“And you just watched”

Gemma Varnom takes a second glance at Black Mirror's '15 Million Merits' and 'White Bear' episodes and wonders if we are inching ever closer to the horrifying and oppressive society they depict

, 7 February 2015

Warning to readers who haven’t yet watched these episodes: This review contains spoilers.

Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series exploring the dark side of technology, has always been a bleak viewing experience. It depicts “the way we might be living in ten minutes’ time if we’re clumsy“, so if you’re after happy endings, love conquering all and maybe a perky musical number or two, it’s probably not the sci-fi satire for you.

The recent Christmas special, nestled in among Pixar movies and comfortingly familiar sitcom repeats, was like a bitter shot of strychnine in the nation’s mug of mulled wine; if you want a snapshot of Black Mirror‘s vision of the future in this episode, imagine making a copy of yourself, breaking her spirit with prolonged white torture, then forcing her to make your toast just as you like it — forever.

Three years on from when the first episode originally aired, are we inching ever closer to the world Brooker has shown us? And have we looked up from our Twitter feeds long enough to notice? With all the earlier episodes now available on 4oD, a second viewing seems less like a chance to re-watch some well-scripted drama and more like a timely reminder to re-assess the world we live in now.

From the first series, ‘15 Million Merits‘, co-written by Konnie Huq, follows Bing Madsen (Daniel Kaluuya), one of many low-status workers who pedal stationary bikes to generate power, earning digital merits to buy food, toiletries and accessories for their avatars or ‘doppels’.

It’s one of the more dull, sterile sort of dystopias, described by Brooker as “a life of meaningless toil enlivened only by continual entertainment and distraction courtesy of omnipresent gizmos and screens”. Human interaction is, at best, stilted and, at worst, downright unpleasant. Bing receives his only meagre gratification alone, watching “the hottest girls in the nastiest situations” on a porn stream, Wraith Babes.

Was Bing buying Abby a chance to escape truly a selfless act?

Meanwhile, Bing’s female co-peddlers attempt more creative pursuits. New arrival Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay) fashions a modest origami penguin each day, while each day it is snatched away as ‘detritus’. Swift (Isabella Laughland) is seen playing a virtual violin with considerable skill, but the camera quickly loses interest and cuts away; creativity and individuality are simply not valued here.

But when Bing hears Abi singing to herself, he offers to pay for her to audition for the X-Factor-style show Hot Shot, which offers an escape from the drudgery of the bikes. She has, he tells her, “something real”.

Abi is uninterested in the prospect of fame. She cares about family and small things that make her happy. But, under pressure from an earnest yet overbearing Bing — “I will force you” — she agrees to audition. While the judges admit she has talent, they inform her there is no room for an “above average singer” and instead offer her a career as one of the Wraith Babes. Abi, drugged into compliance and made to feel ungrateful by the judges and the crowd for so much as hesitating, reluctantly gives in.

In a world where every other need is taken care of by technology, people of Abi’s status are only valued for their physical attributes and abilities. Anyone too obese to pedal is made to suffer verbal abuse in their work as refuse collectors or humiliation on obnoxious game shows. Abi — young, fit and attractive — has only two options open to her: the bike or a life of unwilling participation in the porn industry. She has nothing else of value to offer, according to this system.

Bing, tormented by pornographic footage of Abi that he no longer has enough merits to skip, spends months earning back enough to audition for Hot Shot himself. He uses his moment in the limelight to hold a shard of broken glass to his neck and let loose a tirade against the shallow emptiness of his existence — “All we know is fake fodder and buying shit.” Instead of taking him seriously, the judges offer him his own show (half an hour twice a week) and reward him with better living quarters.

We might expect Bing to swoop in and ‘rescue the damsel’ in the final moments, but he makes no attempt to reconnect with Abi at all and we are left to wonder if his concern ever lay with Abi herself or merely the illusion of hope he projected onto her. Was buying her a chance to escape truly a selfless act or just another man pushing her into fulfilling his own wishes while ignoring her own?

Although Bing once viewed Abi as an example of purity in a corrupt world, she is now nothing more than a memory to aid his bitterness and fuel for another state-sanctioned rant. She is no more real to him than she is to the public or than she has ever been. Whether innocent or sexualised, her value lies in playing a role. She can be Bing’s Madonna or the braying mob’s ‘whore’ — and nothing else.

Female killers hold a particular horror in the public’s perception

 In the second series, ‘White Bear‘ takes the concept of a woman forced into a role according to the public’s whim and pushes it into the realm of pure horror.

Victoria Skillane (Lenora Crichlow) wakes alone, seemingly after a suicide attempt, and has no memory of who she is. Making her way out into the street, she is chased by masked figures with power tools and shotguns while bystanders watch, filming her on their phones and ignoring her pleas for help. We follow Victoria as she is hunted and terrorised, until we discover that this world, along with Victoria herself, are not what they seem; this is White Bear Justice Park, a Daily Mail reader’s rage-fantasy made real. This has been built to punish Victoria for aiding her fiancé in the abduction of a young girl and then filming her torture and murder on a phone. Every other character Victoria meets in the story is just that: a character played by an actor. Visitors, including families with small children, have paid to spend the day watching and filming Victoria’s suffering. Afterwards, she is driven back to the house she woke up in, the crowd baying for her blood all the way, then her memory is wiped, ready for the performance to begin all over again.

Female killers — especially killers of children — hold a particular horror in the public’s perception. Though Victoria’s crimes were lesser than her fiancé’s, she is branded as “a uniquely wicked and poisonous individual”, bringing to mind the public attitude towards Myra Hindley, whose protestations that she was ‘under the spell’ of Ian Brady mirror Victoria’s own.

In their article ‘An Evil Monster and a Poor Thing: Female Violence in the Media‘, Eileen Berrington and Päivi Honkatukia describe how “Women’s treatment is often particularly harsh, serving as both example and warning. Women’s violent behaviour, particularly if they kill, is depicted as a threat to the stability of patriarchal and familial relations and expectations.”

A woman’s traditional role as a mother and nurturer leads to the typical perception that it takes a higher degree of innate evil — double the deviance — than it does for a man to do the same. Victoria’s punishment (described by her judge as “proportionate and considered”) not only places her in the same position of powerlessness as her fiancé’s victim, but also in a more acceptable feminine role: that of the terrified, weeping victim familiar in any number of horror films. To imprison her is not enough; she must also be put in her place. Repeatedly.

She has been fashioned into a target for the public’s media-fuelled outrage

It’s easy to see how Victoria’s world could eventually evolve into Abi’s. (From the blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em references in ‘White Christmas’ we can infer all of Black Mirror takes place within the same universe.) Once we decide criminals are fair play to torment as the public sees fit, where do we draw the line? Indeed, in ‘White Christmas’, digital copies of humans (known as ‘cookies’), who think, feel and perceive their world in the same way as real people, are used as servants or tortured for millennia for crimes committed by their real-life counterparts. Being able to do that and still sleep at night would surely put us on the path towards seeing anyone as fair game.

To the tourists at the Justice Park, Victoria’s crimes have made her an un-person, a thing to torture, without guilt or remorse. Visitors are heartily encouraged to ‘enjoy yourself’ as they witness her terror. To show Victoria the same cruelty she demonstrated towards her victim, Jemima Sykes, is not ironic or hypocritical according to this thinking, because Victoria does not count. She has rejected the traditional traits and behaviours of womanhood and is therefore no longer a woman, but a monster. She has been fashioned into a two-dimensional villain, a caricature, a target for the public’s media-fuelled outrage. That she has no recollection of her crimes is irrelevant; she has been assigned a role and must play it until the mob finds something else to be angry about.

Meanwhile, innocent Abi is barely a person at all as far as Hot Shot viewers are concerned. She is little more than another disposable doppel on a screen. Condemning her to her fate by chanting “do it, do it”, shows the same lack of empathy as shooting a character in a video game. Her story is arguably more chilling than Victoria’s because there is no anger or outrage behind what the public inflicts on her; it is done purely for entertainment. Both it — and she — will soon be forgotten.

We can erase her identity and label her according to the role we wish her to play

The Black Mirror of the title, says Brooker, is “the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone”. With the distancing effect of technology in the Black Mirror universe, humans become nothing more than fodder.

Since ’15 Million Merits’ aired in December 2011 and ‘White Bear’ in February 2013, we’ve seen a dramatic rise in incidents involving targeting and harassment, fuelled by what John Suler called the “online disinhibition effect” (basically, “if you can’t see me, I can do as I like, and if I can’t see you, it doesn’t matter how you feel about it”).

We’ve witnessed the doxing and hounding of female game developers and critics, as well as the barrage of abuse and threats directed at high profile feminists such as Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy. We’ve seen the derision, ridiculing and outright bullying of feminists on social media for daring to voice their opinions on topics such as rape, Page 3 and street harassment. As with Abi and Victoria, this can all be viewed as one big attempt at forcing ‘aberrant’ women back into silence and compliance.

It takes no bravery to harass or abuse a woman when she is nothing more than a profile picture and a Twitter handle; a collection of pixels is not worthy of empathy.

Black Mirror shows that it is easy to call a woman ‘bitch’ or ‘whore’ (insults hurled at Victoria) or brag that we’d “love to fucking ruin that” (said of Abi) when we can easily turn away from the reality that she is a real, living person by erasing her identity and labelling her according to the role we wish her to play.

Her acceptance that she would be just one voice drowned out by the mob keeps her in her place

The episodes ’15 Million Merits’ and ‘White Bear’ both show us how technology can make us less compassionate and less human. A quick glance at Twitter right now can indicate the same thing. Indeed, Black Mirror often skirts so close to reality that it hardly feels like science fiction at all. Towards the end of ’15 Million Merits’, when Bing is given an allotted time slot to rant about the state of society on TV, the story becomes less about Abi, less about Bing and more about Charlie Brooker himself.

The only character in either episode who seems fully aware of the unfairness and hypocrisy of her world is the minor character Swift. Initially resentful of Abi for capturing Bing’s attention, she looks genuinely uncomfortable watching the outcome of Abi’s audition. If Bing is a rather transparent version of Brooker, does that make Swift a version of the Black Mirror audience?

Black Mirror shows us a twisted reflection of our own hypocrisy and this is what makes it such difficult viewing. Too many of us will read an article or a blog post, mutter a couple of remarks about how terrible it all is and retweet it, before going back to Instagramming our breakfast and doing quizzes to find out which Disney sidekick ought to be our spirit animal.

Perhaps it isn’t the ranting Bing/Brooker who could bring about true change in either Black Mirror‘s world or our own but the intelligent, perceptive Swift. Her silent acquiescence and acceptance that any protestation would be futile, one voice drowned out by the mob, is what keeps her in her place. If Victoria Skillane is guilty not because she committed a murder but because she did nothing to stop one, then maybe, in her own way, Swift is guilty too.

While Abi is frustratingly passive and deprived of agency for most of the episode, her origami penguins seem like a substantial act of defiance compared with the actions of Swift who quietly plays along, turns away and maintains the status quo.

Like everyone else, she does nothing but watch.

Image descriptions:

1. Bing and Abby from ’15 Million Merits’ (left to right) stand behind a reflective table under a multiply squared ceiling light, with TV screens running along the walls to the left and right of them. They look glum and are wearing grey/beige uniforms. The image appears within the cover of the DVD for the complete first series of Black Mirror and is used under fair dealing.

2. (Also front page image.) Head and shoulders shot of a dishevelled Victoria from ‘White Bear’ in the woods. She is wearing a grey hoodie and looking nervously behind her. The background is out of focus but it can be seen that the trees are bare and there are orange leaves on the ground. The image appears within the cover of the DVD for the complete second series of Black Mirror and is used under fair dealing.

Gemma Varnom runs a copywriting business at shebangsthedrum.com. Her hobbies include classical singing, overanalysing TV boxsets and fully intending to work on her novel, then getting sidetracked looking at pictures of puppies on the internet

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