Science fiction has an imagination problem — at least when it comes to women. To look at modern sci-fi is to see a genre that has evolved in technological advancements but not in the characterization of female roles. Despite the limitless possibilities from the medium, the genre still assigns women characters best defined by their servitude to the leading male protagonist. There’s plenty to praise in regards to Blade Runner 2049, for instance, but not its female characters who are artificial love interests.
Female roles continue to exist in the expanding genre space - slower still for women of color. Yet, it’s incredibly frustrating in the realm of science fiction since its purpose is to break the rules, question authority, and even sometimes present versions of the future that offer greater opportunities than the present.
Enter Jennifer Phang’s 2015 film Advantageous, which is tremendous on many fronts. From its beautiful and meticulous world-building to Jacqueline Kim’s phenomenal performance, the movie is a stunning and intelligent work from a director who should’ve been given more credit for such a fearless debut. Advantageous goes the mold by refusing to pretend the future will be better for women. Instead, the Netflix drama ponders how society would change and weaponize women’s self-images for capitalistic gains.
Phang avoids exploitative storytelling through an honest and perceptive lens. It dissects ageism, sexism, racism, and income divide while telling a story of a mother’s unconditional love for her daughter.
Set in the not-too-distant future, Gwen (Kim) is a single mother who has just lost her job selling cosmetic procedures for the Center for Advanced Health and Living. Determined to provide her daughter, Jules (Samantha Kim), with a better life, Gwen looks for ways to pay for Jules’ prestigious school. However, she’s unable to land a job — or even an interview — one of the few viable options is to sell her eggs as women are becoming increasingly infertile in this world. Instead, she decides to return to her old workplace to be a guinea pig for a new experiment that would transfer her consciousness into a younger body. Gwen’s hope is looking like a younger woman would make it easier to find work and provide for her daughter.
However, what seems like a donation is truly a sacrifice. Gwen 2.0 (Freya Adams) is a mere copy of Gwen, holding her memories but not her connection with her daughter. It begs the question of the true value of Gwen’s decision. How great is the cost? And how much will it truly help in bettering Jules’s future?
The tetherless nature of women in Advantageous is punctuated in the details. Phang visualizes Gwen's isolation and fear with an impending sense of doom as the director frames the character against overwhelming or barren backdrops. Gwen is a solitary figure left behind in a world that changed too quickly for her to comprehend. We also see women passed out on street benches and reports of girls in terrible situations, but the characters are desensitized to these struggles. The movie further emphasizes this when Gwen discusses getting another job, and she’s told that many people believe women should stay at home.
The desire to return to “the old days” also means stripping women of agency and identity. We see this in the Center’s choice to transform Gwen into a younger, racially ambiguous woman. The company wants its spokesperson to appeal to everyone because youth sells.
Because of the procedure, Gwen will endure no shortage of pain. She’s told the process will leave her with breathing problems and recurring pain. She’ll have to take a shot every two hours for the following year. It’s the price to have a thriving financial future, or at the very least, the price she’s willing to pay to secure something better for her daughter.
With subtlety and grace, Phang creates a picture as contemplative and stirring as it is horrifying in its implications. There are generational divides between how Gwen and Jules will face different futures and how Gwen and her parents aren’t on speaking terms. But there is also the division created by the process itself: What does it mean to live in a household filled with or devoid of love? And does it matter in a futuristic society where the minimum wage can’t support a living, and our memories (sans soul) can be dumped into another body?
Excess wealth, familial isolation, and success dictated by beauty standards thematically play out throughout all of Advantageous. What makes it so evocative is that it never forgets whose story it is. It is one of the few sci-fi films that centers women in its narrative and shows how terrifying the future can be without over-sexualizing or sidelining them as characters.
Phang and Jacqueline Kim, who is also the movie’s co-writer, don’t create new problems for women to face; they radicalize these issues in Advantageous. It breaks the rules and stretches our imagination, presenting us with an unnerving and eerie future that isn’t too far removed from what we know now.
Advantageous is now streaming on Netflix.