It’s easier sharing a body when the one you’re offering isn’t really yours. I’ve known this ever since I was a fourteen, pretending to be an adult woman to have cybersex on anonymous websites. Back when the internet was slow and those spaces still felt illicit folks were less picky about confirmation. I think they mostly liked being found desirable.
The concept of Striking Vipers is not some outlandish thing belonging in the world of science fiction, it’s happening everyday.
I remember that in one forum I posted on for a while there was a day when someone timidly asked another poster if they’d like to be his girlfriend. The response came back a few minutes later, ‘Um, I’m not actually a girl.’ The guy tried to play it off as best he could, but there’s really no coming back from that.
When I was still trying to come out as trans to my friends I started writing a play for our theatre company, about ‘my experience being a woman online’, they said that they couldn’t see where the drama was in it.
Brooker struggles similarly, and the thrust of the plot rests on this husband/wife intimacy/cheating drama. Yet the fertile ground of masculinity and the perceived threat of queer desire barely gets a look in. For a film whose emotional climax comes with two men kissing, then fighting in the street (a wry inversion of the first romance scene, which feels a little too on the nose) it doesn’t feel like the groundwork to get there is sufficiently laid.
Neither too does it confront the desire of the lead’s friend (a charming split performance by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II & Pom Klementieff). The character’s two most featured scenes make a joke out of his desire to be seen (and made love to) as a woman. And while the point of Black Mirror is very much along the lines of ‘the dose makes the poison’, the ending it gives them is cruel.
When writing about the menace of technology alongside queerness, it is important not to conflate the two. Here it feels like a writer punishing a character for their ‘deviancy’, while the respectable straight man gets a happy ending of his own.
I’ve recently started a relationship online and get nervous about it sometimes. Is it possible to know I’ve connected with someone if I’m only showing them the sides I want them to see? Does intimacy mean less when it’s divorced from a physical self? Crucially, will things be the same if we ever meet?
These fears are personal, and real, and human; and this episode doesn’t really seem interested in exploring them. Outside of the glossy facade it’s main takeaway seems to be that infidelity can happen online too, kinda the least interesting way for it to go.
It doesn’t help that Nikki Beharie’s Theo (the wife) is given very little definition aside from ‘wants another baby’. Brooker’s obvious struggle to write black American characters aside, she could have done with something. Despite the film’s obvious resistance, it really belongs to her.
I mean it opens on her at a bar, as Mackie’s character hits on her by pretending to be some stranger. A weird and sorta unnecessary prelude that basically exists to establish the theme of identity and performance in flirtation and attraction, while also mirroring a later scene where she’s actually approached by a stranger at a bar. Very fancy but given that it never really coheres it feels like it’s trying to be too clever by half.
I dunno, there’s two quite separate films playing out here and, while both show promise, neither gets the commitment it deserves.
Black Mirror Season 5 is currently available to stream via Netflix.
Image courtesy of Netflix