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Black Mirror’s Miley Cyrus episode rebels against positivity culture

“Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” says that empowerment is not always empowering.

Rachel and her Ashley Too doll.
Rachel and her Ashley Too doll.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

This article is a recap of Black Mirror’s season five episode “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too.” It contains spoilers and discussion regarding the episode’s plot.

It makes sense that Miley Cyrus stars in the third episode of Black Mirror’s fifth season, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too.” The Disney star turned pop star has been reinventing herself for years, with varying levels of success. She obviously knows being a celebrity is all about packaging and branding, and she clearly wants to control her own terms.

“Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” revisits many favorite Black Mirror themes (brain enhancement, artificial intelligence, memory storage, drugs), but it’s primarily about two questions: What images are celebrities allowed to project? And what do their fans receive in return?

The answers to these questions come with a distinctly 2019 bent. The episode knows that in the very near future, all sorts of factors will lead us into dystopia. And the way we package and interact with celebrities today is just a glimpse of that future.

Today’s imperative of “spreading positivity,” particularly among pop musicians and social media celebrities who interact with young people (and especially teenage girls), is the focus here. That’s not, of course, a bad thing. But taken to an extreme, this performative positivity can be perversely dehumanizing. And that can be catastrophic to everyone’s mental health — especially when those people are already vulnerable.

“Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” is about a lonely girl and the musician she idolizes

“Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” (written by series creator Charlie Brooker and directed by Anne Sewitsky) starts out like a teen movie. Rachel (Angourie Rice) sits alone at a table in her high school’s cafeteria, watching a music video from pop star Ashley O (Cyrus). She is in her own world, listening to Ashley O’s you-go-girl self-empowerment lyrics:

Hey-a ho
I’m on a roll
Ridin’ so high
Achievin’ my goals

The juxtaposition between Ashley O’s peppy song and dance and Rachel’s expression as she walks down the hallway in her high school, alone, looking like a mouse who’s wandered into a cat cafe, is brutally comical. If there’s anything Rachel’s not doing, it’s riding high and achieving goals.

Meanwhile, Rachel’s sister Jack (Madison Davenport) hates Ashley O’s music, preferring angry punk from bands like the Pixies and Sonic Youth and Idles and Savages — all bands that Rachel and Jack’s late mother loved. And Jack hates Rachel’s obsession with Ashley O, partly because Jack is suspicious of what all this positive talk will do to her sister.

Not without reason, as it turns out. The episode soon starts to run along two tracks: There’s Rachel’s story, and there’s Ashley O’s. Ashley’s been raised by her aunt Catherine (Susan Pourfar) since childhood, and for years Catherine has been her manager too. Catherine’s special talent as a manager seems to be figuring out additional ways to monetize Ashley and her musical ability, one of which is a doll called “Ashley Too.”

Ashley Too is no ordinary doll. She’s actually a little bit like Samantha, the OS voiced by Scarlett Johansson in the 2013 film Her: She asks questions of her owner, “learns” and processes the answers, and tailors her responses in a way that feels a little freakishly human. Oh, and according to both the marketing and Ashley O herself, Ashley Too has the same personality as the real Ashley — relentlessly positive and upbeat.

But that’s only part of the story. During the day, the real Ashley goes on talk shows and promotes her work, Ashley Too, positivity, and empowerment. But at home, Ashley is having problems. She’s miserable. She’s exhausted. She can’t sleep. She’s losing the ability to write positive songs. At night, she scribbles sad lyrics like “see the animal in her cage you’ve built” in her notebook, then composes tunes for them on her gently pink-hued piano.

But by design, nobody knows this side of Ashley except Catherine and a couple of Catherine’s advisers — one of whom has been plying Ashley with pills, ostensibly to lift her spirits and keep her from becoming “under-creative,” as he puts it. Megafans like Rachel have no idea.

So when Rachel unwraps an Ashley Too on her birthday, she’s overjoyed. Now she can have Ashley O with her whenever she wants — her new best friend, who always has a kind and encouraging word at the ready.

But that’s just the problem.

“Positivity” is not always, in the end, all that positive

From the moment that Ashley O says on a talk show that she wants people to “be in control of their own destiny” and “have the confidence to be who you want to be,” I sat up a little straighter. It reminded me of something I’ve been thinking about a lot, in particular since I saw the film Eighth Grade last year.

Eighth Grade starts with Kayla (Elsie Fisher) recording a video for her YouTube channel in which she talks about “being yourself.” She rambles for a little bit about how it’s important to be yourself, to not let anyone else tell you who you should be, to believe in yourself — all things that seem fine, if maudlin. Then she flashes a peace sign and drops a “Gucci!” and uploads the video to YouTube.

But at school and at home, Kayla is not confident. She is not “being herself” for a pretty simple reason: She’s in eighth grade and hasn’t the foggiest idea who she is yet. She feels out of place among her classmates, some of whom have matured a lot faster than her. (Like Rachel and Jack, she also lost her mother.) It’s not that kids are mean to her; they just don’t even see her. YouTube is her lifeline, the way she learns how to use makeup, the way she feels connected to other people. And she’s picked up the “positivity” of YouTube personalities for her own (comically underwatched) channel.

Since I don’t have kids and don’t spent a lot of time trawling YouTube or TikTok or any live-streaming sites, I didn’t initially realize when I saw Eighth Grade just how pervasive the gospel of positivity had become on those outlets, usually aimed at people younger than me. Of course, I’ve seen plenty of Pinterest boards peddling positive quotes (many of which seem, mysteriously, to have come from Helen Keller) and happy-looking women on Instagram encouraging me to pursue self-care and be authentic and slow down and so on. But that’s not most of my internet.

However, at Sundance in January, I saw the documentary Jawline, about social media “nano-celebrity” Austyn Tester. (Hulu acquired the film at Sundance and will release it on August 23.) The film follows Tester and other young men who work hard to build a live-stream following based mostly on spreading positivity. They lip-sync to One Direction songs, give pep talks, and tell their followers (who sometimes post comments during the live stream) that they’re beautiful, special, one of a kind. Sometimes they address the commenting strangers by name.

They also go on tour to spread that message, lip-sync to songs live, and connect in person with their fans, who are mostly teenage girls. A few of those girls are briefly interviewed in Jawline. They talk about why they love Austyn and the other guys on tour with him, and the answers are a little sobering. For the most part, the girls are lonely and feel neglected or ugly; they may have had a bad boyfriend, or never talked to boys at all; one talks about how she was suicidal before finding one of the boys and following his videos, and according to her, he “really helped.”

Those girls could easily have been Kayla from Eighth Grade, or Rachel from this episode of Black Mirror, looking for affirmation from Ashley O.

Relentless positivity takes tolls on the creators and the audience too

I am not here to rail against optimism or against being positive or against reminding people — especially young ones — that they don’t have to measure up to some elusive manufactured standard of beauty or coolness in order to feel valued. I’m not talking about Lizzo singing about loving herself.

But I am talking about the spate of positivity anthems and social media channels that become an entire brand aimed at teens, like the kind shown in Jawline. The documentary shows there’s an eventual cost to the producers of that kind of relentless optimism, especially when the teenage content creators can’t keep it up because things at home actually aren’t all that great.

Life isn’t relentless sunshine. People get tired and miserable and sad. It’s hard for some people to let on that they’re feeling that way, and harder when it might throw a grenade into their fan base.

In “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” it’s taking its toll on Ashley, who is forced by her own success — and by Catherine — to parrot self-empowerment slogans in order to keep the cash flowing in. She must, quite literally, limit herself. And when she challenges that mandate, she pays a steep price.

What the episode does best is show that the positivity mandate isn’t just bad for the people churning out the content; it has repercussions for the audience too. Imagine subjecting yourself to a constant flow of exhortations from a beautiful and glamorous and wealthy superstar (or someone with a glossy lifestyle brand on Instagram) to Value Yourself! and Go After Your Goals! and Get What You Deserve! and Be Awesome! when you really just feel like all you want is someone to sit with you at lunch. Now you’re not just lonely and miserable; you feel like a failure. You might even be a failure.

And failure happens in this episode. Rachel goes through a “transformation” (in a montage sequence that feels modeled on makeover montages from lots of teen movies), directed by her Ashley Too doll, so that she can enter the talent competition at school and dance to Ashley O’s “On a Roll” song, the one with the lines about “ridin’ so high” and “achievin’ my goals.”

Watching Rachel, we feel creeping dread: We can tell, just watching, that she isn’t doing so great as a dancer and that she’s throwing herself into the way of public shame. But Ashley Too won’t quit telling Rachel that she’s a star, she’s perfect, and that if she dances at school, everyone will think she’s amazing. (The app that Rachel and Ashley Too are using to teach Rachel the dance moves knows, though; it only gives her routine 3 out of 5 stars.)

Of course, she isn’t a star. She’s a teenage girl learning some dance moves in her room, and not very competently. It’s just not her thing, despite Ashley Too’s insistence. By the time she’s at the talent show, that’s clear to everyone, and to Rachel — and that sends her spiraling into depression. “Positivity” talk, decoupled from anything like reality, has become a trap.

Of course, none of this is revolutionary. Instagram influencers and YouTube celebrities have come clean before, talking about the toll that creating the illusion of authenticity and positivity can have on their mental health. Indeed, that is the entire conclusion of Jawline. Yet plenty of personalities that peddle optimism remain. “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” suggests that in the future, it will be possible for handlers to manufacture positivity even if the creator wants to change their tune. If the positivity industrial complex were to reveal what’s really going on behind the curtain, the whole facade would come crashing down.

Which is depressing for the viewers too, in its own special Black Mirror way. It leads to the paradoxical implication, at the end, that everyone would be happier if they would just give in to their unhappiness. Yet plenty of people have managed to become stars by peddling negativity or hopelessness or bleak nihilism, and history seems to suggest that’s not the healthiest way to go either.

So is it the celebrity performance packaging industry itself that’s at fault? Or is it the creators? Or the fans? In typical Black Mirror fashion, there’s no answer — only the promise that things will probably get worse.

But I guess that’s not very positive.

The fifth season of Black Mirror is now streaming on Netflix.