly seen solely in terms of her relationship with Deckard. The redeemer, according to Place, is the “bride-price” the hero wins for having resisted the destructive lures of the Femme Fatale. Pris and Zhora are defeated by Deckard, and arguably Rachael is too, as she transforms from the stiff ice maiden, the Femme Fatale, to the soft-haired companion sat silently in Deckard’s car. The male gaze in Blade Runner also relates to specific moments of transformation. Rachael undoes her hair in response to seeing pictures of Deckard’s mother on his piano, an image that he must have gazed at frequently. She appears to want to be seen by him too.
Again, however, there is a space here to reclaim the male gaze, and by extension to reclaim Blade Runner, by thinking through the perspective we are given by Zhora’s dance and its influences. The biblical Salome captured Herod’s attention and his power with her dancing. Wilde’s Salomé not only gets her wish but also expresses her power and her passion. Linda and Michael Hutcheon’s 1998 article, “‘Here’s Lookin’ At You, Kid’: The Empowering Gaze in Salomé” argues that Wilde’s Salomé undermines the traditional gendering of gaze as male. Salome takes back that power for herself as she captivates the audience with her dance. Wilde also writes Salomé lines in which she exults in her power:
Deckard looks away from Zhora and reacts as though horrified, as though she is something monstrous in her moment of apparent synthetic bestiality. As a replicant in the world of Blade Runner, she is a non-human other, and she may well be thought of as monstrous even without this act. We have already noted the animalistic turn Pris takes as she fights Deckard, and by this point in the film, she has also painted her face black and white using the same paints J.F Sebastian uses on his toys. She has become even more doll-like, even more artificial, with her monochromatic face, nude coloured bodysuit and her wild dandelion hair. Salome is also thought of as monstrous and transgressive in Wilde’s play, with Herod reacting in horror as she holds John the Baptist’s head and kisses his lips:
In our fictions, artificial lifeforms like the replicants, inhabit a liminal space between the natural and the unnatural, a space we mark on the map with ‘here be monsters’. The ‘Uncanny Valley’, outlined by Masahiro Mori, in a 1970 paper, theorises this territory of the liminal with regards to the non-human, and the term is often applied to artificial beings such as robots, androids, and artificial intelligences as well as the undead and the dolls that Mori highlighted. The replicants of Blade Runner also fit into this uncanny space. However, with liminality, there is also the potential for transformation and transformative powers.
A story about such liminal creatures that also contains moments of ambiguity such as the dance that Deckard looks away from contains the potential for new storytelling and new art. Reclaiming canon through new media is a work of transformation, more popularly known as ‘fanfiction’ for written works, and ‘fanart’ for illustrations. The most popular site for fanfiction is Archive of Our Own, which recently won a Hugo Award for Best Related Work. In effect, a Hugo statue was shared between around two million writers, who have contributed to five million works in thirty-three thousand fandoms. For Blade Runner, the number of fanworks is small, just a few hundred when the most popular fandoms have a few hundred thousand. Nevertheless, in the spaces left empty in the canon of the film, such as Zhora’s dance, there is potential for new creations that subvert or control the gaze, and which can encourage us to look at Blade Runner in different ways.
After all, Blade Runner is itself a film with a variety of versions and deviations already. Some with a happy ending, some without. Some with the gritty voice-over of a 1940s Film Noir film, some without. Some with Deckard’s unicorn daydream, some without. The variable involvement of Ridley Scott as the most influential Blade Runner creator makes each of these versions a transformative work in their own right. Even the ‘film’ – all the versions gathered together to make some sort of singular object of canon – is an adaptation of the original book by Philip K. Dick, changing many things, not least the title: “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”. The sequel, Blade Runner 2049 sees the return of Deckard and Gaff, with a transformed by CGI ‘Rachael’, amidst new characters and new producers and writers.
However, calling Blade Runner 2049 ‘fanfiction’ shouldn’t at all be seen as dismissive. Common perceptions of fanfiction dismiss transformative works as the futile or facile work of ‘bored’ or sexually frustrated women so that calling something ‘fanfiction’ is to denigrate it. But all writing draws on and transforms that which has gone before, all creativity involves some kind of transformation. Only some authors are willing to admit it. As Neil Gaiman once tweeted in response to a question about his opinion of fanfiction:
“I won the Hugo Award for a piece of Sherlock Holmes/H. P. Lovecraft fanfiction, so I’m in favour.”
Therefore, we can see that Zhora’s dance as ‘Miss Salome’ is a transformation of Wilde’s Salome – seven veils being replaced by a single artificial snake. Likewise, Wilde’s Salome is a transformation of a few lines of the gospel about ‘Herod’s daughter’ and her dance. And when Deckard looks away, we are left with a liminal space of opportunity. We can come up with something a little more advanced than the ‘basic pleasure model’ that Blade Runner gave the male gaze through its sexualised Femme Fatales. In 2019, the Year of the Blade Runner, I hope that there will be many more versions still to be created.