This post contains spoilers for “Nosedive”, the first episode of Season 3 of Black Mirror.
I have a love/hate relationship with Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. For the most part, it does exactly what it says on the tin: offers up a dark reflection of our world (or a near-future version of it) for consideration. While the reflection is usually somewhat askew, we can still identify aspects of ourselves staring back at us through the glass, which is what makes the series so uniquely disquieting. Part horror and part satire, each standalone tale of dystopia seems to whisper: “Watch your step, because this nightmare world is just around the corner.”
However, in its quest to satirize the technological and/or cultural phenomena that govern our world, Black Mirror often fails to engage with those phenomena in a meaningful way, falling back on smug technophobia and intense cynicism to propel the action towards the most horrifying conclusion imaginable. As Kathryn VanArendonk puts it “the show’s primary crutch is too often that it uses thought-provoking and fascinating foundations in order to reach the simplest, most alarmist possible conclusion about a variety of technological innovations.”
Nowhere is this weakness more apparent than in “Nosedive”, the first episode of the newly released third season.
I was a Pokéchild. I had a biscuit tin full of meticulously sorted trading cards and an undefeated Psychic deck built around Alakazam’s intensely frustrating Damage Swap power. My sister and I religiously watched each new episode of the animated series as it aired on Sky One at 8am every morning. The morning they surprised us with a double episode finale, we were late for school. When the Gameboy release eventually dropped in Ireland and I got my sweaty little paws on Pokémon Red, I spent a long and indolent summer trading and battling on the green with the kids in my neighbourhood. I played so much that I would go to bed with the infamously tinny Pokémon music still ringing in my ears. Back then, the world of Pokémon was colourless and rigidly two-dimensional, the gameplay repetitive and the storytelling lacklustre. But for all its flaws, the contents of that little red cartridge instilled in me a profound sense of wonder and curiosity.
I was eleven years old when the Pokémon craze swept through Ireland, which was also the average age of the protagonists in both the animated series and the games. I think, for many kids of my age, the near-universal appeal of the franchise didn’t come the collectability of the monsters nor the adrenaline of the battles (though these things were certainly factors). The beating heart of Pokémon was a world that said, “Hey kid, imagine if, instead of sitting at home and doing boring homework, you could be out travelling the world on an important mission with a loyal band of fantastic beast companions at your side?” It was an intoxicating proposition. When my Gameboy batteries were eventually confiscated and I was forced to go to sleep, I would indulge in detailed fantasies about what my life would be like if Pokémon were real.
Fast-forward to 2016 and suddenly the world of Pokémon is more real than that eleven year-old girl furiously tapping away at her Gameboy could ever have imagined. In 1999, the idea that almost everyone in Ireland would own a pocket-sized personal computer – one that could make video calls, respond to voice commands and surf the World Wide Web in full colour – was the stuff of science fiction. Now, my phone acts as a window to a parallel universe, an alternate world where vibrant monsters frolick in the streets. Pokémon Go creates a simultaneous sense of being privy to a magical secret and being part of a vast communal experience. The wonder is back and this time it’s on par with tumbling through the wardrobe into Narnia.
“Wow, this game does not discriminate based on gender,” said my friend, as we watched a graphic cut-screen of my female orc merrily decapitating a heavily-armoured female Bandit Chief.
As someone who has spent over 800 hours of my life playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, part of me wants to agree with this assessment. In some ways, it’s entirely accurate. In Skyrim, there’s a distinct absence of many of the gendered tropes that put me off mainstream videogames. In all my extensive play time, I never felt like I was willfully ignoring offensive portrayals of my gender in order to enjoy the rest of the game. In Skyrim, as in many open world RPGs*, your character is completely customisable; their gender, their appearance and their skill set all come down your own choices. Both male and female bodies are equally idealized (though even the bulkiest lady body does not look strong enough to wield a warhammer). In general, female armour is not more revealing or sexualised than equivalent male armour. (Albeit, there are some female sets that have an inexplicable chest windows, which, considering the climate of Skyrim, always makes me think “wow her tits must be cold”.)
“I feel empty of hope and completely powerless to do anything about it”
These are the words my friend Elaine typed to me during an otherwise mundane catch-up chat. She was explicit. This wasn’t about her job or her relationships or any other personal drama. It was about the state of the world around her. It made her angry, but her anger felt impotent. I know those feelings so well. I wanted to tell her that it’s all going to be OK, that all the violence and ignorance and fear in our world right now is just the final desperate thrashing of the regressive status quo, that our societies are slowly, glacially shifting in a better direction. But I couldn’t say those things with honesty, because honestly, I’m not sure of anything.
“We’re living through the fall of the west”
These are the words my sister typed to me in the wake of Brexit. They made me sit bolt up in my chair. Any other day, any other year, I might have dismissed them as an unnecessary dramatisation, but how true they rang in the moment, how matter-of-fact an observation this seemed. Having taken some time to think on it, they still don’t seem like an exaggeration. Geo-politically, it’s entirely accurate: our populations are ageing, our economies are stagnating, our societies are crumbling under the weight of austerity, and our value as a trading partner is quickly diminishing, propped up only at the steep expense of our “less developed” neighbours. It seems to me that those of us living in “developed” economies – certainly in English-speaking nations – are witnessing the logical conclusion of the Great Neoliberal Capitalist Experiment. For the vast majority of people, it’s been an unmitigated failure. Lots of people have very little money and are told that it’s their own fault for not working hard enough. Those of us who do have a bit money are still mostly miserable, because all we can afford is stuff to keep ourselves distracted. For a tiny, almost negligible, handful of people, it’s worked out very well.
One of the best things that happened in 2014 was that The Hobbit “trilogy” finally juddered to a halt, meaning those of us who feel obliged to see the films out of residual Lord of the Rings loyalty can get on with our lives in peace, at least until Peter Jackson finds his copy of The Silmarillion.
We meet lady elf warrior Tauriel in the second installment of The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug. If it feels like she was shoehorned in, it’s because she was shoehorned in. The book of The Hobbit is an unrepentant Victorian boys’ club. So, this is positive right? Actively altering the source material to be more inclusive! One whole new female character in nine hours of rambling and unnecessarily drawn-out plot? You’re welcome, feminists!
As a rabid Tolkien nerd and a card-carrying feminist, I desperately wanted to be positive about this new female character, created for my presumed benefit. Sadly, Tauriel is a case study in how not to write and insert a new female character into a pre-existing world or story. The first and most obviously problem is that she’s suffering from a lethal case of Strong Female Character syndrome.
For the past two years I have been quietly enjoying Penny Dreadful or, as my pal Ádhamh calls it, Eva Green’s Weekly Hour of Scenery Chewing. It’s a slick little series about classic horror characters getting into scrapes with vampires against the delightful backdrop of Gothic Victorian London. The production is polished, the cast is stellar, the costumes are stunning and there are pleasing twists on familiar literary figures. It also has a complex and intriguing lady character as its main protagonist and I am not above admitting that I could watch Eva Green chew the scenery all day long. Truly, all was going well, until last week when a shock series finale killed off Vanessa Ives and the whole series ground to screeching and profoundly unsatisfying halt.
John Logan claims that this surprise ending was nothing to do with ratings and everything to do with serving the story, a claim on which I call hefty amounts of BULLSHIT because no writer could honestly claim that this rushed and truncated excuse for an ending was part of his vision all along. On the most basic level, so much of it made no narrative sense. Here are eight reasons why:
1. The gang’s all back together but… why?
Victor Frankenstein has had zero contact with Malcolm or Ethan for an entire season, but when they run into him by pure chance in the hallway in Bedlam they’re like, “Oh hey, we’re about to go on suicide mission to save Vanessa who you also have not seen in an entire season, want in?” and he’s like YES OK NICE TO SEE YOU WHY NOT! This contrivance seems to be purely for the sake of getting the old gang back together for the big finale, which is… why? I mean, Victor is cute and all, but he also spent the entire season trying to violently brainwash Lily into dating him again, which puts him squarely on TEAM VILLAIN. Victor Frankenstein is a bad person and he’s also fairly useless in a fight and also HE’S BEEN IN A DIFFERENT STORYLINE FOR THE WHOLE SEASON so why on earth did he have to be there?
Of course, if you live in Ireland, you don’t need a peer-reviewed study to tell you this. Our country is a live illustration of the trend. Every year, at least 3,500 Irish women (that’s an average of nine women per day) spend time, energy and money travelling to the UK to obtain a safe, legal abortion. Those who are unable to travel continue to turn to illegal “abortion pills” or even more drastic measures to end unwanted pregnancy – we’re not sure about their numbers, but it’s safe to assume they are not negligible.
For those of you who call yourselves “pro-life”, your one and only campaign point seems to be preserving our Constitution’s EighthAmendment at all costs. I’m sorry to inform you that your time and effort is sadly misplaced. Ireland is not and has never been “abortion-free”. Our blanket ban on abortion does little, if anything, to deter most women from ending unwanted pregnancy. And thanks to proximity of the United Kingdom and the 13th Amendment, most women in Ireland can access safe legal abortion if they really need to. (If they have the money, of course. And hold a passport that allows them to move freely between the UK and Ireland. And if they are healthy enough to travel. And not restricted by disabilities. And not younger than sixteen. And not trapped in abusive situation at home.)
All the evidence suggests that repealing our Eighth Amendment and replacing it with clear and humane legislation on reproductive rights will have a negligible impact on abortion rates among Irish women. Honestly, if you are truly invested in reducing abortion rates, preserving the Eighth is a bit of a damp squib.
But thankfully, there are lots of straightforward health and educational policies that are proven to reduce abortion rates! If you truly care about the welfare of Irish women (despite the frequently misogynistic tactics of your campaigns), there are plenty of ways to support them that don’t involve shaming or criminalizing them. If you are truly “pro-life”, there are many worthwhile causes that could use your voice behind them.