At the beginning of Blade Runner, Captain Bryant tells us that (editing errors aside) four replicants have escaped their restraints and have flown to Earth. The oldest of them is Roy Batty (incept date: January 8, 2016), followed closely by Pris (February 14, 2016). Of the replicants, they’re emotionally closest to each other; where Zhora and Leon seem to be living together as a matter of convenience, Roy and Pris seem to be traveling and living together because they like each other, they miss each other when they’re gone, and they share an objective. But Pris is different from Roy.
You might also want to read my article about Roy Batty, the protagonist of Blade Runner.
However close Pris stands to him, by design she stands in a different place than he does. Where he’s “Phys: LEV. A Ment: LEV. A”, she’s “Phys: LEV A Ment: LEV. B”. That is, she’s not as smart as he is, but she’s his physical equal. And we have every reason to believe she’s plenty smart.
It seems like, just as one engineered to be a battlefield commander has to understand morale and fear, one engineered for sex has to understand desire and love. I think that’s part of Tyrell’s triumph, really, that he has engineered human emotions. The Voigt-Kampff is, for him, an evolutionary pressure that he wants to overcome.
Where Roy is conditioned to lead soldiers and think strategically, Pris’ function is to provide sex for human soldiers; an engineered comfort woman.
I think the last word there is the most interesting one: woman. Los Angeles 2019 (the post ecological catastrophe one of the movie; only maybe the mid-ecological catastrophe one of real life) is nearly defined by its desperate, transactional attitude toward women.
There are punk women in the background in the shukh, about whom we know nothing, sadly.
The only two non-sexual women with lines are the bartender and the animal engineer in the market; they’re just regular people plying their trades; knowledgeable, weary, and busy. But all the other women we see outside of crowds are sex workers of some sort, from gogo dancers, to strippers like Zhora and her colleagues, to Pris’ conscripted sex slave.
To be sure, part of this is Hollywood’s ambient contempt for women, but it also seems to be the movie’s side eye at that contempt that our movies reflect. We see women objectified and used throughout the movie for the enjoyment and profit of men, but when we get really close to any of those characters, we’re given every reason to feel empathy for them. Zhora, Rachael, and Pris all want their own things, and each of the characters are dangerously close to being possessions of a man; Zhora’s found a sexual transaction preferable to assassination. Rachael is chained by her memory to Tyrell. Pris, though: Pris is free.
Pris is only a woman by way of her design specification, and she’s acting out of spec. Her feelings aren’t a woman’s feelings’ they’re her feelings, generated by her unique experience. Womanhood is the equipment she’s been built into, but it’s not who she is. She’s single-minded: a cyborg on a mission of selfhood. She knows she’s going to expire soon and doesn’t have much to lose.
…we’re stupid. And we’ll die.
Perhaps more than Roy, even; he has an abstract secondary objective and maybe even a tertiary objective. But Pris just wants to have a life of her own, where she’s not anyone’s possession, where she can love who and how she wants, explore her newfound emotions, and use her physical might to crush anyone who would control her.
I made a cool shirt of Pris. Her face is on the front. A nutcracker, crushing a walnut, is on the back.
But if that’s what she wants, she’s come to the wrong planet. The Earth we see doesn’t want to give people like her half a chance. Imagine that she gets what she wants: that she dodges her expiration date somehow, and then tries to get by. Her options as a young, attractive woman, seem to be to once again sell her sexuality (though, to be fair, it would be far more on her own terms than when the Shimago-Dominguez was profiting from it) or live in the destitution that she’s in (though perhaps exaggerating) when she meets Sebastian. She doesn’t have the resources and powers of knowledge that the bartender or the bioengineer in the market do.
It’s never clear to me how much she knows about the world — how much she’s feigning ignorance and helplessness — but she lacks no commitment to her purpose, shows no deficiencies of any kind short of anger at Roy’s and her own helplessness, and acts in accordance to her own (slightly alien) wishes at each moment.
Once left alone, perhaps for the first time in her three years and nine months’ existence, Pris takes every opportunity to explore her personhood, which includes tentative experiments with womanhood. She tries on clothes. She does acrobatics. She airbrushes her eyes; she’s playing with her design; they’re her own take on femininity. She’s learning how the equipment works; learning to hack it. Finally, she lies in wait to kill Deckard, posing mockingly as a doll. It’s not just to gain the element of surprise; she could have just hidden in a shadow or hung from the ceiling for that. She’s making herself a self.
When she strikes the bemused Deckard, her attack is emotional and bizarre; a further, new, personal expression of the sexuality that she was built to express for others. That sexuality is finally, in her last moments, forming into a thing for herself: her last, desperate act as a person. It’s not tactical, not martial. But she knows she’s going to die soon, and even if she dies now (as she does), it’s as herself.
When Deckard shoots her, there is no reason to withhold any emotion. Her rage gushes out, defying death even after Deckard shoots her again. She lies still, a discarded doll as much as any human is, her blood all that remains for Roy’s lips.
Thanks to Kira Magrann, feminist cyborg, for her input