How Black Mirror’s “Striking Vipers” episode failed bisexual men & trans women
“Striking Vipers” exploited the trope of Black bi+ men as liars while refusing to have characters who explore bisexuality to acknowledge it
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This essay contains spoilers for Black Mirror S5E1
By J.R. Yussuf
“Striking Vipers”, the first episode Black Mirror season five, follows Danny, a married man bored by his mundane nuclear familial life, as he gets tangled in a virtual reality affair involving his former roommate Karl. It has sparked a lot of conversation around virtual reality, infidelity, sexuality, gender, polyamorous relationships and ways to spice up a romance when it falls into a rut.
Much of the reaction to the episode has been positive, though wrought with uncertainty. For the Guardian, Guy Lodge writes, “These are complex questions […] yet there’s a stale whiff of ‘no-homo’ coyness to the way Striking Vipers dramatises two ostensibly straight men’s flirtations with homosexuality and genderqueer indentity.”
Many viewers were glad to see Black masculinity & queerness explored at all, yet the episode left something to be desired because it lacked a satisfactory resolve. “Striking Vipers” has just as many flaws as it does strengths.
It’s amazing to see an almost exclusively Black cast, aside from Asian avatars who were also crucial to the storytelling. It was great to witness spellbinding aspects of gamer culture (like escapism & getting to take on a different persona) on display, outstanding cinematography and the unforgettable visual assists of the blue versus yellow color palette, symbolising the staleness of the real world versus the draw of the virtual world. Concepts around manhood – such as men not being in touch with themselves outside of performing masculinity and being poor communicators – were explicitly engaged in satisfying ways.
But “Striking Vipers” also exploited the all too familiar trope of Black bi+ (bisexual, bicurious, pansexual, fluid, queer, MSM, no labels, etc.) men as liars, cheaters and sexually insatiable, all while further invisibilizing us by refusing to have characters who explore bisexuality to ever acknowledge it (in the minds of many, bisexual men don’t actually exist).
The recurring question many people had after watching “Striking Vipers” was “are Danny and Karl gay or straight?” because of a lack of clarity around bisexualities which feels intentional, as well as irresponsible. “Guess that’s us gay now” Karl tells Danny after they have virtual reality sex for the first time while Karl’s mind is in a female avatar’s body. “Doesn’t feel like a gay thing,” Danny replies, in the only explicit acknowledgement of queer sexuality. But the problem goes beyond using the word “gay” instead of the seemingly more accurate “bisexual.” The characters’ lack of self-reflection in general, and the show’s inability to show them exploring and finding certainty in their own individual ambiguities, sexuality and gender identity makes the episode play more for shock value than the nuanced representation we deserve.
It’s clear to me that Karl, the initiator of these virtual sexual escapades, has internalized heteronormative ideals that say a relationship between two men is illegitimate. What’s less clear is whether he desires both sex and romance from Danny, which he seems to, because he is only allowed to vocalize wanting sex under the shroud of virtual reality.
Danny’s predicament is even more complicated; he wasn’t aware of wanting sex or romance from Karl until he was kissed in virtual reality by Karl’s female avatar. He found himself enjoying the sensation and who it was coming from, but then he remembered his marriage and he couldn’t let himself go there, sexually or emotionally.
I empathized with Danny after the first kiss, which he did not see coming, because I know how overwhelming it must be to all of a sudden realize that you’re capable of being sexual and/or romantic with a person of a gender you hadn’t considered. However, Danny’s atrocious communication became another flaw of the episode because it seemed designed not to let me feel bad for him for too long, even though empathy is too often withheld from Black bisexual men struggling with feelings such as this. Danny could have been shown speaking to his wife, Theo, afterward, or at least doing some soul-searching and research (though resources for Bi+ men are scarce), but he was callously avoidant until there was no other option.
In the end of the episode, Danny & Karl simplified their relationship, agreeing to have virtual reality sex once a year. This seems reflective of the experiences of many bicurious and bisexual men who have a hard time reconciling their attraction (emotional, physical, sexual, etc.) to other men because of internalized biphobia, homophobia and heteronormativity. Many of us never fully overcome this, nor come out as bisexual to their loved ones or to themselves for a myriad of reasons.
A generous read of the episode is that the relationship between Danny and Karl represents the very real and many struggles Black bisexual men face and questions that remain for us. But in order to come to this nuance and the specificity of the characters, the viewer is required to know the difference between sexual orientation, sexual history and identity, and that trans women are not putting on another gender in order to avoid being gay or make the person they’re with avoid being gay, all context the show seems to go out of its way to sidestep.
Without making these truths plain, the episode is more easily read as painting Black bisexual men as cheaters who use the women in their lives to deflect the reality that they are actually gay, and trivializing trans experiences as something to take off, put on, and maneuver as a way of escaping being gay in the minds of others. That might make for a popular episode, but it does more damage to the psyche and reputation of Black bisexual men and trans women.
What hope do Black bisexual men have if, even in our imaginings, in virtual reality, we can’t escape the stereotypes that haunt us, that lead 35% of us to consider or attempt suicide (compared to 30% of gay men and a much lower number for straight men), as well as higher rates of anxiety, depression, mood disorders, intimate partner violence, discrimination within the LGBTQ+ community, heart diease and tobacco use than our gay and straight counterparts?
Could this episode not imagine working toward a healthy poly relationship, one achieved after Danny has difficult but necessary conversations with himself and Theo that we are able to see too? There have been many televised bisexual MFF threesomes, something often depicted for the straight male gaze, and it would have been refreshing to see a MMF scene for once, one that included Theo in the fun instead of keeping her in the dark until the very end where they only negotiate their boundaries off-camera, and only because they reach an impasse.
Can Black bisexual men ever escape the specter of being the cheating down-low brother responsible for spreading HIV in the Black community? The stigma remains at the core of our society which informs racist, biphobic attitudes that spill over into our media (See GLAAD Reference Guide: Reporting on the Bisexual Community). If we hope to change any of that, to make room for Black bisexual men and begin to reverse some of the damage wrought onto us, the work should resume in the imagining, in virtual reality, in fictitious depictions of Black bisexual men, because exploiting tropes about Black bisexual men, as “Striking Vipers” did, ain’t it.
J.R. Yussuf is a Nigerian-American, New York native. J.R. deeply believes in the importance of personal power, and in addition to being an actor, is the 1st place winner of a 2016-2017 Reader Views Literary Award in the Self-Help category for The Other F Word: Forgiveness, a book for anyone who has ever struggled with forgiveness and letting things go. Yussuf maintains a YouTube channel devoted to self-improvement, emotional intelligence & forgiveness. His writing has appeared in the anthologies Best Bi Short Stories: Bisexual Fiction, finalist for a 2014 Lambda Literary Award and a 2014 Rainbow Award and Double Consciousness: An Autoethnographic Guide To My Black American Existence which soared to #1 Best-Seller in Kindle African American Poetry within it’s first week of being released, as well as Black Youth Project, Positively Positive, The Good Men Project, Escarp, Instigatorzine, and The CultureLP. Yussuf created the tag #bisexualmenspeak for bi+ men & masculine identified folks to have the space to speak for themselves & talk about how being bi+ impacts the way they move through the world. Learn more at www.JRYussuf.com