Otherwise (adv.) in circumstances different from those present or considered; or else. USA’s Mr. Robot presents thrilling plot twists and layers of deception that have hooked millions of viewers. In the show, the main character Elliot is locked in a never ending struggle with his schizophrenia, paranoia, and depression. These themes of mental health and identity culminate in his warped view of reality, where he constantly attempts to re-evaluate who he is and what he has or hasn’t done. As the audience, we are left with Elliot’s complex perception that intertwines reality and illusion.
Otherwise (adj.) in a different state or situation. Whiterose (an anagram of otherwise), played by BD Wong, is a Chinese transgender woman who is affiliated with one of the nefarious hacking groups presented in the show. Her first interaction with the main character shows Wong in a dress and makeup that give her a very feminine appearance. Later on in the season finale’s final scene set in a formal environment, she reverts back to Wong’s normal male appearance. I contend that Wong’s portrayal of Whiterose represents a progressive role for Asians and trans people alike, while at the same time falling into traditional stereotypes concerning these two groups.
First, BD Wong has had an illustrious career as an openly gay, Chinese male actor despite the stereotypes associated with his identity. Asian men are perceived by western society as being more effeminate and unmanly in what Shimizu refers to as “straitjacketed sexualities,” and Hollywood is reluctant to cast them as leading men or romantic interests. BD Wong has flipped this standard on its head by owning his femininity in roles like M. Butterfly and Mr. Robot. Particularly with M. Butterfly, his performance received critical acclaim and numerous accolades, and it opened his career to being featured in more prominent roles in Law and Order and Gotham.
With Mr. Robot in particular, Wong has made the Whiterose character particularly progressive for trans people through his portrayal. In an interview with Vulture.com, Wong recalls how creator Sam Esmail explicitly approachedWong over other transgender actors, which Wong justifiably felt was problematic. He theorizes that Esmail was referring back to Wong’s performance in M. Butterfly (shown on the left) and believed Wong’s “sensibility was going to be right for Whiterose, the personality of the person, regardless of their gender” The most fascinating part of this role I found was that nowhere in the show is any reference made towards Whiterose’s sexuality, even though the character is explicitly transgender in the show’s writing. That strikes me as extremely profound, since usually when transgender characters are featured in a show, they are featured with the specific intent of showing their trans-ness (think Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black, whose entire subplot revolves around her incarceration and fallout with her family due to her reassignment). She is a hacker and a politician, and those roles dominate overshadow her transgender identity.
At the same time, the character of Whiterose raises some concerns based on the historical context of East Asians and Trans people. In the context of the show, Esmail makes it clear that Whiterose further illustrates the themes of questioning identity, and her purposefully deceptive appearances for different interactions complement her even more questionable motives and allegiances. But therein lies the problem. East Asians are not unfamiliar with movie portrayals of East Asians as spies and their untrustworthy nature. Look no further than Wong’s own portrayal in M. Butterfly, where he plays a Chinese courtesan who seduces and spies on the main character. Furthermore, transgender people face a great deal of criticism from a heteronormative society for betraying their gender. Whiterose falls into this these two traps when she deceptively reverts to her male appearance in the season finale in order to trick the primary antagonist.
Finally, using a cisgender actor in a transgender presents an inherently problematic lack representation. Riley Silverman, a writer for Pajiba.com who identifies as trans, criticizes the portrayal because “playing dress up suggests that’s all trans people are too.” She continues, “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” (Silverman). Using a trans actor to try playing herself off as a male for the season finale scene would have captured the biological realism involved with sex reassignment
Ultimately, although Wong’s role as Whiterose in Mr. Robot raise problematic issues about the negative stereotypes East Asians and transgender people face, I contend that overall the role doesn’t tarnish Wong’s amazing career. If anything, Whiterose testifies to Wong’s prowess as an actor and a triumph for more Asian American representation in media. Wong has acknowledged the shortcomings in his portrayal and his desire for more trans actors to be featured in trans roles. Regrettably he notes that “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 an ideal world a trans actor could illuminate this part with ‘authentic trans insight’…I also accept the responsibility and consequences of that” (Yohannes 2016). Here’s to hoping BD Wong can pave the way for other Asian American and LGBTQ, or both, actors to fill better, more diverse roles in Hollywood.
Giles, Matthew. “BD Wong on Why Mr. Robot’s Portrayal of a Transgender Character Is Radical.” Vulture. N.p., 02 Sept. 2015. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.
Silverman, Riley. “‘Mr. Robot’ Doesn’t Get A Free Pass On Trans Representation Just Because It’s Cool.” Pajiba. N.p., 14 July 2016. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.
Yohannes, Alamin. “BD Wong Talks ‘Mr. Robot’ and Diverse Representations on TV.” NBCNews.com. NBCUniversal News Group, 13 July 2016. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.