This post contains images of nudity and plenty of spoilers for ‘Altered Carbon’, so please proceed with appropriate caution.
That post title is a lie.
I think there actually might have been as many as three female extras/minor roles who kept their kit on in the handful of scenes in which they appeared.
Look, it’s 2018. Nudity needs to be less of a taboo, I get that.
But it’s 2018. We need to stop using women as sex objects.
First, here’s a spoiler-free, safe-for-work review of the show just as it is, no politics or social commentary:
The Actual Review
If you’re a thirteen-year-old boy, brought up by the most toxic elements of the internet, you’ll probably love ‘Altered Carbon’.
If you’re a normal fucking person, you probably just won’t care about it.
‘Altered Carbon’ is, to all intents and purposes, an unlicensed series of ‘Blade Runner’. In look and feel, it in every way tries to invoke the classic Sci Fi Cyberpunk Noir, and broadly succeeds from an aesthetic perspective. There’s flying cars, and massive cities, and dystopian slums, and class discrimination, and mega corporations, and so on. There is also plenty of body horror thrown in, too, and a bit of “what it means to be human”.
Sadly, the similarities to ‘Blade Runner’ really are skin-deep. There isn’t much else, thematically, going on with ‘Altered Carbon’, beyond the fairly ham-fisted message that humans are defined by their finite lifespans – a message that crops up towards the end but is largely forgotten by the final two episodes.
There are two major issues with the show, the first of which is its lack of ambition. I haven’t read the book, nor am I particularly a fan of cyberpunk, and even I thought this show was generic. There wasn’t a visual in this entire series that hasn’t appeared in countless other films, graphic novels or computer games, and the world it creates feels small, despite the canvas with which it had to work.
The second major issue is the show’s excess. Fight scenes are highly stylised, belonging more in a DC superhero movie than in a show that tries to be “gritty.” Bloody violence and gore are rampant, and yet characters survive impacts and assaults that should, by all reason, leave them broken. This weird mix of ghastly mutilation and “totally badass” endurance takes the action past gratuitous and into the realm of the grotesque.
In essence, the show doesn’t know what it wants to be. There are some nice moments, but they’re sporadic and infrequent enough that at no point did I feel engaged. This may be a result of some pretty fucking uninterested performances by the show’s lead and the show’s ultimate antagonist. I thought Joel Kinnaman was pretty good in ‘House of Cards’, but here he’s just dour, swinging through the full emotional spectrum of “Bored” and “Angry” and literally nothing in between. The actor portraying the antagonist, meanwhile, is absurdly wooden and artificial.
The show tries to present itself as some kind of mystery thriller, focusing around the investigation of a wealthy man’s murder in his high-security penthouse. But the ultimate solution feels contrived, and at no point does much of what’s happening feel mysterious. Given ‘Altered Carbon’s adherence to the Blade Runner aesthetic, I feel like it could also have taken a narrative queue and made this a story of pursuit rather than investigation, given how poorly the investigation angle is developed.
To summarise: if you really want to see live-action cyberpunk as a TV series rather than a film, then you can watch ‘Altered Carbon’ and scratch that itch – and literally no other itches.
Otherwise, you probably aren’t missing much, unless you have a powerful desire to see just how little can be achieved with such an abundance of resources.
Huh. Maybe it’s a satirisation of itself.
The rest of the review will follow. NSFW imagery, spoilers, and plenty of inexpert socio-political discussion lie within. Please leave now before it is too late.
I fucking warned you.
And Now, The Political Bit
In this entire series, there are, I think, three examples of male full-frontal nudity, one of whom is named. There are plenty of topless and butt shots of Joel Kinnaman’s improbably statuesque figure, and a few other examples of men without their shirts on. But not many.
By contrast, there isn’t a single named female character bar one, a lawyer, who is under the age of fifty and who doesn’t take all of her clothes off at some point. Most end up with full-frontal nude scenes. Only one woman, Quell, played by Renée Elise Goldsberry, doesn’t show any explicit views of her body, but she still has one sex scene in which she’s fully naked – she just gets the benefit of a little “modesty”.
The bulk of non-named female characters also appear either fully naked or at least topless. I struggle to recall any other women in the show who don’t bare any intimate parts of their body, with the exception of Detective Ortega’s middle-aged mother; a young schoolgirl; and a single extremely wealthy woman who, it turns out, was just a disguise of the main antagonist, who is also a woman who spends a lot of time completely naked.
Nudity’s a fine thing. There should be nothing wrong with baring the human body, and I personally believe that the world would be a better place if we removed the taboo – and hence, diminished the fetishisation – of naked bodies.
The reason it’s a problem in ‘Altered Carbon’ – and, to be fair, many other modern productions, including ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Spartacus’, pretty much anything by HBO, in fact – is the lopsided nature of the nudity.
There are so many scenes in ‘Altered Carbon’ that feature a fully-clothed man and an at least partially-naked woman (or at least a woman wearing see-through clothing) that it actually gets a little uncomfortable. And to be fair, there are examples of male nudity, sometimes even when there are clothed women in the same scene. But they are comparatively so few and far between that there’s simply no possible way that it could be viewed as “egalitarian”.
Now, that may be intentional. I’ll concede that one of the themes of the show is the exploitation of the lower classes by the upper classes, and so naturally you’ll see more sex workers, more poor people forced into compromising situations to amuse their hyper-wealthy abusers.
But that doesn’t explain why almost all of the sex workers we see (roughly 90%) are women. Many of the hyper-wealthy elite are women themselves, most with sexual interests in men, it seems. So you might expect the many brothels and strip clubs and snuff fetish hotels to be staffed by at least as many men as women.
Nor does the exploitation metaphor explain why it is that all of the wealthy, powerful women also end up without any clothes on.
Indeed, early on, as the lead character Kovacs explores a sleeve- and clone-production facility (“sleeve” being the term for a body, effectively, which can be inhabited by a person’s consciousness) he walks past three large holographic advertisements: one a man and one a woman, both advertising better sleeves for their owner, and a third, a fully naked woman with the slogan “Put your wife in me.” Could that not have been an attractive young man with the slogan “Put your husband in me”? Wealth and power in this world seem to be attributed to masculinity by default, despite featuring an independently wealthy woman as the main antagonist.
Now, this is a fairly standard trope, sadly, for the cyberpunk genre. In something like ‘Ex Machina’, however, the decision to have outwardly female androids exploited by a male creator feels like a self-aware, conscious decision, and the ensuing nudity feels similarly appropriate – the discomfort of it all fits the theme of the film.
Likewise – and this is purely me attempting to rationalise my own hypocrisy – shows like ‘Game of Thrones’ are intentionally portraying patriarchal societies, and whilst that doesn’t excuse the show’s rampant and unapologetic exploitation of “tits for the perverts” it at least provides some level of in-world justification for a gender imbalance.
‘Altered Carbon’ doesn’t even have that level of flimsy rationalisation. During the finale, the female detective, Ortega (see below) is held captive aboard the villain’s floating sex dungeon. Her rescue team is made up entirely of men – all technical experts in some capacity, and none of whom appear naked. One of those men is, in fairness, merely a male body inhabited by a woman’s consciousness – but the scene itself is nonetheless made up entirely of male actors. Again, none of whom take their clothes off in the entire series.
Note: Detective Ortega is one of only two female protagonists who, despite generally remaining fully clothed, has nonetheless been shown showering, and also wandering around a room fully naked whilst her sexual partner lies in bed with his genitals covered by the tactical arrangement of a sheet, and also being bathed by that same man, who remained fully-clothed throughout whilst she again wandered around with no clothes on.
During a prior fight scene, we see Ortega confront and fight with the show’s villain, Kovacs’ sister Rei. Ortega is fully clothed, but the fight occurs in Rei’s private cloning chamber, where a series of her fully-naked clones attack Ortega in sequence. Which means that in one of the few scenes in all ten episodes to feature only women, half of those women are completely naked.
Further issues occur with one of the more minor characters, Lizzie. Lizzie is a young woman who is murdered so horribly that her consciousness gets caught in a “trauma loop”, where her tortured mind is forced to relive her attack over and over.
Part of her “recovery” involves her learning advanced combat techniques, such that she feels like she has the ability to defend herself, thus empowering her to leave her shell and re-enter the real world. Which is kind of fine, I guess, I can make my peace with that.
Where it falls down though is that her first appearance in the real world is her inhabiting the artificial body of a completely naked sex robot, or “synth”. She then morphs the synth’s appearance to match her own – such that she is now completely naked. She then decides to clothe herself, at which point she chooses a revealing, skin-tight bondage outfit.
Now, I mean, at least the character chose that outfit for herself. But she didn’t really, the show’s creators did. And that means that one of the few women who actually get an arc in the series does so by evolving from a mute, terrified trauma victim to a “totally badass” action girl, dressed as a BDSM sex worker. If that doesn’t seem at least a little off to you, then that’s fine, but it seems weird to me.
There is a hell of a lot more to talk about regarding gender representation in ‘Altered Carbon’. For all of its sins, I will at least credit the show with having a decent spectrum of PoC as its cast members (even if all the wealthiest people seem to be white).
But its over-sexualisation of women makes it feel irreparably out of touch – particularly when we’re all still in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
If you’re still not convinced, and if you think I’m making too much of it, then all I can say is this: if all the images of naked men throughout this post left you feeling uncomfortable or distracted, that’s exactly what it’s like watching ‘Altered Carbon’. Only ten times more so. I had to scrape the series to find these images of male nudity – but it would have been ten times easier to find a corresponding amount of female nudity.