In Black Mirror's Season 4, the (Tech) Future is Female
Prior to last December, Rian Johnson was a relatively unknown director. Now, one might describe Rian as the most hated director in sci-fi, at least from the standpoint of the Star Wars fanboy. You see, the Star Wars fan”boy” grew up seeing himself as Luke Skywalker; a young man in space with wholesome values, misunderstood feelings, a few friends, and a sword he whooshes around to resolve most of his problems, including his daddy issues. I don’t know what the term for it would be in a galaxy far far away but here on earth we would refer to him as a nerd. A guy nerd, specifically. So, it isn’t very surprising that there now exists a 46-minute cut of Star Wars: The Last Jedi where all the scenes with female actors are cut out. A Men’s Rights group on Reddit did this to counter Disney’s recent female-centric Star Wars stories. Rian, the director, responded to this with a sarcastic “HAHAHA!”
Neflix’s sci-fi show Black Mirror achieves the same thing without resulting in much fanfare. And there are many reasons for that — Black Mirror is not as well established a property as Star Wars (what is though?) It is also not as reliant on a formula of satisfying endings or built on an axes of discernible good vs evil. But the biggest reason for it is that unlike Star Wars the shift here is of an underlying kind. In these newly released episodes, the future is, quietly, female.
When I first watched the series, these dots did not connect till I had seen all 6 episodes and had taken the time to process. And while there are episodes focusing on a story told by or about a man, the women in this series have a decidedly imposing presence that questions who the story is really about. They are the reluctant heroes, they are the complicated villain, and they are the tenacious yet unlucky victims. If anything, season 4 of Black Mirror is an anthology of clapbacks to The Last Jedi’s particular kind of fanboy reaction. Black Mirror has always been, in essence, a look at the hidden tendencies of humanity brought to the surface by future technology. And while this new season isn’t any different, it adds on a new layer by giving us a different kind of character we are used to seeing in this genre of storytelling. In-so-doing, it exposes the way society has been shaped by a narrative trait within art & pop culture that has almost nothing to do with the quality of the work at hand.
Episode 6 (Black Museum) is perhaps Black Mirror’s most meta episode yet. It is set in a museum that houses relics of technology from previous times (episodes). In it, Nish, a British woman has to contend with the American curator’s fascination with torture and America’s tendency towards mass incarceration. In episode 5 (Metalhead), a new favorite, a woman in a dystopian wasteland has to flee from a Terminator-esque robot dog that may be cute if it wasn’t capable of shooting spikes out of its head. It is a more gruesome episode that places a woman front and center of its action-filled plot.
The episode that seems to be most talked about, however, is one that looks unlike anything Black Mirror has ever done before. Episode 1 (U.S.S Callister) is partially set in space and is about a man named Robert who for all intents is socially-awkward, has no friends, is misunderstood, and has a pile of unresolved issues. He is the tech nerd counterpart to the face of a video game company. Though almost all aspects of the company are his brainchild, he is given little credit because of his pushover personality. He chooses to overcompensate for this by building his own version of one of his popular games wherein his co-workers are replicated using DNA he steals from them. Complicated, right? In the game, he can control them; he can make them shut up or get him coffee or make out with him without any objections. He can be "a real boss." And because they are composed of real DNA, they aren’t just computer code characters, they have the ability to comprehend and to feel like a human would. Robert's video game world is based on the Star Trek command fleet and in it he is able to be a fanboy in all of its toxic forms. He is able to escape to a fantasy where he is lauded for his machismo bravery and intellect. Later, when Robert meets a real life employee, Nanette, who does respect him for his achievements, he inappropriately interpretes it as sexual attraction only to be let down when he finds out that it isn’t so. Because of his disappointment, he subjects her conscious DNA to the same fate as the other co-workers. There is a lot to feel sorry about for Robert upon first glance, however, there is something more sinister at play within that he lacks the self-awareness to see. He isn’t disliked because he is unsocial, he is disliked because as servile and as benign as he might seem he is very dangerous as he is motivated by nothing more than his self-pity and his obsession with the fantasies he has created. The writers, with great care, avoid the Revenge of the Nerds route by switching the story over to Nanette's perspective. Through her eyes, you're able to discover who Robert really is. You also discover how smart and capable she is as she attempts to free her co-workers’ consciousness from Robert’s control.
Robert is uncloaked as the Silicon Valley male tech genius who are society's new Wall Street brokers; the bullies of a digital age. He is Sheldon Cooper in a world where women are earned trophies at the end of a quest and not real people; who get butthurt by every critical word thrown their way yet have no qualms with launching hateful rhetoric unto the internet; and who feel entitled to a kind of sympathy they do not afford anyone else. U.S.S Callister helps us realize that they are not cute but are of a toxic culture that needs to be first recognized, then done away with.
A woman’s place in society dominated the conversation last year. It began with Hillary Clinton’s presidential run and sexual assault allegations against her opponent which gave way to the largest ever protest in the United States (Women’s March) and was capped with the #MeToo movement. It is no surprise that Black Mirror would attempt to lend its voice to this conversation. What is surprising is the sheer effort put into telling great stories about people without making it about their biological sex to remind us that the woman is always going to be a considerable part of our world. And her involvement in sectors of life she’s been previously left out of (like science, the tech world and the sci-fi genre) is only going to expand. The most courteous thing a man can do is take his hand of the doorknob and openly embrace her as she enters, “for a new day is on the horizon.”