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Black Mirror's 'Striking Vipers' gets to the heart of Black masculinity and the longing for connection
Black Mirror is more than just a show about technology, as the anthology series' best episodes have also tackled more personal and emotional issues that society is still grappling with. In past seasons, the Netflix series focused on the love women of color have, and in the recently released fifth season, Black Mirror has decided to introduce another queer storyline, though viewers might not have been expecting that when they first hit play.
The Season 5 premiere, “Striking Vipers,” not only tackles on an age-old conversation of toxic masculinity, but challenges the way we see and think about Black men who happen to share an emotional connection with their peers. The episode starts off with two young men who share a budding friendship, but soon we learn that Danny (Anthony Mackie) and Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) not only share a love for games, but love for each other. While both of the men struggle to find connections with the opposite sex, the show begins to frame an interesting conversation around the ways Black men struggle with the energy that comes with exploring intimacy both online and off.
In the episode, gameplay acts as an avenue for these Black men to stay connected with one another, considering how both of them are disconnected from their true feelings and emotions. Studies have shown that the number of friendships men have tend to drop off dramatically around the time they turn 30, and staying in touch via gaming is one way to mitigate this. "Striking Vipers" goes one step further by looking at the emotional and sexual desires that each of them has for one another when playing the game.
Alongside a storyline in which the pair navigates their connection in the real world, the episode also addresses their desire to connect with the same gender on a deeper level, and the systematic taboo present for men to do this both online and off. Seeing their relationship develop in virtual reality prompts a conversation about the ways in which Black men suppress themselves and the desires they have to explore intimacy on a deeper level.
It's a Black Mirror twist on the fears that many men (specifically Black men) carry around developing relationships with individuals of the same gender. The unaddressed issue of homonegativity that continues to plague the Black community, leaving many Black men struggling with the nuances that come with developing healthy relationships with the people they love.
While the term “bromance” has been used for years to describe these relationships, many male relationships still normalize the idea of men being relatively distant and neutral when it comes to emotions. "Striking Vipers" makes a case that this toxic masculinity keeps men from better understanding the true definition of intimacy, and that some men can only feel connected to another individual when it’s connected to gameplay.
Masculinity often pressures men to tuck away their wants and desires. It’s only by disconnecting from the expectations of the real world and entering a virtual gaming space that they can connect, not just with each other, but their own fluid sexuality. It also highlights the ways in which Black men aren’t taught or given words to explain their feelings because rarely are they given space to fully explore and vocalize said feelings. Introducing gameplay into this storyline works to do this, being that while this story is fictional, the truth for so many men is that making connections in gaming spaces doesn’t require one to be vulnerable about what they want or need to be happy. In the episode, Danny and Karl both use the video game as their space to do this — because it provides them a sense of safety that is often not provided to Black men in their everyday lives.
Black Mirror makes a connection between masculinity, the Black male community's lack of intimacy, and gaming. As Karl’s wife heckles him about where his mind is and the need for him to be more present, the gaming world provides him an escape from all the expectations that come with being a Black man. While many of these expectations come with the pressure to be present — yet not overtly vocal about one’s wants and needs — gaming provides each individual in this show an opportunity to escape each of their unfavorable realities.
Beyond the elements of race, gender, and sexuality, this episode revisits a vital conversation around both fear and freedom, and what it means to have both. Additionally, "Striking Vipers" also gives agency to the idea that Black men aren’t given the same freedom as others to explore who they are, or who they want to be.
The main idea behind much of this story is a fantasy, but it is also a commentary on the struggle Black men have in naming and owning their truth. Whether online or off, the story highlights how toxic masculinity as a whole robs Black men of the joy of owning important parts of their identity — identities they aren’t able to explore in the real world.
As we think about the ways in which each character searches for ways to fulfill their needs, this episode specifically encourages Black men to let go of the expectations that the world put onto us and to take the VR glasses off, so that we can begin to explore the reality of both emotional and sexual freedom.