There are a lot of reasons to get upset about the events in Black Mirror — because yikes. The show is pretty much the only thing that can make you want to give your smartphone a wide berth, and in its fourth season, there are even more technological terrors to think about than ever before.
Surprisingly, though, perhaps the most controversial element of the Netflix series’s newest run isn’t the souvenir copies of an electrocution victim in perpetual agony in “Black Museum” or even the WTF factor of a woman who mows people down to cover up an old obstruction case in “Crocodile.” It’s the dangerous misrepresentation of contraceptives found in “Arkangel,” the episode about helicopter parenting gone very, very wrong.
The segment centers on a single mother who decides to sign up her daughter for an experimental implant that will let her track her whereabouts — sort of a roving GPS system, permanently embedded in her BRAIN — as well as put parental blocks on frightening imagery, let her mom see what the girl sees, and better (read: worse) still, keep tabs on her vitals at all times.
It backfires once the girl reaches school age because the child needs to have her independence and, yes, even exposure to discomfiting realities of the world. So, our mom puts her creeper device away for years and the daughter spends the next decade in unmonitored bliss. But once she becomes a teen and starts shirking the rules and lying — namely, about getting experimental with her new beau — mommy dearest cranks the old system up and starts snooping around her head again.
What she finds out is that not only has her daughter been doing the horizontal mambo with her fella, but she’s also gotten pregnant as a result of their tryst. So, momcopter races off to the pharmacy and slips an emergency contraceptive into her breakfast shake, essentially forcing her daughter’s pregnancy to terminate without her knowledge.
The trouble here is that not only is that not what the medicine does in real life, but the scene also plays into a recurring trend of portraying the medication as one that can easily be forced on an unwitting woman.
Immediately after the airing, advocates for reproductive health education lashed out at the episode for showing emergency contraception as an “abortion pill,” rather than a dose of medication that prevents pregnancy before it even has a chance to occur, because it falls right in line with certain disinformation efforts by antiabortion advocates.
According to Dr. Gretchen Sisson, a qualitative sociologist at University of California San Francisco’s reproductive health research group, “There’s a lot of misinformation out there about emergency contraception and how it works . . . part of that is an intentional effort of antiabortion groups to conflate emergency contraception with abortion.”
It’s not the first time a television series has treated the medication as being equivalent to an abortion: in The Walking Dead, for example, Lori Grimes is shown contemplating termination of her pregnancy by way of a batch of birth control pills. But the fact that it’s just the latest installment in a continuing trend is beyond troubling and could have some serious consequences.
“A lot of shows have conflated emergency contraception and abortion or showed pills as a way to secretly coerce a pregnancy termination,” Dr Sisson says. The danger of that false equivalence and villainization of the drug is that those who are opposed to abortion might see even more reason to fight against the availability of morning-after pills, even despite the fact that they don’t simulate an abortion, in actuality.
But it’s supposed to be the future, you say?
Yes, some have argued that because the episode is imagining a future scenario in which the pill might be able to terminate an early pregnancy because, sure, the show is all about minor advancements of current devices. Kids have locator bracelets now, but the “Arkangel” tech is nowhere near to happening (yet). In that case, though, the medication wouldn’t be titled “Emergency Contraception,” since it wouldn’t be contraceptive, and they maybe should choose a less politically stigmatized and scientifically sound route to showcase that advancement than another pill.
“If they wanted to imagine some novel way for abortions to be happening in the future, then that would be interesting, that would be more creative, that would be something we haven’t seen from science fiction,” says Sisson. “So, that’s an opportunity that they missed.”