Neoliberalism Will Eat You
Jennifer Phang's 2015 film Advantageous gives you an idea of what Black Mirror could be if Black Mirror didn't suck. The television show, helmed by Charlie Brooker, looks at the world five minutes into the future with a nudge and a wry wink. The fact that future looks much like the social-media-obsessed, VR-addicted present is a kind of gag. There's a sadistic edge to the show's brittle, hyperbolic black humor—a hip smugness. Everything is shit, but looking back from tomorrow at least makes you the smartest guy on top of the shitheap.
Advantageous isn't smug. It's near future is much like our present, but that's not a way to show that the creators are on top of the latest trends. Rather, the sameness is the dystopia. Advantageous imagines a society in which conformity is so all-encompassing that even tomorrow has to look like today—only moreso.
The protagonist of Advantageous is model and spokesperson Gwen Ko, played by Phang's co-screenwriter Jacqueline Kim. Gwen is the face of a company called Advanced Health and Living, which sells cosmetic services to an appearance- and status-obsessed public. The company is pushing a complete body-replacement procedure, in which older people can shift their consciousness into younger, more attractive bodies. At the last minute before the campaign launch, Gwen's immediate supervisor, Dave Fisher (James Urbaniak) tells her that they are firing her to replace her with a younger, more attractive spokesperson. At the same time, Gwen's daughter, Jules (Samantha Kim, no relation to Jacqueline) gets rejected from a prestigious prep school, leaving her with only a very expensive second choice as an alternative.
The first half of the movie is a slow, excruciatingly painful chronicle of Gwen's inexorably narrowing options. She looks for other jobs, but she's too old and too female; the government (in what may be an explicit not to 1983's Born in Flames) is worried about jobless men on the street, and has encouraged businesses to fire women and force them back into the home. More, her old employer has placed a counter-recommendation on her record.
An increasingly desperate Gwen goes to a high-powered luncheon with mothers of Jules' prospective prep-school peers—a passel of aggressively coifed women who talk about career and opportunity like spiders about to devour a plump hobbit. When one of their number gets up to rush to the bathroom and vomit, the rest barely blink. Apex predators don't acknowledge weakness. When Gwen asks for a few days to raise 10,000 units to hold her daughter's place in the school, the other women smile. "It's clear you agenda for you daughter is, as your career, unstoppable," one of the mothers enthuses with the terrifyingly demanding sincerity of a branding guru.
Gwen wants to be that perfect unstoppable apex predator too; she presents herself as a strong professional woman and spouts bland empowerment boilerplate with carefully orchestrated aplomb. "Shouldn't every woman be defined by the totality of her choices rather than her race, height or health?" she says in her screen test marketing script.
Gwen's problem is that, like most humans, all of her choices have not been ideal in every way. Facing the crisis in her career, she turns to her family for support. Unfortunately, she is badly estranged from her parents and her cousin. The film slowly reveals that she slept with her cousin's husband; Jules is their child. She hasn't been in touch with them, or her parents, since. None of them will help her.
That leaves Gwen with just one choice. She offers to undergo the body transfer treatment herself. She'll be given a younger, prettier body—on with a more "universal", which is to say, a more Caucasian, look. In return she'll be "brought into the elite" as Fisher tells her.
Fisher, who seems to have been romantically involved with Gwen at one point, also tells her, secretly, that the transfer process is far from perfected. New bodies need to take shots every two hours to make their lungs work correctly; there's disorientation and there can be loss of memory. More importantly, the transfer isn't really a transfer of selves, just of memories. The new brain will get Gwen's memories and personality. Gwen herself will die.
Gwen is given a choice: she can create a path to success for her daughter, or she can die. Fisher tells her "you have to land on you feet! You must!"; she has no choice but to be that tiger mother and neoliberal go-getter, the career professional who can handle and overcome every obstacle. But the rhetoric of empowerment is just rhetoric. The only choice she's really offered is the choice to be that perfect go-getter. If she can't, she has to kill herself.
This is obviously a metaphor for model minorities. Gwen, as an Asian woman, is supposed to be upwardly mobile, making good in a future full of opportunity by sacrificing for her daughter and providing her with every opportunity—to learn music, to learn art, to go to the best schools. She is supposed to be the best, dazzling her white bosses with her poise and professionalism. Ultimately, though, to please those white bosses, she must become white, literally discarding her self for a more appealing façade.
The scenes of Gwen in her new body (played by Freya Adams) are dreamlike, nightmarish, and disturbing. Gwen 2.0 staggers around her house, gasping for breath, occasionally sniping at Jules, who quickly figures out this isn't her mother at all. The second Gwen only really seems to be herself when she's hawking the body transfer product. Her work has consumed her, and left behind only a husk. Gwen sacrifices everything for her daughter, only to find she's sacrificed herself too—both because she's dead, and because Gwen 2.0 and Jules don't even like each other.
Advantageous doesn't quite end on that completely bleak note. Gwen 2.0 manages to mend her relationship both with Jules and her family, in part by rejecting the logic of neoliberal success. Through the early part of the film, Gwen often points to Jules' brilliance and her accomplishments to explain why her daughter is special. After the operation, though, Gwen 2.0 offers a different evaluation. She tells Jules that whatever she does will be "wonderful and worthwhile" not because Jules is smart or accomplished, but "because you're kind."
There may be provisional hope in kindness and family—but capitalism grinds on. Gwen 2.0's endorsement has created a booming business in body replacement, which means that Advanced Health and Living is taking money from people in exchange for murdering them.
Capitalism offers a vision of infinite choice and empowerment; a world where anything is possible. But the reality is that the everything possible is just one thing; the only self that you can be when you're in the rat race is a rat. If Black Mirror, or anybody, can see so clearly into tomorrow, its not a sign of perspicacity, but of closing possibilities. The infinite future, with flying cars and a new and healthier you, is a dead end. Everybody is trying to be the same singular attractive, young, white, rich, leaning-in success story. And then everybody fails, and is mocked and gutted and tossed on the ash heap. So it has been, Advantageous says, andso it shall ever be, until we're willing to imagine something more.