“Black Mirror has markedly improved its inclusiveness since it first aired in 2011, but there is still room for improvement.”
Title: Black Mirror
Episodes Reviewed: Seasons 1-4
Creator: Charlie Brooker 👨🏼🇬🇧
Writers: Charlie Brooker 👨🏼🇬🇧 (18 eps), William Bridges 👨🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), Konnie Huq 👩🏽🇬🇧 (1 ep), Jesse Armstrong 👨🏼🇬🇧 (1 ep), Christopher Morris 👨🏼🇬🇧 (1 ep), Rashida Jones 👩🏽🇺🇸 (1 ep), Michael Schur 👨🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep), and Penn Jillette 👨🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep)
Reviewed by Laura Hindley of Strong Female Lead 👩🏼🇬🇧🌈
Black Mirror is a dystopian series that explores the troubling and complicated relationship humans have with technology. It attempts to hammer home the point that we, as a species, are all equal. We're all susceptible to the same flaws; we're all products of our society; and we're all slaves to technological advances. Pretty upbeat, hey?
The show has been a big hit with fans and critics alike, as writer Charlie Brooker has been able to take our worst fears and turn them into episodic storylines that are in equal turns thought-provoking and visually appealing.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? Mixed bag—some episodes do and some epically fail, especially those from the earlier seasons.
The first season of Black Mirror is OK when it comes to gender. By OK, I mean pretty darned average with a long way to go. All three episodes contain male protagonists while the female characters are used to further their narratives, often as one-dimensional love interests.
In ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, for example, Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay) is forced to perform degrading acts in a reality TV show to avoid returning to a slave-like existence. Had the story been told from Abi's perspective, the episode could have been a powerful and poignant look at how women are treated in the entertainment industry. But its male perspective prevents such complexity. Meanwhile, ‘The Entire History of You’ tells the story of a cheating female partner (Jodie Whittaker)—a notion that is tired, overused, and unoriginal.
While Season 2 increases the number of female leads, to 3 out of 6, it continues to portray them as nothing more than love interests. This can be seen during 'The Waldo Moment' when the comedian behind a blue CGI bear named Waldo humiliates a female political candidate on live television simply because he's angry that she had distanced herself after they slept together.
Luckily, Season 3 improves dramatically. Instead of women being used as pawns in a male-dominated game of chess, they are instead elevated to positions of power. ‘Men Against Fire’ features Sarah Snook as a bolshie army platoon commander, while ‘Hated In The Nation’ follows DCI Karin Parke (Kelly Macdonald) and her sidekick Blue Colson (Faye Marsay) as they desperately race against time to prevent a swarm of drone bees from killing hundreds of thousands of people.
Black Mirror writers go the whole hog for Season 4, telling each of the 6 episodes from the perspective of a different female lead, each one rich with character complexity. Hallelujah!
Executive producer Annabel Jones acknowledges the stark contrast between the female characters in Season 4 and those of the first three. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, she says:
"I think what’s lovely about the show is that it's not a strident statement. It’s more: Why not? We don’t even think about it from a gender perspective and I hope that’s progress. It’s more that we explore the best story and the best way to tell it."
As Black Mirror sits in the fantasy genre, it sets its own parameters. Every episode takes place in a totally different universe, and its approaches to race are just as variable.
Similar to what we see in gender representation, Season 1 lacks social awareness. 'Fifteen Million Merits' does enable Daniel Kaluuya to deliver an exceptionally moving monologue, but the season is otherwise white-centric. In fact, there are just seven characters of colour in either leading or supporting roles—4 black, 1 Chinese, 1 mixed race Indian/Irish, and 1 mixed race Guyanan/British. To put this into perspective, there are over 50 characters across all three episodes.
The second season also stars just one lead of colour. Lenora Critchlow, whose mother is white English and father Trinidadian, portrays a woman who films her white male partner while he tortures and kills a young, black girl. Pretty grim, even for Black Mirror standards, and I found the choice to cast the victim as black to be troubling. A great article in The Root asks:
"Why is it that black women always have to play someone with a perceived negative identity—slave, housekeeper, a victim of domestic abuse, villain—in order for them to be recognized as great actresses?"
Perhaps Black Mirror writers got the memo because Season 3 is filled with people of colour in an array of roles. The first episode alone stars five black actors, while every subsequent episode contains at least one lead or supporting character of colour.
Season 4 continues this trend, including such actors as Kiran Sonia Sawar (of South Asian descent) in 'Metalhead', Georgina Campbell (of Jamaican descent through her father) leading 'Hang the DJ', and a diverse trio battling a toxic fanboy hell-bent on punishing his digitised playthings in ‘U.S.S. Callister’.
Meanwhile, the shining beacon of light comes in the form of 'Black Museum' which sees Letitia Wright's Nish stop off at a roadside museum. Inside the museum, visitors can pull a lever to make a black man experience his (wrongly sentenced) execution in the afterlife, as he is shocked in the electric chair over and over again—perhaps mirroring the media manipulation of black pain for the consumption of a demanding and fickle audience.
Still, as groundbreaking as one-off episodes can be, one question remains. Where are the more complex Asian characters?
According to a recent study titled “Tokens on the Small Screen,” representation of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community in Hollywood is moving at a glacial pace. The research concludes that, although there are more opportunities for AAPI actors, as we see in 'Metalhead', their characters remain marginalised and tokenised.
Four seasons in, this lack of Asian leads or multiple Asian characters continues to make Brooker appear perpetually behind the curve. By only beginning to give women and non-white characters their due in Season 3, which aired just 14 months ago, their inclusion felt long overdue. Similarly, this ongoing lack of Asian representation is also overdue, and has yet to be addressed.
In the show’s defence, however, when they finally get there, they do it well. Let’s hope that this oversight falls on their radar in upcoming seasons.
Seasons 1, 2, and 4 of Black Mirror exclude overt—or even covert—representations of LGBTQ characters. It’s pretty appalling.
Yet Season 3‘s ‘San Junipero’ is arguably the strongest female-led queer story on TV in recent memory. It stands so far above the fray, we even discussed it at Mediaversity as a standalone review. Detailing the blossoming love between Kelly and Yorkie, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who happens to be mixed race) and Mackenzie Davis (who is white), this relationship is handled with the utmost care—something all too often lacking from LGBTQ storylines.
One of many aspects that make this episode so noteworthy is the time the writers take to explore Kelly’s bisexuality. As an identity that is so often brushed aside, or mishandled, it’s encouraging to see stories like ‘San Junipero’ rendering bisexual characters with complexity and positivity.
Mediaversity Grade: C+ 3.56/5.00
Albeit grizzly and macabre at times, Brooker’s creation is thoroughly enjoyable to watch. It has markedly improved its representation of women and people of colour since it first aired in 2011, but there is still room for improvement.
I hope future seasons can harness the brilliance of diverse episodes such as 'San Junipero' or 'Black Museum', channeling it into storylines that propel Asian and/or LGBTQ narratives. While the inclusion achieved across the first four seasons is adequate, grudgingly keeping pace with the clamoring for more women and non-white characters by its quickly modernizing audience, the only way forward for a series that is rightfully proud of its groundbreaking nature is to extend the same level of daring and ingenuity to its social aspects.