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Reconsidering Black Mirror’s ‘San Junipero’ In A Post-Trump Reality

With LGBTQ rights likely under fire in the new administration, it’s easier to take refuge in this flawed but hopeful vision of utopia

If every season of Black Mirror has produced at least one installment that resonated beyond the scope of the season as a whole, this time the chosen hour was “San Junipero.” Coming at the halfway point of the new batch of episodes produced by Netflix, “San Junipero” stood out for providing a perspective that previously had been missing from the series entirely: optimism. Black Mirror speculates about the future of mankind’s relationship to technology, but if most episodes depict technology’s ability to accelerate the narcissistic and self-destructive tendencies of mankind, “San Junipero” is an exploration of technology’s ability to create paradise.

Within the episode, heaven is a computer — San Junipero is a program that allows users to live forever as avatars within a benevolent and manipulable world designed by computer technicians. But as an audience watching the episode, the real paradise is an all too rare view of joyful queer love. On television, lesbians especially are used to seeing their avatars used as plot fodder, secondary characters to be killed off to further the drama of the main, inevitably heterosexual cast. “San Junipero,” then, is a radical departure from the norm, depicting two women across multiple generations of their lives who defy death with their union in marriage and in love. Yorkie and Kelly are the yin to the other’s yang, perfect foils in the way that only television could produce. They are perfectly post-racial and post-queer, and played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis — two poised starlets whose respective beauties and up-and-coming celebrity cachets make them a perfectly marketable match ... regardless of their chemistry, which was at least very earnest and only a little awkward.

But despite the outpouring of love that met the episode upon its debut on October 21, when I first watched it, I saw only the cracks in Black Mirror’s portrait of perfection. I was bothered by the suggestion within the episode that Yorkie and Kelly’s marriage was somehow the key to their eternal bliss, and I was borderline offended that their monogamous connection was explicitly opposed and contrasted by the supposedly empty partying that took place in an obligatory sex club. In the year that saw the deadliest shooting in American history occur in the confines of a queer bar’s Latin night, there was no room in my mind for the demonization of club life, not when queer clubs have served as places of safety, community, and freedom for generations, and not when lesbian clubs in particular have been gentrified out of existence for years without an end in sight.

I grew up as a member of the last generation that will remember a time before marriage equality, and as such, I came into queerness with the understanding that though the ratification of marriage rights was a milestone for public recognition of the unalienable equality of queer people, the queer community had managed to survive without marriage and often without monogamy for centuries before the movement for marriage equality began to congeal. Watching Black Mirror, I resented that a show written and performed by straight people would suggest that the only path to happiness was the path most often trod by straight society. As much as I was touched by the reactions of the many queer people who fell in love along with Yorkie and Kelly, “San Junipero” looked to me like a patronizing whitewash of the reality of queer life, an empty fantasy.

What a difference an Election Day makes.

Where the goodwill of “San Junipero” read to me just a week ago as a clueless attempt from allies to imagine queer futures without understanding queer histories, in a post-Trump world, I don’t have the extra energy to fight with those who would wish me well. Faced with even the most dubious of queer utopias, my heart and my body will not turn away from the chance to rest.

In his first appearance since the election, the president-elect said on 60 Minutes that the fate of gay marriage was settled by the Supreme Court ruling that ensured its federal protection. By conservatives and fascists, this statement was taken as absolute evidence that the fears of queer people upon Trump’s election were unfounded, as if in the same interview the president-elect had not also promised to appoint pro-life judges to the Supreme Court who could overturn protections for abortion granted by the decision of Roe v. Wade — or as if the election itself wasn’t won thanks in part to a judicial gutting of the once-powerful Voting Rights Act of 1965. But even if we take a duplicitous man at his word, the safety of gay marriage is not the same as the safety of queer life. If the new president overturns the old president’s edicts protecting gender-neutral bathrooms, there can be no queer safety. When the vice-president is an active crusader for gay conversion therapy, there can be no queer safety. When queer immigrants seeking asylum are turned away based on the perceived danger of their nation of origin, when programs protecting public housing and health care are abolished, when swastikas and Confederate flags and hate speech become prevalent parts of public life thanks to the turn of an election, there can be no queer safety.

Art changes when the world changes, and if I’m still not ready to call “San Junipero” successful art, it’s only because I’m petty, and we should all hold on to our sense of identity in these trying times. The function of queer art is different in this brave new world than it was last month, in the final days of Obama-era hope. To quote the philosopher Theodor Adorno, who was forced out of his home country by the rise of a fascist regime in Germany, “Whoever disappears into the artwork thereby gains dispensation from the impoverishment of a life that is always too little. This pleasure may mount to an ecstasy for which the meager concept of enjoyment is hardly adequate, other than to produce disgust for enjoying anything.”

Like a bell that chimes at midnight, lifting the spell that all too briefly offered a vision of enchanted beauty, Trump’s election has transformed queer fantasy from its momentary pose as idle comfort back to its familiar position as an act of radical defiance. To fantasize as a queer person in the age of Trump is to refuse to be satisfied by the meager offerings of an administration that would distract from the nuances of queer vulnerability with dangled promises to protect the most basic (and least offensive) of our civil rights. If last week Black Mirror was a pea under my 10,000 mattresses, today I’m happy to succumb to the dream of “San Junipero.” Resistance requires rest. Hang on to the folly of queer utopia so you can find the will to act with the urgency demanded by queer reality.