A Black Mirror Into the Sexism of Sci-Fi

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.

a red arrow sign reading "LOOK HERE", with a blue background with white text  reading "Don't look here!"

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:

    diagram of a stationary bike
    Your money-making tool.
  • 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.

Kamut grains
Fun fact: There is no metaphor. They are called “grains” based on their size and shape.
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.

[Main image via.]

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A Black Mirror Into the Sexism of Sci-Fi

13 thoughts on “A Black Mirror Into the Sexism of Sci-Fi

  1. 1

    Interesting point about the vindicated woman thing. I was rewatching the Joss Whedon version of Much Ado About Nothing and pondering how on earth that plot continues to work as a delightful one for modern audiences despite the fact that everything hinges on an outdated belief that a woman’s worth is devalued by loss of virginity. (And setting aside a couple of racist lines, because those aren’t actually pertinent to the plot or characterization.) Reading this post I realize it’s actually because it’s another example of how Shakespeare was actually forward-thinking for his time. He doesn’t overtly question the emphasis of virginity in his culture, but he subtly undermines the idea that a woman’s worth is tied into virginity. After all, the whole plot about tricking Claudio into thinking Hero is dead (SPOILER) is about making him realize that she did, in fact, have value even if she isn’t a virgin and that he fucked up by denying that reality. Sure, the conspirators believe Hero to be a virgin, but the plot was meant to work regardless of whether or not Claudio believes that.

    1. 1.1

      I like that you put a spoiler alert for a centuries-old spoiler. Also, I have always loved Much Ado About Nothing but had never realized that on some level, I understood that part of the Hero/Claudio story and that’s part of what makes me love it.

  2. 2

    I have an only somewhat related question. I haven’t seen Black Mirror, and from the sounds of it I haven’t missed anything. But, what is this recent obsession with making American versions of British shows? We’ve had it with Sherlock, Being Human, and Life on Mars now. Unsurprisingly, almost every attempt to do this results in a far inferior product (the only possible exception I can think of is The Office, which is still not as good as the British version but I’d concede it’s still quite good).

    Obviously y’all have the ability to watch the British versions without any trouble, so why the need for the remake? As an Aussie I was bemused to hear that they’d done the same thing to Rake, which I remember saying to my wife at the time was probably even more doomed than the usual attempt.

    1. 2.1

      Sweet, sweet money from the cash-in. Also, there is this odd conservatism among networks and producers about wholly-new ideas, even though they obviously do fine in the new model of television.

      1. I guess you must be right, but I have to wonder why they make money. About the only thing going for the US versions is that they’re longer, and that’s a somewhat mixed blessing if at all. I was wondering if it’s because some network executive takes a look at a Brit show and thinks, “Hey, that’s great, but our viewers will never understand it with those English accents. Let’s recast, reshoot, and pad it out to 20 episodes – another sure fire winner.”

  3. 3

    I think you might be underestimating the audience. (For context, please note that I did consumer phone tech support for years and regularly dealt with ignorant clients; I know how bad it gets.) I don’t want this to be seen through the lens of “defending” but perhaps simply as offering another perspective. I agree that problems will be missed by some, but I’m regularly surprised by what people do actually see. On the other hand, if you’re just pointing at the problematic stuff, I’m with you. But I think it’s necessary for representation sake. I’ll try to explain why I think that.

    Contrary to your argument, the show doesn’t really seem to care that much about technology, but rather our relationship to it. In my opinion, as an IT support manager and a sci-fi nerd who’s inundated with tech more than most, It downplays much of the tech nonsense. For example, with the first episode there’s really nothing but a television screen required to tell that story. But with the second episode, they go full-on dystopian future, in order to leverage the the-more-things-change… trope. It’s supposed to be contrasted against the first episode’s lack of tech. (3’s a little more of a mix, but I don’t find it relevant to the argument I’m making here.)

    The thesis of the series, as far as I can tell, you said: “how awful people can be even unaided by tech”. And yes, we can be a LOT worse with the tech, because the institutions we create using technology can dehumanize us if we let it.

    The show shouldn’t be seen as warning us about tech. The show is saying, “Look, this tech is coming whether you like it or not. And we’re already awful people much of the time.
    How do you think we will use it?”

    Regarding the first episode, it’s not just about how the masses can’t help but stare; you’re right to point out the how the PM and his wife are the ones that are still in pain a year later. And I’m pretty sure Brooker is trying to point out the fact that the whole rest of the world moved on after the whole stunt, just as if this was the Superbowl that had happened last year… no one cares about that now! Excepting of course the people who are directly affected by it.

    We could also choose to argue about the effectiveness of the delivery of that idea; it’s possible that it wasn’t conveyed as well as it could have been, but I certainly got it. And I don’t think it’s fair to make an argument on the basis that since some people won’t understand it… well, then what?

    I dunno, I think it’s relatively effective at what it’s trying to say, but perhaps not. Seems like we both got different things from it. 🙂

    1. 3.1

      I’m pointing out what’s problematic about it. And I don’t know if I’m so much underestimating anyone as responding to what I see (which I described in my post): Unmitigated praise for the show without even a hint of what’s problematic about it from people I’d expect to know better.

  4. 4

    Yeah, Black Mirror’s entire thesis is that, well, people are shitty, and we’d be well off to have a purge. It’s extreme misanthropy. Over all six episodes that I’ve seen, there was exactly one sympathetic character–one person whom I actually felt some degree of empathy for, by the end of their episode. And that was the politician from the first episode.

    I’m gonna spoil the next three episodes here, continuing with your analysis:

    4: Be Right Back.
    This is probably tied for the most science-fictiony episode of the series. Like The Entire History of You, it contains a massive jump in technology that has the ability to transform our world, and like that episode, it gets put to use in a really horrible fashion. The woman here is probably the least “villainous” one in the entire series, but she still ends up miserable, playing host to an automaton that isn’t actually her dead husband, but remains too much like him for her to just shut him down.

    5: White Bear.
    This is a seriously warped episode. A woman wakes up, with no memory, and immediately is informed that large portions of the population have been transformed by a signal from space into vicious hunters, and most other people are just soulless watchers, just observing and recording without helping the victims of the hunt. Only, surprise! At the end of the episode, the woman is revealed to have been a participant in a vicious killing (during which she allegedly filmed her boyfriend brutalizing a child)–her punishment is to be mind-wiped and put in a situation meant to terrorize her the way the child was, with her memory only being restored after a full day of pursuit. She gets a few minutes to contemplate how much she is hated, and then mind-wiped again to kick off another day of being hunted. Meanwhile, everyone else is either a professional actor responsible for feeding her the ‘signal from space’ storyline, or a visitor to White Bear Park, where the exercise takes place.
    Basically, citizens get to come out and pretend to be soulless observers, by becoming soulless observers. Much like the first episode, it seems to have a good intent, but it is perfectly possible to watch and miss the actual point about justice vs. revenge, and instead revel in the ‘twist’ ending and the vicarious ‘punishment’ of a sentient human being who has no idea why she is being tormented. (And yes, many, many bonus neg-points for making the hated person a woman, again.)

    6: The Waldo Moment.
    Blerg. This, much like the first episode, doesn’t really use any technology we don’t already have. This entire schtick is the idea that a computer animation runs for office, and aren’t people horrible for being distracted from the real issues by doing it. And oh, yes, the guy who originally voices the cartoon (he gets the boot when he starts refusing to go along with the increasingly inane political campaign) is a Nice Guy who completely shreds a woman candidate not on the issues but because she broke things off after sleeping with him.

    I do disagree with you about one bit–the ‘bicycle economy’ in the second episode isn’t really literal. It’s nothing more than a metaphor for modern consumerism. It’s a pretty shallow metaphor, but I didn’t hold that against the episode (especially since so much of it is so worthy of greater condemnation, including, once again, a Nice Guy protagonist who gets his nose out of joint because the love of his life, whom he’s shared three conversations with, decides to become a porn star instead of going for the dream he picked for her).

  5. 5

    I’m not sure if Black Mirror is a ‘British cult favorite’ outside the US. I think it might be mainstream satire in the UK, and as we’ve seen lately, satire has trouble crossing borders. It might be hard to gauge how it references common British attitudes about celebrity culture, lad culture and gender expectations. For example, given that 15 Million Merits unashamedly revolves around a male POV character (fine in itself, the only problem is the paucity of female POV shows), can you gauge how a British audience might respond to the representation of the women as reflecting his (and the fictional society’s) shallow, naive and exploitative attitude towards women. Based on images and discussions which are very current here at the moment, I think it wouldn’t be possible for the original British viewer to miss the points you made – they’re part of our stereotypes of the kind of man the POV character is. The audience would be aware of the failings as his, without necessarily attribute them to the writers, e.g.

    A pretty woman used as motivation for the male character rather than having any personality of her own

    Or – the main character is motivated by a pretty woman, while failing to notice that she has a personality of her own.

    Having said all that – how can an American version address an American audience and still be the same thing? Do the buyers even care? Doesn’t it just really suck if they fail to notice these horrible things as horrible?

    Incidentally, did you know that second episode was co-written by a British Asian woman of Bengali origin, Kanak Huq, the wife of the other writer Charlie Brooker. I’m not saying that to excuse its perceived defects, although authorship is often relevant. In this case, if it is, I don’t know how, so I just mentioned it as a matter of interest and because we’re too often inclined to assume authorship by straight white men.

    1. 5.1

      I would buy the ” the main character is motivated by a pretty woman, while failing to notice that she has a personality of her own” if the ep was 100% from his perspective, but it isn’t. We get things from others’ perspectives. It seems more important to the makers of the show to depict the not-so-hot girl being mad than it is to show the hotter character has anything of a personality outside of “voice that makes a man swoon”.

      I didn’t assume anything about authorship. Having a woman of color as a writer doesn’t change anything. The Daily Show was created by a woman yet it and its many spin-offs sorely lack in female writers anyway.

  6. 6

    Anne Fenwick: Authorship isn’t as important as message. An unfortunate side-effect of kierarchy is that it taints the attitudes of almost everyone–including the groups it marginalizes. There are any number of African-American cabbies, for instance, who will drive past black men on the street, because they’ve absorbed the notion that black men are inherently dangerous. This is also why folks like myself, who want to be allies, can only do so by constantly checking our privilege–it’s just too damned easy to casually overlook the problematic aspects of our media (and even our own behavior).

    And given how heavy-handed the metaphor of the bicycle economy is (Heina and I certainly agree on that much), the fact that they make any satire about the Nice Guy subtle enough to be missed (a sin they repeat in White Bear, in my opinion) makes it harder to believe that they were doing anything other than trying to play it safe. Any positive (or at least, potentially agreeable) messages in the shows has to be teased out, even while the ones everyone would concur with are tossed at us like medicine balls.

    1. 6.1

      I would be the last person to disagree with that, and as I said, I mentioned it purely as a matter of interest. At any rate, the C. Brooker half of the partnership is a ruthlessly sarcastic piece of work.

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