In a deviation from the series’ preferred flavor of hopelessness, “USS Callister” offers us two experiences best served hand-in-hand: a delightful romp, and a deep, hard look at ourselves. (Content warning: Straight-up feminism.)
The wise and powerful Anita Sarkeesian, media critic and executive director of Feminist Frequency, often says that it’s important to be critical of the media that we love. It’s easy to dismiss serious flaws in a text that you deeply admire so that you can go on admiring it without shame, just as it’s easy to assume that people who criticize that text must hate it. But it is hard to engage critically and thoughtfully with the media you least want to criticize — and, when possible, to demand better from the people producing the work.
The difficulty of critiquing beloved media doesn’t just come from the uncomfortable tummy feelings it can give us — fans who are over-loyal to a work may reject, even attack, the people pointing out its flaws. And when these flaws are a product of misogyny, and when the people pointing them out are women… oh man, does it get heated.
Nowhere is the tendency to attack the feminist critic more hair-triggered than in nerd culture. Sarkeesian herself is the subject of constant global abuse because she is a human woman who has opinions about video games. Nerd fandom is at once inordinately loyal and deeply insecure: We tend to latch onto fantasy and sci-fi media from a young age, when we’re just as likely to over-invest ourselves in fictional characters as we are to be mocked for our interest in them.
So when women in particular begin to demand better of their favorite media, they can receive ugly combinations of reactionary nerd rage and blatant sexism. When you add this to the systemic shortcomings of literally all entertainment media, geek culture, despite being thought of as a bastion for the uncool, quickly becomes not so fun for the women who are part of it.
In Black Mirror’s Season 4 debut, “USS Callister” offers us not only an exploration of this toxicity, but also a richly textured and rewarding visual experience that critiques a beloved cultural franchise just as it pays homage to it — in short, is critical of the media it loves.