San Junipero: Queer Heaven on Earth

Battles will come and go and queer people do die for their identity and fights for rights, but that doesn’t mean the gays don’t deserve their happy endings in stories.

Atreyo Palit
Atreyo Palit
August 17, 2022

Picture this: You pick up your lover in a sports car from the seaside cabin you two share and then drive across the desert to a nightclub for a wild night of dancing. Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven Is A Place on Earth plays in the background during the getaway. It sounds like heaven really is a place on earth, doesn’t it? If I hadn’t mentioned lover, would this have made you think of Thelma & Louise? If on the other hand, mentioning Thelma & Louise made you picture the scenario I just described, then Black Mirror: San Junipero was made for you. And don’t worry, you aren’t the only one who thinks Ridley Scott’s road trip film has Sapphic undertones. Incluvie itself has an article about that!

In case you worry I just gave away a spoiler about the Black Mirror episode, don’t worry. Trust me, you won’t see it coming till it’s there. I will say though, that San Junipero is my favourite twist on the “bury your gays” trope. And your proof of that is the now-deleted tumblr post that’s been quoted on tvtropes here. “Every lesbian that died in a tv show is now happy in love with their girlfriend in San Junipero." Not only is a Sapphic relationship the central focus of the story, it’s also interracial. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis star as Kelly and Yorkie, respectively, who fall in love over the course of the episode.

Every lesbian that died in a tv show is now happy in love with their girlfriend in San Junipero”

Set in a dystopian world as is every episode of the Netflix show, San Junipero follows soon-to-be-wed Yorkie and recently-widowed Kelly in the party town of San Junipero. They meet one weekend at a nightclub and Yorkie tells Kelly that it’s her first night there. Kelly says she is there to have “fun" and experience some wild nights for herself. Their outfits are perfectly designed to give us an idea of their personalities. Yorkie is dressed in a blue cardigan over a shirt with knee length khaki shorts and white sneakers. She wears fake glasses because it’s become a habit. In contrast, Kelly wears a sequined purple jacket over a relatively revealing dress and walks in heels. She also dances really well while Yorkie has never danced in her life. With that exposition, we’re introduced to their first intimate interaction: Kelly invites Yorkie to her bed after the latter’s told her about her fiancé, but Yorkie refuses, saying she’s never done anything of the sort. There’s not enough evidence to call either character queer yet, but you can feel it in the air.

The next scene is one of my favourites. We see Yorkie dressing up to go meet Kelly at the same bar cum nightclub again. A week has passed, and she’s standing in front of a mirror changing outfits while changing the music playing in the background. She tries a lot of looks with songs from the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and so on, and finally settles on an outfit similar to what she’d been wearing last time. I love how this scene deals with self-confidence. She is looking for her “party vibe” and possibly considering how to appear for Kelly, too. Eventually, she decides she’s best when looking like how she feels. With a considerably unfashionable look, especially when you consider the party scene she shows up at, she conducts herself with a grace that makes me feel confident about my natural appearance. And I believe that’s a powerful effect to have, especially with our world slowly appreciating that physical beauty can come in all shapes and sizes.

Kelly and Yorkie meet at the club

Kelly and Yorkie meet at the club

Anyway, I digress. Now we’re at the juncture where the representation-hungry bisexual in me got what he’d come for. Yorkie makes it clear she would like to take up Kelly on her offer from the previous week and they end up having sex. Afterwards, they lie down together, sort of discussing their sexual history and Kelly clarifies she is into both men and women. “Equal rights” she says, making a fist and a cute facial expression. Maybe the word bisexual itself wasn’t used, but she specifically mentions she finds both genders attractive and that’s powerful representation in an industry where bi-erasure is still quite prevalent. Yorkie, on the other hand, reveals she’s a virgin and that Kelly’s her first sexual encounter.

Weeks pass without them meeting again, and there are hints left in this period to prepare us for the big reveal about the town of San Junipero. There’s some sort of time travel going on because Yorkie lands in the same bar looking for Kelly, but the décor makes it abundantly clear that it’s not the same time period. Even the arcade games change, ranging from Pacman to first person shooters. This is a good time to mention that San Junipero has a brilliant soundtrack of party hits from all decades of American music. If you’re into vintage music and also miss the 2000’s party hits millennials grew up with, you’ll love the music in the episode. The production is also top-notch in recreating the vibes from all the decades that Yorkie visits while searching for Kelly. Be it the building designs, the paintings on the walls, the interior décor, the people’s wardrobes—everything feels authentic. And in each version, bisexual lighting fills the club. San Junipero came out in 2016, practically the year when bisexual lighting as a phenomenon began growing into the meme it became in 2018.

Inside Tuckers Club in San Junipero. Bisexual lighting fills the room.

Inside Tuckers Club in San Junipero. Bisexual lighting fills the room.

After Yorkie and Kelly finally meet again, they have a relatively cryptic conversation about their lives. The next day the truth is finally revealed to us, but I’ll not be discussing the details of that to prevent spoiling the suspenseful journey. However, I must appreciate the story’s approach towards the revelation because even though it’s a lot of information to process, there’s no info-dump scene. In conversations which are emotionally driven, enough dots are left for viewers to connect and get the whole picture. In fact, there isn’t more information given out than is necessary to just grasp the concept of San Junipero. That way, the story stays focused on the central Sapphic romance.

San Junipero twists "bury your gays"

(SPOILER ALERT for the rest of the article)

San Junipero kills both its queer characters. And yet it doesn’t, right? In fact, when Kelly decides to let herself be uploaded to the cloud after her death, even if she’ll not have her husband, she effectively chooses a forever with Yorkie. Bisexuals are infamously often portrayed to be unfaithful in media, but Kelly is shown to prioritize her husband’s memory even after he is no longer there. Choosing Yorkie wouldn’t even amount to infidelity. She eventually does choose to live with Yorkie, but that scene where she denies Yorkie their unending existence in San Junipero does a lot in terms of positive bisexual representation because she’s shown as a grieving person and her love-life isn’t reduced to her sexuality just because she is queer. After that, Yorkie and Kelly live together after the latter chooses to be euthanized. So, San Junipero gives the gays their happy ending by burying them. Kelly literally says at one point that uploading consciousness to cloud seems like going to heaven, and then the two of them get to live happily ever after in that “heaven." No wonder Belinda’s song is Kelly and Yorkie’s theme song. For them, their place is a heaven literally located on Earth.

Kelly and Yorkie kiss at the beach adjacent to Kelly's house in San Junipero

Kelly and Yorkie kiss at the beach adjacent to Kelly's house in San Junipero

The last thing I expected from an episode of one of the most famously dystopian shows of the last decade was to give me a happy ending. But I think it works best because of the dystopian setting. It seems to insinuate that in a world where nostalgia is therapy and emotions can become stagnated, the targeted minorities who aren’t allowed to live their lives like they wish to will find it easier to actually create their safe havens. Without the technology of uploading yourself to San Junipero, Yorkie would never have made any memories again, let alone find Kelly and then get married as a lesbian. What I love about the episode is that Yorkie’s story is clearly all about her being lesbian and her family’s homophobia, but this part isn’t introduced to us till the second half, thus fleshing her out liberally as a gay character before making her story about her being gay.

As far as Incluvie points go, San Junipero is a winner in the battle for queer rights. It suggests that queer people have to go to technology others would deem “unnatural” to live out a regular life because homophobia suffocates them. Sure it’s allegorical right up till the third act, but San Junipero openly makes a case for familial acceptance for queers and I believe that’s powerful representation. Not only that, one of the main characters is black too. Kelly’s narrative is also powerful because her struggles and her story aren’t fuelled either by her race or by her sexuality. In one story, we have both an open acknowledgement for how queers suffer for being queer and a portrayal of a queer person of colour having other problems beyond her identity as a bisexual black woman. San Junipero really is top-notch representation, and I’m going to officially claim it as a bisexual comfort watch from now on. It took me a long time to finally watch it, but this feels like a warm hug on a cold day. The LGBT+ community has suffered in the battle for our rights, but that doesn’t mean the gays don’t deserve their happy endings in stories.

That’s just the thing – Black Mirror: San Junipero makes heaven a place on Earth.

Rating for Black Mirror: San Junipero

Rating for Black Mirror: San Junipero