Warning: This contains spoilers for Altered Carbon.
In one of the most intensely violent moments of Altered Carbon — and be warned, there are a lot of those— Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) is strapped down in a virtual reality chamber of horrors and tortured to death. Over. And over. And over.
If right now you're thinking "Wait — how can a person be tortured to death more than once?" I suggest you stop reading now. Spoilers will follow. Based on Richard K. Morgan's 2002 cyber punk noir novel by the same name, Altered Carbon takes place in a dystopian future where human consciousness can be digitally preserved in a "stack," and inserted in various bodies, known as "sleeves." The gist: If you can afford the steep price tag, you never have to die. On the flip side, your entire being can be digitally downloaded into virtual reality, where you can go through things the human body could never withstand — like, in Kovacs' case, torture by blowtorch.
It's a gruesome scene to watch (I recap Game of Thrones for a living, and still had to avert my eyes a couple of time), but it could have been much, much worse. In the book-version of events, Kovacs is resleeved in virtual, and finds himself in a female body — what better vehicle for pain? After he's tortured as a woman, Kovacs emerges as a man to exact revenge on those who have wronged him. I don't have to tell you how problematic this twist would have appeared onscreen, and unsurprisingly, we have a woman, Laeta Kalogridis, to thank for its omission.
"I understand the intent," Kalogridis, Altered Carbon's showrunner, said in a phone interview with Refinery29. "The fact that you're always in Kovacs' mind means that you don't experience this split, you don't think to yourself, 'Oh I'm a woman now.' But when you take it out of that space in a novel where you can be behind the eye of your narrator, all you're doing is torture porn with an actress."
If there ever was an argument for the importance of having more women behind the camera, this is it.
Kalogridis has built her career as a writer, producer, and director in the male-dominated genres of a male-dominated film industry. She's worked on projects like Avatar (as executive producer), Shutter Island (writer and executive producer), and Terminator Genysis (writer and executive producer), and wrote James Cameron's upcoming female-driven sci-fi epic, Alita: Battle Angel.
Still, the road to running her own Netflix project wasn't an easy one. "I had been working on non-stop female lead movies and female-lead television shows, and I had been unable to get anything made," she said. "The reason why I was fired off of Bionic Woman — and this is still my favourite quote of all time — [was] 'We really don't feel you can write women.' They replaced me with a guy."
That kind of outlandish sexism present in her experience is what drew her to the story Altered Carbon in the first place. "[The] book contains within it a scathing condemnation of the way that women are treated in a dystopic future, and it was very much addressing the terrifying concept that we would move forward with this incredible technology, and that it would solidify most things that were worse about our society, one of those things being how women and the disenfranchised are treated and make it almost impossible to change. For me, it was a Handmaid's Tale moment."
Still, Altered Carbon doesn't always treat its women nicely. As in most sci-fi worlds — Blade Runner directly comes to mind — sexual and physical violence abounds, and some of the female nudity smacks of early Game of Thrones sexposition. In a show where all bodies are a commodity, female bodies are more disposable than most. And yet, after watching all 10 episodes, the female characters are the ones that stand out as the strongest, most diverse, and most complex. Three of the four main female characters are women of colour, a rare feat in both sci-fi and television in general. But how do I reconcile that with all the boobs?
I asked Kalogridis about the challenges of helming a universe that's so hostile to women, breaking into male spaces, and whether she labels herself a "female filmmaker."
Refinery29: I have to ask: Why are all dystopian futures so awful to women?
Laeta Kalogridis: "Can I ask you a different question? Why is the world so awful to women?"
Ha, fair enough.
"Dystopic pieces are an attempt to wrap a wake-up call in a form that allows people to not feel that they're watching a documentary, but hopefully in the back of their heads form their opinions at least a little bit based on the possibility of where something left unchecked could go. In our case, it's a lot of it. Societal disparity income and in resources. Because if you'll notice, the worst violence in the show, the absolute worst violence in the show is visited on a man. There is nothing in that show that comes anywhere close to what we do to Joel. I would say our show is hard on everyone who isn't a white man, but I would also say that our present day is very hard on everyone who isn't part of the 1/100, the 1 percent. The people who didn't qualify for tax relief on their yachts."
There's a lot of female nudity in this show. As a showrunner, how do you reconcile the need use female nudity to make a point with the risk that it might come off as reinforcing a harmful trope?
"Well, there's a lot of male nudity too. So, we are in the sort of rather interesting position of having again equal opportunity nudity. You see nudity on the part of a couple of our leads who are male, and you see it in a couple of our leads who are female, and you also see it in the secondary characters. We have not shied away from showing both. For me, the really important part though is that the central concept of the show is how terrifying it is to think of the body as commodified. Nothing more or less than a car that you drive. It's separate from you; it's not your identity anymore. And that's a very frightening thing to me because it causes us in the show to look at the body with the same level of thoughtless consumerism that we look at the rest of our planet. We treat everyone like a styrofoam cup."
So, does nudity even matter when a body is just as changeable as your T-shirt?
"I think that nudity matters but is experienced in a different way... Just using examples from other shows that I love: In Game of Thrones, Cersei's nudity for her walk of shame is exposure of her most vulnerable self. [It's] terrible what's happening to her and you're feeling the shame, even if you hate that character. That's her identity, that's her body, that's where her children came from. With Maeve in Westworld, when she wanders in and she sees the tank full of the bodies of her friends who are basically being hosed down like they're nothing, her experience of her body becomes almost like it's horrifically separate from her because she's realising that she's not — at least in the eyes of the people around her — a person. You're getting a sense of how literally naked her mind is in that moment.
"In our show, each scene that you have nudity in operates for a specific reason. Like Bancroft when he first shows up nude, his whole point is, he is a perfected male — and [James] Purefoy is pretty fucking close — and he's not embarrassed. He's the master of the universe. It's a statement of power, and when Miriam takes off her dress, it's essentially as if she had driven up in a Maserati and said 'This is what I am. I am the person who can own this, and it is goddamn perfect.'"
Let's talk about that scene in episode 8, where Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) fights off dozens of naked Reileen (Dichel Lachman) sleeves.
"For me, the point of that whole sequence — other than to showcase the unkillability of Meths — [is that] she is embodying something very specific which doesn't normally come with female nudity. Reileen qualifies again under what I think is one of my favourite Margaret Atwood quotes ever: 'This above all, to refuse to be a victim.'
"Reileen has had some terrible things happen to her, and she's turned into the warrior goddess, like an actual mythical warrior goddess. The way she owns her body, she is not there for anybody's titillation or for anybody to enjoy looking at in some way that is about the male gaze. That character is absolute rage and wrath at what has happened and because she owns it, I actually think that that may be one of the more difficult or interesting scenes for people. To put in the smallest possible way, she's not there for you. She's not there for the male gaze, she's there for her."
I'm a little conflicted because since sci-fi is still a very male space, I want to highlight the fact that this show has a female creator, but I also worry that it could appear reductive. As a woman in film and TV, do you refer to yourself as a female filmmaker, or do you think that's a term we should stray away from?
"I reject only one thing, which is the idea that people can be reduced to male filmmaker vs. female filmmaker. We are the multiple intersections of the many lenses of our experience. It's something that we should embrace. So among other things, you know, I am the granddaughter of immigrants. I am Greek American. I'm from Florida, and Texas, and North Carolina, and Germany, and now Los Angeles, and for a period of time the south of France. I am bisexual. I have children. I have a lot of dogs.
"When you start talking about all the different influences that come into a creator's desire to create, I think that there is absolutely nothing wrong with saying: 'Steven Spielberg is Jewish, that's part of his identity as a filmmaker.' It does not diminish him, nor does it make it bigger; it's simply part of who he is. I would say that the American immigrant experience is a very big part of who I am. Being female is a very big part of who I am. Falling outside of the heteronormative life experience is a very big part of who I am. That's too long to write down. I am a big believer in if she can see it, she can be it, so it's important for people to know that I'm female because at the moment we currently exist in time, this kind of material does seem to be more often executed by men. It's important to not see that as prescriptive. I personally am drawn to this material so that is the material I'm going to do.
"Part of why intersectionality has meaning [is] because the larger range of experience you bring into every room, the more likely you are to create something where the way that you choose the creator is based on their affinity for the material, not based on their plumbing."