It’s Valentine’s Day, everybody. Everyone’s got their obligatory Valentine’s Day post, but I’m going to do things a little differently. You might say, I’m going to hack Cupid’s Day and inject a conversation about one of the breakout couples from Mr. Robot, Whiterose (BD Wong) and her loyal assistant/lover Grant (Grant Chang).
I finally had a chance to catch up on Mr. Robot a few months ago, and I realized how it slyly stacks its deck full of characters on the sexual spectrum. Tyrell (Martin Wallström) fell into the fanatical side of love with Mr. Robot, and while the show never portrayed Mr. Robot as purposefully leading Tyrell on, fanfiction writers could certainly find moments within the show to insert an alternate narrative of Mr. Robot using Tyrell’s fanaticism to Mr. Robot’s advantage. Darlene (Carly Chaikin) slept with FBI agent Dom(Grace Gummer) to try to help Elliot reverse the damage Mr. Robot’s caused. In previous seasons, Trenton (Sunita Mani) showed feelings toward Darlene and Angela (Portia Doubleday) has an intense makeout session with Shayla (Frankie Shaw).
All of those portrayals of sexual representation are cool in my book. But my favorite coupling out of everyone is Whiterose and Grant. Their time together evolved in this recent third season, culminating in Grant having to make the ultimate sacrifice. Technically, though, Whiterose decided his fate for him, citing Grant’s unchecked jealousy surrounding Whiterose’s interest in Elliot as an element that would get in the way of future plans.
Season 3 was basically a vehicle for Whiterose and Grant’s storylines. One of the consistent parts of the season was that it was literally not about Elliot; every other main character rose up to compete for the title of main character, and honestly, any character on the show could easily have their own spinoff. Whiterose and Grant certainly took this season and ran with it, and I was ready to go on their ride towards world domination. There large chunks of the show where I was actively rooting for them to win, to be honest.
I wanted to see what a world would be like under Whiterose’s thumb. Technically, if the season’s allusions to Whiterose’s influence in our presidential election are any indication, we already are living in Whiterose’s America. But while it’s hell living in it, it’s fun to see society from her lofty, expensive perch, where she’s outfitted in the finest of Rich Aunt fashions, drinking her champagne in the fluted glass handed to her by her one and only Grant, who’s dressed in the finest suit Tom Ford can muster. It’s a dream world of excess and financial debauchery, and in these times, which resemble the 1980s in terms of the juxtaposition of wealth in the media (like Dynasty and Dallas) amid rising costs and and an impending deficit, it’s a relief from our economically poor lives to watch how the other half lives (and makes life terrible for the rest of us). It’s a perverse fantasy, but it’s a fantasy nonetheless, and Whiterose and Grant sold it in spades.
It’s also a great character touch to show how devoted and in love Grant actually is with Whiterose, and the show makes our voyeristic time as viewers even better by showing that Grant’s love is not one-sided. Despite Whiterose’s ultimate dispatching of Grant, we do see how she does truly care about him. In Whiterose’s world, a world in which she gets rid of anyone in her way regardless of their station or their worth as a person, it means something to see her shedding tears and saying her final goodbyes (albeit while relaxing in her bubble bath with champagne) to a man who has meant so much to her. She has narcissistic tendencies, sure. But no one can say she didn’t actually love Grant. The only wedge between them is her greater love for her ultimate mission; to take power from Evil Corp’s Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer) and destroy him where he stands.
As far as character development goes, Whiterose and Grant are about as enigmatic, engaging and fun to watch as you can get. Again, you really want a show just about them and their machinations. But of course, just because I love their characters, that doesn’t mean I’m not without awareness of the thornier aspects of their representation, Whiterose in particular. Whiterose is probably a cause for contention among trans viewers, since Whiterose is identified as transgender, yet she’s played by a cisgender man.
Wong himself said to Vulture’s Matthew Giles how he initially resisted taking the role, not wanting to take the role from trans actors. He also didn’t want the character to be another stereotype of an “evil trans person.” According to Wong, he was told creator Sam Esmail did meet with trans actors, but didn’t hire any of them, wanting Wong instead. As Esmail himself told Buzzfeed’s Ariane Lange, Wong was his first choice for the role.
For Esmail, stated Wong, the character opportunity Whiterose presents is a chance for Esmail to show the dynamics of the gender power struggle in business.
“There’s a great challenge in being a powerful woman in a powerful white man’s world,” said Wong to The Hollywood Reporter‘s Chris Gardner. “I think that it’s part of his choice to make her a person who needs to be gender fluid to get what she wants.”
To his credit, Wong doesn’t give himself a break when it comes to the type of role he’s playing. “There’s a lot of things we can discuss that are connected to it. There’s also the casting of me in this part, which is not cool to trans people,” he said. “Like Asians, trans actors don’t get a lot of opportunities. There are arguably mitigating factors in this particular role because there is gender fluidity and she has to interface as a man and as a woman.”
Pajiba’s Riley Silverman rightly takes Wong and Esmail to task for utilizing a cis male actor for a transgender part. For Silverman, the role of Whiterose smacks of cis-privileged hubris and appeals primarily to cisgender viewers, like Silverman’s friend.
“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,” wrote Silverman. “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.”
But while citing the holes in both Wong and Esmail’s rationalization of a cis male playing a trans woman, Silverman still has sympathy for Wong and the real reason he took the role, which he explained in Vulture.
“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.'” he said. “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,” wrote Silverman. “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.”
It’s an interesting conundrum when the actor knows their presence as the character is problematic. But it’s equally problematic that there aren’t enough complex roles for everyone in Hollywood. The drought of meaningful roles forces some actors to take roles they’d rather not, such as Wong taking on this role. I’m sure he saw it as a once-in-a lifetime opportunity; there aren’t too many times you can play a character on a critically-acclaimed show that premiered at SXSW of all places. But, as Wong well knows, accepting the role takes an opportunity away from a trans actor. What could a trans actor have added to the role if given the chance? Why didn’t Esmail reconsider the ramifications of casting a cis male in the role, especially after he saw trans actors for the part? I don’t have the answers; we need to ask Esmail these questions. Thankfully, the character of Grant is devoid of these serious representation discussions, seeing how he’s played by a cis male.
While Chang doesn’t say much as Grant, he emotes through his body and especially his eyes, giving Grant a quiet sturdiness, a sense of patience that–while worn thin sometimes from Whiterose’s deliberate nature–is built from his trust in Whiterose. He also commands the presence of a leading man from midcentury leading men like James Shigeta as well as an undercover machismo that he sublimates for the sake of Whiterose’s dominant personality. But on occasion, it comes through, like when he wants Whiterose to just act instead of monologue and plot, or when he convinces Whiterose to finally let him take the reins of a mission, asserting his more traditionally masculine personality when it comes to romantic societal norms. However, despite his simmering frustration at not being able to assert his masculinity the way he’d like due to Whiterose’s position as the mastermind, he still finds power in letting her lead. He’s a man’s man in some ways, but he’s also highly attracted to strong, take charge women.
When it’s all said and done, Whiterose and Grant were, for me, the most engaging part of Mr. Robot Season 3. It was the first time I could have done without Elliot’s storyline, since in some ways, he was actually slowing things down. For the latest season, the drama was centered around Whiterose’s next move, and how she’d employ her best guy to carry out her deeds. But that doesn’t mean I’m avoiding the conversation to be had about Wong playing a transgender character, something he feels quite uncomfortable about, despite agreeing to take the role. As Wong said to Vulture, Whiterose acts as an opportunity to open dialogue on transgender characters and trans representation in the media. However, one element of that conversation should include if the conversation can be advanced if cisgender actors keep shutting trans actors out of roles, effectively shutting them out from their seat at the table.
What do you think about Whiterose and Grant? What do you love about them and how do you feel about Wong taking the role of Whiterose? Give your comments below!♦