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Depictions of Women in STEM: Nanette Cole, Black Mirror

May 18, 2018

Written by: Vanessa Reich-Shackelford

This post contains spoilers for the episode "USS Callister" from the series Black Mirror.

Black Mirror is a British science fiction anthology television series, exploring a high-tech world where humanity’s greatest innovations can also be its downfall. It features stand-alone stories, with unique characters and storylines in each episode. The first episode of season 4, entitled “USS Callister,” is covered here. For some background: Callister Inc. is a company that has created a massive online multiplayer virtual reality game called “Infinity” in which players can insert themselves. Callister Inc.'s Chief Technical Officer, Robert Daly (portrayed by Jesse Plemons), has created an offshoot of the game for his own private use at home. By stealing the DNA of employees in the Callister Inc. office who he thinks have “wronged” him in the past, he has created clones of them to live in his version of “Infinity.” It is based on his favourite television show, Space Fleet, which has a Star Trek: The Original Series vibe, down to the costumes and the ship where these clones live. Daly is the captain, and the clones are his crew. It becomes clear quickly that an overarching theme in this episode is toxic masculinity in the workplace. There is a lot to unpack here, and The Mary Sue, Collider, and Bustle have all done a fabulous job addressing this broader topic of toxic masculinity. But how does Nanette Cole, the subject of this post, navigate her experience as an employee working under Daly and a clone within his version of "Infinity?"

Source: Digital Spy

When Nanette (portrayed by Christin Millioti) joins Callister Inc. for her first day, she is obviously taken by Daly and excited to be working under someone whose work she admires. She is whisked away quickly by Daly’s business partner, James Walton (played by Jimmi Simpson), who is described later by another character as being a “player,” an example of workplace harassment that women in technology fields experience on a regular basis. Nanette’s coworker, also a woman, advises her not to get too close to Daly, on the grounds that he can get “starey,” indicating that the environment for women at Callister Inc. isn’t always the most comfortable. And when Nanette as a clone wakes up in Daly’s version of “Infinity,” one can see how those small, seemingly innocent actions by men in charge at an organization can lead to more pronounced mistreatment of their employees.

To Clone Nanette, it seems impossible that she has been violated in such a way. Her DNA - the building blocks of her body - has been used to create a clone, who wakes up on the ship and says out loud, "Is this a dream?" It is reminiscent of waking up after the experience of a physical assault of a different kind. Clone Nanette soon realizes that Daly has created her new environment, along with clones of others in the Callister, Inc. office, to make up a “crew” for Daly to command. Clone Nanette’s crewmates explain that they have memories of their lives “out there” at the “real” Callister, Inc., but are stuck in this virtual reality that Daly has created. The crew cannot step out of line, or they are punished in bizarre ways, such as transformed by Daly into sci-fi monsters for the rest of eternity.

Source: Blog Nook

The clones that Clone Nanette has joined have resigned themselves to their fate and are convinced there is no way to escape Daly’s clutches. But Clone Nanette manages to rally them together. She never gives up her autonomy, and from the beginning, fights against the toxic masculinity that is Daly. After a "mission" on a desert planet, Daly attempts to kiss her, and she slaps him across the face. After another crew member has made Daly angry with their actions, Clone Nanette steps in and suffers the punishment - which involves sealing all the orifices of her face so she cannot breathe for a few moments - instead. Instead of giving up, this just fuels her on, and, a technology professional in her own right, she cooks up a plan, using the very technology that keeps them imprisoned as a means for escape. She also takes back the power of her own body, undressing and luring Daly into a pond on a planet that they have landed on to explore. While she distracts Daly in the “Infinity” simulation, the USS Callister crew on the ship contacts her “real self” over the internet, and anonymously threatens to post some private boudoir photos online. (When she devises this plan, she is confronted by another crew member, who claims she won't hack the system - "I've tried," he says. To this, she replies, "I haven't. Possibly the best line of the whole episode.) Then, her “real” self distracts the “real” Daly by ordering pizza, so he must pause the game and disconnect from it. The clone crew on USS Callister takes this opportunity to fly the ship into a wormhole and attempt to destroy themselves, leaving Daly behind, unable to exit the game for the foreseeable future. To their surprise, the crew survives, and has the whole of space open to them. Because Clone Nanette’s plan successfully freed them from Daly’s influence, the crew turns to her as their new captain.

The ending of Clone Nanette’s story is not necessarily a happy one – the ship has entered Callister Inc.’s version of “Infinity,” where they are contacted by another player who calls himself Gamer691 and asks “Are we gonna blow each other up or trade?” The crew refuses to do neither, and he yells expletives at them while they jump into hyperdrive and speed away. We are left with the realization that the crew now exists in a virtual world run by “bro gamers,” where there is still much to learn about equality between video gamers of all genders. In terms of Daly, the last we see is his body slumped in his chair, unable to exit his game. Clone Nanette has earned her spot as a captain, but “real” Nanette will have to fend for herself as a woman in the sometimes unforgiving tech industry.

Does "USS Callister" meet the goals set out by the White House for better representation of women in STEM fields?

The former Obama Administration's White House fact sheet lists 3 goals for fictional representation of women in STEM. We are noticing a trend in the movies and television shows we have reviewed - they meet some of the following goals better than others.

1.  Include diverse STEM role models (past and present): In "USS Callister," the main character roster is small, and there is only one woman shown as a professional in STEM. Nanette's female coworkers (and clone crew members) are not women in STEM fields, and the only other character who is also a programmer at the "real" Callister Inc. is a man. Showing diversity among STEM professionals is not this episode's strong suit.

2. Highlight the breadth of STEM careers and social impacts: This is related to number 1 - Callister Inc. is a technology company, and therefore, the only STEM careers portrayed are those in technology. In terms of social impact, the episode brings to light the blatant and subtle toxic masculinity that can be seen in technology fields. Technology is used to fight back, but not on a grand scale that will impact the lives of many. Whether or not "USS Callister" meets this goal is ambiguous.

3.  Debunk STEM stigmas and misconceptions: As mentioned before, there is only one woman who works in technology in this episode. Daly, as Chief Technical Officer, is shown as an awkward, "toxic fan boy" geek, which does not actively fight the sterotypes of people who work in computers and technology. Nanette is obviously an extremely smart character, and through exposition, is also shown as a woman who has put up with a lot in the technology world, even before her time at Callister Inc. The fact that she saves the day using her technology know-how puts a very positive spin on technology careers, so this goal is somewhat met.

Want more awesome women in tech? Check out "These 15 unsung women in tech changed the world" on Mashable. Get inspired by these 7 TED Talks by Women in STEM and read all about the history of women as computers on our blog!