Speculative Punishment, Incarceration, and Control in 'Black Mirror'

Speculative Punishment, Incarceration, and Control in 'Black Mirror'


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Book chapter from The Palgrave Handbook of Incarceration in Popular Media, edited by Marcus Harmes, Meredith Harmes, and Barbara Harmes.

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This proposed chapter will conduct a sociocultural and close textual analysis of the following Black Mirror television episodes: “White Bear” (2/18/2013), “White Christmas” (12/16/2014), and “Black Museum” (12/29/2017) to examine their representations of speculative punishment, incarceration, and social and mental control. One guiding research question is whether these representations illustrate present-day issues and concerns in Western criminology and penal theory. Black Mirror (2011-present) is a British science fiction TV anthology series created by Charlie Brooker, which usually focuses on a range of fictional computer-human interface technologies along with their unintended human consequences. In “White Bear” state penal authorities erase the daily memories of a convicted woman in order that she can relive a nightmarish experience of being hunted down by a gang of masked hunters while bystanders act as passive voyeurs watching and recording everything around them. The bystanders turn out to be park visitors enjoying the violent spectacle of the convict’s routine punishment. In “White Christmas” (12/16/2014) a networked, interactive dating coach, who was responsible for a client’s death, is released by the police but is registered as a sex offender, which means that he will be visually and aurally blocked by everyone. He will appear as a red silhouette and will be unable to interact with anyone for the rest of his life. In this same episode, a murder suspect has his consciousness downloaded into a digital copy called a “Cookie,” which enables authorities to incarcerate him within a virtual creation of the crime scene (a snowbound cottage) and to sentence him to such severe, Draconian punishments as having him experience time at the rate of one thousand years per minute and having a Christmas song play on a continuous loop for the time period. The suspect gradually begins to lose his sanity. In “Black Museum,” a convicted murderer agrees to have his post-death consciousness downloaded into a Cookie only to find himself as a hologram in a museum display whereby he continues to experience the agony of the electric chair at the hands of visitors. This study argues that these near future representations are expressive of contemporary neoliberal governance and criminology, public shaming and humiliation, penal tourism, and criminal justice and punishment as entertainment. The episodes’ futuristic punishments exemplify the type of retributive justice that has come to characterize the neoliberal penal turn in criminal justice in the United States and in the United Kingdom over the past three decades. This new punitiveness includes mandatory imprisonment sentences, such as the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law, and zero tolerance school policies to schemes that provide for public humiliation and shaming for those under sentence (e.g., chain gangs) or ex-prisoners (“I am a sex offender” home warning signs). Mike Nellis (2006) affirms that dystopian penal imagery in American science fiction films approximately corresponds with markedly more punitive penal practices for the past 30 years. Some of these films as well as focus on the use of panoptic surveillance and digital technologies for disciplinary control and as agents of confinement express cultural anxieties about the increased capacity of these technologies for social and mental control. The aforementioned Black Mirror episodes intersect with these and other relevant discourses as they serve to imagine a technological future characterized by new forms of governance and social management, spectatorship punishment and confinement.



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Palgrave Macmillan, Cham


incarceration, popular media, television, science fiction

Speculative Punishment, Incarceration, and Control in 'Black Mirror'

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