At its best, Neflix staple Black Mirror has used its takes on technology to address complex social concerns of the day. It has warned us of the dangers of intentional xenophobic bias in the military in “Men Against Fire,” the inherent lies of upward mobility within the class struggle in “Nosedive,” and the impending disaster of the 2016 election in “The Waldo Moment.”
In this sense, Season 5’s “Striking Vipers” misses the mark so hard that it hits the transphobic bullseye. Netflix summarizes: “When old college friends Danny and Karl reconnect in a VR version of their favorite video game, the late-night sessions yield and unexpected discovery.” The video game is Street Fighter-esque, and the unexpected discovery is so obvious, it’s hardly a spoiler—they fuck.
The tryst starts as a makeout session after an intense first battle in the virtual world while Karl, who up to this point is presented as a straight black male, is playing as a blond, Asian female character and Danny, also presented as a straight black male, is playing as an Asian male with a quaffed fauxhawk. As quickly as it starts though, both men frantically escape from the game world, shocked by their own behaviors. They proceed to act despondent for a few minutes of montage, then of course reunite in the VR world to get it on.
At this point, the story is doing a lot of interesting and unique things. Centering two black men as the lead characters so that you can explore the levels of intimacy afforded when societal pressure is taken out of the equation? That’s fascinating and typically only seen on the gay indie circuit. Using technology, reality simulators and online interactivity are currently powerful tools for exploration of sexuality and gender. There’s even the aspect of both men choosing to play as another race to be explored and analyzed. To see an episode of Black Mirror dissect cis hetero masculinity, trans dysphoria, racial dynamics and the removal of all of those boundaries would truly be groundbreaking television.
Yeah. And monkeys might fly out of my butt.
This potential is ruined as the episode wants to tell another straight man’s story. It’s only utilizing queer identities for scandalous details, so the narrative quickly shifts and puts Danny and his wife at its center. Then we go on another 40 minutes examining their marriage and the dilemma Danny’s infidelity creates. Karl’s experience of being a woman and having sex with a man is given about 30 seconds of coverage during which he mostly describes it as “crazy” and “different” and big orgasms. And that’s it. Never is the possibility of trans identity discussed. Never is their intimacy discussed beyond “we aren’t gay, right?” Instead Karl’s experiences are reduced to the level of a fetish and positioned alongside bestiality for laughs.
Which, considering how disappointing the rest of Season 5 is, maybe “I fucked a polar bear!” is the low hanging fruit Black Mirror is aiming for, alongside “Hey it’s Miley Cyrus!” and “Facebook sucks!” Maybe it’s the Netflix equivalent of the genderswap snapchat feature - imagination fun time for all the cis straights without the icky politics to spoil the fun. Maybe incel gamers are overdue for some representation and should be shown the future they want to live in. “Traps are gay unless you’re making your bro nut as Chun Li!” Or “Finish Him on your tits, no homo!”
Even without the transphobia via erasure, the story’s thesis is dishonest and painful. If we take the story at face value and pretend there’s no romantic/sexual bond between them, Karl is reduced to being a sex addict chasing a transmisogynistic fetish-high, so he agrees to a closeted 1-night-a-year relationship with Danny who likes to to fuck blond Asian girls on the side. Erased is any meaning behind the tenderness and emotional sensitivity between the two men. It’s really a shame considering the fascinating concept and story that still needs telling. It’s a double slap in the face that the episode comes out during Pride Month with its transphobic, no homo, keep-it-in-the-closet themes.