Fair Warning: This piece is more cranky and less careful than my usual because I spent the better part of last night watching Black Mirror Season 1 and raging about how awful it was at whomever would listen. Content Notice for spoilers, discussions of misogyny, domestic violence, bestiality, coerced sex work, and lots of other awful things.
I usually expect any media I might consume to be problematic. What I don’t expect is that a show that is praised without caveat in my circle of rather well-curated, social-justice-aware friends ends up being as bad as Black Mirror. The British cult favorite falls into the same technophobic and misogynistic traps that can readily be found in the science fiction I’ve been consuming since I was a teenager.
Here are some less-indignant summaries, if you’re in need of a plot refresher or aren’t going to bother with the show in the first place.
Season 1, Episode 1: The National Anthem
The episode is about some visual artist trying to make a statement about technology by getting everyone to watch a horrific broadcast that he orchestrates so that they won’t notice that he has already released the prisoner whose ransom is said broadcast. That seems about as logical to me as shouting “HOLY SHIT, EVERYONE, LOOK THE HELL OVER THERE!” over a megaphone while waving your arms wildly and pointing to a place where you have set up an ableist strobing and/or flashing neon sign, then smugly declaring everyone is horrible for not paying attention elsewhere. For good measure, you have also gotten some resented authority figure to say to not look there, ensuring the complicity of the contrary crowd.
People would have noticed that the princess had been released if they hadn’t been glued to the clearly out-there broadcast of the Prime Minister putting his penis into a pig. Creating a situation where people would obviously be paying attention to one thing to “show” that they’re paying attention to the wrong thing proves nothing but the fact that people care about the lives of famous people and their elected officials. How awful of them to watch a thing being forcibly broadcast over every channel ever where a life hangs in the balance. The “point” is hogwash.
Can we talk about how a man who was compelled to commit bestiality despite an overabundance of reticence is punished by his wife for it a year after the event? How that level of power being leveraged against someone to force them into doing a sex act is some epic meta level of sexual assault? Those are issues the episode could have discussed, ones that are far more interesting than “People are bad because they look at outlandish things they’re being told to look at in a contrived situation.” But no, the Black Mirror is our screens and we are the worst for looking at them.
Season 1, Episode 2: 15 Million Merits
A bike-pedaling-, porn-, and fatphobia-, Pop Idol-based economy makes people sad and life not worth living. I can agree with that. I can also agree with a message about how authenticity is bought and sold like any other commodity in extreme capitalistic situations, and that said fact is depressing.
What I can’t get behind:
- A pretty woman used as motivation for the male character rather than having any personality of her own
- A less-conventionally-attractive woman’s charming personality and wit co-opted for pickup lines by the male character seemingly without consequence
- The drugged and subsequent coercion of the aforementioned pretty woman into performing in porn (again, this isn’t about her, but about getting the male character to do things)*
- The less-attractive woman’s resentment of the pretty woman not given much more than a few seconds of consideration (again, this isn’t about her, but about the male character being sad)
- The giant plothole that is the notion of an economy that is based on bike-pedaling.
More interesting to me than the idea of a man being motivated to anger by a woman and selling out his rage are the real-life realities of the actor who plays that woman. Jessica Brown Findlay was one of the many celebrities who had their privacy violated in the so-called Fap-Gate. Five of the ten results you get by searching her name on Google are for pieces about the sex tape that was leaked as part of that awful breach. Her identity as an actor and as a person has been taken over by footage of sexual acts that she didn’t consent to be released to the public. Now there is a real black mirror to society for you.
* What is up with this show’s obsession with making rapey things happen but caring more about technology’s involvement in the dubious actions rather than the potential sexual assaults?
Season 1, Episode 3: The Entire History Of You
In a world where you can record every second of your life, one man loses it all by finding out the truth about his paranoid suspicions about his wife: They are not actually paranoid and she is actually a dirty cheating cheater. Furthermore, she is the dirtiest most cheatingiest of cheaters because she has been compelling him to love and raise a child who may not have been fathered not by him but instead by an ex of hers whom he loathes deeply despite having met him a grand total of once.What is the message here? That ignorance is bliss? That cheaters with paranoid obsessive issues shouldn’t get a “grain”? That technology, like any other tool, can be used to exacerbate a bad situation? That women accused of cheating probably did and we can prove it, for we have the technology?
That last one rankles me most because the show inverts the Vindicated Woman trope. Women accused of cheating throughout literary history often are tested or have their accused lover tested; they generally pass the test even if they have been cheating. Think Tristan and Isolde. That the king her liege had slept with tons of people besides her before they wed, and probably continues to do so throughout their marriage, is a given; her consent to the marriage was clearly not important as she loved Tristan but was made to marry the king anyway. The one tiny little loophole women had in misogynistic societies to express themselves sexually has been closed by monitoring technology. Thanks, Black Mirror.
If You Feel the Need to Defend the Show
If it’s okay to not like things, why am I (admittedly) being a bit of a dick about this show?
I’m concerned because there is going to be an American version of the show planned for next year and because the rights to the most problematic episode of the first season have been optioned by Robert Downey Jr. I’m befuddled by how the praise for the show that I’ve seen has been wholly unmitigated by any awareness of its obvious deep flaws. I’m disturbed because the defenses of the show seem to rely on overestimating the evils of technology and underestimating how awful people can be even unaided by tech (not to mention the inherent perpetuation of the false dichotomy of Man vs. Machine). If my fairly-aware friends and colleagues are seemingly-unthinkingly swallowing the awful along with what they enjoy about the show, exactly how much hope does the mainstream audience have of seeing the problems in it?
I had to say something.