Film / TVSex & Gender

holding a ‘black mirror’ up to masculinity

June 10, 2019
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Black Mirror is the best show on TV right now, though it usually has nothing to do with Black people. One episode in the show’s new season, released on June 5th via Netflix, does take you into a world of Black people, well-off Black folks living a glorious, upper-middle class existence. Yet ultimately the episode is not about race; it’s about two straight male friends who love having virtual sex with each other and what the hell that really means.

Black Mirror is a British show that’s used several great Black actors — Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Aldis Hoge, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw have all appeared — but which has never really been about race. (Except for a few moments in the fourth season episode, “Black Museum,” where we saw white people all but orgasming over the chance to electrocute a hologram of a convicted Black murderer. We see them being joyful over the pain they’re causing him, asserting their dominance and taking revenge for every Black person who’s ever gotten out of line. It’s a virtual lynching and the glee in their eyes is disturbing.)

In a new episode called “Striking Vipers,” we enter an upscale suburban world of white-collar, Black professionals, whose homes have big, well-manicured backyards and spiffy modern kitchens ready for Architectural Digest. But this is Black Mirror, where complex twists abound, where plot points are all about how people interact with technology. Black Mirror’s “villains” are either technology, or where the human characters are willing to take it. In this episode, the two main characters, Anthony Mackie’s Danny and Yahya Abdul-Mateen’s Karl, enter a virtual reality multiplayer video game called Striking Vipers X where players go inside various Japanese settings in hyper-realistic ways and fight using various martial arts styles, thus giving two long-time friends a chance to discover a much deeper part of their friendship.

Men in America are urged to never be vulnerable, because we’re taught that vulnerability equals weakness. (Despite the fact that showing one’s vulnerability requires courage — but that’s another conversation.) Even when men are in private spaces with their closest friends, we tend not to be vulnerable. We usually act like everything’s ok, whether it is or not. We wear a mask that makes us look badass even if we need to let out some of the pain we feel. Men are taught to not be aware of their feelings, to not talk about them, and to not even realize that they’re valuable. These messages govern our public and our private selves—the men we choose to be when we’re with our friends. When do we have the space to let out our pain and talk about what’s hurting us? For many of us, we never get that space.

Women know how to share with each other, but men find it hard to remove the mask of masculine stereotypes. But what if you actually had a truly safe space in which to share your deepest feelings about your closest friends? And what if your deepest longing was to have a physical and sensual connection with your best friend? Because you love him that much and that exuberant physical expression of love feels right. And what if, in that space, you’re able to explore what this love feels like without obsessing over the boring question of sexuality and social self-identification?

This is what “Striking Vipers” is about. When these men are able to enter the game and have a virtual experience inside of it, instead of fighting, they end up having passionate sex. Over and over. This is partly because one of them has chosen a woman as his avatar, but the game allows both of them to feel what’s happening to their avatars in their real bodies, so to them it feels like they are having sex with each other. The sex becomes so passionate and transfixing that it distracts them from their real lives. Mackie’s Danny turns down his wife repeatedly, saying he’s too tired for sex, then rolls out of bed to have virtual sex with Abdul-Mateen’s Karl. Karl, for his part, is on dates with beautiful women yet his mind is on Danny. They are connecting deeply and emotionally, not just in a physical or virtual way, because once they’ve removed the masks and eliminated the stigma of shame around what they really want, only then are they able to be who they really want to be — straight men with a sexual desire for each other.

I think I know how that feels. I remember being a boy, around seven, eight or nine years-old, and always wanting to wrestle with my best friends, rolling around on the floor together, play fighting so that we could be as near to each other as possible, letting our affinity for each other take on a tactile, physical form.  

The classic Black Mirror slant on all of this is that the two virtual lovers have to wrestle with technology. In this case, the characters have to decide if what they do and feel in their virtual life is the same as their feelings in real life? If they love having sex in the virtual realm, would they enjoy kissing in the real world? Does the virtual world exist outside of the real world, or is it part of it? Are their virtual trysts the same as adultery or is it just a game? Karl begs Danny for one last time and he says, “I fucked a polar bear and I couldn’t get you out of my head… It was the best sex of my life. It was transcendent.” It seems pretty real for him. This is Black Mirror’s version of Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend” with a sort of spiritual gender-bending, a tortured love and an intimacy so deep and so real that you can be whoever you really want to be, even if who you want to be is your best friend’s virtual sex partner.