Saturday, October 22, 2016

Black Mirror's Nosedive, an Allegory of Racial Privilege (Spoilers)

My body went from relaxed "Hey I'm watching TV on a Friday!" lounge pose to ready-to-pop pretzel knot over the course of the hour-long Black Mirror episode I watched last night. The first episode in the third season is called Nosedive and depicts a sunny, pastel world in which people have the ability to rank other people on a five-star system. Like, if Uber grades happened for every interaction. Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a 4.2 (not too bad) but dreams of becoming at least a 4.5 because of the perks (namely admittance to a new upper-crust apartment complex) the rank will bring. She tries SO hard to be liked by literally everyone in the world (baristas, mean coworkers) we know narratively we're about to see some major chaos unfurl. Naturally, as she tries harder, she becomes more manic plus some bad's inevitable.

The most "oh make it stop" moment for me is when she has three negative ratings in a row (a tift with her brother, bumping into a stranger, a cabbie who doesn't like her) and thus falls to a 4.1. When she arrives at the airport, she finds out her flight has been cancelled. The attendant tells her there is a ticket on another plane, but only 4.2s and up are eligible. Oh, my heart. The attendant and Lacie smile sweetly to each other and bicker in sugar until Lacie snaps, curses, and then gets dinged big time from security.

So, this is where I started thinking Nosedive is about race. Visually, the people putting Lacie down in this scene that leads to her inevitable demise are black. The attendant, the security officer...even the cabbie and the stranger she bumped. To a black person living in a white world, does it feel like this? Make a few mistakes with people who are smiling at you and your status lowers, and lowers, and then suddenly people have reason to believe you deserve worse treatment. "You did it to yourself," you know? From being loud in a cab, from being careless, from losing your temper. And of course, once people start turning away from Lacie because they see her 3, her 2 coming, she can't help but act more mad, more wild, more crude. From the moment she wasn't perfect (or, rather, someone else decided she wasn't) she was dropped so far down the ladder of human empathy, how could she resist taking a, well, nosedive?

By the end of the episode, Lacie is in a jail cell. Having hit zero, her status is completely taken away. There is one other prisoner across from her (a black man). They scream obscenities at each other, finally absolved of all consequences. They are rude but their attacks aren't personal. They are free, both near smiling at how unbound by the tethers of cotton candy world they've become as they curse each other out. Primal counterculture that someone still swimming in the system would see as barbaric.

Okay, maybe I'm taking the casting way too literally, but also the first person we encounter in exile is a black man trying desperately to bump up from his 3 status after a breakup. He is walking around giving free smoothies to people at the office. Lacie takes one, gives him a happy rating, and is berated by a cubicle-mate. Turns out the poor guy went through a breakup, and everyone is on the other half's side. Lacie is downvoted for simply accepting the guy's nice gesture. Um, this is what it was like to be friends with black people in the 50s, yes? To protect their own status, white people could not help raise the Other's.

As a white person, I DO think I gained a lot from watching the story through a racial lens. I don't think I'm racist, but who does? I am packing up the idea that an individual's status is not created by Self but rather by a huge surrounding mass of people, most with little understanding of the Self, and keeping it with me.

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