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Psychology : Applied

The Psychology of Black Mirror: What "Joan is Awful" Says About Us All

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

Annie Murphey and Salma Hayek both playing Joan.
Image Credit: IMDB

Season Six of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror kicks off in style, ticking all the boxes that we've come to expect from the franchise, and then some. If you've not yet seen it, turn away now and come back later. Meanwhile the rest of us are likely suffering from that uniquely Black Mirror experience of being thrown into an uncanny world so close to our own that we can't help but shudder with the thought, "that could be me." In Joan is Awful there are at least three levels in which the uncanny is captured - technologically, philosophically, and psychologically. We'll touch on all three here, but concentrate on the last.

Three Levels of Uncanny

On the technological level Black Mirror has despatched a whole volley of our contemporary tech fears in one go, allowing them to align synergistically in order to pack the strongest punch to undermine our sense of security in our rapidly changing world. In this single episode we are confronted with quantum computing, artificial intelligence, deep fakes, and ubiquitous surveillance to create "entertainment" based on our personal and private lives that is then streamed widely, almost in real time, to anyone who wants to consume it. Furthermore, it withdraws any possibility of defending ourselves as we've already agreed the terms and conditions, giving media giant Streamberry an iron-clad case against any chance we could have control over our most personal information being disseminated in such a public way.

On the philosophical level it opens questions about whether or not we are living in a simulation. This is a serious question and one that philosopher David Chalmers has convincingly addressed in his book Reality Plus where he argues that it's actually more likely that we're in a simulation than that we're not. Joan is Awful is a brilliant example of Chalmers' argument. By doing the simple maths you'll soon see that of all the Joans in existence, there are far more virtual ones than the single actual Joan. Quantum computing may very well enable the possibility of such complex simulations to exists. Chalmers also convincingly argues that being in a simulation doesn't make us any less real. Whether that provides you relief or an even deeper horror is for you to consider...

The psychology of Black Mirror is probably the most interesting (though of course I would say that) of the three. That's because when we identify with Joan we vicariously experience this uncanny world where technological possibility and philosophical concerns collide in an intensely personal experience in which our deepest psychological concerns are activated. After all, we all feel as if we are the protagonists in that ultimate show: our very lives. Our limitless capacity for self-involvement paired with our deep concern about what others think of us is central to our experience. Only very recently has technology intervened to dissolve those fragile walls between our private and public lives.

Annie Murphy as Joan.
Photo Credit: IMDB

The Every-Joan

Joan (Annie Murphy) may be a little more or a little less awful than most of us, but probably not by a long mile. In many ways she is all of us - making ill-advised fashion and hairstyle choices; taking the easy road instead of making the morally courageous decisions; ambivalent in relationships to the point of being dishonest with partners; and being covetous of privacy and terrified of being exposed. These very human fears, already under threat by our current state of surveillance technology and social media, is exacerbated in this near-future world where we're not just the star of our own private lives, but where they are laid bare for everyone else to see.

While the running joke in Joan is Awful may be that nobody actually reads the terms and conditions of the contracts we sign every single day with the click, the more pressing issue is the terms and conditions of being a human being in the 21st century. That is, how we manage the fragility of being a unique individual with a private life, and how we participate as a member of a larger community that is now global. Nature, in her wisdom, provided us with psychological mechanisms to manage all this. However, even Nature's wisdom didn't anticipate the kind of world we live in today.

The Ego Is Not All Bad

Technically the ego is the part of us that mediates between our inner world and outer world. It is the part of us that identifies what is fine to share with others and what is best kept to one's self. It helps us identify our less socially sanctioned feelings and desires so we can keep them to ourselves, while identifying what we can share and with whom, in order to maintain a kind of social homeostasis. To this end we create what is known as a "false-self" (coined by psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott) or "persona" (identified by Jung) which are the masks we wear in public as an extension of our more private selves (learn more here).

Character wearing a dramatic mask.
We all wear masks.

Social media has already done a great deal to dissolve the boundaries between our private and public faces. While we still retain some degree of choice about what we do and don't share there, we don't have control over our data, or the way in which we are perceived by others when we make those choices.

What is so terrifying about Joan is Awful is that the division between the internal world and the public one is wiped away entirely. The ego, which used to have some degree of control between the two has to sit and watch as that line is deftly erased and a lifetime of curated public life is destroyed in a matter of a few episodes. After all, we don't just tell other people curated stories about ourselves that we think they they should hear, we also tell stories to ourselves about ourselves to maintain some kind of coherent narrative about our lives. We may find ourselves constantly on edge, asking ourselves, "am I really that awful?"

Paradoxically, being awful can still be one step ahead from being invisible - just clock Joan's face when she overhears Streamberry's CEO answer the question, "Why that particular woman? What's so special about her?"

"Absolutely nothing," she responds, "we were looking for a totally average nobody person - just to test the system."

Such a statement is decimating to one's ego and exemplifies one of the great paradoxes of the ego's role - it's desperate to be seen as important and loveable by others - but it's also in a constant state of fear that it's not good enough for that positive recognition. Nobody puts it more succinctly than psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott:

"It is a joy to be hidden and a disaster not to be found."

In Winnicott's model, we long to be discovered by those who care for us the most so that we can experience being appreciated by them when they do. This is best exemplified in the game of peek-a-boo when a parent expresses delight in seeing their child from behind closed hands. Whether it is more of a disaster not to be found at all, or to be found wanting as Joan is, may be a matter of personal preference.

A Roman sculpture of a tragic figure.

Tragedy Drives Engagement

In this Winnicottian sense it is telling that Joan is found to be "awful" instead of wonderful. The CEO of Streamberry explains why:

"We did try for more affirmative content. We found that our subjects didn't buy it, it didn't chime with their neurotic view of themselves . . . when we focused on their more weak, selfish, or craven moments, it confirmed their inner-most fears and put them in a state of mesmerised horror, which really drives engagement, they literally cannot look away."

The important role of tragic drama has long been explored in psychology. The reason why we continue to watch plays that were written hundreds or even thousands of years ago is because they illustrate archetypal dramatic arcs that we can all identify with even today. Whether it's Oedipus or Hamlet or Luke Skywalker, we identify with these protagonists as a way to deal with our own resonant concerns.

Joan is Awful is the tragic drama on steroids. For anyone who is watching who isn't Joan, it still presents a relatable dramatic arc, possibly more so because she is not at all extraordinary; she's a middle manager with a bad haircut who's not so into her boyfriend. For the viewer, it's an opportunity for some schadenfreude alongside the relief one experiences not being unlucky enough to actually be Joan.

However, we learn that Joan is just the start - if you're watching Joan, I'm afraid you will be Joan, probably next week. As Streamberry's CEO explains, "The aim here is to launch unique tailored content to each individual in our database. All 800 million of them."

Yup, that's you, and yup, if you're watching, you've already signed the terms and conditions.

Our Stories Ourselves

The utterly terrifying thing about Joan is Awful is that the psychological salvation we get through stories like Hamlet or Star Wars is only available to us because we are not Hamlet or Luke Skywalker. It's the distance between ourselves and the story that gives us the room to process our material through them as proxies. If the drama is literally our own story there is no room, and we are suffocated rather than liberated by the narrative.

On a darkly cheery note Joan is Awful does give us a perverse sense of hope in its usually dystopian way. Once Streamberry gets around to releasing all those stories about all of us, it will most likely have one more resonance with real life:

Everybody will be so obsessed with their own show that they won't be paying much attention to yours.



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