At a recent talk at the University of Calgary, Dr. Safiya Noble discussed how the early work that would lead to her groundbreaking book Algorithms of Oppression (2018) was initially met with skepticism. The idea that an algorithm could be racist seemed outlandish at a time when people saw things like equations, statistics and computer programs as neutral, objective things. As the general public has developed a better understanding of the ways that human biases find their ways into seemingly neutral creations like algorithms, people are beginning to better see what Noble has understood for years: real-life social structures and ideologies often find a way to implant themselves in even the most seemingly innocent of places.
Despite larger cultural shifts – many influenced by Noble’s book – it is still very tempting to see parts of the Internet as a sort of “blank slate” or neutral space separate from the real world. Virtual worlds and video games can feel like a chance to create a whole new life online, separate from everything that you don’t like about your real life. Logging into World of Warcraft can be a way to escape reality and live a second life in the world of Azeroth, and even logging into a forum under a screen name can be a chance to make connections in a way that sidesteps real-life things like social anxiety or geographic limitations. However, while the Internet does provide the opportunity to develop a sort of new life, online spaces are never fully blank slates. A keen sense of media literacy can allow people to notice moments when real-world structures of oppression end up bleeding into the virtual world.
Enter Mamoru Hosoda’s latest film Belle (2021). Belle is, in many ways, a celebration of the possibilities for escape, renewal, connection, and wonder that virtual worlds can create. Belle tells the story of a story of a shy young singer, Suzu, who loses her mother at a young age. After her mother’s death, Suzu’s trauma renders her unable to sing.
After years of being unable to do the one thing that brings her the most joy, Suzu begins participating in the virtual world of U (a sort of combination of Second Life, an MMORPG, and the Digi-world from Digimon). She discovers that she can suddenly sing again as long as she is inside U and playing as her avatar, Bell (later renamed to Belle). She develops a newfound confidence, makes new connections, and ends up becoming an international popstar; her participation in a virtual world dramatically changes her life and helps her work through the trauma of losing a beloved parent.
The film shows the promises that come from some elements of the “blank slate” escape fantasy promised by virtual worlds. Becoming Belle helps Suzu overcome her shyness to make new connections, and ultimately allows her to work through the trauma that has prevented her from singing. For anyone who has ever experienced the profound sense of possibility and hope that comes from logging into an MMO and temporarily shedding your skin, Belle is an accurate portrayal of what a virtual life can do for someone’s confidence and wellbeing.
However, Belle is also keenly aware of the fact that real-world inequalities and problems don’t simply disappear when you log into a game. In light of all of its celebration, the film also portrays of the ways that real-life structures are often replicated – and even enhanced – in online spaces.
The first hint of this theme comes through when Suzu has a brief friendly encounter with her friend Shinobu, a popular boy. The encounter is mistaken for romance by onlookers, and suddenly Suzu’s phone is overwhelmed by notifications making cruel and jealous remarks. The film explores the overwhelming stress that cyberbullying can cause: what would normally be a minor piece of gossip is blown up into a torrent of cruel messages, as virtual spaces amplify a real-world issue. However, the extent to which real-life problems are replicated in virtual spaces comes with the film’s major plot twist – one that is spoiled in the upcoming paragraphs for anyone who wants to watch the film before they continue.
At the beginning of the film, it is established that your avatar is created based on biometric data about your body; this fact is already a hint that the world of U is as much an extension of reality as it is a break from it. While your avatar may look completely different than you do in real life, certain characteristics – such as freckles or tattoos – are brought over. Throughout the film, Belle develops a friendship with the mysterious Dragon, whose avatar has strange markings on his back.
The Dragon (whose real name is Kai) has a bad reputation, and he is constantly attacked and insulted by the majority of its users. Because of his aggressive fighting style in U’s Martial Arts Hall, he is treated as a villain by almost everyone except for young children who love him. At the end of the film, it is revealed that he is a victim of child abuse, and that the markings on his back are bruises from when he would protect his younger brother from their father’s beatings. The reason behind his violent demeanor in the game is that he desperately wants to become a hero for his younger brother. Kai seeks an expression of power in U’s Martial Arts Hall that he is denied in reality.
Suzu and Kai are two sides of the same coin. Both are young people who experience trauma in their real lives, and both use virtual reality to escape and heal from this trauma. However, while the virtual world helps Suzu, it causes more problems for Kai, as the violence he experiences in the real world is replicated in the virtual space. The hurt that he carries with him follows him into the game, and the results lead to others treating him with the same aggression and hostility that he experiences in real life. Now the victim of violence in both reality and the world of U, he has nowhere to turn, as real life follows him into U.
What makes Belle a brilliant film is that neither of the characters’ experiences with U are purely good or bad. While Suzu becomes a famous singer and has a mostly positive experience, she often experiences gossip and rumours, as U’s extension of real-life celebrity culture (often informed by misogyny) causes her harm. While Kai is treated with anger and hostility, he does achieve his goal of becoming a hero to his younger brother, as the children of U look up to him. There is nuance even within Belle’s two very different stories, as neither character’s experience of U can be fully reduced to help or harm.
What comes out of Belle then is a celebration of Internet culture, but one careful to avoid dangerously celebratory myths. Belle communicates the joy that many people have experienced when stepping into an MMO or similar virtual world, while making sure to avoid the myth that this world is ever completely separate from real-life issues.
Noble identified ways that racist frameworks end up in code due to the assumptions and biases of those who write it. Things like the types of variables that a programmer considers significant (or the ones that they ignore), the types of training data that they use, and the way that they frame the commands they ask a program to do are ultimately subconsciously informed by the biases that person has. No matter how seemingly neutral something is, programs and digital universes are ultimately written by humans and filtered through human choices at some level.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t value in escape; as Belle suggests, it’s all about being aware of the ways that the very things from which you’re escaping might still show up in unexpected ways. As long as you’re aware that real-world structures of oppression are likely to inform and be reproduced by online spaces, it’s possible to be critical of these moments while still making use of the possibilities for escape, healing and liberation that the virtual world creates. As is often the case in contemporary culture, media literacy is key.
Every technological advancement tends to inspire both unreasonably optimistic and excessively paranoid responses. For every boomer complaining that kids don’t play outside enough these days (although if Stand By Me and Fried Green Tomatoes are any indication, this often resulted in death via train), there is a technological determinist who jumps on the hype train of every shiny new thing without a critical understanding of its implications. As more and more of our lives move online, we need smart and nuanced critiques like Hosoda’s film to ground some of the more extreme responses and provide a more complex exploration.