Warning, this article contains spoilers for Black Mirror's "San Junipero" episode.
It is rare to find a piece of queer television that brings a nonheteronormative sexual relationship to life without succumbing to the pitfalls of essentialism and tropes. Maybe you’ve seen it trending at the top of your newsfeed, but Black Mirror, an anthology series, is quickly becoming the next cult TV show. While the show is known for its seriously twisted physiological plots, this season offered a refreshing and groundbreaking lesbian happily ever after, an ending that is almost inconceivable for onscreen depictions of LGBTQ+ characters.
"San Junipero," the fourth episode in the season, revolves around the relationship of the awkward Yorkie (MacKenzie Davis), and a vivacious Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Set against a 1980s Blade Runner aesthetic with a soundtrack of Robert Palmer, it's a sensory feast with a singularly cohesive style that avoids feeling like saccharine nostalgia. The two women meet at a neon-lit bar, striking up a conversation. Their meeting is both spectacularly engrossing and refreshingly ordinary, confirming that their character development doesn’t rest solely upon their sexuality.
Yorkie and Kelly’s relationship positions their sexuality as an inconsequential detail. The emotional and physical tensions between the two actresses is palpable. However, Black Mirror refrains from fetishizing the lesbian and queer body. Even when the two women go to bed with each other, the camera moves away from their bodies and fades to waves lapping on the beach. Though this might be a slightly cheeky euphemism, the symbolic representation of lesbian sex is all but absent in popular film. We can recall the arduously invasive sex scenes in Blue is the Warmest Color, a movie the LGBTQ+ community both championed and cringed at. While Black Mirror is far from a modest show, the strategic lack of skin is a purposeful remedy to this trope.
In one of the many poignant moments, Kelly and Yorkie lay together, twisted in white sheets. As Yorkie rests her head next to Kelly, she asks, “When did you know?” Yorkie is referring to the commonly held idea that a person knows their inherent sexuality. Kelly’s response dismantles this essentialist mindset. She tells Yorkie she has loved men and women. This dialogue allows for a sexual fluidity that is rarely championed in queer media. Kelly’s character, in particular, destroys stereotypical media representations of queer women. She is a woman of color who identifies as bisexual. Her multiplicious identity does not take a backseat to Yorkie’s white lesbian identity but seamlessly coexists.
The episode takes a typical Black Mirror twist when we learn that both Yorkie and Kelly live in an alternate futuristic reality. They are elderly women, and only their consciousnesses are alive in San Junipero. The beach city exists as a sort of test run for heaven, and both must decide if they want to stay in paradise forever when their physical bodies finally die.
The show continues to push boundaries even after the futuristic plot is unveiled. It seamlessly weaves same-sex marriage and the right to die as inconsequential facets of life. Kelly marries Yorkie, after a tear-inducing marriage proposal, in order for Yorkie to receive euthanasia. The lack of rumination on these typically polarizing topics makes an even stronger statement that these rights should be concretely instilled.
As Yorkie decides to permanently stay in San Junipero after she passes, we are left with the heart-wrenching idea that Kelly may not join her. Kelly dies soon after, and as her coffin is lowered into the ground, Belinda Carlisle’s "Heaven is a Place on Earth" heartbreakingly plays in the background. I feared that the “bury your gays” trope was quite literally alive and well in what had been an overwhelmingly progressive episode. Suddenly, mid-credits, Kelly’s red Jeep drives up on the sands of San Junipero! She peers out of the car, her wide smile gleaming. Dressed in a gaudy eighties wedding dress, she waves and screams at Yorkie to hop into the passenger seat.
"San Junipero" is a refreshingly hopeful representation of queerness. The two lovers not only survive the narrative without facing violence because of their sexual identity, they thrive together. It champions interracial, nonheteronormative relationships, giving us hope that queer bodies can embody something other than stereotypes when portrayed onscreen.
Top photo: Netflix/Black Mirror
Mo Johnson is a twenty-one-year-old women’s studies major at The George Washington University. Her writings on sex, relationships, and what it means to be a millennial woman can be found on her blog. Follow her on Instagram.
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