Black Mirror’s “San Junipero” is an ableist dystopia in disguise

kelly
[image description: a screenshot of Kelly, a young Black woman portrayed by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, asking two other young people, “Have you seen a girl? Mid-20s, brown hair, glasses?”]
20-something-crowd
[image description: a screenshot from earlier in the episode of a crowded bar full of 20-somethings and no one else] I don’t know, Kelly, have you seen anyone who’s not 20-something?
 

[spoiler alert for all of Black Mirror S3E4, “San Junipero”; content warnings for death, eugenics, ableism, homophobia, and car crashes]

Since Black Mirror’s October 21 release, people have been going wild about it. In particular, lesbian, bi, and queer women have been rejoicing about the episode “San Junipero,” the story of a lesbian and a bi woman who meet, flirt, and fall in love.

There’s a lot to like. “San Junipero” shows us unambiguous bi and lesbian representation, a subversion of the Bury Your Gays trope, and queer women driving off into the sunset to “Heaven is a Place on Earth” as credits roll. The happy ending is all the more remarkable coming from a series that often closes on characters in abject horror at technological dystopias in which they’re sometimes complicit.

But to me, “San Junipero” is its own kind of dystopia: one in which elderly and disabled lives are considered not worth living.

The episode begins with “an outgoing party girl”, Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and “a shy young woman,” Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) meeting in a bar in 1987 as Kelly tells Yorkie to go along with whatever she says so Kelly can get away from a man who’s harassing her to have sex again. The two women hit it off and continue talking after the harasser leaves.

Yorkie is consummately inexperienced. It’s her first night in the beachside party town of San Junipero. When Kelly buys her a Jack and Coke, Yorkie sniffs it before taking a sip and winces at the taste. Kelly asks if she’s never had it before, and Yorkie is slow to lie that she hasn’t had one in a while. After more conversation, Kelly gets an uneasy Yorkie on the dance floor. Yorkie runs outside before revealing she’s also never been on a dance floor. Kelly invites Yorkie back to her place. Yorkie declines, saying she “never did anything like that.”

As the show reveals more about its world, we learn that San Junipero is actually a virtual reality to which people can have their consciousnesses uploaded when they die, and where living people can visit for five hours a week. The system was designed as “immersive nostalgia therapy” for Alzheimer’s, but it’s said that people who spend too much time in the virtual reality go crazy and dissociate from their bodies.

Keeping pace with revelations about the fictional universe, “San Junipero” unveils more about its characters’ lives and backstories. Neither Kelly nor Yorkie is actually a young woman. Kelly is an elderly woman with an unspecified disease who’s living on borrowed time; Yorkie is an elderly quadriplegic woman with a tracheostomy tube, waiting for her wedding of convenience to a man who will be the final signature she needs to be authorized for euthanasia. Her paralysis resulted from driving off the road after a fight with her homophobic parents when she was 21.

Generally, the government in “San Junipero” isn’t wild about euthanasia, which is on “triple lockdown” to “stop folks from passing over just because they prefer San Junipero flat out.” Yorkie has obtained the necessary signature from her doctor and has signed off for herself, but her disapproving parents won’t provide the requisite family signature.

For all the difference of this sci-fi universe from our own, its biopoliltics are strikingly similar. The government doesn’t want citizens electing en masse to die early for an afterlife of recreation. Although the episode doesn’t explore this aspect, it’s likely that workers’ lives are needed to maintain capitalism. We don’t see any labor outsourced to virtual reality, so presumably the loss of a worker’s life is a loss for business. Workers mustn’t die while they still have value to exploit, so family members and doctors are expected to keep healthy people from voluntarily dying.

In contrast, we’re supposed to see Yorkie’s right to die as straightforward and obvious. In the real world, we only see her lying in a hospital bed, able to hear but not to respond in any way. A passing line tells us that she’s talked to Greg (Raymond McAnally), her fiancé, on the comm box, a device that isn’t explained but seems to be part of the real world. But we don’t get any other information about how this works or see her having any other agency in the real world. Yorkie is meant to die because her disabled life is unlivable. Every sympathetic character wishes for her death, and the audience is meant to as well.

But even virtual reality doesn’t present a disabled life worth living: no one in San Junipero is discernibly disabled, elderly, or even middle-aged. “San Junipero” is full of crowd shots, but there’s not a disability or midlife signifier to be seen. This is a deliberate decision both by the show’s creators and by the residents of San Junipero, who can change their styles and cross distances instantaneously.

Kelly estimates that 80 to 85 percent of people in San Junipero are “full-timers,” people who have died and had their consciousnesses uploaded. Many of these people likely lived long enough to become disabled, and all of them have rejected both old age and their disability for their happily-ever-afters. (At one point, Kelly describes Yorkie to a stranger as “mid-20s,” which is comical in the endless sea of 20-somethings.)

It’s not surprising that Yorkie views her disability negatively. She acquired it in a traumatic series of events, and with her parents’ constant surveillance and scrutiny, she never got to explore the full possibilities of any embodiment. But seeing the choice to be able-bodied echoed by Kelly (who ditches her breathing tubes and use of a caregiver for support with walking) and by each of dozens of extras in San Junipero makes it clear that ableism in virtual reality is systemic.

Because the narrative and framing of “San Junipero” connect Yorkie’s able-bodiedness with her agency, it’s not enough for virtual reality and death to liberate her from homophobia and her oppressive parents; she must also be liberated from her disability. Lingering shots throughout the episode of Yorkie feeling the rain and sand on her feet further emphasize the already striking difference between her elderly disabled real-world self and her young able-bodied avatar.

The built environment of San Junipero discourages disabled existence. As Kelly jumps through time periods in search of Yorkie, we see 1980, 1987, and 1996 versions of Tucker’s, the bar where Kelly and Yorkie met, and each of these versions has stairs, as does the Quagmire, the bar with a “freakier” clientele. Even with instantaneous teleportation, it’s unclear how someone could navigate these crowded social environments with a wheelchair or a walker. What do you do when you need to poof up the stairs but there’s not enough space to poof into?

There’s also the unresolved issue of pity. Before Kelly and Yorkie meet in real life, Yorkie tells Kelly she knows her fiancé Greg pities her and it pisses her off. When Kelly visits Yorkie’s hospital, she pleads with Greg for five minutes of virtual reality time with Yorkie, which she uses to propose. The marriage and euthanasia happen the next day, as planned, but with Kelly instead of Greg as Yorkie’s spouse.

Yorkie and Kelly fight on their San Junipero honeymoon, Yorkie a new full-timer and Kelly still alive and on the five-hour time limit. Yorkie begs Kelly to reconsider her previous plan and stay with her in San Junipero, rather than passing away completely, when she dies. When Kelly objects, Yorkie cites their marriage. Kelly tells her that she married her “as a kindness, to help you  pass over.” Yorkie keeps insisting over Kelly’s further objections, overstepping so far as to insult her husband of 49 years, and Kelly responds by telling Yorkie twice that she pitied her.

Kelly drives off and into an intentional full-speed car crash, which in San Junipero has no consequences. Yorkie appears out of nowhere to offer a hand up. Kelly reaches for her hands, but her virtual reality time runs out before they touch. Soon Kelly tells her caregiver she’s ready “for the rest of it” and passes away.

When we next see Kelly and Yorkie together, it’s for their joyous seaside convertible ride into the sunset, with no discussion of Yorkie’s white entitlement or Kelly’s ableist pity. This couple is charming at times in their flirtation, and I want to believe in them, but ultimately I wouldn’t bet on them staying together a month, let alone for much of eternity.

Show creator and episode writer Charlie Brooker acknowledges that their future may be difficult but maintains that Yorkie and Kelly have “the happiest ending imaginable.”

Not to me. An inaccessible eternity where no one wants to be or is disabled is dystopia. It’s hell. I’d spend the rest of my existence mourning the loss of crip community, crip wisdom, crip magic,  and dedicate my afterlife to disability activism.

“San Junipero” suggests the possibility of representation for disabled elderly lesbian and bi women but ultimately buries them in permanent able-bodied youth. Kelly and Yorkie’s future stretches on potentially forever without futures for elderly and disabled queer women. Not even immortality can redeem the lifelessness of compulsory able-bodiedness.

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