For September’s monthly theme, curator Ibtisam Ahmed looks at the heartwarming intersectional love of ‘San Junipero’.
Please let the queer women live. That sounds like a horrible sentence to start any viewing with, but when I saw the ‘San Junipero’ episode of Black Mirror, I had had my heart broken far too many times already in the recent past. LGBTQ+ characters had developed an unseemly habit of dying, with a GLAAD study pointing out the specific targeting of queer women as being killed off disproportionate to their representation.
As an anthology series, Black Mirror already delved into the darkest corners of humanity so, to be honest, it was not a particularly optimistic wish. Imagine my delighted shock then when the two women at the centre of the story get some some beautifully crafted and nuanced character arcs.
‘San Junipero’ follows the complicated love lives of Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in a technologically advanced near-future. Without spoiling too much of this Netflix gem, the plot centres on how technology allows the consciousness to travel to the idyllic town of San Junipero and how these two strangers meet, fall in love, and make their way through a truly heartwarming journey.
What really makes ‘San Junipero’ stand out from other mainstream LGBTQ+ representation is its unflinching portrayal of intersectionality. Yorkie and Kelly are a visibly interracial couple. It might seem like a minor point, but so much of queer story-telling is focused on the race of the protagonists being the same (predominantly white) and the intimacy with which the two women explore their identities is made all the more meaningful by having them be of two different ethnicities – especially given the political climate that would follow the episode’s broadcast.
Imagine my delighted shock then when the two women at the centre of the story get some some beautifully crafted and nuanced character arcs.
Kelly is the confident one, fiercely outgoing and assured of her identity. She had been in a loving relationship with a man in the past and makes it very clear that she is not monosexual, though she never explicitly states whether she is bisexual or pansexual. Her relationship with Yorkie is not treated like some sort of phase or forbidden fling on the side; her love for both her previous partner and Yorkie are treated with equal respect and integrity.
To see a bi/pan character avoiding all the tired tropes – unfaithful, too experimental, unsure, and all the other nonsense that usually comes from having a non-queer writer – is not just refreshing but vital. Especially as it signals that cishet creators can no longer legitimately hide behind a veil of ignorance when writing and directing experiences that are not theirs in real life.
By contrast, Yorkie is just coming into her own. Shy and initially afraid of her queerness, her arc in ‘San Junipero’ follows a slightly more traditional coming out storyline. Her hesitation balances out Kelly’s almost too-forward flirtation and it is rather endearing to see her explore her identity in such an authentic way. My first experience of the LGBTQ+ nightlife scene was quite similar to Yorkie’s, full of nervousness and excitement in equal measure. Subsequently, I actually found myself identifying more with her – a rarity for me when the other lead character is a person of colour.
At the centre of Yorkie’s arc is her family’s severe religious intolerance towards her sexuality. I do not want to give too much away in terms of how it affects the plot, but there is a very powerful and sadly important message in her family’s rejection. The episode is clearly set in a rather utopian future, where technology creates a space of extreme comfort. But no amount of materialism can end prejudice.
Especially as it signals that cishet creators can no longer legitimately hide behind a veil of ignorance when writing and directing experiences that are not theirs in real life.
That very human navigation of love, desire and acceptance is what makes ‘San Junipero’ a standout of LGBTQ+ stories on-screen. For all the sleekness the future has to offer, for all the advances humanity has supposedly made, there is still work to be done and solidarity to be offered. It is important for us to remember that now; appreciating how far we have come neither diminishes the scale of the work ahead, nor does it detract from the strength of the present felt through companionship and community. And for that, I must say thank you to Yorkie and Kelly.
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