USA Network‘s Mr. Robot is a zeitgeist-tapping pulp thriller about computer hacking, mass surveillance, paranoia, and the evils of Late Capitalism. Elliot Anderson (Rami Malek) is a hacker who wants to bring down the evil company E Corp with a hacker group called the Dark Army. He discovers that their leader Whiterose is a backer of E Corp, playing both sides all along. Whiterose is the “big bad” of the series, an epic Bond villain who has a finger in every pie on both sides.
Whiterose, played with relish by B.D. Wong, is the Chinese Minister of State Security pushing an agenda with China’s political might. Whiterose has a secret: she’s a transwoman who has to wear men’s suits by day. She is the epitome of Otherness on the show, commanding a vast network of agents, spies and assassins.
The Face of Sinister Hacker Groups
I’m surprised that no one has said Whiterose might be problematic. She’s an updated version of the Fu Manchu “Yellow Peril” stereotype. The show could also be read as anti-Chinese. China is portrayed as a sinister, all-powerful force and Whiterose is their proxy. She plays people as pawns in her secret plot for – I’m guessing – world domination. Her black-suited Chinese henchmen in the Dark Army are inscrutable and faceless in a way that should have gone out of fashion ages ago. They have no facial expression or personality beyond naked contempt. They’re the men in black who only show up as threats or to shoot people. They keep track of everyone through their computers and surveillance cameras.
Don’t get me wrong – Whiterose is a great villain that every big pulp thriller deserves. Maybe it’s because she’s written so elegantly and Wong is so much fun to watch that most viewers haven’t stopped to think about the Orientalism and “Yellow Peril” subtexts. She’s really a new version of Fu Manchu. She is the face of “scary Chinese hacker groups waiting in the shadows to cause chaos on the West”.
For all the hip, up-to-the-minute cyberpunk hacker plots, the show is really quite conservative and reactionary. The show is a little too in love with its posturing pessimism.Its portrayal of the female characters is not terribly feminist. Every Chinese character on the show is a sinister Other. Even Whiterose’s LGBTQ status represents otherness and deviance on the show. Interesting, it’s her need to keep her LGBTQ status secret to her masters that most humanised her. That’s surprisingly regressive in the 2010s when diverse representation is now a big deal in pop culture and fiction.
But Is It That Bad?
It’s interesting that Chinese social media hasn’t commented on this at all. This suggests that nobody in China has watched the show. That’s probably just as well. I haven’t seen any Asian-American groups criticise the presentation of Whiterose either. Maybe audiences are enlightened enough to not take the Yellow Peril stereotype seriously. Maybe many think it’s just kitsch. But still…
And Wong does give a great performance.
Are we in for a satisfying final fight where everyone gets their just desserts? That’s the expectation of American thrillers, and TV shows tend to end with the “crime doesn’t pay” moral. Maybe Mr. Robot will subvert that a bit with an outcome that surprises everyone.