What role does gender inequality play in how we approach issues of privacy and autonomy? D H Kelly follows Gemma Varnom’s Black Mirror review with an examination of the blocking theme in the show’s most recent episode
Mild spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen this episode.
Charlie Brooker’s most recent Black Mirror drama, ‘White Christmas’, aptly demonstrates a gender divide in the concerns we might have about technology; men are afraid of being ignored, while women want to be left alone.
The episode is set in the near future, where most people have volunteered to be implanted with Z-Eyes, an augmented reality device that works like a permanent smartphone in the user’s head. One application of this is that you can ‘block’ someone from your field of vision; they are reduced to a hazy shape, with their voice muffled beyond recognition. Neither party can see or hear each other, even in photographs or recordings. As Matt (Jon Hamm), says, “It usually only lasts for, like, an hour, but when they leave it going… Price of progress, I suppose.” Over the course of ‘White Christmas’, we learn that both protagonists, Matt and Joe (Rafe Spall), have been subject to this treatment by ex-partners.
This is a cruel idea and the ultimate use of the technology is especially nightmarish. And yet, compared to Black Mirror‘s other dystopian extensions of the way we live now, it struck me that this particular device could have a gloomy appeal to many women, who might be more concerned with peace and privacy than the need always to be seen and heard.
The ubiquity of social media has changed the way we withdraw from failed relationships. Old love affairs are no longer confined to a box in the attic; photographs, memories, announcements and even flirtations between a couple may now be archived and tagged on Facebook, where we might go every day. When once, only a handful of people might have had to navigate remaining friends with both parties after a split, a couple may now be connected by a vast network of close and casual friends online. And these connections are very close at hand, threatening to haunt us any time the phone vibrates in our pocket.
If an ex — or anyone else — wants to make a nuisance of themselves, they don’t have to work hard to make their unwelcome presence felt.
Men are sometimes subject to stalking and harassment, as well as non-criminal but annoying behaviour from exes who just won’t take a hint, but while women who pursue unrequited love are conventionally supposed to recognise themselves as ‘bunny-boilers’, our culture provides no shortage of stories in which a straight male protagonist faces explicit rejection, only to persist, proving his love and worth and eventually winning back his object. The idea that men are made of sense and logic, while women are pure emotion, still seems to be widely bought into. This can lead some straight men to sincerely believe that their feelings concerning issues such as “we should get together” or “we should stay together” are not only more valid than those of a disinterested woman, but that they also hold a status close to objective truth.
Of course, the idea of being blocked in the middle of an argument is pretty grim for anyone. Along with this, the ability to block would be beloved of abusers who currently use the silent treatment and other similar tactics to undermine and control their victims.
However, the idea of not being left alone, or not being able to walk away, is often far more terrifying and realistic to women. In December 2014, when ‘White Christmas’ was first broadcast, Women’s Aid reported an ‘epidemic’ of spyware being used in domestic violence and stalking cases. This came just a few months after hundreds of intimate photos of celebrities, almost all women, were hacked and published online. Awareness of stalking, harassment and all manner of abuse is undoubtedly increasing, but so are the tools with which these crimes can be committed; the first subplot in ‘White Christmas’ involves the use of ‘Z-eyes’ to allow a group of men to see through the eyes of one man, when he is invited home to have sex with an unsuspecting woman.
The quiet encroachment of tech into our personal space and every intimate aspect of our lives and the treatment of romance as a video game to be won, lost or hacked (sometimes with the help of others) are two themes in ‘White Christmas’ that seem extremely current. However, I’m not sure I can identify any trend that could conceivably mutate into the kind of blocking seen in this episode. Last year, there was an article against ‘Cut-Off Culture’ going around, but it was by a guy who was still showing up at his ex-girlfriend’s place of work two years after the end of their four month relationship.
In reality, most of us are very reluctant to cut other people out of our lives. People tend to prevaricate over unfriending a vague contact on Facebook — if anything, the tech allows us to stay in touch and the culture of social media obliges us to. Many of us have found ourselves in situations where the only contact we have with someone is negative and, even then, it can be hard to sever links. Though sometimes the only option, there’s also some risk involved in cutting people out. An entitled person who is already frustrated that they are not being listened to (because, if only they were listened to, they would get everything they want) is likely to be enraged by the idea that they cannot even be heard. In ‘White Christmas’, Joe describes behaving “like a stalker” when he can’t call or message his ex-girlfriend and, unable to even mope over photographs of his ex, he cannot get any closure: “You can’t even wallow properly.”
Very few people choose to sever all contact with a co-parent — something which ‘White Christmas’ implies has happened to both protagonists. We know Joe grabbed his ex-girlfriend in the street, leading to the block being “made legal”, complete with a GPS monitor on his whereabouts and the extension of the block to any offspring, a detail pivotal to the climax of the episode. Matt acknowledges the pain of this experience, having gone through the same with his ex-wife and daughter. The nearest we currently have to this is the existence of injunctions, which would only permanently prevent a parent speaking to their child in the most dire of circumstances.
Thus, this particular futuristic concept of blocking jars in an episode — and indeed, an entire series — full of compelling ideas on how life could conceivably become in the near future.
I’m not entirely sure if this is a criticism; speculative fiction is just that and the different possibilities still hold the potential to keep us awake at night; for example, my very first thought about blocking was “What if someone is in medical trouble and can’t say so because they’re a hazy blur to the person they have blocked or who has blocked them?” However, I do think ‘White Christmas’ demonstrates something of a gender divide in our concerns about privacy and autonomy. Or it could be a matter of context; I’ve heard suggestions that the Reddit users hailing the celebrity photo hack as “freedom of speech”, dubbing it “The Fappening” are possibly the same kinds of men who worry dreadfully about government agencies being able to monitor their online activities. How you approach the issue of blocking in the form explored in ‘White Christmas’ may be a matter of who you might want access to and who might want access to you.
Call for reviewers! We’ve now covered ’15 Million Merits’, ‘White Bear’ and ‘White Christmas’. Would you be interested in writing about any of the other Black Mirror episodes? If so, get in touch by emailing tv AT thefword DOT org DOT uk!
The characters Joe, Greta and Matt (left to right) sit cross-legged on a white sofa that blends with the stark white background behind them. They cast a slight shadow behind them. Greta and Joe look serious, while Matt is smiling. Joe wears a brown jacket, with a grey and brown striped polo shirt, navy trousers and brown boots. Greta wears a white shift dress. Matt is dressed all in navy (suit, polo shirt, visible socks and boots). Picture from Channel 4 website, used under fair dealing.