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“Why this Black Mirror episode is the most important one so far”

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Kayleigh Dray
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Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror always taps into our collective unease about the modern world, with its sharp, suspenseful and satirical stand-alone dramas often exploring our techno-paranoia in great detail. This season, though, one episode was almost entirely dedicated to the ongoing conversation about #MeToo and sexual misconduct – in its own bitterly unique way…

Black Mirror is widely considered to be one of the most addictive and thought-provoking shows around: there are countless Reddit threads dedicated to analysing every last reference, cameo and Easter egg. And this season has proven no different, sparking thousands of important conversations about technology, internet usage and privacy.

The most talked-about episode by far, though, is USS Callister, which deals with very different themes. The story focuses on a starship captain with a big secret – the secret being that, y’know, his ship is of the virtual reality kind. Back on earth, he’s actually Robert Daley (Jesse Plemons), aka the oft-teased Chief Technical Officer of a gaming start-up company.

At first, we’re encouraged to feel sorry for Daley. In the real world, he’s shy, awkward and frequently admonished by his seemingly boorish colleagues. Perhaps worse still, Daley hasn’t been given any credit for his role in the creation of the massive multiplayer online game, Infinity, which he basically designed entirely by himself.

So, when Nanette Cole (Cristin Millioti) joins the company and informs Daley that she accepted the role so she could work alongside him (she views him as one of her professional heroes), we immediately fall for the classic Hollywood trope. Just like Daley, we assume love will blossom. Just like Daley, we begin rooting for a happy ever after. But, unlike Daley, we don’t forget that his young colleague is a real person – and that her telling him she respects his work is absolutely not the same as a romantic invitation.

Jesse Plemons as Robert Daley

As the episode continues, we’re frequently warned that there is something sinister about Daley – most overtly when Shania (Michaela Coel) informs Nanette that Daley has a “creepy” tendency to stare at his female colleagues. Nanette, much like the viewer, dismisses this counsel as unfair office gossip – although it clearly affects her, prompting her to adopt a more reserved manner after she spots her boss watching her from across the room.

Her newfound caution does not go unnoticed by Daley, and it is at this point that his true character is revealed: when Nanette clocks out of work for the evening, the CTO pulls on a pair of plastic gloves, rummages through her deskside bin and steals one of her used coffee cups. He carefully scrapes her DNA from this and uses it to upload a digital clone of her to his own cracked development build of Infinity, which has been modded to aesthetically resemble his favourite TV show, Space Fleet.

This version of Nanette – renamed Lieutenant Cole and dressed in a revealing space costume – retains all of her memories, experiences and feelings: just like her fellow crew members (all of whom are based on Callister Inc employees), she is not an artificial intelligence construct, but a duplicate consciousness. For a few short moments, it seems as if this could provide the basis for Black Mirror’s first comedy: the Callister crew are well aware of their predicament and can’t stop rolling their eyes about it all, which is enough to get the viewer smirking back home.

However, when they fill Cole in on the details of their digital imprisonment, our amusement quickly dissipates – and is replaced by a growing sense of dismay. Because, while this story takes place in the darkest depths of cyberspace (the real final frontier), it somehow feels…

Well, it somehow feels frighteningly familiar, too.

Daley may be the victim of workplace bullying in real life, but he well and truly becomes the bully whenever he is on board the USS Callister. He regularly uses his sense of power to systematically abuse his crew, forcing them to behave in ways they absolutely wouldn’t if they had the choice – particularly the women, who are required to smile on command, sing Daley’s praises and kiss him passionately whenever he demands them to do so.

All the elements of the alleged Harvey Weinstein scandal are present: the power imbalance, the so-called professional meetings that are actually settings for sexual assault, the older man using the plum jobs he controls to pressurise a younger woman into doing exactly what he wants.

Perhaps the most striking similarity of all, though, is the fact that Daley’s outrageous abuse of power manages to go on for so long without detection. How? Because those who do not comply with his demands are punished, as Cole quickly discovers. She herself has her facial features removed and is suffocated (a non-fatal process due to her immortality, but painful all the same) until she submits to Daley’s will. Others who stand up to the self-professed captain are transformed into grotesque alien creatures – who can only communicate in grunts – and banned from boarding the USS Callister ever again.

Essentially, those who vow to speak out against his regime find themselves silenced – by any means possible. Their jobs are threatened, their voices undermined and their characters disparaged. These women are monsters, Daley reminds his crew, and their testimonies do not even deserve to be heard, let alone trusted.

It all harks back to our society’s tendency to discount women’s voices. Specifically in cases of sexual harassment, subjects often find themselves met with scepticism and an onslaught of questions that try to drill holes in their story – all of which put the blame firmly on them. What were you wearing? Why did you go into the hotel room with them in the first place? Why didn’t you fight back? Why didn’t you remove yourself from the situation sooner? Why didn’t you say anything until now? Why, why, why?

Michaela Coel as Shania

The media’s treatment of Rose McGowan offers a perfect example of this. When she decided to join those speaking out against Weinstein, in spite of a non-disclosure agreement she had once signed, she faced claims that she had been complicit. At the very least, some insisted, she would never have succeeded in the competitive Hollywood talent marketplace had she not been prepared to put up with a little physical violation every now and then.

More recently, the women who have spoken out against James Franco and Aziz Ansari have been accused of joining a “witch hunt” against the men of Hollywood. Of “cashing in” on the #MeToo movement. Of failing to give men the “verbal cues” they need to read a situation. Of mistaking an “ordinary” sexual encounter for sexual assault. Of being “drama queens”.

These are real women – and they’ve been shot down for speaking up. In contrast, viewers watching USS Callister immediately recognise that there’s something very wrong with Daley’s treatment of his female crew members. This is despite the fact that they’re online avatars, and despite the fact his family-friendly code sees them entirely stripped of their genitalia (another red flag, as it makes it clear the introverted captain only considers his own sexual pleasure to be of importance).

The #MeToo movement recently sparked a number of important conversations, both at home and on social media, about consent. Now, Black Mirror has joined that same conversation and, in doing so, helped to dispel a number of the unhelpful myths and stereotypes that surround sexual assault. You know the ones we mean: that sexual assault is only ever rape. That rape is often committed by a stranger in the dead of night. And that there’s always a violent struggle – leaving the victim with visible injuries, which act as ‘proof’ of her story and her resistance.

Of course, Daley never demands sex from his crew, but his desire to control them is being driven by something overtly sexual. He isn’t your archetypal villain, but, as it’s become increasingly clear over recent months, there isn’t only one type of abuser (or victim). He may not force his female comrades to give him anything more than closed-mouth kisses, but forcing someone to kiss you at all is absolutely a form of sexual assault – and anyone who doesn’t understand this exhibits the sort of psychological traits that are associated with rape culture.

As Shannon Ridgway explains on the Everyday Feminism website, “when we talk about rape culture, we’re discussing something more implicit than that. We’re talking about cultural practices (that, yes, we commonly engage in together as a society) that excuse or otherwise tolerate sexual violence.

“We’re talking about the way that we collectively think about rape.

“More often than not, it’s situations in which sexual assault, rape, and general violence are ignored, trivialized, normalised, or made into jokes. And this happens a lot.”

She isn’t wrong: just think about the catchy lyrics in Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines, or Grease’s Danny Zucko being asked if Sandy Olsson “put up a fight” when he tried to kiss her. Or The Notebook’s Noah threatening to kill himself if Allie, the object of his affections (and a complete stranger), doesn’t go out with him. Or Brock Turner being let off lightly for raping an unconscious woman, pretty much entirely because of his promising athletics career. Or Gigi Hadid being slammed as “unladylike” because she lashed out at a stranger who publicly assaulted her on the street. Or President Donald Trump, aka the elected leader of the free world, boasting of grabbing women “by the pussy” because he’s famous. 

No, the USS Callister isn’t real, but the disturbing themes it deals with undoubtedly are – and we need more shows to follow its lead in bringing them to our screens. Not just because it perfectly captures the ways in which sexism is deeply rooted in our society, but because it subtly demonstrates the power play between men and women in the workplace. Because it reminds us that, no matter how much we’ve been taught to believe that situations like this are normal, they absolutely are not: nobody should ever be made to feel powerless, voiceless or afraid.

And, most crucially of all, because it encourages us to go away and redress our attitudes to sexual assault victims, our own behaviour and the behaviour of those around us.

Images: Netflix

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is editor of Stylist.co.uk, where she chases after rogue apostrophes and specialises in films, comic books, feminism and television. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends. 

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