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The social commentary and criticism found across episodes of The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror invite viewers to self-reflect on their own social judgments. In particular, The Twilight Zone’s “The Eye of the Beholder” (1960) and Black Mirror’s “Men Against Fire” (2016) both raise awareness to public fears of those who are deemed different or abnormal.
SPOILER WARNING: If you have not seen these two episodes, go watch them, and then come back. “The Eye of the Beholder” is available here and “Men Against Fire” on Netflix.
“The Eye of the Beholder” premiered right in the midst of the Cold War. In the late 1940s, the Red Scare prompted national fear and distrust of Americans who might be communist sympathizers. These anxieties continued into the 1950s, where the fear of widespread communism resulted in the blacklisting of prominent figures who were (often wrongfully) accused of being communist supporters. On a global scale, communistic nations, like the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba, were deemed as threatening to the apparent stability of democracy.
This kind of community is replicated in “The Eye of the Beholder.” On TV, the leader talks about “glorious conformity.” He preaches, “there must be a single purpose, a single norm, a single approach, a single entity of people.” The idea of absolute uniformity, from morality and philosophy to physical appearance, draws attention to communistic doctrine. Janet Tyler, who doesn’t fit into “normal” society because of her apparent ugliness, argues against the system: “The state is not God. It hasn’t the right to penalize somebody for an accident at birth. It hasn’t the right to make ugliness a crime.” The episode shows us communism to the extreme in order to illustrate the ways in which it can go too far. So it would have resonated with Americans who feared this kind of regime. But it also illustrates irrational fears in individuals for merely appearing different.
This brings us to another major national event of the 1950s—the American Civil Rights Movement—when issues of racial inequality were at the forefront of the public’s attention. In 1954, Brown v Board of Education ruled in favor of desegregating public schools. A few years later, the 1957 Civil Rights Act, signed by President Eisenhower, provided equal voting rights to all Americans. But despite such legal and executive decisions, social tensions instigated boycotts and violence, and integration was not occurring as mandated.
While the social fabric of America remained torn and disheveled, The Twilight Zone made a social statement about appearance and segregation. In “The Eye of the Beholder,” Janet has just undergone her 11th treatment injection to try to change her physical appearance. When this fails, she is invited to permanently relocate to, what the doctor calls, “a special area in which people of your kind have been congregated.” Janet sees things a little differently, as she calls it, “a ghetto defined for freaks!” Janet realizes her outsider status and continues to question the system. The doctor, who sympathizes with Janet, raises a treasonous question to the nurse: “Why shouldn’t people be allowed to be different?” He questions the state and conformity based on physical appearance. The standard of normalcy, which is extended to physical appearance, draws attention to the social tensions in America where race is the physical indicator of difference that has for so long been the reason for segregation.
In the episode’s twist, Janet appears physically “normal” to the audience, and everyone else appears deformed. This, along with the message at the end that beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder, shows us that all social relations are relative. Segregation and judgment of those who are different occur merely because society has created a norm to position them against. The irony is that it doesn’t matter what the norm is. Deformity in one society’s eyes is beauty to another. Therefore, exiling and outcasting others reinforces a socially unjust nation.
Jump ahead over 50 years, and we still see fear of those who are deemed different or abnormal to a society that has claimed dominance. Black Mirror criticizes our social progress to show us that the only thing that has really progressed is our technology. In “Men Against Fire,” the military is tasked with hunting down and killing “roaches,” who look like vampire zombies and make a growly, animalistic sound. But that is only because the government has implanted chips in the soldiers to distort their sensory perceptions. Arquette tells Stripe, “It’s a lot easier to pull the trigger when you’re aiming at the boogeyman.” The idea of targeting monsters makes for better fighters. The problem is that there is not a war going on. The soldiers are just killing a group of completely harmless people. And the rationalization that it is okay to kill monsters because they are different further critiques those who establish a norm and reject anyone who does not meet those standards.
The power of fear in this episode is visible in several places. The government fears a group of people whose DNA checks come up as irregular. In eliminating these undesirables, the government feels it is practicing a social justice by purging sickness and weakness from the human race (though this plan eerily mirror’s Hitler’s plan for an Aryan race). The military fears the roaches because they appear as monstrous beasts, and it is easier to kill what scares them. Finally, the townspeople are afraid of the roaches because they have been told that these creatures are diseased. Fear propels people’s actions and allows for not only segregation but also genocide.
Fear continues to sway popular opinions of others, where the War on Terror fuels feelings of uncertainty about those who practice a different religion or come from another country. Tense racial relations still exist and are often given high media attention. Regardless of laws, popular opinion—especially when based on fear and uncertainty—can be overpowering. One reason the fear of difference exists is because people are more comfortable with what they know. Another reason is that at times, individuals may project the identity of particular people onto others. When a person or group is violent, society may become wary of others as potential threats. The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror expose social biases and the power of collective fear that we may find in the social relations of our everyday lives.