Like many of Black Mirror’s vignettes, Striking Vipers addresses an aspect of human behavior, at least that western variant, through the lens of technological cultural analysis. That is OWL speak for, it is about technology, but really, it is just about what people do and have done throughout history, more than likely. For example, writer Charlie Brooker in that popular “USS Calister” episode, explores office politics, alienation, nostalgia, and sexual harrassment via virtual reality, or even more simply, gaming.
Brooker revisits his virtual reality gaming theme with “Striking Vipers”. This time around his disc shaped extra-sensory gaming console provides us a conversation about marriage, age, Black masculinity, sexuality and nostalgia.
There are a couple of points I would disagree with this show’s writers’s overall perspectives as they might influence viewers. Two that I would like to deal with here are their take on marriage and that other is their take on Black masculinity.
In the same way that Brooker uses nostalgic pop culture as a commonly shared language for his virtual game world in “USS Calister”– namely inspirations taken from “Star Trek”– he borrows from classic video game “Mortal Kombat” to keep us all on the same page. “Striking Vipers” is a “Mortal Kombat”-styled video game. We are introduced to this game by US Black actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s character, Karl. Karl asks Danny(played by US Black actor Anthony Mackie) to play this game with him in a scene situated eleven years prior to the story’s contemporary timeline.
It is this scene that introduces us to “Striking Vipers’s” themes of homoeroticism in male bonding and Brooker’s exploration of that dynamic in relation to traditional heteronormative bonds between men and women.
Is There A Such A Thing As A “Black Gay Agenda”???
During the past few years strong movements have developed among women and among homosexuals seeking their liberation. There has been some uncertainty about how to relate to these movements.
Huey P. Newton, “the women’s liberation and gay liberation movements: August 15, 1970”, cf. The Huey P. Newton Reader, Edited By David Hilliard and Donald Weise
Whatever your personal opinions and your insecurities about homosexuality and the various liberation movements among homosexuals and women (and I speak of the homosexuals and women as oppressed groups), we should try to unite with them in a revolutionary fashion. I say ‘whatever your insecurities are’ because as we very well know, sometimes our first instinct is to want to hit a homosexual in the mouth, and want a woman to be quiet. We want to hit a homosexual in the mouth because we are afraid we might be homosexual; and we want to hit th woman or shut her up because we are afraid that she might castrate us, or take the nuts that we might not have to start with.
It must be noted for our purposes here, that this vignette has a predominantly US Black cast. For that reason, I situate this discussion in a way that invokes a literature encompassed by US Black Sexual politics and Black Male studies. That is to say, we will not just be discussing this as a vehicle for male bonding as it impacts traditional male and female couplings, but as a media representation of Black Males, Black Family, and Black models of sexuality.
When dealing with US Blacks, there has to be a respect for a history of middle passages, slave codes, red records, Jim Crows, mass incarcerations, and hashtags. Within this body of respect, a tone of serious inquiry into oppressive methodology and a wide array of solutions towards tackling those methods must be adopted. What this means is that any and every possible method of genocide and psychological warfare is worthy of public consideration. This has often placed well-intentioned people at odds with other well-intentioned people.
Oppression as a social condition is a foundation of fragmentation. Human history seems to be a bloody tapestry of egregious empires, despotic democracies, and otherwise homicidal heirarchies. That tapestry cannot exist without fragmentation of oppressed groups vying for resources–material, social and psychological–held by those that seek to reduce their humanity to categories of otherness. It is from this dynamic that notions of a gay agenda grew to represent a campaign of effeminizing Black males to reduce their ability to forge effective movements of physical resistance.
Before we move on here, I think it is also important to consider hostilities associated with social stigmas such as “gay plague”. While race in the United States impacts a significantly larger group of people with a significantly different set of oppressive technologies for significantly different reasons, this does not reduce the pain suffered by homosexuals in the United States of America. Before there was “male bashing” in the media, there was “gay bashing” on the streets.
Further, as noted as recently as a 2013 content analysis of newspapers covering NBA player Jason Collins’s “coming out”:
“Media have historically framed gay male athletes as soft, which was further reinforced in coverage since most of the prominent openly gay male American athletes (e.g. diver Greg Louganis, ﬁgure skater Rudy Galindo) competed in sports long framed by mass media as being eﬀeminate and inappropriate for men.”Kian, Edward M, et al. “‘I Am Happy to Start the Conversation’: Examining Sport Media Framing of Jason Collins’ Coming out and Playing in the NBA.” Sexualities, vol. 18, no. 5-6, 2015, pp. 618–640., doi:10.1177/1363460714550915.
This is me reiterating points I have made in the past elsewhere. If there is a gay agenda, it is a smart move. As a US Black Man, I have a US Black agenda. Oppressed people should have media agendas. Does this gay agenda when using Black Male images influence or inspire Black Men to be “effeminate”, which is code for unwilling to physically present resistance in face of an always-growing and always present physically imposing whyte supremacy?
I do not believe this. It rests on a specious premise that effeminate people cannot physically defend themselves or cannot physically dominate non-effeminate people. This is historically inaccurate.
That being said, I have other concerns about Black Mirror’s Striking Vipers.
Black Mirror’s Black Marriage
Black Mirror’s Striking Vipers is ultimately about Danny and Theo(Nikki Beharie) as their romantic relationship evolves from what appears to be shacking up to being married with children. From this episode’s opening showing them role playing as strangers at a bar(and slight foreshadowing) to its ending, this show is primarily a discussion of Black relationships with their marriage as the control. No matter how “futuristic” Brooker’s rendering of gaming consoles and virtual reality might be, most men engaged in cohabitation will have had their relationship with their male buddies analogized as homosexual.
A cursory glance at Google results for the query “marriage and gaming” may be enough to prove my point for those who have not had such experiences with heterosexual cohabiting. Taking a look at Google’s “Searches related to marriage and gaming” we are presented with a list of links including:
“divorce over video games”
“video games hurt relationships”
“my husband would rather play video games than spend time with me”
“gamer boyfriend problems”
“husband addicted to phone games”
“he’d rather play video games”
As a form of foreshadowing(or simply exposition), we have a scene transitioning from Theo and Danny having sex to Danny and Karl playing “Striking Vipers”. As an homage to “Mortal Kombat”, both characters are allowed to pick a game avatar that they have mastered moves for. Karl selects his favorite avatar, Roxette (Pom Klementieff) whereas Danny plays Lance (Ludi Lin). During their game play, Karl roughhouses with Danny in sexually suggestive ways.
Brooker fast forwards 11 years and now we find Danny and Theo married with child plotting on children. While celebrating his b’day hosting a cookout, we see Danny ogling other women’s bodies. Karl pays Danny a surprise visit which only complicates Danny’s own adulterous leanings. Karl, still not married, shares images of women with Danny, and when Theo suspects they are hiding something, Karl even shows her.
This entire scene sets us up for two things. One is part of Brooker’s overall discussion, which amounts to a tirade designed to persuade audiences that hedonism is better than structured couplings despite whatever questions of responsibility might arise. Secondly, we are presented with Brooker’s choosen device(pun somewhat intended) to explore this argument with. It is here that Karl gifts Danny with what appears to be the 10th installment of “Striking Vipers”,a virtual reality update with a few new easter eggs.
As stated above, Brooker borrows heavily from his previous work, “USS Calister”. While I am mostly concerned with form factors(a disc as interface), a vision of virtual reality that is much more psychosomatic than physical-digital, and his obvious nods to pop culture(a Star Trek-like mod, an homage to Mortal Kombat) as a means to create a common language, there are other consistent variables worthy of note. Although USS Calister focuses on consciousness trapped inside of a virtual reality, both episodes entertain this notion of avatar as other. Brooker revisits this notion in Striking Vipers by having Danny and Karl have sex via their game avatars.
I mentioned above that much of this vignettes’s theme can be compared to those many wives seeking marriage consultation from Dr. Google about their husbands spending more time with video games than with them. Brooker adds that other component often known to result in a wife or girlfriend to verbally question her mate’s sexuality, his boys. Following a traditional romantic story arc, Brooker has our characters on an emotional roller coaster that ends with Karl and Danny fighting one another after a “test kiss”. We are left to assume that Danny confesses everything to Theo as our final chapter shows them swapping her wedding ring — a symbol of them agreeing she can go have sex with randoms at the bar — for Danny’s virtual reality set — a symbol that he and Karl have decided to further their virtual pornography sessions.
Beyond Brooker’s brand of virtual reality here, I think his theme is fairly common and understood without these on the nose analogies, although they are visually interesting.
Even my wife and I have had our own variant of this theme. However, our solution was a lot less extreme than that proposed by Brooker here. We just decided to play video games together. Which might have been a balanced solution and a resolution I would have deemed more realistic, possibly more edgy given Black Mirror’s library of more nihilistic endings.
In other words, instead of Theo swapping her wedding ring however often they are agreeing upon in this makeshift open relationship, why not just write Theo & Danny spicing their relationship via this highly immersive, high sensory virtual reality game? Brooker already opens up with them role playing, it would not have been farfetched to see those characters extend that into virtual space. Brooker goes out of his way to frame Karl as an open and honest hedonist, as well as subtly suggesting that Danny and Theo are open to various pleasure experiments(Theo is written to state that they once all used “molly”). Given this framing, I found it odd that they Theo would be the one forced out of their trio to find affection with randoms. Why couldn’t she play as Lance a few rounds?
Also, I have noticed that many discusses this episode have mentioned its gender bending, transexual implications, but not many have considered its racial undertones.
Furthermore, Brooker does not establish a firm definition of Danny and Karl’s sexual relationship. While we are all free to exist sexually without labels, our mates who have sworn oaths of lifelong fidelty may want a memo when we decide to update our preferences. Theo is never shown to question Danny’s sexual attraction to his male friend on some level. Are we too assume that Brooker’s advice to all those women using Google’s Marriage Consultation Services is cheat with random strangers? Are we to assume that Brooker believes that the average US Black Woman would not question her mate’s sexuality in this sort of arrangement? Expanding from that interpretation, are we also given to conclude that Brooker believes US Black Women(especially those still coping with body changes after two pregnancies) would be satiated spiritually and psychologically by emotionless sexual encounters with randoms at a bar with no internal pangs about being cheated on by her husband with another man on some level?
Also, I have noticed that many discussing this episode have mentioned its gender bending, transexual implications, but not many have considered its racial undertones.
Both US Black Male characters embody what I am assuming to be Asian avatars. Is this a suggestion that US Black Men find Asian women more desirable? Is Brooker suggesting that US Black Men prefer this particular body type? As a proponent of Black Media Trust, it is important that we dig a few layers underneath the spectacle. Especially in a series like Black Mirror that is designed to promote inquiry into our social relations, and even more so given this particular writing wishes to play on identity sets.