Black Mirror Season 5: Striking Vipers offers compelling commentary on bromance and sexuality
A look at what makes Striking Vipers different from the other Black Mirror episodes themed on love and sexuality, like San Junipero, Hang The DJ and Be Right Back.
Warning: Spoilers ahead
Probably the most iconic bromance in Indian cinema is that between the characters of Jai and Veeru in Ramesh Sippy’s masculinist dacoit-western, Sholay.
There are, however, quite a few interpretations of the Jai-Veeru bonhomie which disagree with the heteronormative view about the same. But hinting at homoerotic undercurrents in a revered depiction of friendship between two tough hunks in a movie is not always well-received by a society which is still struggling to come to terms with homosexuality and gender fluidity. It even becomes blasphemous for some.
It is this firmly established culture of bromance, which is also challenged in Striking Vipers, the only episode in Black Mirror’s Season 5 which puts forward an idea as brave and unconventional as some of the sci-fi series's now classic episodes.
“Guys can be so awkward,” says one of the characters, Theo (Nicole Beharie), in a scene during the episode. This remark essentially represents the theme of Striking Vipers. The rigid rules of gender roles — which most men are taught when they are growing up — entrench in them certain codes that need to be observed in their interactions with other men and women. This is why the friendship shown between Danny (Anthony Mackie) and Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) in the first twenty minutes of the episode is something most men will identify with.
Playing a multiplayer fighting video game with a 'bro' while eating pizza and smoking marijuana after having passionate sex with their girlfriends, like Danny and Karl in one of the first few scenes in the episode, is part of living the dream for a lot of heterosexual men. Add to this the casual leg-pulling and harmless name-calling which routinely become a part of banter between male friends or discussing work-out routines and dating life over a round of beer. These are not just scenes in the episode but part of the usual code which most men follow in the presence of male friends.
So during another scene, when the digital avatars of Danny and Karl start making out in the virtual reality fighting game ‘Striking Vipers X’ (a name right up there with the likes of Shoot ‘Em Up and Bloodsport in the campy macho names hall-of-fame), a lot of male viewers would be taken aback.
It is this unexpected twist which makes Striking Vipers a special episode and different from the other Black Mirror episodes themed on love and sexuality, like San Junipero, Hang The DJ and Be Right Back. While all these episodes delve into the unique effect which technology is bound to have on sexual relationships, Striking Vipers is the first time Black Mirror has commented on bro culture.
Not just that, the kind of relationship between two men which writer Charlie Brooker has portrayed in the episode is one which does not even have a clear name or definition right now. This is evident from the scene in which Danny and Karl kiss in real life in an attempt to figure out whether their lustful feelings towards each other’s digital identities hint at their homosexuality.
But the characters realise that they’re not, in fact, attracted to each other in reality. The frustration due to the inability to identify what sexual attraction to each other’s digital representation means and how to deal with it is what causes the fight between the two characters in the following sequence. Labelling this relationship becomes even more confusing when one observes that Karl’s digital avatar in the episode is a woman, which makes the sexual interactions between the digital characters heterosexual.
Thus, Brooker’s idea of the effect of VR gaming (something which already exists and is bound to become much more advanced in the future) in Striking Vipers is even more thought-provoking than the previous Black Mirror episodes written by him and focused on video gaming, like Bandersnatch or Playtest. While those episodes opined on the effect of video games and VR on our notions of reality and sanity, Striking Vipers asks a much more intimate and thus uncomfortable question: What will VR gaming do to sexuality?
Similar to how films like Her and Ex Machina comment on how one of the biggest effects of technology on society will be the way it changes the common understanding of love and sex, Striking Vipers is Black Mirror’s uninhibited and clever foray once again into taboo territory. Brooker’s comment on heteronormative male bonding is definitely the most memorable aspect of the fifth season of the show.
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