None the Wiser: Racism and Social Darwinism in Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” through the Lens of Stephen Crane’s “The Monster” and H.G. Well’s “The Island of Doctor Moreau”

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner questions the power difference between man and his creation by chronicling the hunt of terminal manufactured “replicants” who yearn for the longer length of a human lifespan. Because the replicants are commodified as slaves for humans, they enter a world of social inequality on the lowest rung and a short expiration date. While the humanity of the replicants is the movie’s focus, it also makes a statement about the other outcast in the social hierarchy: minorities. Certainly not a theme exclusive to the 1992 film, the relationship between society and the “other”, also dominates Stephen Crane’s “The Monster” and H.G. Well’s “The Island of Doctor Moreau”. “The Monster” involves a young black man who is horribly disfigured after a good deed, and then subsequently ostracized from his town’s community. “The Island of Doctor Moreau” experiments with the possibility than an obsessive scientist can speed up evolution to create man from animal. In this essay, these two texts are used as a lens to view Blade Runner: “The Monster”, “The Island of Doctor Moreau” and Blade Runner, which feature white male “creator” characters and inferior people of color, are allegories to historical events of racial discrimination: American slavery, British imperialism and American immigration, respectively.

In comparison to the white, male protagonists who dominate the plots, minorities are portrayed as inhuman and grouped together as unimportant. While Crane’s protagonist, Henry Johnson is introduced as a likeable black man, he quickly loses his colorful personality after his disfigurement. After the fire occurs at the end of Chapter 7, Johnson suffers grotesque chemical lesions and possible brain damage. After this early incident, Johnson is labeled as “a monster” by Judge Hagenthorpe and is avoided by the majority of the town. In this way, Johnson is stripped of his humanity because he is no longer able to express himself, rarely speaking during the rest of the novel. While Johnson is tragically unable to be respected, despite his brave act of saving Jimmy’s life, he does not remain the protagonist. Because the disfigurement occurs so early on in the text, the majority of the story’s focuses on the Dr. Trescott and the townspeople’s opinion of Johnson as a villain: Trescott, who maintains that he must protect Johnson for saving his son, slowly loses his business, social circle and his family because of his persistent association with Johnson. Wilson Jordan notes in “Teaching a Dangerous Story: Darwinism and Race in Stephen Crane’s ‘The Monster’”, that the burned Johnson is also dehumanized through the language that Crane uses to describe him: choosing to refer to Johnson as the ambiguous “dark figure” or “it” instead of his name (34). This change in Johnson’s pronouns after the fire exemplifies how the townspeople do not see him to be a man after the fire.

The objectification of Johnson, a black man, is also representative of the lack of individuality and racial profiling of all of the black characters in the story. Despite his best efforts (sacrificing his own body, and ultimately life, for the son of a white man, Jimmy), society refuses to respect Johnson as a human, and shun him. Cleman suggests that Crane’s depiction of blacks in the novel are racist stereotypes: the blacks live on a street called “Watermelon Avenue” and likens the Farraguts to “three monkeys”, details that are  reminiscent of Jim Crow minstrel shows (16). Not only is this degrading, but it labels the racial group of blacks instead of the individual man, Henry Johnson. While the white townspeople are diverse in their characters, such as Doctor Trescott, Martha Goodwin, Judge Hagenthorpe, Jake Winter and more, there are only three individual black characters: Johnson, Alek Williams and Bella Ferragut (and briefly, Mrs. Farragut, her mother). These characters, though they have names and personalities, are minor characters whose lines pale in comparison to the influence of the Judge or Goodwin on the plot: the Judge repeatedly tries to convince Trescott to send Johnson away, while Martha’s character description details her family history and personality as a stubborn woman with an unwavering opinion. Johnson loses his personality and individuality after the disfigurement, while Williams is portrayed as an uneducated fool as he tries to increase his salary for housing Johnson. Farragut is Johnson’s fiancé who loses all interest after his disfigurement, violently rejecting his advances after he tries to court her again. Additionally, as stated before, the story focuses the “monster’s” effect on Dr. Trescott and his family, pushing the minorities out of the spotlight.  

Johnson is symbolic of the blacks in the novel, but also black Americans in history as well. While not a slave himself, Johnson, a black man, is the stablehand of Trescott, a white doctor. Not surprisingly, in “Blunders of Virtue: The Problem of Race in Stephen Crane’s “the Monster””, Clemen identifies that the relationship between Trescott and Johnson in “The Monster” illustrates slavery during the 1890s. This also is supported by the slavery-reminiscent language to describe Henry’s actions during multiple parts of the story, such as “slavery” and “submission” (24). Society’s rejection of the black Henry Johnson, and symbolically of blacks as a whole, highlights that the correlated traits of being a minority and an outcast manifests into beings who are lesser than human.

Wilson Jordan’s examination of the pronouns used to describe people of color in “The Monster” can also be applied to the dehumanization of the Kanakas in “The Island of Doctor Moreau”. The Moreau’s treatment of minorities and beast people implies that not only are people of color inferior to white Europeans, but that this stratification is justified by Social Darwinism. Among the human characters in the novel, the only minorities mentioned are the six Kanakas, Pacific Islanders who Moreau initially brings to the island. In his description of their beginnings on the Island, none of the Kanakas have an individual name and are referred to by only their ethnicity or as immature “boys”. Moreau, like Crane’s treatment of Johnson, doesn’t see the Kanakas as humans because of his use of the pronoun “it”, as he tells Prendick “It was killed”, when Prendick asks about their fates: all of the Kanakas have either deserted or have been killed on the island and have been replaced.  

This contrasts with Moreau’s references to Montgomery, a white, European man like himself– even the name Montgomery, and Moreau’s use of it, is an acknowledgement of Montgomery’s individuality and allows Montgomery to be defined by his character, rather than by his race. This makes it even more apparent that Moreau views the Kanakas as a racial group that is inferior, disposable and weak. In fact, when describing his earlier experiments, Moreau refers to the beasts and the Kanakas in a similar fashion: the pronoun “it”, its speciation (such as “the puma”, “Thing”, “the beast people”, etc.) and with a lack of respect afforded to Prendick and Montgomery, who are white European men.

This correlation between minorities and the beast people implies that Moreau considers the Kanakas and his creations to be similar, and inferior to man. Through this relationship, H.G. Wells suggests that the Social Darwinism that Moreau uses to justify the possibility of evolution from beast to man can also be applied to the Kanakas, or anyone of non-European descent. In his explanation to Prendick, Doctor Moreau observes that the more animalistic the creature is, the less intelligent it is. Moreau says,

“The intelligence is often oddly low, with unaccountable blank ends, unexpected gaps. And least satisfactory of all is something that I cannot touch, somewhere—I cannot determine where—in the seat of the emotions.” (76)

The beast people, who are derived from animals, ultimately fail to develop the same level of intelligence and emotional capacity as natural born humans do. Whereas Crane’s story served as an allegory to the racial inequality caused by the American slave trade, critics have likened H.G. Wells’s novel to British imperialism. Hendershot parallels the animals of the Island of Doctor Moreau to the natives of British colonies, such as India and Africa. She notes that Moreau’s role as a religious figure for the Beast People is uncannily similar to how white imperialists assumed their control over a native population. The conquest of both animals and people through fiction and history are justified through Social Darwinism. Though the Kanakas are not native to the island, Moreau’s similar treatment of minorities and Beast People in comparison to European men suggests that Social Darwinism is a justification for such racial discrimination.

Critics have briefly analyzed the relationship between race and social stratification in Blade Runner in the context of larger arguments. In “Metahuman ‘Kipple’: Or, Do Male Movie Makers Dream Of Electric Women?’ Speciesism And Sexism In Blade Runner”, Barr contends that contemporary racism has been replaced by speciesism against the replicants. Desser contrasts this argument by identifying that race and class actually are conflated, where minorities and replicants share the same class. Contrary to Barr, this implies that both racism and speciesism are present in the society of futuristic Los Angeles.

In Blade Runner, there is clear racial stratification between Earth and the off-world colonies. Most of Earth’s population has left for a different planet, lured by the change for a fresh start at life. Though we never see the off-world colony, the dirty, overcrowded, dark atmosphere of Los Angeles is perceived to be inferior to whatever environment the off-world colonies offer.  Through J.F. Sebastian’s explanation that he was not eligible to leave Earth because of a genetic disease, it is suggested that this society is trying to “improve” the human population by only allowing the “ideal” humans to colonize. From the racial demographics of the city, mostly composed of East Asian and Hispanic people, it is inferred that these races are considered to be inferior to the white population (the majority of which have already left Earth.) Just as in “The Island of Doctor Moreau”, Social Darwinism is used to justify the colonization of the superior whites on the off-world colonies and the exclusion of minorities.

While the the eye designer shown at the beginning of the movie is of East Asian descent, he is never named and is presumed to be murdered by replicant Roy Batty, the latest replicant on the market. Instead, in his only scene, the eye designer functions as a weakling at the mercy of the white man. This contrasts greatly with the depiction of S.F. Sebastian, who is seduced by Pris and Roy Batty in multiple scenes, where the audience also learns about his individual characteristics, such as his genetic disease, his creations and his home. These racial groups lack individual personality afforded to the multiple white characters in the film,  and are wholly unimportant to the main plot of the film.

White supremacy is also exhibited through the design of the replicants, who also live on the off shore colonies. As a commodity, the replicants are marketed as the perfect human: the five replicants we meet over the course of the movie are intelligent, incredibly strong, conventionally attractive, and are all white. The replicants exemplify how the ideal human is one that is of white, and that those who are not of European descent are inferior. The non-Europeans may be human, but the film does not afford any humanity to the East Asians and Hispanic characters, instead treating them as background scenery, indistinguishable and unimportant.

All three of these works suggest that society propagates a white supremacist hierarchy that alienates the non-European through dehumanization and generalization. This racist argument is only redeemed by that another product of this society is white fallibility: Crane depicts the mob of townspeople as cruel and unforgiving, who ultimately shun Johnson, Dr. Trescott and his family from the community because of their racial prejudice. H.G. Wells’s white scientists suffer a worse fate: the insensitive and power hungry Moreau is killed by his own creation and his assistant Montgomery commits suicide. In Blade Runner, most of the replicants and their creators (the eye designer, J.F. Sebastian and Tyrell) are dead. The characters who survive, such as Dr. Trescott, Prendick and Deckard, are unable to continue living in these white supremacist societies. The unhappy fates of these characters suggest the authors’ criticism of these white supremacist views in society, especially because they mirror the historical events of American slavery and British imperialism.

By examining Blade Runner through the lens of “The Monster” and “The Island of Doctor Moreau”, the historical racial discrimination that the movie could be critiquing is the exploitation of immigrant workers by white-led corporations. Hispanic immigration started in the 1960s, while one of the biggest waves of Chinese immigrants started in 1965. The desperation of immigrants for jobs make them especially vulnerable to exploitation by companies. Many immigrants flock to the cities in hopes of better jobs, such as a city like Los Angeles, which overflows with people. This criticism seems to becoming true in reality: a newspaper article published last year reported the “sweatshop-like conditions” of the garment industry.

“The majority of garment workers in Los Angeles, one of the world’s fashion centers, are Latinos and most are undocumented. About 20 percent are Asian, mostly Chinese immigrants, Martinez said. None are unionized.”

Because the movie was released in 1982, the statement that Scott is criticizing the Los Angeles garment industry specifically is unlikely, but the racial makeup of Los Angeles 2019 was an intentional choice. The future society of Blade Runner is allegorical to the historical influx of immigrants during the 1960s. Scott suggests that society views immigrants in America are viewed as inferiors to whites, exemplified by the blatant racial prejudice against non-Europeans of “The Monster” and the Social Darwinism used to justify it in “The Island of Doctor Moreau.”

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Works Cited

Cleman, John. “Blunders of Virtue: The Problem of Race in Stephen Crane’s “the Monster””. American Literary Realism 34.2 (2002): 119–134. Web. 12 May 2016.

Crane, Stephen. The Monster. New York: Russell & Russell, 1963. Print.

Desser, David. “Race, Space And Class: The Politics Of The SF Film From Metropolis To Blade Runner.” Retrofitting Blade Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. 110-123. Bowling Green, OH: Popular, 1991. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 12 May 2016.

Barr, Marleen. “Metahuman ‘Kipple’: Or, Do Male Movie Makers Dream Of Electric Women?’ Speciesism And Sexism In Blade Runner.” Retrofitting Blade Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. 25-31. Bowling Green, OH: Popular, 1991. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 12 May 2016.

Hendershot, Cyndy. “The Animal Within.” (1998): n. pag. Web.

Nasser, Haya El. “LA Garment Industry Rife with Sweatshop Conditions.” Sweatshop Conditions in L.A.’s Garment Industry. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2016.

Philmus, Robert M. “The Satiric Ambivalence Of The Island Of Doctor Moreau.” Science Fiction Studies 8.1 [23] (1981): 2-11. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 12 May 2016.

Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Prod. Ridley Scott and Hampton Francher. By Hampton Francher and David Webb Peoples. Perf. Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, and Sean Young. Warner Bros., 1992. DVD.

Taneja, Payal. “The Tropical Empire: Exotic Animals And Beastly Men In The Island Of Doctor Moreau.” English Studies In Canada 39.2-3 (2013): 139-159. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 12 May 2016.

“The History of Chinese Immigration to the U.S.” The History of Chinese Immigration to the U.S. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2016.

United States. National Park Service. “An Historic Overview of Latino Immigration and the Demographic Transformation of the United States.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, n.d. Web. 13 May 2016.

Wells, H. G. The Island of Dr. Moreau. New York: Modern Library, 1996. Print.
Wilson-Jordan, Jacqueline. “Teaching A Dangerous Story: Darwinism And Race In Stephen Crane’s ‘The Monster’.” Eureka Studies In Teaching Short Fiction 8.1 (2007): 48-61. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 12 May 2016.

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