USA’s new hacker drama is a surprise hit that deserves attention for its subtle critiques of gender norms and hacker masculinity.
There’s a conversation in the second episode of USA’s hacker drama Mr. Robot between the protagonist, a programmer named Elliot, and the show’s titular character. They’re in an abandoned arcade, the HQ of an Anonymous-esque hacker collective called F Society, and one of its members, Darlene, has just stormed off in a huff. Earlier she cursed at Elliot, broke into his apartment to take a shower, and ranted to him on the subway about her ex. “What’s her deal?” Elliot asks Mr. Robot, F Society’s mysterious leader (Christian Slater). “She’s a complicated woman,” he replies. “Most malware coders are, am I right?”
‘Mr. Robot’: A Dark, Compelling Drama for the Paranoid Internet Age
Dramas about hackers are notorious for taking liberties to make the mundane, time-consuming work of hacking, well, sexier. But since it debuted in June, Mr. Robot has earned praise for its creator Sam Esmail’s devotion to accuracy: Even now, at the midseason point of the show, much coverage of the show still centers on how deft and realistic its handling of technology is. But one underappreciated aspect of the show is how Mr. Robot treats its female characters, as well as how it critiques the kind of traditional masculinity often valorized in antihero dramas. In doing so, it offers a smart realignment of the gender politics you might expect from a series about big corporations, cybersecurity, and hacking—arenas that have been historically unfriendly to women. And it’s all coming from a breakout show, not on HBO, but on a basic cable network from a first-time showrunner.
The men of Mr. Robot harbor deep-seated pathologies, perhaps none more so than its main character, played by the terrific Rami Malek. Elliot is a morphine-addicted, anxiety-ridden programmer who works for a cybersecurity company named Allsafe by day and hacks into bad guys’ computers at night. When F Society taps him to bring down “Evil Corp,” an Enron/Apple/Google-type conglomerate, it sets off a chain of events that threaten his coworkers, friends, and acquaintances. Elliot—who provides the show’s voiceovers—is the textbook definition of an unreliable narrator. He talks to possibly imaginary people, questions his own sanity, grapples with paranoia and hallucinations, and is often either high or going through withdrawal.
Which is to say, viewers are more likely to pity Elliot than they are to idealize or emulate him. Unlike most TV antiheroes, he’s neither a tortured ball of testosterone (True Detective, Mad Men), nor an emasculated nobody seeking to become a somebody (Breaking Bad). He’s an outsider who snarks to himself about people who drink Starbucks lattes and post selfies on Instagram, not because he thinks he’s better than they are, but because he feels disconnected from them. In his attempts to act like a normal guy, he’s adopted a well-meaning but patronizing attitude toward the women in his life, including his childhood friend and AllSafe coworker Angela, his drug dealer/girlfriend Shayla, and his psychiatrist Krista. He goes out of his way to fix, protect, or help them by hacking into their social-media accounts or those of their boyfriends, like a bedroom superhero testing out his powers for good.
But Elliot’s creepy intrusiveness helps Mr. Robot puncture a flawed masculine value: A man’s need to defend a woman isn’t always heroic; it can be self-serving, presumptuous, and disrespectful. The show doesn’t just rely on the audience to intuit his white-knight complex either—both Shayla and Angela openly challenge it. “Even if I’m losing, let me lose, okay?”Angela tells Elliot, after he tries to stand up for her in a meeting with AllSafe’s sexist CTO.
On the less-sympathetic end of the spectrum is the AllSafe executive, Tyrell Wellick, a Scandanavian ubermensch whose Patrick Bateman-esque egoism has yet to find its limits. He’s the ultimate embodiment of the show’s vision of corporate psychopathy: amoral, unflappable, manipulative, vain, inhuman. For therapy, he pays homeless men to let him beat them up. He’s the kind of guy who prepares for big meetings by practicing speeches in front of a mirror and slapping himself when he screws up. But like Elliot, he’s far from a sympathetic or admirable in the way that handsome, powerful men on TV typically are, no matter their flaws. Instead, the ill-channeled aggression, the self-destructiveness, the blind ambition, the neuroses, and the devotion to physical fitness all render Tyrell a caricature of male perfection.
Mr. Robot show’s female characters aren’t angsty antiheroes, but like their male counterparts, they’re by turns aggressive, impulsive, myopic, idealistic, and naive. That is, they’re human. But they do sometimes fall victim, to varying degrees, to the men in their lives. Angela faces sexism at work, and is tethered to an insufferable, cheating boyfriend. Shayla lives under the thumb of her sexually violent drug supplier. The show implies that Darlene’s demanding personality may be a byproduct of belonging to the mostly male hacking community. And no wonder: In the pilot, Elliot stares at her in disbelief when she tells him that she wrote the malware program that attacked his company’s data centers.
Men dominate the hacker subculture, even though women comprise 28.5 percent of all computer programmers. But of the six members who make up the tiny F Society, two are women, one of whom, Trenton, is a Muslim who wears the hijab. This matters, not as a way to police representation on TV, but to show that Mr. Robot’s departure from strict accuracy in some areas makes it a more forward-thinking show that others could learn from, even if it’s not exactly radical. Through Darlene and Trenton, the series nods at real-life examples of female hacker groups, including one led by a Jordanian beauty queen that’s taking on ISIS.
The drama’s treatment of its female characters feels like an extension of its broader portrayal of those typically marginalized on TV. Mr. Robot and Darlene are the only white members of F Society. Trenton is shown praying early one morning. Malek, like the show’s creator, is Egyptian American. Mr. Robot also depicts an array of non-heteronormative relationships: There’s a sexual espionage thread involving two male characters; Elliot’s gay boss discusses the anxieties of formally coming out; during a hacking attempt, one target is a woman preparing to have a baby with her wife. The show isn’t without its messier moments: There was also a drugged pseudo-lesbian kiss whose merit is up for debate and a rape-revenge subplot. But considering Mr. Robot as a whole, Hollywood and its audiences should welcome this kind of seemingly effortless diversity, one that strikes an enviable balance of natural and deliberate.
The season’s only halfway over, and a lot could still go wrong by the time before the August 26 finale (viewers might never get as much backstory for Darlene, Trenton, Angela, or Shayla as they do for Tyrell or Elliot). But the fact is also that, five episodes in, Mr. Robot has proven itself to be more than a realistic hacker show or a cinematically adventurous Fincherian tone poem.
As the writer Brit Bennet has pointed out on Twitter, “We constantly debate how stories represent or erase types of people, but I wish we’d shift focus to whether stories empathize or imagine … I just think representation is easy. Imagining yourself in the body of another is the hard work of writing and the hard work of being human.” For better or worse, Mr. Robot has a lot to say about getting inside the minds of others. Some characters seek to use that ability to exploit and destroy those around them. But starting with its thoughtful reframing of traditional gender politics, and moving onto its treatment of others typically excluded in Hollywood, the series has already taken promising steps from representation (which on its own can have tremendous consequences) toward even more meaningful empathy.