Black Mirror dives into teen stardom with “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” an overall OK episode that I’d feel stronger about if it didn’t pair its futuristic tech with an outdated vision of teenage girls.
Black Mirror’s latest season features an episode where Miley Cyrus takes us behind the curtain of being a Hannah Montana-esque pop star named Ashley O, who sings a bubblegum version of Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like a Hole.” This singer, who’s become a role model for 15-year-old Rachel (Angourie Rice), is a pastel-wigged smile factory focused on empowerment, positivity, and achieving your dreams. She’s crafted an illusion that feels so real, it’s become more important than the real person.
It’s a storyline we’ve seen done before, and better. Season three’s “Novedive,” which starred Bryce Dallas Howard, was all about the pain of presenting a public image when it clashes with how you feel on the inside. It used several of the same trappings: A young woman struggling to fit in, pleasant pastels, and an overall desire to convey positivity even when you’re suffering.
Rachel and her indie punk-loving sister Jack (Madison Davenport) are mourning the loss of their mom, but are each dealing with it in their own ways. Rachel is lonely and wants a positive influence in her life, while Jack turns to rebellion and her mom’s favorite music. The two of them butt heads after Rachel gets an AI doll named Ashley Too, which gives her makeup tutorials and spouts inspiring messages of believing in yourself no matter what. The doll even inspires Rachel to try out for the talent show. It may have ended with embarrassment, but she did it. The other option would have been, well, nothing.
But, the doll isn’t just a recreation. Turns out, Ashley Too contains Ashley’s real personality, and once the “limiter” has been removed, Ashley Too becomes Ashley (her human form still exists). This too follows a plot line we’ve seen before. Season four’s “USS Callister” examined what happens when a person’s consciousness is digitally replicated into another reality (in this case, an alternate body). In that storyline, it was a traumatic experience, but here it’s never addressed. It’s never even brought up. The doll doesn’t seem to care that it’s actually Ashley, and will forever live her life trapped in a plastic shell.
The episode suddenly switches direction once Ashley Too discovers that her overbearing aunt is digitally stealing songs from inside Ashley’s brain and using a program to create a hologram version of the singer to go on tour. It’s a perfect—and perfectly controllable—pop star. This is where the episode stands out, as it examines fame after death, and posits the question of who owns someone’s creative works after they’re gone. Is it wrong for us to send a hologram of Whitney Houston on tour, or does it mean her work has transcended her life? The clear message here is that it’s wrong to turn a person into a hologram of themselves, especially without their consent, and on that I agree.
The final 20 minutes are reminiscent of a kids’ action film, where the heroes struggle to get to the concert in time to stop the mustache-twirling villain from using bubblegum pop music to take over the world. They succeed, and the episode ends with the “real” Ashley O head-banging to “Head Like a Hole” in a dank nightclub as Jack jams with her onstage. Rachel and Ashley Too bop along to the rocking tunes, as two teenage fans of Ashley O leave the bar in disgust. Eww, it’s like totally gross now!
This is where the episode lost me. I don’t think the ending is bad for being, well, “good.” As we saw with “USS Callister,” “San Junipero,” and even some endings from Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, it can be great when Black Mirror comes to us with its own version of a happy ending. The show doesn’t have to be dark to be interesting. The problem here is that “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” falls into the familiar trope of mocking teenage girls for their wants and needs, without examining what they are and why they exist in the first place.
It’s hard being a teenage girl (I’m speaking from the perspective of a cis woman, and there are a variety of experiences and perspectives along the gender identity spectrum). They’re going through just as many hormonal changes as others teenagers, but don’t get “boys will be boys” excuses for their behavior. They’re told to control their emotions, just as they’re told to control their bodies for the sake of the men around them. For example: I was once called a “Jezebel” for dancing at a Christian music concert...by myself. I was 15 years old.
They’re also relentlessly mocked for the things they enjoy. There’s a reason Twilight was recently voted the worst movie of all time, and it’s not because it actually is the worst movie of all time. It’s because teenage girls’ interests are an easy punching bag. Whether they like romantic movies, optimistic pop music, or makeup tutorials, it’s all a joke that they need to grow out of in order to be taken seriously. When “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” ended with Rachel listening to the “real music” while others angrily fled, it didn’t feel like an empowering message about finding your true self. It feels like a show trying to tell us what the empowering message is supposed to be.
Some teenage girls like indie punk, and that’s great. Others like optimistic, bubblegum pop, along with haul videos and fanfic about being the most perfect girl in all the world for that one monster person. That’s also fine. Messages of believing in yourself and finding strength in times of sorrow aren’t bad on their face. It’s no different than picking up a comic book to read about a superhero finding their inner strength to defeat the bad guys and save the day. What’s wrong with finding a little love in a hopeless place?
Ashley O’s personality was fake for Ashley, and I’m glad the episode ended with her finding her own voice. But that doesn’t mean Rachel was wrong for believing in what Ashley was saying. It was the voice she needed during a difficult time, someone to tell her everything was going to be all right. For many people, that can be a helpful and therapeutic thing. The ending could’ve been about Rachel finding her own positivity and voice, but it instead became about a squeeing fangirl whose story ended with an outward rejection and dismissal of everything she held dear. It’s okay to be girly, folks, and screw anyone who tells you otherwise. Stick-on earrings and The Baby-Sitters Club kick ass.
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