By Hailey Corkery
At the 2017 Emmy Awards, Black Mirror: San Junipero won two awards: “Outstanding Made for Television Movie” and “Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special.” In this episode of Black Mirror, two women named Kelly and Yorkie meet and fall in love in San Junipero, a technologically created space in which people who are either dead or sick spend their time. In this digital manifestation of an afterlife, the deceased are permanent inhabitants and the ill, like Kelly and Yorkie, are “tourists” who can only spend a few hours a week in this destination. The recognition given to San Junipero from the Television Academy was applauded by many due to the TV movie’s representation of many different marginalized groups as well as its celebration of queer relationships. While this instance of minority representation in media and its Emmy win is significant, it is imperative to inquire about the ways in which the representation in this film is presented: how was this episode of the Netflix hit series inclusive and celebratory and how was it exclusive and problematic?
Black Mirror fans’ praise is mainly focused on the relationship between Kelly and Yorkie. The two women meet in a club and after some flirtation, Kelly asks Yorkie to sleep with her. Yorkie politely declines, but a week later, she looks for Kelly in the same club. Yorkie finds her and tells her that she really does want to sleep with her, but is nervous because she has never slept with a woman before (we later find out Yorkie has never slept with anyone before and this is really where her anxiety came from). Kelly listens to Yorkie and then takes her home. The sex scene is very brief and does not show much: the couple is only seen kissing in a bed and just beginning to take off clothing. This sex scene differs from sexual encounters in other queer television shows. For example, The L Word shows graphic sex scenes, “relying heavily on heteronormative or hypersexualized images” (Kessler 603). The simple indication of the sexual encounter in San Junipero, however, takes away the common media trope sexualizing and degrading lesbians purely for heterosexual male pleasure.
The relationship is also commended for giving the couple a happy ending–out of the few queer couples represented in television and movies, many do not get the privilege of receiving this positive fate. Also, the women’s relationship, which eventually turns into a marriage, does not take on heteronormative roles. Many queer couples are thought to have a “man” and a “woman” in the relationship, but San Junipero does not give into this stereotype, or any gender roles regarding relationships. Many romances in media depict female passivity as being “at the heart of romance” (Radway 64), but neither of the protagonists take on a “feminine” (i.e. submissive) role in their relationship. This power balance between the two women resists the heteronormative roles of the dominant and the subordinate placed onto queer couples.
The couple are also representative of other marginalized groups. Yorkie is white and Kelly is black, creating a successful representation of an interracial marriage. Also, outside of San Junipero, the two women are in their eighties and are sick and disabled; Kelly is dying of cancer and Yorkie is quadriplegic. This includes older women in the narrative and discredits the myth that only young people can fall in love and be queer. This representation of age, however, is somewhat problematic. When they are in San Junipero, Kelly and Yorkie are in their twenties. The fact that these women leave their old age behind romanticizes youth and echoes the fact that “[i]n popular culture the older female body is particularly vilified” (Fairclough 298). This relation of the older female body to sadness and boredom perpetuates ageist stereotypes.
Another possible issue in Black Mirror: San Junipero is the promotion of consumerism. In their happy ending, Kelly and Yorkie live together in a big, beautiful house and in the very last scene, drive away in a fancy new car. This, in turn, promotes luxury: “Because television shows are so heavily skewed to the ‘lifestyles of the rich and upper middle class,’ they inflate the viewer’s perceptions of what others have, and by extension–what is worth acquiring” (Schor 253). This subtle promotion of indulgence through the belongings that constitute San Junipero’s happy ending perpetuates society’s high value of consumerism.
Another question to consider when analyzing this TV movie is this: is the inclusivity of marginalized people merely included for branding and monetary reasons? It is essential to consider this because it is often problematic when media includes “empowerment via consumption in the marketplace” (Murray 285). Was the celebration and visibility of queer women in this episode purely created to increase the number of Netflix’s subscribers or to get Netflix more publicity? It could possibly be a “cause branding strategy that merges messages of corporate ‘concern and commitment for a cause’ (Cone 2000) with the participation of [the audience] for the same social goals, further concealing corporate aims” (Murray 286). However, it is extremely difficult to truly determine the main goal of the production of this work.
Due to the fact that television is ingrained in capitalism, it is challenging for a TV show or movie to be issue-free when it comes to representation and oppression. With that in mind, Black Mirror: San Junipero did a great job of being inclusive in its unique narrative while also trying to defeat stereotypes of different minority groups. Not only is the creation of this story important, but also the awards it won are also extremely noteworthy. The fact that a diverse production received multiple awards and lots of positive publicity could possibly push other screenwriters to create more stories that fairly and accurately represent people of minority groups.