Black Mirror's San Junipero or how to dismantle the Bury Your Gays trope [Heavy spoilers]
I’ve written a little about the BYG trope before and if you follow media critics at all, you’ll know the death toll of women in relationships with women on TV shows in particular is seemingly ever rising.
Black Mirror is a speculative fiction anthology series known for its grim and dark themes. Originally broadcast on Channel 4, the British series only ran two seasons of three episodes each and one Christmas special, but was subsequently recommissioned by Netflix. “San Junipero” is the fourth episode of the Netflix season.
San Junipero focuses on the romance between two women: a young shy white glasses-wearing lesbian named Yorkie and a vivacious joyful passionate fun-loving black bisexual young woman named Kelly. In any normal Black Mirror, you’d expect a grim ending. And with the prevalence of the BYG trope on TV, this is an even greater possibility. But San Junipero is not a normal Black Mirror episode.
Charlie Brooker, creator and writer of Black Mirror, is obviously aware of the BYG trope. And he has endeavoured to shatter it to pieces. San Junipero is a story about love between two women. But it’s also a story about dying. And both the main characters are dying. This is clearly a conscious decision. Everything about the episode not only alludes to BYG, but calls for it. All the narrative justifications are there for it to happen. But Charlie Brooker decides to show that there is no such thing as “it had to happen”.
When we first meet Yorkie and Kelly, they are two young women meeting in a nightclub of the party town of San Junipero in the 80s. But in true Black Mirror fashion, appearances are deceptive. San Junipero is not a real place. San Junipero is one of the many settings in a virtual reality program. Elderly patients in nursing homes can choose to upload their consciousness to the program after death. And before that they can spend up to five hours a week in it as a test-run. Yorkie and Kelly met during their test-runs.
Yorkie is a quadriplegic 60+ year old woman. She has spent her entire life in a hospital bed and now she is nearing the end of her life, she has chosen to upload herself to San Junipero. Kelly, also in her sixties, has been diagnosed with cancer and has been given a few months to live. This is the first part of the BYG subversion by the episode. The girls are dying, but they’re old women who have lived long lives. This isn’t a case of a young woman getting hit by a stray bullet. Their deaths do not feel premature. And they aren’t certain either. Yorkie has chosen the time of her “death” willingly and it is not a death per se, just a passing into the virtual world of San Junipero. As to Kelly, she has outlived every dire prognoses she has been given thus far.
However, Kelly, who is bisexual, is still grieving her husband’s death and when Yorkie asks her to upload to San Junipero with her, she flat out refuses. Her husband did not go into the virtual reality program after his death and she feels like she cannot go when he did not. This decision leads to a fight with Yorkie, after which Kelly gets in her car and speed drives away before crashing and lying unmoving on the road. But this is San Junipero. This is a virtual world. Nobody dies here. Not ever. In San Junipero, women who love women are immortal and invincible and Kelly just gets back up.
Kelly finally comes to the realisation that it is okay for her to move on and thats he isn’t betraying her husband for doing so. The girls go on to live together, in a literal happily ever after - and all too rarely seen - in San Junipero.
Seeing a same sex couple both live through the entire story and end up together would be groundbreaking enough, but seeing this in a narrative that seemed to demand death, in a TV show that has never had a happy ending before (one hopeful ending in episode 1 of season 3) is not just a great decision to see, it’s an indictment of every other show who has killed their lesbian and bisexual female characters and a way to raise the bar for all future show.
It’s worth noting that the episode also made a lot of efforts to put forward the validity of the characters’ sexuality and diversify the usual representation of wlw characters:
- wlw characters often tend to be white but Kelly is a black woman.
- wlw characters are often young. The episode played with that perception by making the characters’ youth turn out to be an illusion and both women are actually over sixty, which also shows that same sex attraction is not a phase. It’s a lifelong thing. Yorkie and Kelly loved girls at 20 and they love them still at 60.
- bisexual women are just waiting for the right person to decide their orientation: Kelly’s relationship with her husband and her budding romance with Yorkie are given equal weight. Nobody ever assumes that maybe Kelly was into girls all along and she was just still in the closet when she was with her husband. There is an absolutely magnificent monologue from Kelly towards the end in which she explains to Yorkie just how much her husband and the forty years they spent together meant to her.
- bisexual women are promiscuous: again, the episode plays with the perception. When we first meet Kelly, she is adamant that she is not going to have a relationship, that she only wants harmless fun. But we then find out that she is just finding it difficult to move on from her husband’s death and wishes to be faithful to his memory. Her speech about him also makes it clear that although she has always known she was also into women, she has never even been tempted to have a relationship with a woman because she loved her husband and was faithful to him for the entirety of their marriage.
EDIT: upon rewatching, I noticed clues indicating Yorkie and Kelly are actually in their seventies, and not their sixties as I had previously estimated.
Edit 2: Scratch that, somebody pointed out Yorkie is indeed in her sixties, while Kelly is 73. Also added a gif because it made me smile.
Stand by for further San Junipero posts!