James Purefoy and Renée Elise Goldsberry on the complicated feminism of Netflix’s Altered Carbon

The stars of the streaming service's new series have refuted allegations of sexism, saying that the show was shot from a "feminist perspective"

Purefoy and Goldsberry

Women don’t fare well in Netflix’s Altered Carbon.

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The series, a loud, visually stunning sci-fi set in a distant future where human consciousness can be transferred between bodies, sees the female form brutally beaten, maimed and laid bare as par for the course. The early reviews haven’t been kind:

“This show tackles race, gender, and class with all the subtlety of a blowtorch,” Entertainment Weekly said.

“Barely an episode goes by without a naked woman being murdered, injured, or displayed as decoration,” Gavia Baker-Whitelaw wrote on The Daily Dot, labelling the series as sexist. “By the time they fished someone’s corpse out of the ocean boobs-first, I found myself laughing out loud in disbelief.”

Actors Renée Elise Goldsberry and James Purefoy, two of the show’s brightest sparks, have refuted this position, arguing that the series was shot from a “feminist perspective”; that of its female show-runner – Shutter Island scribe Laeta Kalogridis. To their credit, there is no shortage of strong female characters, from renegade police officer Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) to revolutionary soldier Quellcrist Falconer (Goldsberry).

“I love the fact that she’s not in any way afraid to show [violence towards the female body],” says Goldsberry, the Tony award winning actress who originated the role of Angelica Schulyer in Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton musical on Broadway.

I think that we are dealing with a genre… that’s really kind of what film noir does,” she says. “But it’s film noir we get to see in the hands of a woman showrunner.”

Goldsberry says that she feels empowered by her time on the show, both as a result of the showrunner’s absolute control over the series, and by her representation as a woman of colour in a world in which the body is inter-changeable.

“What’s beautiful about Altered Carbon is that this forceful creature, this soul chose the body of a woman – and a woman of colour – to be this revolutionary to save the world,” she says.

Renée Elise Goldsberry in Altered Carbon
Renée Elise Goldsberry in Altered Carbon

James Purefoy, the veteran British actor who stars as aristocrat Laurens Bancroft, argues that the show puts forward its own “feminist perspective”, and says that the gratuitous violence towards women is a grim but realistic representation of our world.

There’s a great deal of violence against women in the world that we do have,” he says. “And, if we’re reflecting our world in this world then we would be telling a lie if we didn’t show it.”

“It’s all about perspective and it’s about context, and it’s about Laeta [Kalogridis], and it’s about a woman who is calling the shots on our show. This is not done in any kind of gratuitous way at all. It’s about actions and consequences and there is a much bigger thing going on here.”

The show’s propensity towards violence does not go unexplained in the series. In this version of the future, the body has been devalued entirely. Why take care of something when you can just as easily trade it in for a newer, younger model, with little to no consequences?

With immortality within grasp, society has been corrupted, allowing the most depraved desires to bubble to the surface. In an early episode, at a banquet for the 1 percenters, who can now hop between genetically modified clones of themselves, they pit a husband and wife against one another in a fight to the death, at the promise of a new, high-end “sleeve”.

Yet, the show’s stars are adamant that the gratuitous manner in which that fight develops is merely a consequence of the show-runners determination to create an unsettling vision of the future.

“Dystopian sci-fi is seen as a negative, isn’t it?” Purefoy says. “It’s seen as: if we’re not careful, this is the way that we end up.” 

“We’re seeing a world that we don’t want,” concludes Goldsberry, “and in that world there’s violence against the body.”

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Altered Carbon launches on Netflix on Friday 2nd February 2018.