In 'Black Mirror,' White Mothers Are the Coldest Villains
In the hit show's new season, "protecting the children" operates as a rationale for white women's heinous crimes.
Photos courtesy of Netflix
This post contains spoilers for three episodes of Black Mirror season four: "Crocodile," "Arkangel," and "Black Museum."
Perhaps no demographic group emerged from the ravages of 2017 looking worse than white women. It was their voting power that placed Donald Trump in the presidential seat, and it’s a cabal of white women—Kellyanne, Hope, Tomi, Megyn, Ivanka—that have come to typify the feminine face of his disastrous administration. Less than a year after the 2016 elections, white women in Alabama would go to the polls and vote in majority for Roy Moore, the Republican nominee for Senate who was accused of sexually assaulting a 14-year old girl. It’s fitting, then, that one of the highest grossing and most critically acclaimed films of the year, Get Out, delivered a white woman villain so intensely unlikable she made eating cereal look menacing. White women have been instrumental to white supremacist movements for more than a century, but this is the year the question was rendered in black newspaper ink: What’s wrong with white women?
Black Mirror is a show that plays host to many female characters, so it’s no surprise that many of the new season’s most compelling villains are not just white women but white mothers. If white womanhood is terrifying because it obfuscates evil, then white motherhood is more so, because it creates villains with more to lose—villains that use their children to justify their heinous behavior.
The third episode "Crocodile" provides one of the most irredeemable examples: Mia (played by Andrea Riseborough), a career woman whose iciness is manifest not just in her physical appearance—her brown hair shorn into a severe platinum pixie cut—but in the snowy Icelandic landscapes that surround her and the cold glass architecture of her home. Fifteen years earlier, strung out on drugs after a night of partying, she was involved in a car accident that took the life of a cyclist. Her friend, Rob, who was driving during the fatal accident, convinces her not to go to the police. They throw the body and the bicycle into the river.
Flash forward to a dark hotel room. Rob is sober now. Mia nurses a bottle of something dark and alcoholic. He pulls out a newspaper clipping—the wife of the man they killed is still looking for him, looking for answers. Rob wants to come forward to the wife, and maybe even to the police. Mia pleads with him not to: "I’ve got somewhere. I’ve a life. You don’t know. You don’t understand," she hisses, spittle flying from her mouth. "You’re not married. I’ve got a son. He’s nine years old. You’ve seen photos of him."
These lines take on new significance when, later in the episode, Mia coldly murders an entire Muslim family—including a small infant. When an insurance agent named Shazia (played by Kiran Sonia Sawar) knocks on Mia’s door to investigate a claim about another unrelated car accident, she accidentally uncovers Mia’s violent, murderous past by using a memory recovery device called the Recaller. In one chilling scene, Shazia whispers out an Islamic supplication—"to Him we belong and to Him we return"—before Mia clobbers her to death. In an attempt to cover her tracks, Mia goes on to kill Shazia’s husband and their infant son.
Mia cries as she does it—in fact, she cries throughout much of the episode. These are the crocodile tears that presumably give the episode its name, and that are presumably meant to shore up sympathy for her character. The tears of white women are often weaponized in this way, rendering the oppressor as victim, turning wrong-doer into saint. She didn’t want to kill Rob, or Shazia, or Shazia’s husband and infant child. She was forced into it, cruelly, the price she had to pay to protect her own family—her own son. And at the end of the night, Mia calmly joins her husband at their son’s school play, not expecting police to find her there.
"I’ve got a son," she tells Rob, as though this could mitigate her guilt. Much of Western history’s violent history is propelled by the impulse to "protect the children" or "fight for the children." It’s what the author Maggie Nelson identifies as the rationale behind "all kinds of nefarious agendas, from arming kindergarten teachers to dropping a nuclear bomb on Iran to gutting all social safety nets to extracting and burning through what’s left of the world’s fossil fuel supplies." The innocence of white children is incentive enough.
It’s this logic that governs the plot of the second episode of the season, "Arkangel," about a white woman named Marie who is so intent on protecting her daughter’s innocence that she installs a chip in her brain to allow her to see and monitor everything her daughter is doing—and even censor or block harmful images and experiences. A barking dog appears to Sara, her daughter, as a muted, pixelated blob. She can’t watch porn. Violence is undecipherable to her. Her mother turns off the filter one day after discovering young Sara digging a pencil into her own bloodied arm, unable to feel the pain or see the injury.
If "protecting the children" operates as a rationale for heinous behavior, it’s one only afforded to white mothers, because America does not afford non-white children the same infallible innocence it confers on white ones. Consider Black Mirror’s powerful season-ending episode "Black Museum," in which a young black woman named Nish visits an institution in the desert dedicated to archiving "authentic criminological artifacts," curated by its crackpot proprietor Rolo Haynes. In his past life, Rolo Haynes specialized in "recruitment" for testing out experimental medical technologies on people. He preyed on the vulnerable and desperate, among them, a death row inmate named Clayton Leigh. Leigh, a black man, was sentenced to death for the murder of a journalist decades earlier, and gave Haynes the rights to his
"digital imprint"—to "slurp up his entire consciousness."
In the Black Museum’s grand finale exhibit, Haynes allows guests to administer and experience—over and over again— Leigh’s death in the electric chair. By the time of Nish’s visit, Leigh’s digital soul has been run ragged by multiple executions. His hologram stares bleakly out the jail cell window of the Black Museum, his body limp, his image flickering with fatigue. Guests even receive a token at the end of their visit, a keychain souvenir that features a "conscious sentient snapshot of Clayton—not a recording, but a true copy of his mind—perpetually experiencing that beautiful pain." It’s then that Nish, visibly repulsed, reveals to Haynes that she’s Leigh’s daughter, and that she’s come to the Black Museum to avenge her father. With surgical focus, she carries out a plan that replaces her father’s digital imprint with Haynes’. She puts Haynes in the execution chair.
It’s a triumphant ending to a bitter story, and one that provides a stark contrast to "Arkangel" and "Crocodile." The systems created to protect white families don’t serve the same purpose for black or brown people, so they’re often forced to find justice on their own terms. In the closing scene of "Black Museum," Nish looks at herself in the rearview mirror. "How’d I do, mom? All good?" she asks her mother, who, it turns out, has been sharing a body with her daughter all this time because her own was destroyed by grief.
"Just great, honey," her mom responds from inside her head. It’s the only mother-child narrative in this season that ends on a happy note.