This blog post contains plot spoilers for the Black Mirror episode 15 Million Merits.
Pornography is what the end of the world looks like
This is what Robert Jensen wrote in a Ms. article linked to for a quote of the day a little while back. He elaborated on that with the following:
By that I don’t mean that pornography is going to bring about the end of the world, nor do I mean that of all the social problems we face, pornography is the most threatening. Instead, I mean that pornography encourages men to abandon empathy, and a world without empathy is a world without hope.
A powerful illustration of this maxim can be found in yesterday’s Black Mirror episode 15 Million Merits. It depicts a future distopia where the main form of work is generating energy through peddling stationary bicycles (there is an even more wretched underclass that is humiliated, vilified, and relegated to cleaning jobs: the fat, but that’s a different post for a different blog). Cycling earns credits/currency (the ‘merits’ of the title), and 15 million merits is the price of a ticket onto the talent show ‘Hot Shots’, which offers the only possibility of a way out.
The main plot is a love story, between a man, Bing, who has 15 million merits, and the woman, Abi, he gifts a ‘Hot Shots’ entry ticket to. But what I want to concentrate on is the depiction of pornography in the program.
The pornographer himself is more honest and astute about pornography than the cultural experts engaged in defending it.
There are only two groups of people in this world who seem to think that pornography is just a recording of people having sex – those who’ve never seen any porn, and the ‘sexperts’ and sex industry advocates defending it as harmless or even beneficial.
The pornographers themselves, in describing their porn and what makes it sell, are far more honest, with titles such as ‘Meat Holes’ and ‘Service Animals’ and descriptions in trade publications such as:
[A] misogynistic gem that will appeal to men who have survived the social castrating of their gender.
15 Million Merits was also brutally honest and aware of what pornography is like now, how it affects the status of women, and how it acts as an opiate to its users. It was reminiscent of another distopia, Orwell’s 1984, in which pornography was distributed to the working classes (who thought they were dealing in contraband), in order to keep them docile.
In 15 Million Merits, people where constantly surrounded by screens, which, like the most up-to-date games systems, responded to body movements and hand signals. Adverts were screened constantly, and it cost merits to skip or mute an add. Adverts for pornography were constantly screened (to male characters at least), meaning they were economically penalised for refusing to view porn, and then, once hooked, needed to earn in order to pay for more porn.
The type of porn advertised was always and only gonzo porn, a brand called ‘Wraith Babes’:
The hottest girls in the nastiest situations.
One of the judges on Hot Shots was the pornographer-in-chief himself, Wraith, and when Abi came on, he demanded that she show him her breasts (all contestants were given a doped drink beforehand to make them more compliant). She refused, and was allowed to sing. She was told that while she was a great singer, she wasn’t exceptional, and because she was beautiful, men wouldn’t be listening to her and women would hate her. Instead she was offered a role as a ‘Wraith Babe’, and told that it was the only way out and better than peddling, and that she was arrogant for refusing (the audience started chanting “do it!”).
She agreed, and was later seen, in a porn add, dressed like a little girl, saying, unconvincingly, how she loved her new life because she was ‘treated well’ and got to wear nice clothes. Later we see her with bleached hair and heavy, smudged, make-up.
Obviously, this being ‘terrestrial’ British TV, they were never going to be that explicit about what was done to her, but all the trappings of gonzo porn where there: the adult woman made to look like a little girl, the smudged make-up implying she had been crying or attacked, the emphasis on ‘innocence’, and humiliation as she was forced to say she liked it. She was shown looking up passively at Wraith as he roughly pushed his thumb in and out of her mouth (about as explicit as they can depict).
This culture of cruelty is also reflected in the non-pornographic entertainment, where the obese and unfit are humiliated in idiotic game shows, and are the animated targets of shoot-’em-up games.
Towards the end of the program, Bing buys his own ticket to get on Hot Shots, and uses his spot in front of the judges to rail at them and the audience, saying that people can only stomach fakeness, that the only real thing they can stomach is “real pain, real viciousness … show us something real and free and beautiful … it would break us, we’re too numb for it.” He said they had turned Abi into an “ugly joke”; to him she was something real and authentic and beautiful.
These things, authenticity, beauty, genuine feeling (beyond pain and humiliation) are the antithesis of pornography. The distopia depicted in 15 Million Merits used pornography to keep it’s population numb and compliant and addicted, which is the role pornography currently has in our atomised consumer age.
15 Million Merits is currently available to watch on-line on 4OD here.