Incels in Space

What the 'Black Mirror' episode "USS Callister" teaches us about male fragility, video game fandoms, and the danger of unregulated online spaces.

Uss Callister
Netflix

At the beginning of 2018, the internet was abuzz with talk of “USS Callister,” the heavyweight opener of Black Mirror Season 4. Articles praising its merits were in abundance, prognosticators saw it as an early frontrunner for awards, and there was much discussion of its surprise cameo by the one and only Aaron Paul. That fall, the episode won four Emmy Awards, including the one for Outstanding Television Movie. Above all this, though, the most memorable thing about “USS Callister” is its terrifyingly timely message.

Charlie Brooker and William Bridges wrote the episode in November of 2016, but rather than drawing explicit inspiration from an obvious contemporary source — namely, the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States — Brooker says it was actually the 1961 Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life” (itself based on the 1953 short story by Jerome Bixby) plus Kim Jong-un that served as the central influences on their screenplay.

In the opening scene of the episode, Captain Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons) commands a spaceship referred to as the USS Callister as he and his crew prepare for battle against the villainous Valdack (Billy Magnussen). His subordinates include Lieutenant Walton (Jimmi Simpson), Lieutenant Lowry (Michaela Coel), Helmsman Packer (Osy Ikhile), Tulaska (Milanka Brooks), and Dudani (Paul G. Raymond). Although Valdack escapes, Daly confidently shrugs off any suggestion they pursue him. “Great decision-making, Captain,” Lowry responds, as the whole crew begins cheering for him. Daly kisses both Lowry and Tulaska in a highly choreographed manner as the ship flies off into space.

In actuality, Daly is the chief technical officer of a video game company called Callister Inc., and all of his crew members are really his coworkers. As we slowly learn, Daly found a way to use the DNA of others to create sentient clones of them inside the video game. Through this, Daly lives out his Captain Kirk fantasies and revenge plots at the same time. When new employee Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti) rebuffs his romantic advances, Daly inserts her into the game as well.

While he can leave the game at will, his “crew members” are trapped there for eternity. Cole immediately panics at the thought of an endless future in Daly’s fantasy, but she starts playing along after witnessing brutal physical and emotional abuse toward anyone who undermines his authority. Nonetheless, she secretly leads the others in an elaborate plan to fight back. It’s a rife allegory that addresses the intersections of sexism, violence, and emasculation while offering a powerful and surprising lead role to Milioti.

“USS Callister” is an uncannily relevant story that echoes today’s debates on censorship, online harassment, and sexist fandoms. As discussions of de-platforming become increasingly prevalent for good, scary, and downright absurd reasons, there are many debates to be had on the topic, but it’s critical that we’re not losing sight of the actual damage being done to women, minorities, and progressive activists in the real world.

Roughly four years before the premiere of “USS Callister” — before Trump’s election or any mention of “pussy-grabbing” — we witnessed two major events that undeniably enshrined emasculation and sexism in the zeitgeist: GamerGate and the Isla Vista killings. While the misogyny central to both of these cases was nothing new, the way the internet functioned in them was.

Before murdering six individuals and injuring 14 others in Isla Vista, California, Elliot Rodger uploaded a video entitled “Elliot Rodger’s Retribution” to his YouTube channel, explaining that his reason for perpetuating the murders was sexual rejection by women. He also wrote a manifesto, in which he referenced PUAHate, a website popular among involuntarily celibate men (referred to as incels). Since the Isla Vista killings and the subsequent deactivation of PUAHate, Rodger has become a martyr to other incels and been cited as an inspiration for multiple similar killings.

While not many articles dug very deep into the Black Mirror episode’s real-world implications, Vanity Fair’s Sonia Saraiya absolutely did. Referring to Daly as an “Incel King” in her headline, she and Milioti go on to discuss the episode being rooted in the same virulent misogyny that inspired Rodger and many others to commit cruel atrocities against women. “[Nanette’s] crime is that she doesn’t want to sleep with him,” Milioti tells Saraiya. “That anger at women, and of wanting to own them, and of wanting it to be like, you know, a video game — it’s horrible.'”

To them, it was not a fun adventure through Star Trek nostalgia. Daly represents much more than a complicated sad man. His feeling of entitlement — to the bodies of others, their affection, and their submission — is recognized every day in the faces of cat-callers and the profile pictures of online harassers. Ultimately, Nanette takes advantage of this dynamic, using his ego to her advantage in the episode’s climactic scene.

It’s a powerful flipping of the script that puts her in control — and it’s one Milioti relished getting to play with onscreen. “I started crying when I read that script because I couldn’t believe that I was gonna do all of the things she gets to do,” she says in the Vanity Fair article. “You get to see her be a real person throughout this and use her intelligence and grit and resolve to get through the day.'” It’s a big part of why “USS Callister” was such a hit, but there’s even more depth beyond the actions of its protagonist.

GamerGate was a more obvious parallel for viewers and critics to latch onto given the story’s focus on video games and those who flock to them. There’s a vocal subsection of sexist players who have given the entire community a bad name, culminating in and epitomized by the 2014 harassment campaign against Brianna Wu, Zoë Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, and many others. Twitter, Reddit, 4chan, 8chan, and other social media sites were used to denigrate and threaten these women to nauseating degrees, and many of these platforms continue to function in similar ways.

There have been some important developments since GamerGate on this topic. Congresswoman Katherine Clark has introduced numerous bills on cyberstalking, violent threats, and online harassment in the US House of Representatives. Anita Sarkeesian was included in Time magazine’s list of the 100 Most Influential People of 2015. And it spotlighted sexism in the video game industry more saliently than ever before. Right now, Brianna Wu is mounting a primary challenge against incumbent Stephen Lynch in Massachusetts’ 8th congressional district. GamerGate taught us a great deal, and it also influenced modern political discourse as we know it.

Charlie Warzel’s New York Times article “How an Online Mob Created a Playbook for a Culture War” ties GamerGate to present-day internet politics through comparably complex webs of misinformation, fraud, and bigotry. Many of the tactics being used by self-described right-wing trolls today — doctored images and videos, fake accounts, and parlaying discriminatory comments into social media fame — originated in 2014.

What’s heartening despite all of these frightening news stories is that we’re learning how to combat misinformation online and the sexist indoctrination of young men. Platforms used to propagate racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and white nationalist content are implementing new policies and starting to enforce them more seriously. De-platforming individuals who promote violence and hatred against minorities is a necessary step in working toward a safer future for everyone, and — despite claims of the contrary from InfoWars, Fox News, and Quillette — it works.

This may feel irrelevant to the Black Mirror episode, but it’s the entire point. What’s most surprising about Toby Haynes’ entry into this dystopian series is not its spot-on sci-fi production design, well-drawn characters, or feminist ambitions. It’s the conclusion, in which Daly is locked within the game, unable to continue his pattern of torture and objectification (a metaphorical de-platforming of sorts), and our courageous space crew is faced with a new and far more common enemy: the everyday misogynist, voiced by Aaron Paul. His line, “Yeah merry Christmas, so are we gonna blow each other or are we gonna trade?” suddenly shifts Cole’s joy at potentially being rescued into confusion. It’s introduced as a comedic bit but holds much more weight than we might initially ascribe to it. It reminds us that the monster is not dead and gone. Rather, another one lies just around the corner.

Media can and should be an escape from everyday discrimination instead of a constant reiteration of it, but the real damage is not being done to sentient bits of code or software in the fictional realm of the show. Rather, “USS Callister” encourages its viewers to consider the real people who are being objectified, threatened, abused, or, in increasingly frequent cases, murdered by these same insecure men who conceptualize themselves as the true victims in all of this.

Regulating guns and improving access to mental healthcare are both crucial and painfully overdue components in fixing this societal problem. However, we can’t ignore the roles of the internet (and certain websites in particular) in cultivating both hatred of women and the deification of these mass murderers. Calling out toxic masculinity is valuable, but we need to tie it to tangible steps to remedy this horrifying phenomenon. Otherwise, we’re just continuing to shout into an already exhausting echo chamber.

(Intern)

Eyeliner aficionado & "The Leftovers" #1 fan. Would take a bullet for Claire Denis.