The Woman with the Rachael Tattoo: More Notes from My Life with Blade Runner

by Sarah Nichols
Film
Film

The Woman with the Rachael Tattoo: More Notes from My Life with Blade Runner

What if this does not belong to you

            And all the things you thought were true

            Turned out to just be someone else’s lies ? — She Wants Revenge, “Rachael”

 

            “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.” — Donna Haraway, from “The Cyborg Manifesto.”

 

            At the beginning of the month, I changed my Facebook profile picture to a still of Rachael, the replicant played by Sean Young in Blade Runner. Since then, I’ve gotten more friend requests from men (all writers; all with numerous mutual friends) than I have since…ever.

            That would undoubtedly change if I decided to share my own face.

 I have always felt a strong bond with her character, a woman, who, when the audience first sees her, has a hard, lacquered beauty, all forties (specifically Joan Crawford) style and on the defensive with Harrison Ford. But this changes. Eldon Tyrell tells Deckard that she doesn’t know she’s a replicant but is “beginning to suspect”; a machine “gifted” with the memories of other people, a machine with a short shelf life.

            People have always been surprised (disturbed ?) at my ability to recall people and things from years earlier, asking how I could possibly remember what happened, or where I was, and the only reply has been a form of “I just do,” because I have no idea how a brain stores things, how things stick when they should have been forgotten. I wish I could also say that there are blank spaces in me, whole months or years gone due to amnesia that is a main side effect of electroconvulsive therapy, a treatment for major depression, one used after other methods have failed. 1995 comes to me in flashes, and just as easily slips away. How can I trust my memories ? This is what happens to Rachael after Deckard confronts her with the truth: photos of a little girl with her mother are no longer keepsakes. A girl watching a spider being devoured by its offspring no longer seems like a thing that happened. The memories you thought were yours alone have been destroyed.

            Memories can be hidden, too, and when they return, they come with blunt force. After years of telling therapists that I had never been sexually abused, the memory of it happening to me came back in 2013, after being in recovery, with no more self-medicating to keep it away. I never wanted to be that victim, and Rachael doesn’t want to be what she is, because to own it means living in a new reality, one where the past is slippery. It either breaks you or you readjust. I see this in how Young plays the part: one moment clipped and efficient, the next in almost painful vulnerability. Which one is real ? For me it can be both; a desire to function in the world while also saying “these things happened; listen to me.”

            This is an excellent place to delve into the scene where Ford commands Young to say          

  “kiss me” and “put your hands on me.” For some it looks like love or foreplay, but for others it plays like coercion; he’s giving orders to a machine that’s not able to say no. The Rachael one finds in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep ? is much different: a femme fatale who’s seduced and destroyed other bounty hunters; a woman who has no problem with killing other androids for Deckard, a woman whose autonomy is clearly defined[1].

            Perhaps even more disturbing is the interview with Young that appears in Paul M. Sammon’s Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner; where he returns, again and again, to the now legendary animosity between Young and Ford, along with the conditions under which she worked. Young reports that she was purposely isolated from the rest of the cast, and that it’s still painful to think of Ford’s attitude towards her[2]. But Sammon reminds her that Ford had a difficult time, too, which feels like a minimization of the situation, especially considering Young’s revelation that at the end of the “love” scene, Ford mooned her, and that she hated acting the entire sequence[3]. She goes on to say that watching the movie is painful to her, and that her experience of the shoot is one of emotional abuse[4], which Sammon calls “strong language.”  Young goes on to say that speaking up about such treatment has earned her a reputation for being “difficult,” and that ultimately, she’s regretted saying anything at all. Sammon follows up with this comment:

 

                        You’ve already mentioned that you tend to speak without a filter. That speaking up…

                         was always a part of your persona. But that’s frowned on in this business, right ?

                        I mean, challenging the wrong people or going public about certain things can

                        embarrass or anger others within the filmmaking community. That makes enemies.

                        Which, right or wrong, is the just the way Hollywood culture works. So perhaps

                        pushing back against that is what got you into hot water. [5]

 

What is left unsaid is that actors are praised for speaking out or being edgy in that culture. Women are difficult; bitches who should know better than to call a situation what it is: harassment, assault, abuse. Sammon’s book is exhaustive in its detail about the making of Blade Runner. But at the same time, he seems to show no interest in interrogating or dismantling the culture in which it was made.

For me, this means loving this movie with reservations. I revel in its dark beauty, and in the longing and violence of the characters. But this shadow remains, impossible to shake off, and maybe it’s why I have the tattoo: to remind myself of the shadow, and to keep fighting it off.

 


[1] Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep ? New York: Del Rey, 1968,1996. 190-195.

[2] Sammon, Paul M. Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner. New York: Dey Street, 2017. 549,554.

 

[3] Sammon, ibid. 557.

[4] Sammon, ibid. 559.

[5] Sammon, ibid. 560.

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Sarah Nichols lives and writes in Connecticut, and is the author of eight chapbooks, including She May Be a Saint (Porkbelly Press, 2019) and This is Not a Redemption Story (Dancing Girl Press, 2018.) Her work is forthcoming in the Twin Peaks poetry anthology, These Poems are Not What They Seem (Apep Publications, 2020) and her poems and essays have also appeared in Drunk Monkeys and Five:2:One Magazine.

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