The newest season of Black Mirror premiered last week and though I wasn’t exactly impressed with the season as a whole, one episode shined among the rest. The first episode titled, “Striking Vipers,” left me contemplating love, sexuality, and how they relate to black men as a whole. Needless to say, this article will discuss the episode in great detail. If you haven’t watched it yet and want to avoid spoilers, stop reading, go straight to Netflix. If you don’t feel like watching the episode, there’s a spoiler-filled summary below.
One of the great things about the earlier seasons of Black Mirror was that the show had a way of discussing technological and social issues in a way that could be as enlightening as they were horrifying. Episodes like “White Bear” and “Shut Up and Dance” made us consider the role that technology and social media can play in punishment both capital and otherwise. On the other hand, episodes like the critically acclaimed “San Junipero” examined the ways in which technology could augment the search for love and meaningful connection. Though it would take a lot more than what “Striking Vipers” had to offer to equal the greatness that was “San Junipero,” the episode still falls into the category of examining technology’s role in relationships.
A Long and Spoiler Filled Summary
Striking Vipers tells the story of Danny (played by Anthony Mackie), a married 38-year-old man and his longtime friend Karl. At the beginning of the episode, Danny seems a bit bored with his typical married suburban life. Things take a sharp turn when Karl shows up for Danny’s birthday party. He presents Danny with the newest edition of the fighting game they played when they were younger.
The game, from which the episode takes its title, includes a virtual reality add on which allows players to transfer their consciousness into the game characters and fight as them, feeling all the sensations that happen in the game. During Danny and Karl’s first round in Striking Viper X, they get into a compromising position and end up kissing. Though they are freaked out by the occurrence the first time it happens, they begin using the game as a way to be intimate with each other on a regular basis. It should be noted here that while playing Striking Vipers X Danny inhabits the body of a male fighter, Lance, while Karl inhabits the body of a female fighter, Roxette (I will come back to this later).
Striking Vipers Progressive Ending
As the “Vipers” progresses, it becomes clear that the encounters they have with one another in the game provide each man with something they are missing in their everyday lives. Danny has found some passion to interrupt his mundanity and Karl has found both a physical and emotional connection. The problem arises when Danny’s wife Theo (played by the beautiful and talented Nicole Beharie) notices that something is amiss with her husband. She confronts him about his change of attitude and though he doesn’t tell her about it, he breaks things off with Karl. Karl, however, doesn’t want to end things so easily. After admitting to some pretty wild escapades in the game including what I’m hoping was a consensual tryst with a polar bear, Karl reveals that Danny is the only person that brings him ultimate satisfaction and wagers that it is the same for Danny.
After questioning whether their affair makes them both gay, they get into a physical altercation. The men get arrested and Theo bails out Danny. Though it’s not shown on screen, Danny confesses what has been happening with Karl to Theo. The after credits montage shows that they reach a compromise of opening their marriage once a month. This way Danny and Karl can meet in their virtual reality, and Theo can play out one of her longtime fantasies of meeting a stranger at a bar.
The Restrictive Sexuality of Black Men
As I said before, one of the best things about Black Mirror is that when it is at its best, it discusses social issues in a way that is both enlightening and forward thinking. I think that this episode is a shining example of that. Something that I’ve always found both sad and fucked up is that though black men are one of the most hyper-sexualized and fetishized groups, the scope of their sexuality has always been extremely limited due to homophobia, the erasure of bisexuality, and overall ignorance about anything that is not straight and cis. As a black man, you have to be completely straight or completely gay with no area in the middle. This means any encounters that deviate outside of male/female immediately wins you the label of gay whether it is true or not.
An example of this happened in an episode of the first season of the popular show Insecure. In the episode, Molly confesses to a potential suitor that she made out with a girl in college. The suitor, Jared, then confesses that he also had a drunken encounter with a man. He goes on to say that he didn’t find the experience pleasing and never did anything like this again. Molly immediately labels Jared as gay and breaks things off with him. She does this even though he specifies that he didn’t enjoy what happened and that nothing like it happened since. She also ignores the fact that she also had an encounter with someone of the same sex.
The Sexual One Drop Rule
Unfortunately, what happened with Jared and Molly isn’t uncommon. I’ve heard that many black women do not want to date bisexual men or men that admit to having even one non-cis/het sexual encounter. In an article by Kyla Jenne Lacey, she refers to it as the “one drop rule” approach to men and sexuality. She states:
“If a man has sex with one man and 100 women, we will still erroneously view him as gay and not bisexual, or sexually fluid, or even just a heterosexual man who experimented with a man and came to the conclusion that he didn’t like men. Women, on the other hand, can have a whole bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate phase of having had sex with women and then turn around and reclaim their heterosexuality.”
She’s completely right. We do this as a society, but it’s even worse in the black community because black masculinity is so stringent and inflexible to the point of being toxic. Not just for those around them, but for the men themselves. Our men aren’t allowed to show physical affection to one another for fear of being labeled as gay. We don’t even want our male children to cry for fear that it will make them soft. We have to do better.
As this pertains to Striking Vipers though, the episode tells the tale of two black men exploring a sexuality that we don’t yet even have a word for. That in and of itself is beautiful. We don’t yet have a name for where Karl and Danny would fall on the sexual spectrum (though I did see someone on Twitter call them homie-sexuals) but the connection that they have is as real and valid as any gay, straight, or bisexual connection. But, of course, because of the dynamics of black male sexuality, they immediately question the “gayness” of what they are doing.
“Guess that makes us gay now.”
“Don’t feel gay to me.”
Towards the ending, they share a kiss to confirm whether or not they are physically attracted to one another. They kiss but both claim they feel nothing.
On the one hand, I want to believe them. I don’t want to be like Insecure’s Molly and label black men as gay because they are exploring their sexuality. But there is another part of me that wonders if maybe, because of the society we live in and because of the rigidity of black male sexuality, that the only way that both of these men could express their true desires for one another was when they were free of their own black male physical bodies and inhabiting bodies of characters of other races and in one case of another sex. If this were true, then the fact that both the characters were engaging in heterosexual sex probably made the encounters easier for both of them as well.
Fascinating New Thing
But let’s go with the former idea. Let’s believe Karl and Danny when they say that they didn’t feel anything when they kissed. If that is true, then we really are in an uncharted area of the sexual spectrum. What this means is that Karl and Danny were not physically attracted to one another, but mentally had sexual chemistry. This chemistry turned into a passion that manifested itself into mind-blowing virtual reality sex. This is as fascinating as it is new.
What’s even better about this is that neither men are punished for their sexual exploration as we’ve come to expect with any PoC but especially when black men deviate from standard heteronormativity. While watching Striking Viper, I was concerned about Danny’s wife Theo. Obviously, I felt for her. Her husband is cheating (emotionally and mentally if not physically) and she seems to internalize it. We see a scene with her looking at herself in the mirror for flaws. This comes after her husband stops sleeping with her and becomes emotionally distant. It’s never okay to deceive your significant other, but I was also concerned about Theo’s potential reaction to what Danny and Karl were doing.
Yes, of course, I expected Theo to be hurt, but I also feared she wouldn’t be understanding. Honestly, I couldn’t blame her if she wasn’t. But I was also concerned that she might spew some homophobic rhetoric. We don’t get to see Danny and Theo have an open and honest conversation about his relationship with Karl. This is a huge missed opportunity to watch a black couple work through questions of sexuality in a healthy way. What I do think was extremely forward thinking though was the compromise they came to.
What About Theo?
In the middle of Striking Vipers, we see Theo be approached by a man at a bar. The man offers to buy her a drink while she waits for her husband. She shows him her ring and he politely walks off, but we see a glint of longing in Theo’s eyes.
She is bored too. Theo even says as much at the dinner with Danny when she first confronts him about his distant attitude. In a way, their choice to open their marriage once a month is freeing for Theo as well. She is allowed to explore her sexuality in own way.
The compromise they reach at the end of the episode seems to satisfy both of them. However, because we don’t get the conversation we don’t see how Theo views what is happening between Karl and Danny. It seems almost too neat. I wanted to hear Danny’s perspective about what was happening with Karl. How was he processing the whole relationship? The ending suggests that both Danny and Theo are progressive thinkers who aren’t bound by the sexual constraints on black men and women in our society. I like this ending. However, because we don’t get that conversation between them, it’s a little hard to believe it was so easy.
We Need to Talk About Karl
Another problem with the ending of Striking Vipers has to do with Karl. I think he gets the shortest stick in this whole scenario. Danny and Theo have a commitment to one another solidified by marriage and children. They have each other for emotional and mental support as well as physical affection. Danny and Theo aren’t restricted to once a month. Karl, on the other hand, has no such thing.
The relationship we see him in seems shallow. It is devoid of any shared interests and mental stimulation. By the end of the episode, the girl isn’t even around. Danny is the only person with which he gets the whole package. In the compromise, Karl has one day a month to be emotionally and physically fulfilled. But is that enough?
I’ve seen some people on Twitter compare it to “down low” relationships. The DL men can go home to their wives and children and lead full lives. Their boyfriends, however, are left with the scraps of stolen weekends and late-night phone calls. I don’t know if this is a fair comparison for Karl, but I do see where it shares some similarities.
Final Thoughts on Striking Vipers
“Striking Vipers” touches on something that isn’t explored enough in media. We get to see black men explore a facet of their sexuality without detrimental consequences. Though I think there are some blind spots and missed opportunities, the episode was excellent. It’s easily the best of the extremely short and underwhelming season of Black Mirror. It raises some important and necessary questions about how we restrict black men’s sexual fluidity and forces us to consider whether there are options outside of the ones we have placed on them and ourselves.
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Check out the trailer below: