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”.)
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?
Shelter. Banished. The Long Dark. Three games, all very different in terms of scope and gameplay, but with a unifying factor that ties them together: the total lack of supernatural threat. There are no zombies, no monsters, no mysterious forces at work in the shadows. Your deadliest enemies are snow, disease and starvation. But to say these game are about man (or badger) vs. nature would be reductive, because nature is also your closest ally in the quest for survival. Most of the time, death is the consequence of your own lack of foresight or intuition.
As a result, all three games are stark and compelling vehicles for emergent narratives; tiny events take on huge significance and the meaning of victory is skewed. Survival is the only quest, the only game worth playing and also the only game you can never really win. These games understand this innately and push the player towards understanding it too. Through your choices, you will spin stories of isolation, struggle and loss. Perhaps, eventually, you will discover your own version of victory.
Are you in the mood to snot-cry over a virtual badger? Then this the game for you! You play as a mother badger trying to guide her five adorable squeaking cubs to a new home, while keeping them fed and avoiding deadly hazards such as birds of prey and forest fires. As you shuffle resolutely through the world, the painted-paper landscape and whimsical music belies the brittle urgency that permeates the game.
Vikings is a show that gets its women so very right that it never fails to send my shrivelled little feminist heart a-flutter with each new episode. Season 3 is exactly two weeks away, which is the perfect opportunity to vent some of my excitement by publishing a celebration of the ladies of Vikings that I’ve been sitting on for quite a while.
Before we begin, I want to point you towards Sophia McDougall’s excellent essay on the trope of the Strong Female Character, which is recommended background reading before we dive into Scandinavia circa 800 AD. McDougall’s view is that it’s limiting and reductive to evaluate female characters solely on their strength; especially when “strength” almost always means “being able to swing a sword” or “being feisty and not taking bullshit”. This essay forms the basis of a lot of my thinking on what makes a good female character. When I refer to a Strong Female Character in this post, I’m referring to the trope as outlined in McDougall’s work.
And without further ado, I give you my thoughts on the ladies of Vikings. SPOILER ALERTS FOR SEASONS 1 & 2 THROUGHOUT, so if you’re planning to watch the series and also need some excellent lady characters in your life, just take my word for it, go, go watch it right now, shoo!