Black Mirror’s Virgins and Whores: Science Fiction and the Woman Problem

6 minutes

Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes

Yesterday, at a loose end and with a few hours to kill, I decided to give Black Mirror a go. All I knew about it was that it was “weird” and one of the episodes had Hayley Atwell. Cool.

Black Mirror is a sci-fi anthology series with a new story every episode. The most accessible comparison is that it’s like Twilight Zone. Every story in Black Mirror is a fascinating exploration or deconstruction of modern technology and society’s reliance on it. The basic premises are intriguing and the stories are quite good. I enjoyed it. But the thing that kept me from adoring it is the same thing that keeps me intellectually detached from a lot of classic science fiction. Women in these stories are archetypes who exist almost solely as plot points for men.

Women are more than just love objects and baby incubators. Yes, miraculously, women have their own internal lives. No, they aren’t wandering wombs desperate for insemination. And no, they’re not constantly out to screw you in every capacity.

spoiler warning

There are two kinds of women in Black Mirror: virgins and whores. There is a side-trope of anyone with a uterus needing to fill it and/or inevitably having it filled. These tropes are common in most fiction, but they make up about 90% of traditional and classic science fiction just given the limited field. It took me a few episodes to notice what was going on, but I’ll break it down for you.

  • S1E1 “The National Anthem”: The Princess Susanna, sweet, traditional, pure, and perfect, is kidnapped in order to blackmail the Prime Minister into having sex with a pig on live television.
  • S1E2 “Fifteen Million Merits”: Sweet, virginal, innocently beautiful Abi catches Bing’s eye by being “different” in a world of sameness and displaying that difference (in a show of vanity) completely debases it. Abi literally becomes a whore and Bing is forced to watch.
  • S1E3 “The Entire History of You”: Liam is driven completely over the edge with jealousy that his wife once had a boyfriend before she met him. He constantly replays every interaction he has seen her have with that ex-boyfriend, eventually leading to violence. It’s suggested his emotional abuse of his wife and violence against her ex-lover are justified because he was “right” and she had lied about her child being his.
  • S2E1 “Be Right Back”: A woman’s lover is killed in a car crash. Bereaved and discovering she is pregnant, she signs up for a service that recreates dead loved ones from their internet presence.
  • S2E2 “White Bear”: A woman is stuck in a nightmare world where she is hunted through busy streets but no bystanders will help her and they record scenes of her torture on their cell phones. The twist is that this is all punishment for her criminal sexual history.
  • S2E3 “The Waldo Moment”: A cartoon bear takes on politics by harassing the legitimate candidates running for MP, to include a woman whose career he destroys because she snubbed him after they slept together.
  • “White Christmas”: A group of douchebags crowdsource getting women to have sex with them; a demonstrably cold/emotionless woman pays to have a copy of her brain made to run her house and that copy is then ruthlessly coerced into doing so; a man discovers his girlfriend is pregnant, is angry she doesn’t want the baby, then spends years obsessing over the child from afar only to discover it isn’t his which leads to murder.

Every plot hinges on either the sexual history, pregnancy, or sexual innocence of a woman intimately entwined in one of the lead male’s lives. The closest we get to a story where a woman is the lead is Lenora Crichlow’s episode “White Bear.” And yet, in “White Bear” it’s revealed that Crichlow’s character Victoria is a criminal and sexual deviant who is serving a degrading technological prison sentence for being a bystander as her fiance abused a little girl. Victoria has no voice, no agency, and no control. She is not allowed to repent or otherwise express her point of view. She is simply tortured. But not for a crime she committed—she is tortured for not preventing a crime. Women in the United States have been put in prison for “failing to protect their children” from abuse, while the actual (male) abusers have walked free or served far less time. “White Bear” is troublesome in more than just questioning whether mass humiliation is ethical punishment or who it truly turns into the monstrous figure. “White Bear”—the episode of Black Mirror with the most central female figure—punishes her disproportionately for crimes she did not commit. The sexual undertones of her misconduct are how the story implies that her punishment is just.

The other episode with the most central female figure is “Be Right Back” featuring Hayley Atwell’s emotional rollercoaster ride with a robotic surrogate copy of her dead lover. “Be Right Back” hit me a little harder than it otherwise would have, primarily because “robotic surrogate copy of dead lover” is one of my favorite tropes. Just what constitutes a person if you can recreate them from their behavior? Are they truly gone if a copy of them fires all the same neural pathways in your brain? What kind of impression do we leave behind in the world that is us but not fully us? But the primary impetus for her even agreeing to use the lover-copy service is that she discovers she’s pregnant, feels alone, and is over-emotional. The story would have been equally chilling and probably had more depth without the pregnancy (though lacking the end reveal.) But women are only motivated by their womb. Their ladyparts are their primary function to any story, be it whether men are sticking their dicks in them or whether their uteri are full-up with fetus. It seems (particularly male) storytellers find it unfathomable that a woman could be motivated by something other than human reproduction. It reveals the peculiar male preoccupation and anxiety with uncertain paternity. It suggests women exist only to fulfill male needs. It’s the kind of bullshit so common in the traditional sci-fi arena that science fiction is considered a toxic environment for women in general, for female fans, and for ladies who express even a passing interest in the genre.

Other notable women include Abi in “Fifteen Million Merits” whose special purity is both what elevates her and what dooms her. This purity is only valuable in that its degradation is a commodity. She literally becomes a porn star and Bing, the man so touched by her authenticity and purity that he funded her “big break,” is forced to watch as this happens. Her downfall is not meant to break Abi, it’s explicitly featured to break Bing. “The Entire History of You” is about a complete masculine breakdown when Liam’s possession/status object (his wife) is taken from him. She has no character beyond her sexual history, her motherhood, and her flirtation with another man. The same pattern repeats over and over in every episode.

Science fiction is my fav. It’s what I live and breathe. But even now—even in 2011 when Black Mirror first aired—mainstream science fiction is a hostile narrative environment for women. It’s no wonder so many of my female friends are put off entirely by sci-fi. “I don’t like sci-fi,” an acquaintance once told me as I tried to get her to watch Battlestar Galactica. “You watch Firefly.” “Oh, that’s different.” So what, then, is science fiction to her if Firefly isn’t sci-fi? It’s a degrading experience. It’s an exercise in personal dehumanization. Women become literal objects rather than characters with depth or agency. No one wants to see themselves turned into an object.

Perhaps we could explore how women experience technology rather than how men experience women through technology. But then, that would be a very different series of stories. Black Mirror is a fascinating exploration of the possibility and the horror of our modern technological world. And what that means for men.