(Fair warning: I’ll be including spoilers for previous seasons of Mr. Robot from here on out.)
With the fourth season of Mr. Robot coming up, I wanted to take a critical look at how it’s done with representation. In many ways, Mr. Robot has been uncommonly good at portraying diverse characters. The protagonist Elliot Alderson (played by Egyptian-American actor Rami Malek) comes from a multiracial family and navigates mental illness through psychiatric means. Even Elliot’s ragtag team of anarchist hackers – aptly named “fsociety” – is a racially diverse group. However, the show also has its failings, one of which its portrayal of Chinese characters.
In order to engineer an economic revolution, fsociety joins forces with the Dark Army, a group of hackers hailing from China. The leader of the Dark Army is whiterose (played by B.D. Wong), a transgender woman who remains closeted, choosing to publicly present herself as Zhang, the male Chinese Minister of Defense.
Whiterose’s righthand man is named Grant (played by Grant Chang), and he is always by her side, with the exception of when he is doing her bidding. Grant and whiterose also share a romantic relationship that complements their professional relationship.
And that’s where the problems start.
Professionally, though he is her subordinate, she treats him with respect, even inquiring after his opinion about how to proceed, whether it is as the leader of the Dark Army or as Minister Zhang. Romantically, the atmosphere is a far cry from this mutual respect. She dominates him entirely. Though she does feel for him, their power dynamic even within the context of the personal relationship appears to be radically uneven.
As assistant to the chief of the Dark Army, Grant’s status is visually evident: his ever-present business suits and the expensive cars and bodyguards that follow him everywhere. Yet Grant is emasculated heavily, especially in his last conversation with Irving (played by Bobby Cannavale) in the final episode of season three.
Though a long-time fixer for the Dark Army, Irving decides to suddenly quit. Grant confronts him, but Irving shuts him down by saying, “Tell me something. She still making her spontaneous overtures? She make you taste her yet? Remember, doll face, I was you years ago. And I’ve already done my time. I think she’ll be good with me.”
From this, we can tell that Grant is only whiterose’s latest fancy. All of his supposed power seems to stems from his close relationship and association with whiterose, not his own merits. Worse yet, whiterose’s advances have clearly not all been consensual or at least, at some point, ceased to be so in Irving’s case. This portrays her as a predator who turns subordinates into her playthings in exchange for promotions: a classic case of sexual harassment in the workplace.
So what does all this have to do with Grant and whiterose’s status as Chinese characters?
The Chinese have long been accused of “deviant” sexuality, in no small part due to the history of exoticism surrounding them. In 19th century America, Chinese men were ousted from the physical fields, and the law only allowed them to take on work in areas that had traditionally been considered feminine, such as laundry. Through their employment, they blurred gender lines, with the predictable result of coming to be considered less masculine than other men. Chinese men are stereotyped as submissives in relationships – which is also one of two common stereotypes that has been applied to Chinese women, especially in media.
The other stereotype of Chinese women is as aggressive, dominant women with mysterious sexual charms. They’re considered to be controlling and sly, so much so, that this stereotype has earned the name of “Dragon Lady”. In her relationship with Grant, whiterose epitomizes this stereotype with her domineering behavior. While the Dragon Lady can also positively represent Chinese women as assertive and independent, in this case, it only further emasculates Chinese men.
Despite this, I’m looking forward to seeing what Mr. Robot brings for its final season. Hopefully, in terms of the Dark Army and its Chinese characters, it’ll be a departure from outmoded stereotypes.