Maybe don’t read this if you haven’t watched Black Mirror because there are spoilers, unless you’re into that sort of thing.
This weekend, Netflix dropped the much-anticipated third season of the acclaimed series Black Mirror, giving speculative and science fiction fans something (besides Westworld) to chew on. Right off the bat, the first episode, “Nosedive,” delves into—what else?—the impact of social media on our lives.
Throughout the episode, the suspiciously upbeat Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard) puts on her best face for every interaction in hopes that people will rate her five out of five stars on a kind of universal social media app. While she currently sits at a respectable 4.2, she obsesses over how to raise her score. “Nosedive” explores the consequences of integrating seemingly arbitrary social rankings into everyday life—in this world, your number dictates which jobs you can get, which neighborhood you live in, and even which cars you can rent. Your score is automatically visible to those around you because obviously everyone is outfitted with fancy contacts, streamlining the impact of someone’s social media success on our IRL judgment of them.
The rating system forces those who participate to constantly be the most likable versions of themselves, making every social interaction—from getting a coffee to attending a wedding—an opportunity to improve your rank rather than a chance to get to know someone. This obviously isn’t too speculative, seeing as how
sometimes I feel bad about myself when my selfies on Instagram don’t get as many likes as I would have liked we certainly do view and value people differently depending on their social media presence.
Sure, great, yeah, we’re shallow and all chasing the dragon that is ❤️s and retweets, blah blah blah. But there is another, more subtle message in the episode–how this almost-plausible social system affects people of color. The color palette of the entire episode largely consists of pastels, soft pinks and peaches, milky mint green, but it is also very white.
In the episode, the majority of service roles like baristas, airline booking agents, car rental attendants, airport security—apparently associated with lower rankings—are played by people of color. The one person we see being downvoted out of a job and into oblivion was a black character, who desperately attempts to make himself more likable by buying smoothies for his coworkers, as if he had no choice but to engage in a self-fulfilling prophecy of poor ranking and servitude. Meanwhile, the wedding full of high-scoring VIPs Lacie “attends” resembles Goop’s mailing list. To be fair, we do briefly encounter one black woman with an impressive 4.8 who spills coffee on herself and downvotes poor Lacie—and there is a sexy hologram of a black man (fairer-skinned than other black characters, it should be noted) who doubles as a fantasy and an advertisement for Lacie’s dream home. He may be the embodiment of desire, but he doesn’t actually exist.
It’s almost hard to say if this casting was intentional, to purposefully comment on the way our society marginalizes and devalues people of color, or as an unconscious byproduct of that very system. I’m banking on the former, because it seems too egregious an oversight to give almost all the subservient roles to people of color, but it’s not like television hasn’t pulled some real boners. (Also, I don’t know what to make of Cherry Jones’ character, the enlightened truck driver with a score in the 1s and lovely white lady. As opposed to the other low-scoring individuals, she was a 4.6 at one point in her life, but walked away from the whole system as a choice—naturally it’s the white woman who has the privilege to opt out, a performative downward social mobility.)
Minorities are already disenfranchised in so many ways in America, even within digital networks like Airbnb, but in the Black Mirror world, where social-media superficiality has skyrocketed, those who have always been marginalized will only continue to be devalued. Not only do they have lower rankings, but those rankings render their voices unheard, unworthy. We learn from Lacie that a low ranking can justify mistreatment and even incarceration (she is jailed in a cell across from a black man)—what’s to say that lower rankings can’t justify persecution or murder in this potential future, the way racism can and already has IRL?