‘The Sequel is So Much Darker’: Why Series Don’t Always Get Darker – and Why That’s A Good Thing

Harry-potter-films

Sequels to science fiction and fantasy books, films and TV series are often described as ‘darker’ than their immediate predecessor, a trend that I first noticed with Harry Potter. Retrospectives on the book series tend to assume that Voldemort’s return in the fourth book, Goblet of Fire, shifted the series towards a ‘darker’, ‘more mature’, tone; retrospectives on the film series point the finger at the third film, Prisoner of Azkaban, where director Alfonso Cuaron deliberately created a Hogwarts with a very different feel to Chris Columbus’s version (at the time, most newspapers ran with ‘Harry Potter hits puberty‘, praising Cuaron’s revamp). Nevertheless, this trend started earlier; every Harry Potter film was described as darker than the one before it. A number of professional reviewers praised the second film, Chamber of Secrets for being ‘better and darker than its predecessor’. Entertainment Weekly wrote that the film ‘deepen[ed] the darker, more frightening atmosphere for audiences. This is as it should be: Harry’s story is supposed to get darker’, referring to J.K. Rowling’s stated intention that the series should ‘grow up with its readers’. However, even after the tonal shift when Voldemort regains a physical body in Goblet of Fire, reviewers kept praising the films for being darker than the last. ‘Harry Potter grows older and darker’ was Time‘s headline for their review of Order of the Phoenix .

Given the larger number of books and films in the Harry Potter series, this trend is most obvious for this franchise, but is not confined to it. You might not think that a series that kicks off with the state-sanctioned murder of 23 children and adolescents by their peers could get any darker, but according to reviewers, the Hunger Games franchise did. The Atlantic found Mockingjay: Part 1, the third film in the series, ‘darker, more relentless’ than the previous installments, spelling out what they meant while unintentionally proving the Sequel Is Always Darker rule: ‘The second installment was already weightier than the first, and in this outing the moral gravity has been ratcheted up once more.’ The Star Wars prequel Rogue One was obviously going to have a different tone from the earlier films, given its content, but alongside its universal reputation as ‘dark’, fans still asked ‘Should Rogue One Have Been Even Darker?‘ To look at a different kind of follow-up, remakes of classic movies are often praised as being ‘darker’ than the originals. Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake was seen as ‘the darker side of Willy Wonka‘. Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has been reviewed as both ‘darker’ than the original 1990s sitcom and comic book series and as getting darker than its original self season-by-season. Showrunners also love to tease fans with ‘darker’ sequels, as with this piece on the third season of Stranger Things,  which claims, ‘it’s definitely going to get darker still – [it will go to?] places that I think audiences are going to really love.’

But what do reviewers actually mean when they say that a book or film is ‘darker’ than its predecessor? We could spend ages arguing over what it means to be ‘dark’ (kill count? tone? grey morality?) or whether or not these sequels are actually darker, but instead, I want to suggest that when people say something is ‘darker’, they mean it is ‘better’, and this is a big problem.

Why does darker = better, especially when it comes to popular science fiction and fantasy series? My hypothesis is that it’s a signal that these books and films are worthy of adult attention, and so it’s OK if you’re an adult and you like them. Popular associations surrounding these genres still associate them with children, and one way for both artists and their fans to try and shed this ‘childish’ reputation is to talk about how dark their work is, and how much darker it’s going to be. This also explains why the first episode may be dark, but the next one is always darker: series need to ‘mature’, ‘grow up’, ‘develop’, because these are all Good Things, whereas remaining in the supposedly immature and undeveloped world of childhood is bad.

This is problematic enough in itself, because it simultaneously devalues children and adolescents, claims that young people don’t want complex stories, and assumes that being into ‘darker’ media makes you a better, more serious adult. It sets up a false binary between cheery, morally black-and-white children’s fiction and dark, morally grey fiction for adults. However, I’d also argue that playing into this narrative leads writers, filmmakers and showrunners into serious trouble. I’m going to reserve my full Harry Potter rant for another post, but suffice it to say that I think Rowling’s decision to make the series ‘grow up with Harry’ not only gives it a horribly uneven tone, but actually leads to it becoming less morally interesting. Rogue One disappointed me terribly because it served up such simplistic and boring characters compared to its companion film, A New Hope, as if being serious means that you don’t get to have a personality (you know you’ve gone wrong when the robot is the most compelling person in your film). And season three of Stranger Things misstepped by deciding that it had to fully embrace adolescence rather than exploring the ways in which our protagonists are still children – or realising that it was its celebration of childhood creativity and ingenuity that made the first two series so great.

I think it’s time to abolish the assumption that darker is better, or even that calling something ‘dark’ is a meaningful description. I love a lot of fiction that has been called ‘dark’, such as A Song of Ice and Fire and Black Mirror. But give me The Force Awakens or the book version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone any day over other films or books in those franchises that try to be ‘dark’ because they think that’s how to be ‘grown up’, and, in doing so, reinforce our limited ideas of what is worthy of our notice.

 

 

Rewatching Black Mirror: Arkangel

This is part of a very occasional series where I rewatch and review Black Mirror episodes. I’ve already written about ‘San Junipero’ and ‘Hang the DJ’. I only review episodes where I feel like I have something to say, so don’t expect this to be comprehensive. (I am a big fan of Black Mirror, so when I’m critical, it’s only because I hold the show to such high standards… and often I have more to say about episodes that I think didn’t quite work.)

WARNING: This post contains major spoilers for the Black Mirror Season 4 episode ‘Arkangel’. If you haven’t seen it and don’t want to be spoiled, do not read this post.

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‘Arkangel’ is Black Mirror’s modern childhood episode, an episode that writer Charlie Brooker thinksonly a parent could write’, that introduces a piece of technology that ‘it would be very hard for many parents to not agree to use’. That piece of technology is Arkangel, an implant in a child’s brain that allows the parent to track their every movement, to look through their eyes, and to impose ‘parental control settings’ on what they can see and hear. When single mother Marie first has Arkangel installed into her daughter Sara, Sara is a small child, and it seems essential to be able to see where she is when she runs away or to screen out the large dog that barks at her and scares her. But as Sara becomes a teenager, even though Marie has promised not to use Arkangel any more, she can’t resist the temptation to take the controller out of its box when Sara stays out too late one night.

The problem with ‘Arkangel’, for me, is, although it effectively uses a tried-and-tested Black Mirror technique by offering us two interpretations of the events that unfold, neither of those interpretations are very interesting. One: Marie is a control freak, children need to be exposed to the bad things in the world, and parents need to let go. This is backed up by Marie’s boyfriend, a motorcycle rider, who thinks that life is about taking risks; by Marie’s father, who points out that while she might have broken an arm as a child it didn’t do her any long-term damage; and by Sara’s experience as a pre-teen, when she is isolated from the other children at school because she can’t see the gory things they’re watching online. Two: Marie went too far with Arkangel, but there are obvious reasons why this technology is a good thing, so we can’t reject it so easily. Through Sara’s eyes, Marie realised her father was having a heart attack and was able to get him medical help; the teenage Sara, once free of Arkangel, strides out to accept a lift from a stranger without any thought for the consequences; and are the gory things Sara watched online as a child partly behind her vicious attack on her mother when she finds out the truth?

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Both of these narratives about childhood and adolescence are already very familiar, and ‘Arkangel’ doubles down on the cliches by presenting a mother and a teenage daughter who have a completely stereotypical relationship. Fifteen-year-old Sara rebels by taking drugs and having sex, and lies to her mum about where she’s been. Rather than talking to Sara about this, Marie prefers to use Arkangel to spy on her; while this is an extreme reaction, it fits into the fictional parental playbook of teenagers who scream ‘You don’t understand me!” and parents who respond “You’re grounded!” This episode is watchable enough, but it never brings its characters to life in the same way as other Black Mirror episodes manage to do in an equally short space of time (not my favourite episode, but compare the presentation of the young American backpacker in ‘Playtest’, whom we care about as a person before horrible things start happening to him).

There was real potential in ‘Arkangel’. One alternative plot that I kept thinking about while rewatching the episode was: what if Marie had handed over control of Arkangel to Sara when she became a teenager? Arkangel is billed as a parental control device, but you could also manipulate your own settings to protect yourself from traumatic things you don’t want to see. Would this be a way of avoiding reality, or a sensible move to allow yourself to adapt to stimuli that scare you? ‘Arkangel’ pushes the idea that you can only get past your fear of something by exposing yourself to it – Sara only stops being afraid of the scary dog once she can see and hear it – but is that fair? (I know a lot of people who are still scared of dogs to this day because they were barked at aggressively as children).

‘Arkangel’ reflects recent sociological and historical work on modern Western childhood and youth, tapping into the argument that the reduction of children’s and adolescents’ freedom to roam independently in the last seventy years has been profoundly harmful. However, it’s not as squarely on the side of children and young people as it might appear on first viewing, by presenting Sara as violent and impulsive, unable to understand the consequences of her actions. By allowing Marie and Sara to collaborate over how to use this technology, ‘Arkangel’ could have presented both characters with truly difficult choices. Instead, Sara becomes a reckless adolescent, and Marie an abusive mother, fulfilling their tropes rather than questioning them.

 

Little Women (BBC, 2017) vs Little Women (Columbia, 2019)

When the hype for Greta Gerwig’s film version of Little Women (2019) started to get going, I felt a bit confused. The film was being hailed as a modern take on the classic novel that finally drew out its feminist themes, foregrounded the real, human relationships between the women of the family, and gave both Jo and Amy the credit they deserve. But for me, all of this had already been done – by the stellar BBC television adaptation of the novel in 2017.

Before anyone gets cross, I really liked Greta Gerwig’s film – but I think Vanessa Caswill’s very different adaptation has been unfairly sidelined. So I thought it would be fun to pitch these two against each other. I will only compare things that I care about, so don’t expect this to be in any way fair.

Warning, this post probably won’t make much sense unless you are already familiar with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Good Wives!

Meg

Let’s start with an easy one. Meg from 2017 (Willa Fitzgerald) is streets ahead of Meg from 2019 (Emma Watson), and because No-One Likes Meg, it’s so important to get her right. This is down to the acting, but – even though I’m not a Watson fan – I think the script is the crucial factor here. The longer runtime of the BBC mini-series allows Meg to come into her own. Fitzgerald portrays her with a quiet serenity that makes her affectations at the Moffats’ party feel genuinely out of character, and giving her time to talk about her work as a governess – and be snubbed by an English snob, as she is in the novel – means that her desire for pretty things feels less shallow and more understandable. As she moves into adulthood, the harrowing birth scene added in 2017 makes her life feel real and hard rather than merely a heteronormative fantasy that’s there to taunt Jo.

I think that the 2019 film had its heart in the right place with Meg. For example, her line to Jo – ‘just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant – indicates that we are meant to see her as a person worthy of respect in her own right, and that Gerwig wants us to recognise that women who choose a traditional path of marriage and child-bearing are not inherently inferior. But I think that the way that 2019 chooses to value Meg is a bit of a misstep, emphasising the need for both sisters to understand each other rather than the true, inherent conflict between their dreams. Meg wants her own home and family; Jo wants her ‘first family’ to remain together forever. Both films are really good at portraying Jo’s anguish at the prospect of losing Meg, but only 2017 actually presents it as the insoluble problem that it is. But because 2017 takes Jo so seriously, it also allows us to feel the pressure that Jo’s expectations put on Meg, with Jo looming in the background of John’s proposal like a forbidding, virtuous angel. Meg is sometimes seen as moralistic, but Jo shows us that she’s actually the sister who holds others to viciously high standards. +1 to 2017.

Jo

Let’s move on to a more difficult one. Yes, Saoirse Ronan’s portrayal of Jo in 2019 is, I think, better than Maya Fitzgerald’s portrayal of Jo in 2017. But, again, this isn’t just down to the two actors, but about the choices made by script and direction. 2019 is the Jo Show, and the character is totally captivating. Gerwig draws out the queer undertones of Jo’s character much more effectively than any other adaptation I’ve seen, and she gets a huge amount of screen time to explore the central tension in her life: that, as she puts it in the most memorable scene of the 2019 film, she doesn’t want to get married but nor does she want to live her life alone. ‘Jo’s Dark Days’ is one of my favourite chapters of Little Women and Good Wives, and 2019 gets that so well. However, if Jo is less striking in the 2017 adaptation, it’s partly because the script has made a deliberate choice to give more time to Marmee and to the other sisters, which strengthens the story as a whole. So 2019 wins, but at a cost. +1 to 2019.

Beth

Maybe nobody likes Meg, but the character I found most difficult in the novel was always Beth – I still find her death totally unmoving except in terms of how it affects Jo. Annes Elwy in 2017 and Eliza Scanlen in 2019 both do an admirable job of making her a little less dull. Both adaptations play up her social anxiety, which helps us to understand the character a little more, but on balance, I preferred the deliberate weirdness of 2019’s Beth, who constructs elaborate tableaux with her dolls at the table and uses the fact of her impending death to get Jo to write her the stories she wants. +1 to 2019.

Amy

Everyone’s supposed to hate Amy, but I always liked her, and both 2017 and 2019 bring Justice for Amy. Both adaptations make the choice to have Amy played by the same actor throughout, which means they both make certain sacrifices. Kathryn Newton (2017) is much more convincing as Young Amy, partly because she gets more screen-time, so although neither version really helps us understand why Amy burns Jo’s book, 2017 gives us more space to explore Amy’s character development after the terrible deed. For example, we get the scene where Amy writes a will, with Laurie’s help, when Beth is sick with scarlet fever, and makes a specific bequest to Jo because she’s sorry about her book and wants to be a better person.

On that note, I really disliked the fact that the 2019 adaptation chose to have Amy in love with Laurie all along, rather than being the self-centred, creative, clever, irritating person she actually is in the first volume. 2019 really wants us to buy into Amy and Laurie, a pairing that a lot of fans find difficult to accept, but because I never had a problem with them in the first place, I never found this to be such a plot hurdle. 2017 handles the pairing more subtly by showing us how Amy and Laurie interact while she’s still a child and he’s still in love with Jo, while 2019 uses its non-chronological structure to intercut shots of the young Amy pining after Laurie while older Amy realises that he’s finally falling for her. Not a fan, bring back selfish Amy please.

However, having said that, Florence Pugh (2019) is so good as the older Amy, and one of the stand-out moments of the film is when she explains to Laurie that while marriage might not be a financial transaction for him, it surely is for her. Some of the assumed modernity of 2019 grated on me, but I can completely believe that this is something that Amy might say to the dissipated and ‘lazy’ Laurie. It’s a score draw. +1 to 2017, +1 to 2019.

Marmee

2019 did not get Marmee. She’s one of the key casualties of its meta approach to the source text, with Gerwig unable to play her deeply held moral beliefs – based on a life of repression and self-sacrifice – straight and instead retconning in feminist statements. As Sarah Blackwood writes in the New Yorker:

Marmee belongs at the heart of the story. Gerwig’s adaptation is too committed to the idea of Jo as a transformative feminist hero to plumb these depths. The story that Gerwig’s film wants us to own—the story that so many redemptive, individualist readings of the novel push us toward—is the one where there are survivors, singular women who somehow escape. I don’t think this was the story Alcott was telling. 

One of my favourite scenes in the novel is the scene when Marmee talks to Jo after Amy falls through the ice; partly because it’s one of the few scenes that gives us a glimpse of Marmee as a person. Both 2017 and 2019, unusually, adapt this scene, but I don’t think either of them quite get it right. In the book, Marmee tells Jo: “You think your temper is the worst in the world, but mine used to be just like it.” Jo can’t believe it: “Yours, Mother? Why, you are never angry!” Marmee explains: “I’ve been trying to cure it for forty years, and have only succeeded in controlling it. I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it, and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so.”

In an age where we are told – and rightly so – that rage becomes her, that anger is a positive emotion, that the criticism and belittling of women’s anger, particularly the anger of women of colour, is a tool of the patriarchy, Marmee’s words may feel too anti-feminist to screen, and it’s noticeable that neither adaptation lets her say the full quotation. However, I think that we need to know this about Marmee if we are going to understand her character. Marmee isn’t sweetness and light; she is a mother who cares deeply about her daughters but is still deeply embedded in the society in which she lives. 2019 sees her offering her daughters ‘outs’, suggesting to Jo that her life can be different from the one that Marmee herself has lived. The harsher, less forgiving Marmee in 2017 (Emily Watson) is much more accurate, and much more interesting, and as a bonus, unlike Laura Dern, she doesn’t look like she’s dressed up for a day at the office. +1 to 2017.

Mr March

Mr March is literally missing in action in 2019 even after he comes home from war, with Bob Odenkirk only appearing in a couple of shots (none of which I could find to use for this post). While I slightly admire Gerwig’s determination to make the patriarch of the family ‘not seen and not heard’, this choice undermines the reality of the sisters’ worry about him, and further diminishes Marmee as an independent individual. While Mr March (Dylan Baker) doesn’t have a great deal more to do in 2017, he’s there enough to address these issues. +1 to 2017.

Laurie

I don’t really care about Laurie as a character, except insofar as the way he is presented affects the characterisation of Jo and Amy. 2019’s Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) is much more engaging, but I think 2017’s Laurie (Jonah Hauer-King) does a better job of getting across why the essentially conventional Laurie is not right for Jo. Both films handle the proposal scene heartbreakingly well, but 2019 leans harder on the idea that Jo never wants to get married, whereas 2017 is more focused on Jo’s assertion that she does not love Laurie romantically, but may love somebody else in the future. I like 2019’s interpretation more, but I actually found the 2017 version of the scene more convincing. As I’ve suggested, both adaptations also do a pretty good job of setting up Amy and Laurie as a romantic pairing. It’s a score draw. +1 to 2017, +1 to 2019.

Professor Bhaer

I mean, that says it all, doesn’t it? Alcott was cross about having to marry Jo off at the end of Good Wives, so she invented Professor Friedrich Bhaer, an older German intellectual who is not conventionally attractive (Mark Stanley, 2017); the pair team up to open a school for boys. Making Bhaer into a hottie (Louis Garrel, 2019) totally undermines that, whatever the meta intentions of Gerwig’s choice, and I’m not sure about the more conventional feminist resolution of having Jo and Friedrich open a mixed-sex school instead of a boys’ school either.

Rewatching the 2017 adaptation, in contrast, made me see why Friedrich is a good match for the Jo presented in this version of Little Women. Jo, as I suggested above, is an idealist who holds other people to her scarily high moral standards, and the person she’s hardest upon is herself. Modern readers find the scene where Professor Bhaer paternalistically criticises Jo’s stories hard to swallow – and this scene isn’t adapted fully in either 2017 or 2019 – but the intention behind his criticism is to show that he believes that these stories don’t represent the moral or emotional truth Jo is capable of writing. The 2017 adaptation gets how important it is for Jo to have someone who believes in her, not as a writer (I never got the sense that Jo was lacking in self-confidence where her writing is concerned) but as a good person. +1 to 2017.

The Civil War

Neither film lingers on the realities of the Civil War or its legacies of white supremacy, but 2019 gives a couple of black characters speaking parts, whereas the only black person in 2017 is a corpse on a stretcher. (If you want to read more about the whiteness of Little WomenKaitlyn Greenidge’s essay in The New York Times is a good place to start). +1 to 2019.

Story structure

2017 tells the story in strict chronological order. 2019 intercuts between Little Women and Good Wives, so, for example, both of Beth’s sickbed scenes are juxtaposed together, and Jo is trying to sell her stories at the start of the film. I admire the idea behind 2019’s out-of-order storytelling, but I don’t think it really works. It makes the film feel even more rushed and choppy, and I’m not sure a viewer who wasn’t very familiar with these two volumes could easily follow it. +1 to 2017.

So meta

Modern Little Women adaptations are always a little bit meta, something that some of the reviews of the 2019 film have missed. (Even the 1994 adaptation shows Jo writing her life story). However, 2019 goes a step further, presenting two potential endings to Jo’s story – one in which she marries Professor Bhaer and runs her school, and one in which, like her creator, she becomes a ‘literary spinster’. This pulls out a lot of the thematic material that is latent in Little Women and Good Wives and gets at some of the ideas raised above about how all of the sisters are stuck in the system, but it does also feed into the suggestion that exceptional women are able to escape. For me personally, the straightforward 2017 adaptation feels more useful to think with, but I have to admit that 2019 has probably brought the tensions at the heart of Little Women to a bigger audience. It’s a score draw. +1 to 2017, +1 to 2019.

THE VERDICT

2017: 8 points

2019: 6 points

To be honest, we’re lucky to have two such great adaptations of this great novel. However, 2017 wins out for me because I think it’s willing to present the viewer with more difficult material, because it doesn’t aim to wrap everything up with a feminist bow, and because it acknowledges that Marmee, not Jo, is the centre of the story.

Has anyone else seen both these adaptations? What did you think? Or are any of the earlier adaptations closer to your heart?

 

 

Three Things… September 2019

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter!

Reading

 

I’ve been delving into a subreddit called nosleep, which focuses on ‘realistic horror stories’; as you’d expect, it’s of very mixed quality, but contains some real gems. On Elle’s recommendation, I started with ‘Has anyone heard of the Left/Right game?’, and moved on to ‘I’m a search and rescue officer for the US Forest Service, I have some stories to tell’. The first is a straightforward ‘found footage’ set-up, focusing on a journalist called Alice who sets off on a journey along a terrifying road, and has a fully realised plot that is recounted to us through a series of files that Alice’s friend, the subreddit poster, claims to have found. The second doesn’t have a plot as such, but is actually even scarier as we’re introduced to a series of mysterious disappearances in one of the US National Parks, and the sets of staircases that rangers occasionally come across that lead to nowhere. They’re told by their superiors never to go near them or talk about them, but of course some people break the rules…

What I find especially fascinating about these nosleep stories is the way that they play with the genre conventions of message boards to create a new kind of fiction. In one sense, this is a very traditional way to tell a story – in serialised parts – but it gets interesting when commentators below the line start playing along, and treat the story as if it’s real, like this poster on the US Forest Service story: ‘I’ve heard about these staircases too, my ex was a SAR officer and he mentioned them and told me not to tell anyone. It pissed me off, because he didn’t know much about them and didn’t seem to find it as fascinating as I did.’ Obviously, part of the game is not knowing who’s recounting real stories and who’s deliberately playing into the theme of the board, and if possible, this makes these stories even more terrifying. Seriously, do not read either of these after dark, or, if you’re easily spooked, by yourself. Both of them remind me a little of James Smythe’s SF novels The Explorer and The Echowhich suggests how well horror conventions can be integrated into other genres (see also: George R.R. Martin’s depiction of the Red Wedding in A Storm of Swords). But they also made me think about how horror rarely works well in long form, and how this is a new way to connect with readers.

Watching

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On a very different note, I’ve been indulging in nostalgia recently! I went to see Wise Children’s production of Malory Towersadapted and directed by Emma Rice, at the York Theatre Royal. I loved Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers novels as a child but am in no sense a Malory Towers purist; I liked how this show drew on elements from all six novels in a mishmash of fun. The cast have a great energy and there are some hilarious moments, most notably Mary-Lou dangling from a cliff and being rescued by a horse.  School bully Gwendoline was also depicted wonderfully (I’m a Gwendoline apologist and so is this show). Nevertheless, it didn’t quite come together for me as a whole. I think this was partly the result of trying to handle too many characters; Rice rightly wants to show how all the girls are flawed and have their own secrets and complexities, but there’s just too much going on. Also, a number of the character choices for the pupils jarred for me. In the original, Sally is terribly jealous of her baby sister, and Alicia is an incredibly smart girl who struggles to empathise with others because everything comes so easily to her. In this, only child Sally is simply ignored by her parents and Alicia worries about keeping up with the other girls in lessons. In short, they’re both reduced to much less interesting archetypes, and I didn’t understand why.

Finally, Bill was a highlight of the show for me; played wonderfully by non-binary actor Vinnie Heaven, the character is exuberantly gender non-conforming. The show itself did a good job of leaving it up to the audience how to interpret Bill, I thought; is he a trans boy, are they non-binary, or is she a lesbian in a very 1940s mould? However, the reviews of this show all seem to have decided that Bill is definitely trans (it’s not clear whether Rice herself intended the reading to be so set in stone). I find this a bit of a problem because the character in the play is produced from the rolling together of two Blyton characters who are canonically lesbian (some may question this, but they would be wrong; the two characters decide to live together and set up a stables at the end of the series, and for anyone who knows anything about inter-war lesbian coding, it’s written all over them). There does seem to be a tendency recently for media to operate a ‘one in one out’ policy on lesbian and trans characters; if your show has a trans man, it seemingly can’t have a lesbian as well (see also: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrinawhich I’ve been watching on Netflix). Both trans men and lesbians are still chronically under-represented, so I think this is really sad. Why can’t we have both?

Thinking

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After giving my talk on ‘When children became evil’ at the British Science Festival, which was held this year at the University of Warwick, I enjoyed seeing some of the other talks. The highlight for me was probably Robin Allaby’s talk on ‘The lost landmass of Doggerland’ where he described his team’s scientific research on this lost landmass in the North Sea that used to connect Britain and Europe. I was fascinated to hear about a wide range of phenomena, including ‘Seahenge’, a submerged timber circle discovered in Norfolk, the remains of forests that can be found under the North Sea (I already knew about the ones found in Cambridgeshire peat fens!), and the Storegga Slide tsunami that caused an underwater landslide 8200 years ago, marking this hidden landscape. Julia Blackburn’s Time Song: Searching for Doggerland was already on my TBR list, but now I’m extra keen to read it. I was also fascinated by Diva Amon’s talk on ‘The dark heart of the ocean‘, which focused on deep-sea mining but also included some interesting bits about deep sea landscapes, such as how ancient many of the organisms are (tubeworms can live up to 1000 years and black corals 4200 years) and so how hard they find it to adapt to human interference. Finally, Hannah Belcher, Karen Leneh Buckle, Will Mandy and Hannah Hayward spoke on ‘Autism: the lost girls’, about how girls with autism are routinely ignored or misdiagnosed because of the ‘extreme male brain’ stereotype: the most moving part of this talk was the Q&A, where many audience members spoke of their own struggles with getting help for their daughters or granddaughters.

Three Things… July 2019

It’s ages since I’ve done a Three Things! Borrowed, as ever, from Paula at Book Jotter.

Reading

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The Terrible, a memoir by poet and short-story writer Yrsa Daley-Ward, falls into the category of prose-poetry that has attracted criticism recently for being easy and vague, and for prizing ‘relatability’ above other artistic considerations. Poets like Daley-Ward, Hollie McNish and Rupi Kaur have been disparagingly termed ‘Instapoets’ because of their significant social media presence and use of Instagram to highlight their poetry; given that poets nowadays need to be proactive in engaging with their audience, I don’t find this term useful, and nor do I think that using Instagram makes you a less serious writer. Nevertheless, I broadly agree with poet Rebecca Watts’ now infamous piece in PN Review, ‘The cult of the noble amateur’, which focuses on McNish, that McNish’s and Kaur’s poetry is problematic because it is characterised by an ‘open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft’. This assumes, Watts argues, that poems are not ‘deliberately created works’ but naturally occurring outbursts of feeling, and thus positions them as something that ‘anyone could write’. Unfortunately, I felt that Daley-Ward’s memoir, despite some interesting sections, also ended up in this place.

The Terrible is certainly honest, and it is brave in its exploration of childhood and adolescent trauma. Yrsa and her little brother Roo grew up with their Seventh-Day Adventist grandparents in north-west England; their mother was both present and absent in their childhood. ‘I think she loves us a bit,’ the young Yrsa tells Roo, ‘but not as much as other people’s mums.’ Daley-Ward writes well about how she was meant to feel alienated from her own body before she even hit her teens; entering puberty early, being exoticised as a woman of colour, encountering the ‘powerfear’ of men’s sexual attraction to her. At nine and a half, she writes, ‘I longed for smallness; to be petite. To have small hands and feet and no growing pains; no angry lion dreams and definitely no boobs.’ However, these sections are some of the few in the book that are narrated in prose, and are the stronger for it.

As Daley-Ward moves into her teens, she narrates more and more in prose-poetry (which often just feels like confessional, split-up prose) as she recounts her time in sex work and her isolation in the world. After sleeping with a much older man for money and having to hurriedly leave because his daughters are arriving, she thinks ‘He has daughters. He has a family. It does not feel fair that someone so old should have a doting family and someone as young as me should have no-one.’ But most of these chapters feel like words spilt onto the page, too easy, too emotive, often in a manipulative second-person voice:

You

reduce food to 1200 calories

reduce food to 1000 calories

don’t tell anyone what’s happening with Peter

He wants to leave his wife. Oh God.

He says “You’re losing too much weight.

Eat. Please eat.”

 I wonder if the problem with this kind of poetry, as with McNish’s and Kaur’s, is that it’s really written to be spoken rather than read, that on the page we’re only getting part of the performance. But if that’s the case, this memoir needed to be rethought; for me, this doesn’t work in print. Rather than capturing the specificity of Yrsa’s experiences as her more straightforward writing does, it reduces them and makes them trite. I’d like to see Daley-Ward write more consistently in prose, rather than resort to this hybrid form, as it seems to be where her talents lie.

I received a free proof copy of this memoir from the publisher for review.

Watching

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People who know me IRL will know I’m a huge Stranger Things fan. The first two series packed a huge emotional punch for me, especially as I watched them in a row when I was having a difficult time back in January 2018. For those who haven’t watched Stranger Things, it’s set in Hawkins, a fictional small town in Indiana, in the 1980s (and never lets you forget it; this is 80s nostalgia writ large). The main focus of the show is a group of friends on the cusp of their teens, one of whom goes missing after a game of Dungeons and Dragons one night, and the strange, traumatised girl they encounter, Eleven, who turns out to have psychokinetic powers. Our heroes soon start to suspect there’s something supernatural going on beneath the surface of Hawkins, and decide to investigate…

[Mild spoilers for Stranger Things 1 and 2 follow.]

After how much I loved the first two series, Stranger Things 3 was a bit of a let-down. Partly, this is beyond the showrunners’ control: the charm of the first two series lay largely in their exploration of the last years of childhood, when you no longer believe in magic but really want to, and as the central cast age into adolescence, this was never going to work in the same way. However, there were other aspects of Stranger Things 3 that I found a bit lacking. A number of the characters became caricatures of themselves. I’ve always disliked Mike, one of the pre-teens, but I hated him with the intensity of a thousand suns this season as he’s pretty much horrible to everybody around him, especially best friend Will and new girlfriend Eleven. Similarly, disillusioned police chief Hopper seemed to be vicious rather than just jaded, and local mother Joyce, who always shouted a lot, seemed to be shouting even more. There was also not nearly enough Will, the original missing person, who for me has always been the heart of the series. Some of the brilliance of the earlier series was still present – I will always adore Dustin, and his alliance with Steve and Robin was inspired – but, overall, I felt like this season of Stranger Things was more schlocky, less scary, and less haunting.

Thinking

I’ve been listening to a brand new podcast, What Editors Want, which is about what publishers look for in an author and book. The first episode, featuring Louisa Joyner from Faber & Faber, was excellent, and it’s nice to get a different take on publishing after having read 1000+ articles on ‘what agents want’. I went to an event with Joyner at the Durham Book Festival where she was talking with three of her debut authors, and I really admire her approach to getting good books to readers. While I disagree with her that there’s no distinction between commercial and literary fiction, I definitely agree that there are a lot of fantastic books that fall into that liminal space.

Three Things… January 2019

Reading

Earlier this month, I read Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging for my book club; it’s basically the book I wanted Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race to be. It moves beyond simplistic journalism to ask interesting and nuanced questions about race in Britain today. Hirsch, the daughter of a Ghanian mother and European Jewish father, is very good on her own search for belonging in Britain and in Ghana, and how this points to wider issues; the invention of new racial ‘others’, such as Muslims and Poles; the sense that a light-skinned, middle-class, mixed-race woman is somehow unthreatening in a way that Hirsch’s husband, a dark-skinned working-class black man, can never be. Highly recommended, and useful reading for my modern British history undergraduates as well.

Rachel Kushner’s Booker-shortlisted The Mars Room was also a hit, and a pleasant surprise after I struggled somewhat with her previous novel, The Flamethrowers. It’s 2002, and Romy Hall has been condemned to two consecutive life sentences – plus an extra six years – in Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. Darting between a range of narrators, and from first to third person, it’s Romy’s voice that holds the book together. The novel is inevitably reminiscent of Orange is the New Black, but although there are moments of black humour, it takes on the much more brutal side of life in maximum security, unlike the relatively relaxed regime of minimum-security Litchfield. Hugely disturbing, it ends on a carefully-judged moment of rebellion plus oppression.

I was less impressed by Sonia Velton’s derivative historical debut, Blackberry and Wild Rose, set among the Spitalfields community of exiled Huguenot silk weavers in the late eighteenth century, which joins the club of female-led historical fiction novels with gorgeous covers but overwritten narratives. More of my thoughts can be found on Goodreads. I’m now starting Chibundu Onuzo’s Welcome to Lagoswhich follows a group of five newcomers who want to start a new life in the Nigerian city that has perhaps featured in the largest number of novels, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Death By Black Holea collection of popular essays on astrophysics that I’m keen to get going on after my recent excursion into quantum mechanics.

Watching

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Knowing my love of fiction set in polar regions, my dad insisted that I try Fortitude, a Sky Atlantic drama set in a fictional Arctic town in Svalbard, when I was staying with him over New Year. At first, I was hesitant, but I was won over by its careful plotting and beautiful, if sometimes grim, landscapes. The town is headlined as somewhere where ‘no-one ever dies’ and where no violent crime is ever committed, so it’s not surprising when the series kicks off with two deaths: Billy Pettigrew (Tam Dean Burn), a geologist who may or may not have been eaten by a polar bear, and Charlie Stoddart (Christopher Eccleston), whose corpse is found bizarrely mutilated in his own home. Fortitude starts off on a solid crime-drama footing, as DCI Eugene Morton (Stanley Tucci) arrives from the mainland to investigate the second incident and is accordingly resented and obstructed by the local police force, especially Sheriff Dan Anderssen (Richard Dormer). However, it ends up in much weirder, gorier and more speculative places. Huge content warning for gore and violence on this one: I can’t watch that sort of thing, so I used the Guardian live-blog to warn me of what was up ahead when watching the first series, as the explicit scenes are intermittent enough that I didn’t miss too much. (My dad had already spoiled the central plot twist, so I didn’t really care!)

Thinking

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I’ve been rewriting the Fiction section of this blog to better reflect the projects I’m actually working on at the moment. You can find the update here. In short: a time-travel novel set in fourteenth-century and twenty-first century Cambridgeshire, and a retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in contemporary Antarctica. In other news, my academic monograph is now virtually ready for final submission to its publisher, Manchester University Press. Hooray!

Thanks again to Paula for the Three Things idea! What have you been reading, watching and thinking this month?

Three Things… June 2018

Borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter.

Reading

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I’m on the last hundred pages of my book club’s choice for this month, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and I’m feeling pretty disappointed. The Immortal Life… deals with the story of a black, working-class American woman called Henrietta Lacks who died of cervical cancer at the age of only thirty-one. When a sample of cells was taken from her cervix, they unexpectedly became ‘immortal’, and became central to much significant scientific research in the decades to come as the HeLa cell line. However, nobody told Henrietta’s family what had happened to her cells, asked for their consent, or explained the facts of the matter when they did find out what was going on. This was obviously traumatic for a family haunted by the history of medical experimentation on enslaved black Americans, more recent scandals such as Tuskagee, and their own lack of access to medical treatment. Skloot deals with both the medical history of the HeLa line and the story of Henrietta’s family.

The Immortal Life isn’t working for me for two main reasons. Firstly – as someone who is used to undertaking oral history and applying to ethical committees for clearance – the ethics of Skloot’s project remain unclear. Skloot writes scathingly about other attempts to uncover Henrietta’s life, but is not specific enough about why hers is any different. Why did an elite white woman decide so unwaveringly that this was the story she wanted to tell? The scene where she badgers Henrietta’s relatives until they agree to talk to her made me feel particularly uncomfortable. Skloot frequently alludes to the idea that Henrietta’s relatives approve of her book, but I wanted her to say a lot more about what they saw and how they vetted it – if not in the book itself, than in the Afterword.

My second concern is more to do with me as a reader. I’m finding the scientific material in The Immortal Life frustratingly simplistic, especially after having recently read Meredith Wadman’s The Vaccine Race, which gave me a lot more to get my teeth into. While I’m not knowlegeable enough to fully critique it, Skloot misses out the really interesting details and proceeds at a sub high-school/A Level rate (a cell is ‘like a fried egg’); she also definitely gets some things wrong (shortening telomeres cannot be straightforwardly linked to cell ageing). This isn’t what I want in my popular science, and as the medical ethics aspects of the book also fall short, my overall impression is that this book was a bit of a wasted opportunity.

Watching

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I’ve just finished the first season of 3% on Netflix, a Brazilian-made, low-budget show that’s been (annoyingly) dubbed into American English but is pretty watchable all the same. The set-up is Hunger Games-esque; the population lives in poverty, but when you turn twenty, you have one chance to join the elite 3% who live on the Offshore by passing the Process, a series of mental, physical and emotional tests. I’m enjoying the diverse cast (lots of characters of colour, including a prominent disabled character who actually gets to have a love life) and the twist at the end of the first season promises interesting avenues to explore in the future. I’m also looking forward to Netflix’s new series of Anne With An E and Orange Is The New Black, both of which I love.

Outside Netflix, my local independent cinema, the Tyneside, is having a Jane Campion season. Having already seen two of her best-known films, The Piano and Bright Star, I’m planning to see Holy Smoke and a collection of her very early work, Two Friends and Early Shorts, in the next few weeks. I will also continue enjoying the terribleness that is Holby City on the BBC (and celebrating its genuinely refreshing depiction of a happy relationship between a bisexual woman and a lesbian, both in their fifties) and Channel 4’s Bake Off: The Professionals (formerly Crème de la Crème) which I controversially prefer to the actual Bake Off.

Thinking

 UnknownI’ve just got back from the Children’s History Society conference at the University of Greenwich, which was full of interesting papers that gave me things to think about for my own work on the history of childhood. I particularly liked Emily Barker’s paper on adult ideas about children’s play in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, and the tensions between those who promoted play – should play spaces allow children to have absolute freedom from adult authority, or should play be guided by trained adults (‘playworkers’)? This mirrored some of my own research on progressive/child-centred education in the same period. A fantastic panel on ‘Moving Histories of Child Welfare’ featured research from Jono Taylor, Sean Male and Michael Lambert on child evacuees and children in care in wartime and post-war Britain, while the two other speakers on my panel, ‘Young People, Education and Political Engagement’, Helen Sunderland and Rebecca de Schweinitz, both gave great papers. Helen’s research – on how deeply politically engaged elite Victorian and Edwardian adolescent girls were – was particularly fascinating, and she’s also found some evidence of political engagement among working-class girls, some of whom struck from school in 1914 when a half-day at the local boys’ school wasn’t extended to them (the male teachers got time off to watch a football match!).

Black Mirror: Hang the DJ Isn’t A Happy Story

A new series of Black Mirror is available, and that means it’s time for my once-yearly TV post!

WARNING: This post contains major spoilers for the Black Mirror Season 4 episode ‘Hang the DJ’. If you haven’t seen it and don’t want to be spoiled, do not read this post.

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‘Hang the DJ’ is being received as this season’s ‘San Junipero’, a feel-good episode of Black Mirror where both the protagonists and the audience get to go home happy. Unlike ‘San Junipero’, however, nobody seems to be doubting this reading of the episode. Writer Charlie Brooker explicitly commented on the ending: ‘I think it’s a very happy moment… They know they are destined to have a very serious relationship and they’re each others’ chosen ones’. However, how do our two protagonists get to the point when they realise they’ve found their ‘chosen one’? And isn’t that idea in itself somewhat disturbing?

Amy and Frank meet using a dating app. We quickly become aware that this is an app with a difference. Not only is everything arranged in advance for the two of them – from the meals they eat to the driverless car that arrives to whisk them away to a romantic, secluded cottage – they’re told from the start that there’s a 12 hour time limit on their relationship. Predictably, they hit it off, and are sad to realise they probably won’t see each other again. Over the next year, both Amy and Frank are matched with a range of other incompatible people, with Frank drawing an especially short straw when he has to cohabit with a woman he hates for a whole twelve months. However, when they are paired again, Amy decides that the only way to win against the system and receive one’s perfect match might be to break the system. She and Frank decide to escape together from the bland world in which they are imprisoned…

… which is where the Black Mirror twist kicks in. We find out that everything Amy and Frank have gone through is simply one of a thousand versions of the same simulation. As they meet eyes in a bar in the real world, they’re informed by the app that they have 99.8% compatibility as they chose to escape together in 998 out of 1000 simulations. We’re left to believe that the app ran all those simulations in a fraction of a second, and now Amy and Frank can be confident that, in real life, they ought to be together.

But, to me, this doesn’t feel like a simple, happy ending, although it’s certainly much more upbeat than a lot of Black Mirror conclusions. Most obviously, it just returns us to the question the episode initially poses: can an app, however sophisticated, really predict who you are ‘destined to be with’? Is there any one person you are ‘destined to be with’ in the first place, and, even if there is, could an app that throws all sorts of other factors into the mix know that for sure? How about if your One True Love won’t break rules under any circumstances? (Although, I loved the sideswipe this episode gives to the protagonists of bad YA speculative fiction, who are so often presented as super special for daring to rebel, by emphasising that rebellion in this world is a boringly common occurrence.) Amy and Frank seem to be embarking on exactly the same journey as they did at the start, albeit with much more sophisticated dating software.

Secondly, given how consistently Black Mirror has portrayed digital replicas as living, thinking, sentient beings, isn’t it horrific to put your own digital replicas through so many mockeries of a life?

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Thirdly, I have to admit that I’m not really on board with the idea of a Black Mirror episode with a totally happy ending. I argued in my review of ‘San Junipero’ that the episode’s innovation was to give a happy ending to two gay women, as this so rarely happens in fiction. The same argument can’t be made for a heterosexual couple, which is why comparisons to ‘San Junipero’ somewhat miss the point. If we’re meant to read ‘Hang The DJ’ as completely happy, I think it falls flat; however, if we’re allowed to leave it with the questions I’ve outlined above playing on our minds, I think it ranks as one of the best episodes of a somewhat disappointing fourth season.

Seeking a better past: Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures

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The Tudors (2007-10)

History is about the probable, whereas historical fiction is about the possible. Or is this too tidy? In the fourth of her Reith lectures [1], Hilary Mantel spoke about the problems that can be created when historical fiction diverges from historical fact, citing the decision of the writers of the TV series The Tudors to combine Henry VIII’s two sisters into a single character. ‘The writers have eaten the future,‘ she said, pointing out that this not only made little historical sense of the remaining sister’s life (and led to the deletion of Mary Queen of Scots!) but obscured the fascinating stories of these two women. ‘The reason you must stick by the truth,’ she argued, addressing the historical novelist, ‘is that it is better, stranger, stronger than anything you can make up.’ Why, though, is this the case? The subtext in Mantel’s words is that writers are likely otherwise to resort to cliche; the truth is better not simply because it is true (and Mantel makes it clear throughout the Reith lectures that she is healthily sceptical of historical ‘truths’) but because it is more interesting. It challenges our assumptions. In other words, it is better to think with.

Hence, it’s not surprising that Mantel also notes throughout these lectures that one of the key jobs of the historical novelist is to explore the difference of the past, and not ‘distort’ historical characters into ‘versions of ourselves’, as tempting as it might be to seek our own faces and voices in the past. ‘A good novelist will have her characters operating within the ethical framework of their day – even if it shocks her readers,’ she notes. Why is this important? In the questions following her third lecture, Mantel expanded. When asked: ‘Isn’t the power of history… because the story is that things were different before and can be different again?’ she replied, ‘I think you’ve nailed it. History, the study of history, is a revolutionary study. If things were not always as they are now, they could be different in the future. They could be better.’

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Pride (2014)

As an historian of twentieth-century Britain who is also working on two historical novels (neither of which is set in twentieth-century Britain) I think what Mantel says here is absolutely right. Historical fiction should not use history simply as window-dressing. There must be a reason for your story to be set in the past, and – unless you are writing something for pure entertainment – that reason should not be solely because you wanted to put your characters into the midst of an exciting battle or interesting political event, but because there was something about the way things worked back then that you want to explore. It’s even less impressive, as Mantel also argues, to use the past as a useful supply of historical horrors to demonstrate how far we’ve come. To give some quick examples from twentieth-century British history, this is why I’ve never been a fan of the films Suffragette (2015) or Made in Dagenham (2010), because they don’t open up that imaginative space; they both present a world in which things were Bad Back Then (no votes for women, no equal pay) but are Better Now (Made in Dagenham conspicuously fails to mention the continuing gender pay gap in its historical update at the end).  In contrast, and regardless of how historically ‘accurate’ any of these films are, Pride (2014), on the story of the 1980s campaign Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, is a much better piece of historical fiction, because it at least confounds some of our expectations about class, sexuality and solidarity.

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Pieter Brugel the Elder, Children’s Games, c.1560.

However, Mantel’s assertions about difference are interesting precisely because many historians have spent much time emphasising that people in the past were not as different as we used to think. To take an example: I’m currently writing a semi-historical novel set in fourteenth-century Cambridgeshire, provisionally entitled A Minute’s Grace. (This novel is only ‘semi-historical’ because it’s a time travel novel, but still.) As I was aware before beginning this novel, a lot of work on medieval and early modern mindsets over the last few decades has been dedicated to squashing myths about absolute difference. Pre-modern people did love their children, despite high infant mortality. Furthermore, they had both a concept of childhood and a concept of youth. They probably had an internal sense of self. This myth-squashing extends to the kind of details that are the most fun for the novelist to play with. Pre-modern people – as Mantel notes – were much cleaner than we believe. Medieval England was not covered in forest. Therefore, as much as an historian-turned-novelist might subscribe to the idea that historical novels should be about difference, research can leave you running up against similarities. And, depending on the stories that we tell about that bit of the past, this can be just as surprising to the reader.

I’ve started to think that one thing historical novelists can usefully do is to engage with popular ideas about the past, rather than history itself (although I totally agree with Mantel when she says that historical fiction and history complement each other). This can be in the pursuit of emphasising ‘sameness’ as well as ‘difference’, if this upsets comfortable ideas about history. Sarah Perry has written about how much she relished presenting women’s social activism in late nineteenth-century Britain in her novel The Essex Serpent (2016), challenging ideas about passive Victorian ladies. In my own fiction, I’m aware there are dominant stories that we tell about the English medieval past that need to be challenged, even though one could theoretically write a fully ‘accurate’ English medieval historical novel without troubling these narratives. For example, inspired by the work of MedievalPOC, Our Migration Story, and the historian Dr Caitlin Green, I wanted to write about a medieval fenland where people of colour are present, even though the story I’m telling isn’t ‘about’ race or ethnicity. In simple statistical terms, the presence of such characters in the particular bit of Cambridgeshire I’m writing about isn’t necessarily probable. But is it possible? Yes. That’s the space in which fiction is written.

I’ll be saying more about story structure and its problems for both historians and novelists in my paper at the Creative Histories conference at the University of Bristol on Thursday July 20th. This blog has been cross-posted on Storying the Past.

[1] Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures, plus transcripts, can all be found here.

 

 

Rewatching ‘San Junipero’: the black mirror

black-mirror-san-junipero-gugu-mbatha-rawWARNING: This post contains major spoilers for the Black Mirror Season 3 episode ‘San Junipero’. If you haven’t seen it and don’t want to be spoiled, do not read this post.

From what I’ve read on the internet about ‘San Junipero’, viewers seem to be split as to whether the ending portrays a utopian happily-ever-after or, in more traditional Black Mirror style, an afterlife trapped in digital hell. Writer Charlie Brooker has been pretty explicit about his intentions: ‘They have the happiest ending imaginable… they drive off into the sunset together, because, why not?’ Given that the norm for same-sex relationships, especially female same-sex relationships, in fiction tends to be death or misery, Brooker’s choice of a happy ending is just as controversial as the many horrible endings served up in other episodes of Black Mirror, and he’s right to defend it. But ‘San Junipero’ interrogates the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope in a less straightforward way as well. Our heroines are alive at the end of ‘San Junipero’, and that’s important. But it’s also important that they are dead.

For anybody who hasn’t simageseen ‘San Junipero’, and ignored the massive spoiler warning, I’ll quickly summarise the plot. Kelly and Yorkie meet and fall in love in what seems to be a club in the late 1980s. This is Black Mirror, so it’s not surprising when we find out something else is going on. San Junipero, it turns out, is a digital paradise, and in the real world, Kelly and Yorkie are old women, thousands of miles apart. While Kelly is dying of cancer, Yorkie is paralysed after a car accident when she was twenty-one, when she drove her car off the road after her parents rejected her for being a lesbian. Yorkie wants Kelly to stay with her in San Junipero after she dies; it’s possible to upload your consciousness into this virtual reality, so you can live indefinitely before you pull the plug. Kelly’s loyalties, however, are torn. Her husband refused to take this option when he died because he wanted to join their daughter, who passed away before the technology was available. She tells Yorkie that, even though she doesn’t believe in an afterlife, she doesn’t want the technological alternative, leaving Yorkie – who has only really had the chance to live through San Junipero – distraught and alone. You can’t understand what I shared with my husband, Kelly tells Yorkie, as she leaves her crying on the beach; how much I loved him.

The striking end credit sequence sees Kelly reverse this decision. While her physical body dies, her consciousness lives on in San Junipero, dancing and driving with Yorkie. The soundtrack, in one of the most eerily perfect matches I’ve ever heard, is Belinda Carlisle’s ‘Heaven is A Place on Earth’. Kelly and Yorkie have got their happy ending, and all is right with the world.

But if that was realluntitledy all there was to ‘San Junipero’, it wouldn’t be quite as heartbreaking and brilliant as it is. San Junipero, for Kelly and Yorkie, is so seductive not because it offers eternal life, but because it offers the opportunity to live a different life. This is simple enough for Yorkie. She never got the chance to live a full life in reality, so obviously she would jump at the chance of heading to a virtual heaven with Kelly. For Kelly, however, things are more complicated. She loved her husband and her daughter. She openly identifies as bisexual in the episode, but – while obviously this doesn’t affect her sexuality in the slightest – she got to live out her days, and indeed, go to her grave, outwardly fitting the heterosexual, monogamous norm. But because of San Junipero, she can have a second life as a young woman, in love with another young woman. She can be ‘normal’ and ‘transgressive’ at the same time. She can have it all, but only after she’s dead.

In this sense, ‘San Junipero’ technically fits the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope, but it also forces us to think about why it exists. Kelly and Yorkie’s paradise is so magical precisely because they aren’t faced with the kind of hard choices that lesbians and bisexual women often face in real life. Yorkie never had to face her homophobic parents again. Kelly can ‘play it straight’ and be true to herself at the same time. By telling us a story that is so tempting, ‘San Junipero’ reverses the logic of every other Black Mirror episode to date, and reserves its greatest despair for the world in which we already live. By showing us a better future, Brooker makes us the black mirror.