Thursday, November 12, 2015

Through the Looking Glass, Darkly

Okay. So. I watched Black Mirror. And while I generally liked it, I don’t know, you guys. There’s some serious shit going down in this one that needs talking about.  And that shit is all about the way the speculative fiction show from England’s Channel 4 treats women.

So, here’s the thing: there’s really no way I can talk about the misogyny issues in Black Mirror without getting spoiler-y, so I’m breaking this into two sections; The first will be spoiler-free (and largely reflect that things about the show that I really liked) and the second will unpack the, let’s call them problematic, issues the show struggles with.

Metaphor! Metaphor!

Part I: Stuff That I Like! (Spoiler-free!)
Black Mirror has been compared positively to The Twilight Zone, something that to my mind is more or less accurate. Just like its predecessor, Black Mirror is an anthology series with each episode being a different story with a different cast and a different setting. Unencumbered by any kind of continuity, it makes for an easy watch knowing that you literally don’t have to know anything at all going into any given episode.

What the show really excels at is being unnerving, which is different from being scary or creepy. Black Mirror is not a horror show; there are no monsters or ghosts or demons or other things hiding under the bed just ready to pounce. If anything, the villains in the show are to the letter all human. For as much as the show has been sold at least partially on the notion of it being about the dangers of technology, the show itself is pretty agnostic on that point. If anything, it suggests that technology is a blank thing, neither good nor evil. In each story, it’s always a human who ends up being the scary one. That notion of ten minutes in the future and There But For the Grace of God Go I is what creates that unnerving feeling you get watching it.

You are 100% guaranteed to make each of these faces at some point while watching.

In that sense, the show wears its anti-transcendental attitude on its sleeve. Each episode gives us another story of people more or less always being forced into making hard choices. The first episode details the British Prime Minister being presented with a revolting choice in the face of a terrorist threat.  One episode pretty ably mocks reality TV by showcasing a class of people whose lives are geared toward literally nothing more than winning a television talent show. Another one presents a woman whose new husband has died when she is given a vaguely Monkey’s Paw-style option for getting him back. The show presents no easy victories.

It also looks great doing it. You could easily confuse almost every episode for a mini movie with high production value, talented actors, and a broad scope. The end result is entertaining certainly and tailor-made for Netflix binging, a fact that Netflix apparently was keen to since they’ve announced that they are going to take over production of the show in its third season from Channel 4.

Now to talk about the ugly bits. If you don’t want spoilers, jump ahead to Part III below.

Part II: Things That Make You Go, “Hmm.”
Clearly, there are things that Black Mirror does very well, which is what makes the rest of it so confounding. Amidst all that really cool speculative fiction stuff, there’s a really unsettling vein of misogyny that I had a hard time dealing with. Let’s unpack, shall we? (Again, a reminder: Here there be spoilers.)

The first hint is in the second episode, “Fifteen Million Merits”, starring a de-Downton Abby’d Jessica Brown Findlay. The episode is about a future where people, possibly everyone, live in a confined building and must spend each day cycling on a stationary bike to earn merits which can be used to buy food, clothes, and of course, avatars for their online selves. The episode tries to say a lot, but its primary story comes from a woman who is gifted the requisite merits needed for the most expensive purchasable item – a chance to compete on a reality talent show and liberate yourself from this dreary life. Findlay’s character performs for a panel of judges who deem her not talented enough as a singer, but perfectly suited to, ahem, other services. This episode almost gets a pass from me given that it’s sort of blatantly underlining the use and abuse of women for others’ pleasure and if that were the end of it, the message would be received, albeit in a heavy handed way. 

"Being sold into pornography and dying giving birth. Note to self: Get new agent."

But let’s look at another example. The next episode, “The Entire History of You” is set in a future where the must-have technology device is actually an implant in your head that allows you to replay everything you see and do and even share those memories with people around you. A man, struggling at his job as a lawyer, comes to believe after a dinner party that his wife may have slept with another party attendee years ago. The jealousy leads to fights between the two as he comes to insist not only that she’s lying to him about having had an affair but also to demand that she show him her memories of the time in question to prove her fidelity to him. If this episode ended there, it would have simply left the main character as an insecure douchebag, but by forcing the issue we learn that his wife did actually have an affair and that, in fact, their young daughter was the product of that affair. In other words, the wife’s character, in the eyes of the show, was not entitled to the privacy of her own memories and the man’s frankly line-crossing behavior is utterly justified because of her lying ways, even after establishing that the man is borderline abusive, demeaning and jealous over perceived slights. While in the end his insistence on learning the truth leaves him hollow and without his family, that fate is cast as the result of her affair, not his inability to not be an ass to his family.

"Reviewing memories now...damn, turns out there was a 'it's all my fault' clause in the marriage vows..."

The trend continues in the episodes “Be Right Back” and “White Bear,” the third and fourth episodes. In the first, a woman (Hayley Atwell) becomes inconsolable after the death of her husband before learning that a company has perfected a way to create a sort of digital copy of his personality based on his online and social media activity, allowing her to get emails and phone calls from her “husband” before eventually even purchasing a life-sized artificial copy of him, a shell that can contain program files to recreate his personality. Throughout the episode, Atwell’s character moves through the stages of grief but becomes shrill and unreasonable. Again, handled differently this could be a powerful story about grief, or at least about how much of our personalities we leave in the world without thinking about it. In the end, what we get is a story about a woman who can’t handle not controlling her husband and so banishes the last remnants of him to an isolated existence.

Likewise, “White Bear” deals with a woman who awakes in a house she doesn’t recognize, unsure of who she is, and is quickly confronted with a kind of zombie-apocalypse style horror where the population has become mindless, focusing only on recording her every movement on their cell phones while she is chased by mysterious people in masks who want to kill her. In the end it’s revealed that she is actually in a kind of correctional facility for the crime of allegedly murdering a young child with her boyfriend and filming the murder and her punishment is to be tortured in front of a live audience every day with her mind wiped clean every night. Despite the presence of another woman (played by Tuppence Middleton) who actually has some agency of her own, the entire episode is one torturous sequence after another for a character who is hardly proven to have committed the crime she’s accused of.

An apt summation of the show in one image.

Part III: Conclusions (Come Back, Spoiler-phobes.)
So there’s my dilemma about Black Mirror: It’s an extremely well-produced and creative show about how humanity relates to technology and each other, but it’s got some major issues with the unstated politics of the show. Your mileage may vary as to how much this of value to you when watching. I’m not usually one to get caught up in a show’s political underpinnings. I can usually shut down that part of my brain and just enjoy the story. Something about Black Mirror made that hard for me, though. And once the switch was flipped in my brain, it made it really hard for me to go back.

I should also mention that I don’t think any of my issues with the themes in the show suggest that it isn’t well written, well-acted, and generally well done. It just makes for some sticky watching for me. Regardless, Netflix has already commissioned 12 episodes, almost doubling the existing seven that have already aired. Look for them on Netflix now with additional episodes due out in 2016. 

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