Game of Clones: On Our Fixation with Dystopic Doppelgängers
Eerie Doubles, from Reality Television to Hitchcock's Vertigo
In my early twenties, I spent six or seven months in a flat-share with two pretty, quiet non-identical twins. Disappointed at their non-identical status, they devoted most of their time to becoming identical: one would cut her hair, and the other would ensure she had the same amount removed, to the inch; one would buy a handbag, and the other would examine it, and either veto the purchase as not in their style, or invest in a duplicate. Every morning, they did the same hair and make-up—if one girl’s cat eye did not match the other girl’s, they wiped it all off and they started again. If one girl’s parting did not match the other girl’s, they sat side-by-side and corrected it. Both had dyed black hair because this was the easiest color to match. They wore only black for a similar reason. There was a period of time in which one had a boyfriend, and the other would sit at the kitchen table while the two had sex—although I seem to remember that sooner or later, they both stayed inside the room when he came over and did not appear to want to separate at all.
Most intimately in my eyes, the two girls shared a bed, which I had always guessed was similar for them to having shared a womb. Whether loving someone and being exactly the same as that person are fundamentally similar mostly depends on the degree to which you love yourself; but they did seem to adore each other. They seemed to be complete and satisfied in a curious way that most individual humans will never experience—other than, perhaps, two similar-looking and like-minded narcissists in a romantic relationship. One twin eventually developed a far-too-singular drug addiction, and they left in the night owing two months’ rent. I do not hate them for it, as one cannot really hate a ghoul, a shadow, or a strange idea. I found them more or less as likable as they were puzzling.
I did think of them again this year, quite suddenly, when someone thought it wise to air a game show wherein people pick a lover out of eight near-doppelgängers, chosen based on the player’s physical preferences, with the title Game of Clones. This happened here, in Britain. Quelle surprise—there is a reason sodomy is called “the English vice” in France. A nation utterly defined by being small, eccentric, boundaried by water, and obsessed with—variously—kinky sex, repressing sex, and making postcards with cartoons of sex on them with which to send communiqués to other British people, it’s entirely in character for us to be this fucked-up about fucking. We have a dating show that’s called Your Face or Mine, in which contestants rate their partner in comparison to strangers, exes, enemies, etc. We have one called Take Me Out where people plunge contestants into darkness if they do not find them hot (its catchphrase, near pre-verbal: “no likey, no lightey”). The strangest ones are the ones where nakedness or nearly-nakedness is part of the game, as if it were not already part of the game enough for life’s female contestants: Naked Attraction, for instance, where the players see each other’s genitals before they see their faces. One might just as well have called it I Love Dick and left it there.
Game of Clones is another thing entirely. It is a science fiction text made fact. “I pitched this as, ‘if Alfred Hitchcock had made a dating show, it would look like this,’” the show’s producer, David Flynn, has said, by which I’m guessing he’s suggesting it’s like Vertigo as TV Tinder, but without the benefit of Jimmy Stewart or Kim Novak, and without much style. Vertigo—a film considered by some critics not even one of the best ever made, but the best—is a master-class in psychosexual tension, wild romantic threat, and the gentle art of projecting your own male desires onto women. There can hardly be one of you who does not already know the plot, but here, in brief: police detective Scottie Ferguson retires after watching a colleague fall to his death from a rooftop, and discovering he has vertigo. He is coaxed out of retirement by a college friend, who wants to arrange for his wife to be followed; she appears, he claims, to be possessed by the spirit of Carlotta Valdes, a long-dead relative. That Carlotta killed herself has meant that his wife is also suicidal. Scottie follows Madeleine, the wife and a fatal blonde, and falls in love with her. He rescues her from death once, and then fails a second time. She plummets—so we think—from a bell-tower.
What makes Vertigo instructive for the gameshow about love and clones is the fact that after Madeleine is dead, the driven-mad detective meets her cruder, crasser, brunette doppelgänger. There is no such thing, of course, as a doppelgänger—she is Madeleine, in hiding. All of the film’s first half has been an evil game, and Scottie has been taken for a fool: but before he figures all this out, he tries reshaping her. He has her dye her hair; acquire the suit that Madeleine “died” in; wear a chignon, neatly. It is an invocation, nearly a séance. That two women might resemble each other and still not be similar in their internal lives does not occur to him. (Do women have internal lives in Hitchcock? Sometimes. Judy/Madeline is fairly close to being actualized.) “When Judy, refashioned as Madeleine, steps out of the door, it’s like fantasy realized,” Slavoj Zizek says of Vertigo, in The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema. “And, of course, we have a perfect name for fantasy realized. It’s called ‘nightmare’ . . . it is always sustained by an extreme violence.”
Vertigo once had the dubious honor of being called the “strange, frustrating story of a haunted pervert” by the critic Rhik Samadder: which sounds, to my untrained ear, at least a little like a dating show. In Game of Clones, the pervert in question is given the chance to build their ideal partner in a simulator not unlike that in the game The Sims. (In The Sims, you can put two Sims in a loving partnership; you can also brick them into the walls and leave them to die. I would not think too deeply about the Sims in this context.)
In episode six, a Hitchockian wet dream, a man from Essex offers up the boldest kind of preference: he likes thin, blonde white girls in red dresses. “Bigger! Bigger! Bigger!” he exclaims about their breasts. “And petite hands.”
“Did they find them or did they just 3D print them?” asks the show’s announcer. “George looks terrified.” Who would not be? It is a terribly uncanny scene.
When George is introduced to all his women, we are treated to a warlike blast of “Ode To Joy,” which calls to mind A Clockwork Orange and its milk bar: they all perch around the room like girlie furniture by Allen Jones, and do not move. They giggle in unison. They are identically dressed, as if freed from the hassle of having their own taste. “I think this is every guy’s dream,” George says, as the show refers to them as “his creations.” (“Couldn’t you like me, just me the way I am? When we first started out, it was so good; we had fun. And then you started in on the clothes. Well, I’ll wear the darn clothes if you want me to, if, if you’ll just like me.” “The color of your hair . . . ” “Oh, no!” “Judy, please, it can’t matter to you.”)
They are also almost uniformly crazy, not unlike the premise. “Anyone who dates me ought to know not to cross me,” the first one purrs to camera. “All my exes say I’m a psycho.” Several of the other girls’ opening gambits are, transcribed in order: “If somebody dates me, they should be prepared for a rollercoaster”; “I’m not mental”; “I’m high-maintenance”; “I’m a little bit mad.” Two girls, separately, have simply run away from men and hidden, which certainly feels like an act more suited to a psychosexual thriller than a normal date. Admittedly, in heterosexual life, the line is blurred.
I suppose the show’s intended message is about how personality, and maybe sanity, means more than looks; although the moment one blonde doppelgänger says she pole-dances, this message does not much matter to George. She is a spiritual Judy. He is hooked enough to throw away all sense. “When everybody looks the part,” the announcer rumbles, “how do you decide who is as good as they look?”
Imagine this as a Hitchcock tagline! It’s completely empty nonsense-speak, both blank and totally unsettling—like a room of women dressed alike and sitting still as corpses—which makes it ideal movie advertising. Even more opaque is the later pronouncement: “We found eight perfect doppelgangers of George’s perfect woman. Now he has to pick the most perfect.” There is almost an implied or else. Game of Clones does not allow for the differentiation of blonde or brunette, so that there are no real Judys and Madeleines, there are only Madeleines. Zizek might call this a nightmare. Certainly, it looks a little like one when they’re gathered in one place.
Prior to his rendezvous with Judy, we see Scottie roam the streets of San Francisco looking for a girl who looks enough like a dead blonde mirage. The act of looking is the very thing in Vertigo, the source of all pleasure and pain, of sickness and joy. “This is the hardest decision I have ever had to make,” says George on his episode of Game of Clones, like a man of 24 who’s led a truly easy life. He looks, and looks, and looks. He fills himself with looking, like a drug, until the looking is disorientating. All the looking turns to wanting. Wanting, for a man who looks at women, often turns to taking. He eventually chooses the most sexed-up of the girls, the self-proclaimed “psycho.” In two months they have broken up, and she is happily involved with a buff mechanic.
“George,” says the white-on-black text dedication at the end of the program, “now takes personality more seriously.” This must have been a hard decision, too, since George has said that he has “never once enjoyed” a woman mentioning her job, or inner life, on a date.
More embarrassing than a single thing the twins I lived with ever did is the fact I thought at one point I would write a book about them. I was 22, in my defense, which is about the latest point at which sane, no-good fiction writers think they have a novel in them, and about the latest point at which sane, no-good fiction writers think that there’s a living to be made in novel-writing. Youth is wasted on the young, but often so are writing classes.
Never mind—there’s nothing wrong with journalism per se, and my rent is always or most-often paid, and the book got written anyway, by someone else: the writer Alexandra Kleeman, who is not a dull, misguided 22-year-old, but 31 and the real deal. In her debut novel You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine, a girl known just as A is in a warm but tedious relationship with a man called C. Her roommate, B, begins to modulate herself until both she and A are nearly interchangeable. They watch a lot of television. When they shop, it is in superstores with a name not unlike Walmart’s. When they eat, the food is processed, or it’s hardly food at all.
“I think a lot of relationships with females have weirdness built into them,” C, who is a mellow pragmatist, suggests. “Like with mothers. And sisters, and friends. In that way, weirdness is normal. So what’s happening is normal.” There is a scene where B gives A her severed ponytail, which she has cut to make her hair resemble A’s; another where she forces A to do her makeup, with A’s makeup, making her look more like A and less like B.
In the novel, there is also a phenomenon called Disappearing Dad Disorder, in which fathers, regular and baseball-capped and totally suburban, vanish and return in shopping malls without their memories intact. I won’t explain to you why. I was going to say that it is never the sins of the father women wear when they are trying this hard to resemble each other, but the sins of the mother. Maybe it would be better to say that the mothers, the women, are those who disappear or those who teach the art of disappearance, and the men are those who tend to oversee or overlook, like Scottie.
“A woman’s body never really belongs to herself,” A muses, in the same way every woman—every woman, anyway, at least a little “woke”—has figured at some point between her puberty and death. “As an infant, my body was my mother’s, a detachable extension of her own, a digestive passage clamped and unclamped from her body. My parents would watch over it, watch over what went into and out of it, and as I grew up I would be expected to carry on their watching by myself. Then there was sex, and a succession of years in which I trawled my body along behind me like a drift net, hoping that I wouldn’t catch anything in it by accident, like a baby or a disease. I had kept myself free of these things only through clumsy accident and luck. At rare and specific moments when my body was truly my own, I never knew what to do with it.”
I have not mentioned that the twins’ weight was a subject of eternal stress for them—the matching of it, and its maintenance—perhaps because to me at that time, this did not seem like an odd way to regard the body. If I did not have a twin with whom to pair, I had at least an abstract image. In You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine, there is also a cult; and the cult is also, on some level, a description of the state of being anorexic. People starve by living on a diet of unnatural, manufactured cakes, a neon greenish color in the centre, meted out like gold dust and with no real value for the body, so that they can ghost their human selves. It is a purification of the sins of capitalism, fueled by capitalism: Kandy Kakes, as the cakes are called, are advertised by a starving cartoon cat, whose pounding heart—like an anorexic girl’s—can be seen “in the little cage of his body.”
When a woman tries to be a different woman, what she really tries to do is to subtract herself. Once hollowed-out, it is far simpler to fit the aggregate ideal. What is especially surreal to me is that You Too Can Have A Body also has a dating gameshow in it more or less like Game of Clones, a thing I found out only when the book was recommended to me for this reason (and which Alexandra Kleeman noted once on Twitter, though I can’t now find the tweet). Called That’s My Partner!, I can’t help but reproduce its rules in full:
“In this game,” says A, “couples in long-term relationships were brought on for a series of challenges designed to test how well they knew each other or, more specifically, how well they recognized each other. One person was made the player, while the other was taken backstage. The first level used photographs: the player sat in a chair and saw a series of photographs of [body parts]. Mixed in among these similarly lit, similarly photographed pictures were ten photos of the loved one’s body parts. The player who could identify five or more of the ten photos belonging to his or her partner would receive a cash prize and pass on to the next level . . . The second level was a sort of musical number, in which every dancer but one was a trained actor disguised as the player’s girlfriend, or husband, or whatever. As the performers danced their way through the song, the player’s task was to point at them one by one when the player was certain that that performer was not the person the player loved.
The third level was the one that offered the largest cash prize, but also the greatest risk. Players were sent into a pitch-dark room in which a number of completely naked people waited in the blackness, one of whom was their loved one. The clock would start, and then they would have three minutes to grope everyone they could get their hands on. When they found the person whose body they thought was their partner’s, they had to hold on to them and drag that person out of the room and onto the studio.
My own partner—one of the most unusual people, never mind the most unusual men, I’ve ever met—has said that meeting his own doppelgänger is his greatest fear. He need not worry; I have never met his like before, and can’t imagine doing so again in future. This is the thing about people: they are singularly strange, and give themselves away at the very last minute. A lover’s tell is a gameshow prize. Judy, forced by Scottie to behave and to dress as if she is Madeleine, nevertheless can’t help but betray herself as the “dead” woman. Eight women chosen due to the fact that they fit the same physical profile will eventually show the camera all of the ways they are individually mad. Even chosen by an algorithm for a different suitor, they might rather date a heavyset mechanic.
For Scottie, worse than finding out that Judy is Madeleine is finding out that what this means is that he’s loved another man’s illusion—that there is no extant woman this divine, this free of sin, the blonde of untouched snow.
“You played his wife so well, Judy,” he howls. “He made you over, didn’t he? Just as I’ve done. But better! Not just the hair and the clothes! The look! The manner! The words! Those beautiful phony trances!”
“It was terrible,” says A, “the way resemblances ran wild through the things of the world, the way one place or time mimicked another, making you feel that you were going in circles, going nowhere at all. I looked forward to becoming my own ghost, which I had been told would resemble nothing and would look uniquely like itself.”
Judy, having lived through a “suicide,” gets to be Madeline’s ghost—but the trouble with ghosts is that they rarely get to speak for themselves, which means that fraudsters, hotline psychics, and the men who speak the loudest often tell their stories for them. Judy dies, and ghosts for real, in the very last minute; she is never able to meet a mechanic. Unlike Game of Clones, there is no new girl waiting in the wings.