In ’15 Million Merits,’ Characters Crave Positive Feedback From Social Media

By Benton Dodd

The episode “15 Million Merits” was released in December of 2011 as one of the first few episodes of the “Black Mirror” series, and what a start it was. Leads Daniel Kaluuya and Jessica Brown Findlay do a phenomenal job of setting the stage for the audience with their thoroughly convincing portrayals of Abi and Bing. The audience truly feels the genuine frustration and abject despair that the characters feel under the weight of their repressive society.

I thought the most thought provoking moment in the episode was one of the final scenes in which Kaluuya looks out the “window” in his new room, gazing out into a vast forest. To me, it is unclear whether this is an actual vision or simply another graphic being projected. Has the government merely given him the semblance of freedom while still keeping him under their boot?

I believe that the image isn’t real, but it is ultimately irrelevant because it appears that he believes that it is real. In this world, perception is reality, but this exhibited happiness is oftentimes nothing more than a veneer.

The biggest “loser” in the episode has to be the tragic Jessica Brown Findlay. She has dreams of being a famous singer, and using fame to escape her current reality. She catches the attention of Kaluuya’s character, due to her talent and attractiveness, while singing to herself in the restroom. In this world, men and women use the same restroom bathroom because, ultimately, with the lack of emphasis on the individual, the gender identity of someone doesn’t really matter in this world. Gender only matters when someone can be exploited for it.

This society has completely dehumanized everyday people, leaving them to exist as hamsters on a wheel. Bing eventually offers to fund Abi’s audition ticket to “Hot Shot,” a talent show that represents a way out due in part to his infatuation with her, but mostly due to the fact that the prospect of her success offers Bing a little piece of “reality” that he can hold onto. She does well in the audition, but the judges fail to see much value past her attractiveness.

One of the most poignant moments in the episode happens during the judges discussion of Abi’s performance. Despite ostensibly being on board with the assessment of the two male judges that Abi’s real potential was in pornography, the lone female judge, Charity, lets out a subtle tear. It can be inferred that, despite having the power to reject or elevate various contestants, they themselves have personally risen up in through the ranks to be in that position. Charity is clearly incredibly conflicted, showing sympathy for Abi, but doesn’t want to jeopardize her own position.

It is also worth noting that it is incredibly unclear whether Abi was of sound mind to make the decision, due to her having taken “Cuppliance,” a mysterious drink that contestants are  required to ingest in order to appear on the show. With a name similar to “compliance,” it can be inferred that the drink has some sort of psychotropic properties. Later on, Abi is shown in an implied porn advertisement, and it seems as if she is drugged up during her “scene.” It is likely that she is made to continue to ingest “Cuppliance” or similar substances.

The pressure on Abi to acquiesce to the judges suggestion is tantamount to the pressure that actual women face in our society to sexualize themselves. A new survey from the Pew Research Center found that 73% of Americans use at least one form of social media. There is more pressure than ever before to represent oneself in a positive light online, and women and young girls face more of this pressure than any other demographic. Many people post revealing pictures to get positive feedback, despite these pictures being arguably compromising.

It’s not that big of a leap to link these desires for positive feedback exist in the pornography industry. It is huge in scope, and immensely exploitative for the women and men involved. I believe the women in the implied pornography of “15 Million Merits” are definitely underleveraged in terms of what they could be earning, relative to how widespread their “work” is. Porn seems to be nearly ubiquitous in this society, and yet the “stars” don’t have real “starpower.” Abi is seen as just another “Wraith Babe,” rather than a star in her own light, as Bing is eventually seen.

The scene where Bing sees the implied porn advertisement featuring Abi, and isn’t allowed to look away is particularly gut-wrenching. Bing can see that Abi appears to be drugged up and far from happy. She represented “something real” to him, and now she is just part of the system (as he eventually is). Abi has no say in the distribution of this ad or any of the content she makes, and it seems as if everybody in this world has to watch this ad. Given this level of notoriety, she should be given more respect as a star, but isn’t.

Abi’s experience is mirrored by many women within the porn industry. They turned to porn to get out of a bad situation, but didn’t find the salvation they desperately needed. And now that Abi has made this decision, willingly or not, there is no going back.

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