Black Mirror Episode Analysis
Who Runs the World?
Contradictory to what Beyoncé might say, it’s most definitely not girls. Men have always run the world. They’ve always run the country, and they’ve always set the standards. This holds true in the Black Mirror episode Fifteen Million Merits. In this paper, I will argue that Fifteen Million Merits speaks to the ongoing power men have to define women’s worth even in advanced liberal societies like the United States. I will agree with Bartky in her analysis of Femininity and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power and Manne in her Law of Misogyny.
The gender hierarchy keeps women in a subjugated and inferior role; however, it is often women themselves who exact the worst effects of the patriarchy by self-policing in an effort to meet male expectations. Bartky states,
The woman who checks her makeup half a dozen times a day to see if her foundation has caked or her mascara has run, who worries that the wind or the rain may spoil her hairdo, who looks frequently to see if her stockings have bagged at the ankle or who, feeling fat, monitors everything she eats, has become, just as surely as the inmate of the Panopticon, a self-policing subject, a self-committed to a relentless self-surveillance. This self-surveillance is a form of obedience to patriarchy. It is also the reflection in woman’s consciousness of the fact that she is under surveillance in ways that he is not, that whatever else she may become, she is importantly a body designed to please or to excite (Bartky 80).
Bartky’s explanation is also in line with the episode Fifteen Million Merits. Fifteen Million Merits is set in a technological dystopia where citizens must pedal and the only escape is trying out for Hot Shots, a television show where participants audition for a chance to be famous and never having to pedal again. Bing, a man whose brother left him millions buys Abi a ticket to sing and try out; however, instead of becoming a singer, she becomes an erotic superstar leading Bing to try out in order to avenge her. However, Bing also instead becomes a star as well in the end. For example, as explained by Bartky, Abi knew she was under constant surveillance. She knew, by the end of the episode, that “whatever else she would become,” or failed to become, as a failed singer, she would always be a “body designed to please or excite.” This makes sense since her dream of being a singer failed because the male dominance in the stage room could not have been undermined, leading to Abi’s transition to erotic superstardom. The male dominance in the stage room led to Abi’s subordination to the desires of the men in the room.
By having the ability to dominate the room and force women into subordination, men are more easily able to define women’s worth. Bartky explains how a woman’s posture indicates the subordinate position of women in the gender hierarchy (Bartky 74). Bartky also explains how men’s postures are similar to higher power posture since both men and people in power positions are in more loose and relaxed postures, indicating that being a man is a high-power position (Bartky 74). This is clearly depicted in the scene of Fifteen Million Merits where Abi performs her audition. The female judge seems to enjoy Abi’s performance and she can be seen smiling while nodding her head to the song Abi sings. However, the men looked bored or neutral during the performance. When the male judges give their comments, only then does the female judge chime in on the male judges’ harassment by chiming in, “Some of us girls may join you as well.” As soon as the male judges voiced their opinions, the female judge adjusted her attitude to be subordinate to the male judges, in order not to undermine their authority and the unspoken gender hierarchy. However, the female judge also has a tear at the end of the scene as if the subordination was a challenge for her to perform, as if hypersexualizing and objectifying Abi, a fellow woman, was hurting the female judge herself.
Prevalent gender norms also allow men more easily to define women’s worth. Gender norms such as women being submissive and obedient help secure the interests of the group in power, men. Manne elaborates on the nature of women’s expected gender role under patriarchy as follows: “These roles typically require women to support men in dominant social positions—giving them love and affection, care and loyalty, along with sex and children. Within a patriarchal order, women are in effect born into an unofficial service industry” (Manne 2019). Men’s dictation of power and women’s role as servants is exemplified when the judges badger Abi to take the offer of becoming an “adult entertainer” (what is in effect a sexual servant).
Indeed, one of women’s major service roles under patriarchy involves being treated like a sex object. Alienation takes place when part of yourself has been stolen or fallen under the control of others (Bartky 32). Through alienation, women are objectified as shown in the episode when Abi is catcalled on stage. In the same way laborers are reduced to the product of their work, women are reduced to their body parts. For example, when Wraith says, “Show me your titties,” Wraith has reduced Abi to her body parts, sexualizing her. Although Abi has just shown that she has other talents and functions, Wraith still sees Abi as having a primarily bodily and sexual function over anything other type of function. He’s reduced her from a person to a body. As a woman, Bartky explains that she, like many girls in the United States, was taught to relate to herself as primarily a bodily being.
An objector could also propose that there’s some dis-analogy and women have far more control and power than this episode would make it seem. The idea that women are oppressed is false. Abi got to choose if she wanted to be an adult entertainer or go back to pedaling. An objector could argue that by having the final say Abi had more control over her life than the episode makes it seem. She could have gone back to pedaling. She didn’t have to go on stage. She didn’t have to do anything she didn’t want to do. Abi could have said no and her wavering choice was nobody’s fault but her own. By having the choice of going back to pedaling or being an erotic superstar, Abi was exercising feminism because it was her choice to become famous. It was also Abi’s choice to drink the ‘Cuppliance,’ unlike Bing’s choice to not drink it. In modern society, women are seen as weaker and therefore are always catered to. Being a woman and being seen as the damsel in distress allows women to have the connotation of being kind and gentle. This is shown in the episode Fifteen Million Merits when Abi’s beauty results in her being told to move ahead of other auditioning contestants. In real life womanly charms allow many women to prosper by getting free things and people being friendlier. For example, women are able to walk into a club and have plenty of options. They are showered with attention and affection by men in the room offering free drinks, free food, and sometimes free rides. However, consider a man walking into the club. He is not showered with affection or attention. In fact, he has to work hard to gain the attention of a woman and supply the free drinks, free food, or whatever else she may need. Women are more in control not just than the episode makes them seem, but in real life as well.
However, this objection is not valid. The motivation or incentive matters. The man’s motives for supplying the attention, affection, and free items may not be pure, which lead to further risk and a lack of control/power for the woman. For example, when a woman is in a club or similar sort of environment, she has to cover her drink, make sure she doesn’t go to the bathroom alone, and watch her surroundings carefully. When many of the men offer these things, they are looking for something in return. This is usually always the case with people who are friendlier to a woman. The safety risk of a woman going to the club is far greater than the safety risk of a man going to a club in general, partly due to society’s hyper-sexualization of women. This increase in risk and lack of safety of the woman indicates a lack of control and power from the woman. The peer pressure as well as the “Cuppliance” did not allow her to have a choice. Abi was unsure and, while it’s okay for women to sexualize themselves if it’s their choice, it was not Abi’s choice. By being privy to peer pressure as well as drinking the potion “Cuppliance,” Abi did not have the privilege of choosing, the choice was made for her by the dominating men in the room. Although Bing chose not to drink ‘Cuppliance,’ there was a difference between Abi and Bing. Abi was under self- surveillance and surveillance by all the other women who were jealous of her skipping ahead to audition.
An objector could propose that men also suffer from gender norms. Bartky and Manne’s works are painting gender norms as misogyny alone when really this isn’t just a problem for women. In modern society, men are seen as strong. Men are expected to be the breadwinners and to take risks. However, these expectations and strict gender norms can actually harm men as well. For example, men’s rights activists say that men suffer from gender norms because by being expected to be the chief breadwinners, they are given less time with their children and they tend to lose custody of their kids in court more often than women do. Men are expected to take more risks and take more dangerous jobs. Due to this, there are more instances of men dying.
However, women suffer most from gender norms. Gender norms are more limiting to women than they are to men. They’re not able to be as independent. Women are expected to give themselves to other people more than men are, thereby resulting in their loss of identity, double consciousness, and living their lives for someone else. For example, women are expected to stay home with their children more, to make dinner for their husbands, and to take care of the house as a result of being associated with maternal instinct. Because of this assumption that women should be caring, maternal, and take care of others, women more often give themselves to other people to abide by these gender norms. Identity is the most important aspect of a person. Therefore, this loss of identity from satisfying the needs of everybody around them is the most prominent form of suffering.
Black Mirror’s Fifteen Million Merits is an accurate representation of where our modern-day society is at right now in terms of men’s power to define the worth of a woman. This gender hierarchy convinces women like Abi that they have a choice, when in fact they do not. Making women believe that they want something that harms them is the most dangerous power men have over women. Imagine the possibilities that this power opens the doors to. Especially in instances like when the female judge did not defend Abi but instead backed up the male judges, this makes the influence of men super apparent as they’ve made the female judge believe that, like men can make many women believe, that something is best for them and women as a whole. By women, as Barky puts it, “surveilling” not just themselves, but other women as well, men have created such a wide sphere of influence that you can’t help but wonder if this will change? Will women ever run the world?
Bartky, Sandra Lee. “Narcissism, Femininity and Alienation.” Social Theory and Practice, vol. 8, no. 2, 1982, pp. 127–143., doi:10.5840/soctheorpract19828212.
Brooker, Charlie, and Kanak Huq. “15 Million Merits.” Black Mirror, season 1, episode 2, 11 Dec. 2011.
Manne, Kate. “The Logic of Misogyny.” Boston Review, 13 Feb. 2019, bostonreview.net/forum/kate-manne-logic-misogyny.