This is rocky ground to cover here and I’m aware of that from the get go. I’m aware of how immensely popular Mr. Robot is among the exact audience base that I’m writing for on this site. But I’m sorry, it’s not that I want to burn the show down or anything, but we definitely need to talk about Whiterose.
There are a few biases that I need to get out of the way before I can seriously get into this. First off, yeah, I’m trans so this is an issue I’m particularly passionate about. But I also don’t think that I’m an “all or nothing” kind of gal. I feel very much that I can be critical of this topic and still enjoy works that I feel fail on it. I still consider Transparent a win, I still cried during The Danish Girl, and Dallas Buyers Club is just one of the many many reasons to not stand Jared Leto. (THERE’S SO MANY)
Second, I was set up to fail on Mr. Robot’s Whiterose character, as portrayed by BD Wong. A friend of mine who had gotten really into the show kept pushing it on me, and I was being hesitant because it looked like just another Fight Club clone to me. (I may slightly still feel this way.) Then said friend told me that he and his girlfriend were watching the show and that a trans character was used on the show and that she was used tastefully and that no one even mentioned that she was trans or made a big deal out of it. He told me that they had applauded the screen when it happened. So I got excited. I started bingeing the show online to catch up. I didn’t know anything about the character, who she was, how she was being used. Every time a new female character was introduced, I found myself wondering, “will she be the one?”
I was not expecting BD Wong. And I was not happy when BD Wong was who I got. This actually led to a fight with my friend, and by that I mean, me sending him a series of “Are you fucking kidding me?” type texts. I kept throwing it in his face that he bragged about applauding the screen.
That was last fall when season one ended. With season two on the horizon, I’ve had a chance to take a few deep breaths. I no longer blame my friend for being so excited about the character. Or for applauding. I feel like that was exactly what creator Sam Esmail was going for. He wrote Whiterose as the kind of character who with-it cis viewers would pump their fists at and say yeah, just like I imagine he did himself when he was writing her.
It was this interview with BD Wong in Vulture that really set my eyes rolling. In it, Wong, and by proxy Esmail, constantly pat themselves on the back for how radical they’re being with the character and of casting Wong to play her.
I think he thought of me as a male actor, which I am, and that my sensibility was going to be right for Whiterose, the personality of the person, regardless of their gender. It seems to me [Sam] said to himself, Oh, but wait, why am I being so conventionally gender-normative about this?
Also, throughout that interview, arguments repeatedly contradict each other. Sometimes within the same paragraph:
Sam said, “She is transgender, but her transness has nothing to do with anything.” Sam then told me the irony really is that Whiterose is in disguise when Whiterose is a man, and not when Whiterose is a woman. At the end of Wednesday night’s episode, when Whiterose meets with [Evil Corp CEO] Philip Price, Whiterose may or may not be suppressing all of the femaleness of her to have these conversations with Price. That is a very radical concept, which I don’t know if we have ever seen before.
Her transness has nothing to do with anything. Oh hey, let me tell you about how we’re using her transness to make a narrative point. (Also, sidenote, “very radical concept”? No, that’s just called the closet. It’s like 90% of the queer narratives you’ll ever come across, and Wong as a gay man likely knows this.) Let me add here too that it is totally fine for a marginalized narrative to have something to do with anything. I’d even concede that at this moment in time it would be really tough to have a trans character of any plot significance where this wasn’t the case. My issue here is with doing it and then bending over backwards to say you’re not, like it earns you some weird-ass ally brownie point.
Wong also makes a point of stating that Esmail knows what he’s doing with her:
It was way more than what you would think of her just walking into the room. Sam is one of those people who understands diversity. When he is talking about a trans woman, he knows what that means. There is no teaching moment.
But it feels like that is the exact disconnect that makes this a problem to me. Esmail claims to have written a transgender character, while at the same time also staunchly having BD Wong in mind for it, most likely because Wong famously appeared in the stage production of M. Butterfly as a Chinese opera actor and spy who portrays a woman, having a decades-long affair with a French diplomat. It is very important right here to note that the character of Song Liling is not a trans woman. He is a man playing a role.
It is thus inherently problematic (you see what you made me do, Mr. Robot?) to be writing a character that you absolutely insist is a trans one while basing her on a cis male actor’s role. A role which, at its core, actually represents one of the most vile, destructive stereotypes about trans women, one that is often used as a legally justifiable defense for our own murders.
This is essentially the ultimate problem with every portrayal of a trans person by a cis person, an issue that is unique to trans representation. Having trans people portrayed as cis people playing dress up suggests that’s all trans people are too. This is the point that so many directors, showrunners, and even actors fail to grasp. Jean-Marc Vallee stubbornly refused to understand this with Dallas Buyers’ Club. When asked why he didn’t cast a trans woman to play Rayon, he responded “I never thought of that. I never thought of hiring a real rodeo guy to play the rodeo Ron Woodruff.” To Vallee, and to too many, being trans is a thing we do, not who we are. It’s a hat we can put on or take off, something we learn to do rather than what we exist as.
Unfortunately, this is an area where Mr. Robot really missed the mark. It’s a case too where Wong was almost on the right track, recounting the costuming of the character:
I had done this before, and there were certain things I wanted to make sure we took care of. So I asked, “When you say trans woman, do you mean she has a woman’s shape? Does she have breasts? How far into the process is she?” I grilled him on that. I added, “Well, that means you can’t just get women’s clothes and put them on me, you have to put a foundation on me, and you have to give me the right shape that goes under the clothes.”
These are all good questions from Wong. But he apparently didn’t ask them again during the series finale episode when Whiterose presented as male. That’s not to say that all trans people can’t present as their assigned at birth sex, many can, I could before I started hormones. I still can now, but it’s trickier. I have breasts I’d have to bind down. I have softer features than when I was closeted, I have softer skin. I get called “sir” too often to have any illusions about not being able to pass as a man now, but I also couldn’t just stroll into a party in a suit and expect people who have known me for years to not think I look different. Our bodies are our bodies and as we begin to transition, we can’t take them off because it serves a narrative.
This is also one of those cases they use against casting trans people. “But in this one scene we need her to pass as male!” This is being utilized right now on Freeform’s Dead of Summer to justify why Zelda Williams is playing a trans male character. But in the case of Mr. Robot, having a trans actor trying to pass herself off as male for such a scene could have carried much more realism, and wouldn’t have suddenly disappearing body curves on a show that normally pays intricate attention to detail.
And then we come to Wong himself. As a fan of Oz, I’ve been a fan of BD Wong for a long time. I want to see him in more parts and I’m usually excited when he is. His interview with Vulture, if I may get technical, kind of bummed me out. As I said before, the congratulatory nature, the self-described “radical” act of doing what is almost always done with roles like this really irked me. It also really pained me in that interview that he went out of his way to stress that he knew how difficult it was for trans people to get representation and yet took the role anyway.
It’s a tough subject for me to broach, because it lands at the intersection of my marginalization and my privilege. I’m a trans woman, BD Wong is a cis man. But I’m white, BD Wong is Asian, and has been a loud and very necessary voice in the fight against whitewashing in Hollywood. So, much of what Wong says in his speech about white actors playing Asian roles could be applied to what he’s doing with Whiterose, and from an interview with NBC Out this week, he seems to know it:
There are a lot of people, including me, who are burning to see trans actors illuminating trans roles and giving them truth that cisgender actors won’t have. This is exactly the same to me, an Asian American actor, as praying for the time when Caucasian producers and actors will refrain from re-appropriating Asian roles.
Unlike the Vulture interview though, he seems to be a bit more honest about why he took the part anyway.
I feel kind of like, as a minority with limited opportunities, I did not have the luxury of being able to turn down this role based on my wish that in an ideal world a trans actor could illuminate this part with “authentic trans insight”. I will also add for whatever it’s worth that Whiterose does have both female and male personae. So I did basically cash in that chip I got as a minority at the beginning of the game, decided to accept the role, and I also accept the responsibility and consequences of that.
In this, I do legitimately feel empathy for BD Wong. He’s not Scarlett Johansson, who could have simply turned down Ghost in the Shell. He’s an actor who is successful but still likely needs to take most jobs that come his way, aware that even if he’s working steadily now that tap could be turned off at any time. But I also legitimately wonder whether he would accept that same excuse from someone like me if I were cast as a radical reimagining of Song Liling in a new adaptation of M. Butterfly. And I wonder, if that happened, if I would take that part.