My thesis: A critical exploration of cross-dressing and drag in gender performance and camp in contemporary North American drama and film
Mr. Robot: is an American drama–thriller television series created by Sam Esmail. It stars Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson, a cybrersecurity engineer and hacker who suffers from social anxiety disorder social and clinical depression. Alderson is recruited by an insurrectionary anarchist known as “Mr. Robot”, played by Christian Slater, to join a group of hacktivists. The group aims to cancel all debts by attacking the large corporation E Corp. The pilot premiered on multiple online and video on demand services on May 27, 2015, and was renewed for a second season before the first season premiered on USA Network on June 24, 2015. Mr. Robot has received critical acclaim and has been nominated for multiple awards, winning the Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series – Drama. [from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia]
The series follows Elliot Alderson, a young man living in New York City, who works at the cybersecurity company Allsafe as a security engineer. Constantly struggling with social anxiety disorder and clinical depression, Elliot’s thought process seems heavily influenced by paranoia and delusion. He connects to people by hacking them, which often leads him to act as a cyber-vigilante. He is recruited by a mysterious insurrectionary anarchist known as Mr. Robot, and joins his team of hacktivists known as fsociety. One of their missions is to cancel all debts by taking down one of the largest corporations in the world, E Corp (which Elliot perceives as Evil Corp), which also happens to be Allsafe’s biggest client. [from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia]
Wowwowwowwowwowwow etc. Mr. Robot won all these awards at the Golden Globes so I decided to download it. It’s about computer hacking and is so dark, twisty, and smart I’m surprised anyone watches it let alone gives it awards. Wow. CINEMABLEND.COM says; ‘It’s damn near perfect!’ I agree. It is unlike any TV show I’ve ever seen and trust me, I’ve seen many. Because it is so critical of mainstream society, I really am surprised that the mainstream award-shows give this show acclaim.
Our lead character [Rami Malek as Elliot] is delusional and because the world we see is filtered through his sensibility we are left wondering what’s real. One’s expectations for accurate representation have to be left at the door. You just have to go with it and if you want any conventional explanation, that isn’t going to happen. Interview confirms, ‘Elliot Alderson is an unreliable narrator—a paranoid, loner hacker who suffers from hallucinations and is addicted to morphine—but he is our only option when it comes to Mr. Robot. Everything we see, everything we are told comes from Elliot, and conspiracy theories about what is and isn’t real are abundant. ‘
The acting is phenomenal. Rami Malek is the perfect choice for Elliot. Physically he looks frail and emotionally he plays fragility with brilliance. He has a very complex character: brilliant, tortured, addicted to morphine, angry at the world… Interview says, ‘Malek’s performance gives Elliot depth; he isn’t just a series of quirks and tics, an amalgamation of traits that sit somewhere on the autism spectrum. Elliot is aware that he is hovering somewhere near the edge, and wants desperately to be normal. ‘
Christian Slater plays Mr. Robot and already has weird undertones. As a leader of a fringe, anarchist hacking group he is more than believable. Slater tells Rolling Stone “I just want to keep taking chances, I want to do things that scare the hell out of me.”
Portia Doubleday plays Angela and is way more than Elliot’s love-interest. She is smart, balsy and loyal. I imagine that playing a complex female character is quite rewarding and is very rare. She tells The Hollywood Reporter, “There’s so much that goes on, especially with Angela, because I think she that she’s consistently transitioning. Even from the pilot until the fifth episode, so much changes.” Majorly.
The aesthetic is gritty, grimy, grungy, dirty and most colours are muted. The word ‘consistency’ keeps coming to my mind. There is a seamless quality between the aesthetic and story. The disorder of Elliot’s mind is reflected in the world of the story. I did some research and found this: Vox says, ‘Its visual aesthetic is almost deliberately confrontational and in your face… But that aesthetic also gives the show an overriding feeling of coherence and thematic unity that exists in few brand new shows.’ I was right!
On Metacritic, Neverminding says; it’s hard to believe this is a USA show. The cinematography and production quality are top notch. The subject matter might not be accessible to everyone, but for those of us who have been waiting for a show centered around modern technology without it falling into laughable “for dummies” level dialogue, it’s pretty much perfect.
It’s one thing to give society the middle finger and another to do it in such an intelligent way. The anarchy in this film uses technology against itself and never dumbs down. It doesn’t take its audience as morons – it does not pander or explain anything. Corporate greed is taken to task. Buying into popular belief structures is also criticized and while Elliot may be crazy, the world we live in seems crazier.
Hacking people is Elliot’s way to get to know them. Hacking in this case is like the show Twin Peaks in that we see what’s underneath the surface stuff. Often Elliot discovers that which is ugly and disturbing but it is real and honest, you know? Wired says; There are many types of hackers, and many motivations for hacking. But one of the things Mr. Robot really nails is the portrayal of a certain type of hacker who hacks to make sense of the world and connect to it.
Hacking is his primary mechanism for controlling a world that he feels powerless to control and for making connections in a world in which he feels disconnected. “What do normal people do when they get sad? They reach out to friends or family,” he says as he huddles in his apartment crying. “That’s not an option [for me].”
Mental anguish and drug addiction is linked to childhood trauma here. Again it may be harsh and ugly but it is real. Needless to say this is not a happy, shiny or veiled world. It is painful – the complete opposite of escapism. If TV is your drug or your escape from the world you will not like this show – guaranteed.
Thefix.com says; While the show has definite Fight Club undertones (which is one of the reasons I love it), it does manage to depict a more realistic version of a paranoid schizophrenic than the 1999 cult classic. In Fight Club, the character with schizophrenia is depicted as an aggressor, when in real life, schizophrenia can have an almost dulling effect on the individual.
Rollingstone notes that Sam Esmail, who wrote and directed the 2014 sci-fi romance Comet, created Mr. Robot and no one in the cast knows exactly where they are going to take this story.
Esmail warns that the upcoming installment of the show will be darker. He tells Entertainment Weekly that the upcoming season will focus on Elliot’s backstory and give an insight into why he formed fsociety.
I cannot stress enough to you, how phenomenal this television show is. If you have not seen Mr. Robot – do.
You can see the whole of the first season on Amazon Prime Video.
Mr. Robot – Some Awards
Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series – Drama
Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Series, Miniseries, or Motion Picture Made for Television
2016 – Christian Slater
Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Drama Series 2016
Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series
2016 – Christian Slater
It’s Monday night. I’m in the living room. My boyfriend is in the bedroom. I’m wearing my sexy black teddy, mules with gentle pink feathers dangle from my perfectly pedicured feet, my lips are swathed in a lipstick called Fatal Femme. It’s a holy time and I want to be ready. My fireplace roars. My popcorn is poised for the new season of Queer As Folk. Like many women across the country who watch the show – fifty-two percent according to the Nielsen ratings in 2001, and growing – I’m addicted. I am not alone.
“At the beginning it really surprised me,” says Queer As Folk producer Sheila Hockin. “All of us working on the show, Showtime in the States and Showcase in Canada , expected to have predominantly a gay male audience.” Because most of the lead characters are male, the assumption was that “the group of people portrayed would likely be the people watching the show. It startled us in the beginning and at first we thought that maybe we’re drawing gay women.” After reviewing fan mail and Web sites about the show they realized it was a lot of straight women.
When openly-gay actor Robert Grant, who plays Michael Novotny’s (Hal Sparks) HIV+ lover Ben, appeared on The Mike Bullard Show, he noted that the women “like the cute guys. They relate to the stories or whatnot, but here’s the key… I found out that the truth is, women love to watch two guys getting it on! I was really surprised by this… it’s always, guys like to watch two women… socialization-wise.” Hot male bodies in action are a big part of the draw. Surprise! We could stop right there if that was all there was to the show’s fascination for women – there’s a hell of a lot more action happening in gay porn that could satisfy a Betty’s need to see Studly getting it on with Dudly.
So what exactly are women getting all wet over? What kinds of identifications are women hooking into? Women are creating their own gender performances in fantasy and play in ways that make gender go nuclear. Straight women watching Queer as Folk might be the ultimate Queer quotient. Femininity and masculinity, associated with “appropriate” sexual identification and desire, is suddenly attached to culturally inappropriate male and female bodies. There is an explosion of identification: girls desiring straight boys playing gay boys. Girls wanting to be a feminine boy kissing a butch boy. Girls wanting to be taken by or wanting to take a gay/straight boy. Girls romanticizing gay desire and freedom of sexual play.
What we are experiencing now is Gender Meltdown.
Why women find QAF appealing finds part of its answer in Hockin’s musing that “women find it erotic and sensual to watch.” Queer representations, however, transform the relationship the straight female audience has with the erotic and sensual, triggering new kinds of identifications because women need to take a leap not usually necessary in traditional (straight) television dramas or comedies.
Eroticism and sensuality are intertwined with romantic situations and dramas housed in queer cloth. Still, women are wrapped up in it. “Women are drawn to the working out of romantic relationships,” says Hockin. “And how people negotiate relationships. The power-plays. There are Ethan-Justin fan groups…a whole group of people on the Web called BJshippers – Brian-Justin Worshippers. People are so heavily invested in that relationship. [The executive producers] Ron [Cowen] and Dan [Lipman] think of Brian and Justin as one of the great Romantic couples.”
Hal Sparks plays the sweet and dysfunctional-enough-to-be-believed Michael Novotny, Brian Kinney’s (Gale Harold) best friend. I ask him what aspects of his character might appeal to women. He replies: “His sweetness. His vulnerability and his habit of binge eating comfort food when he gets upset.”
In a more serious vein, he feels there are common romantic identifications. “This is the first time many women have seen what they go through with their husbands and boyfriends portrayed honestly on screen. Most straight relationships on TV are told in an incomplete, male-focused way.” Sparks says that women relate “with a combination of deep rooted teary-eyed understanding and throw popcorn at the screen in frustration. I think we all can relate to unrequited love in some way.”
For straight women, buying into the show’s romance and eroticism is more complex – it is something of an identity juggling act. Keeping all the balls up in the air becomes especially convoluted in the worship of the actors. After all, to fall for one of the boys on QAF is often to fall for a straight boy playing a gay boy. Sparks has been upfront about being straight: “A very small section of the fan base gets angry every time I say I’m straight because they are under the impression that I ask to be asked so that I can say, ‘I’m straight, thanks for asking – here’s 10 bucks,’ and distance myself from the show. In my heart I know this criticism comes from people who have been severely marginalized by our culture and fear it will get worse.”
You may as well be desiring Matt Damon for all the chance you actually have of seeing Michael or Brian waltz through your door at the end of the day. But there is the illusion of possibility that is tempting beyond the illusion. And obviously, you might be falling for a gay boy too. In any case, the so-called secure straight identities actors have in distinguishing themselves from their characters gets blurred. They have kissed and often been naked with members of the same sex, after all. In character or not. Juggling the object-of-desire’s ambiguous sexuality is part of the straight fan’s own gender performance. The object she desires says something about her own sexual play and sexual orientation.
The show brings role-playing to the surface. Femininity is not necessarily female and masculinity male. On QAF there are traditional roles taken on by both sexes. Females, such as Melanie Marcus (Michelle Clunie) take on a traditionally masculine role as the provider for the family and it could be said that Justin, played by openly-gay Randy Harrison, takes on the femme role to Brian’s über-butch. Gale Harold plays a gay man objectifying men in the way that some men have historically objectified women. Brian’s total bad-boy hotness is reminiscent of the womanizer seen on soaps from suds past, collapsing a traditional (straight) male archetype with a butch gay one. Hal Sparks notes, “Ironically, even though the relationships on the show are predominately male-male, since one person must take on the feminine role, women get to see their struggle played out more fully.” Women might find a certain reflection of themselves in a gay ‘feminine-role-playing’ man on TV. Or a butch one.
The toss-up of conventional roles creates a grab bag of lust opportunity and gender play. Sheila Hockin elaborates: “A lot of straight women wildly romanticize Brian Kinney. There is some commentary on the Web, straight women talking about sexual fantasies to do with the characters, where they want to be a guy Brian kisses. They don’t want to be a woman. It all gets very gender-bending.” Women are not just taking a peek as themselves, replacing characters on the screen (Justin, for example) with their pretty, pouty faces, they’re also masquerading as gay males. Gender Meltdown.
With all the hype about women getting turned on by the gaze, straight women are also watching women getting it on. And this is something we don’t usually hear about. How do straight women relate to the lesbians on the show? Exit the Professor, enter Ginger and Mary-Ann.
The lovely Michelle Clunie plays Melanie Marcus, the somewhat butchier partner to Thea Gills’s Lindsay Peterson. Speaking from “my own perspective as a straight woman,” Clunie describes what turned her on to the show. “Before this I never saw two women making love in real life or in the theatre or in a porno or anywhere. I know the first time I saw the pilot, I thought ‘wow that’s kind of hot, I never thought about that before.’ I think a lot of straight women are re-thinking ménages-à-trois. I mean, there has always been this fantasy of two women for guys. This puts the shoe on the other foot.” She goes further by saying, “In a way because there is so much male nudity on the show and so much male sex on the show, it’s almost like we’re objectifying men.”
Women are also re-evaluating the ménages-à-trois players. “I’ve even heard women say ‘wow, I wonder what it would be like to be with two men?’” says Clunie. “One boyfriend of a girl came to this party and he said something like ‘do you want me to kiss a guy?’ because the girl watched Queer As Folk and she was really into the guy-guy thing. I think that it’s opening up a whole sexual layer to explore. And I think that’s wonderful and great and why not?” The exploration of sexual layers between ‘straight’ couples takes the term to task… It’s almost as though a new language needs to be created to accommodate the play involved in watching the show.
While the straight female fan hoopla is intriguing, there have been concerns on the fan chat-boards. One gay fan feels that the straight fans are given more credibility, that it means more to the show that there are female viewers, “sorta like AIDS didn’t mean anything until straights were affected…can’t exactly explain why this hits me so oddly, but it does.” Another fan worries the show might change to attract straight fans: “It may be cable but it’s still commercial American television and that is all about numbers, ratings and demographics.”
I asked Hal Sparks and Melanie Clunie if their performances were affected by the knowledge that they had a huge het female fan base and they both replied in the negative. Clunie’s primary goal was, “to be true to my character.” Sparks says, “My only real focus is on interpreting the script as close to the writer’s intention as I can. The British show had a big female fan base with no help from me. So, I just try to stay out of the way. Let Michael live without my ego getting involved at all.”
Producer Sheila Hockin is adamant that the writers have only been concerned with depicting the characters from their own gay, cultural perspective and that the story would not shift to accommodate a straight female audience. Rather the stories would grow, like the characters, from clubbing to different growth-oriented gay priorities and concerns. “The show has never been written for straight women,” says Hockin.
So what does this mean?
It isn’t surprising to find women subtextually replacing Justin with themselves or with an altered gay male version of self. That is what queers have been doing for decades, watching TV shows that didn’t represent their desire. What gay man hasn’t been Scarlett to Rhett or J. Lo to Ben?
In fact, straight women might be the ultimate Queer quotient when it comes to watching Queer as Folk by inhabiting that twilight-zone, the marginal, the Other – qualities of the Queer that are seemingly taking a lovey-dovey hiatus from the show within a gay context irrespective of a straight female fan base.
Women now have fantasy access to back rooms they could never get into before. The straight female fans might be fags in mental drag; they might be Queer as folk.
• Romy Shiller is a pop culture critic and holds a PhD in Drama and Film. Her academic areas of concentration include gender performance, camp and critical thought.
Books are available online. She lives in Montreal where she continues her writing.
FAB Magazine, Number 213, April 23, 2003, 12-17