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!♦
(Wilson Cruz as Dr. Culber on Star Trek: Discovery. Photo credit: CBS)
Each week, Monique will sound off on the current episode of Star Trek: Discovery. For more, read Monique’s Star Trek: Discovery recaps at SlashFilm. These mini-rants will contain SPOILERS–You’re warned.
It’s been over 72 hours as of this post since I’ve seen the midseason premiere of Star Trek: Discovery, and I am still pissed. I don’t know how killing Culber will advance the story in any type of positive way. I also fear that Culber’s death is one of the breadcrumbs that will lead to Tyler ultimately sacrificing himself.
If you’ve read my latest SlashFilm recap already, you know I’ve been quite livid about seeing Culber die on screen. Supposedly, Culber’s death isn’t going to be a “Bury Your Gays” horror (even though it looks like it on the surface.) I quoted Buzzfeed’s Adam B. Vary’s interviews with Wilson Cruz and Star Trek: Discovery‘s showrunners in my recap, but I want to give a shout out to SyFy’s Swapna Krishna, who also interviewed Cruz about his character’s demise. What Cruz told her, as he told Vary, is that we’ll see Culber again.
“I can tell you that we will be seeing Dr. Culber again.
I can even tell you that as part of the longer epic love story we are planning on telling between these two characters there is a scene in this season that is my favorite thing I have ever filmed in my twenty-five years and I can’t wait for you guys to see it. So when I tell you that it’s not over, it really isn’t. There are reasons why the story has taken a turn, but I just ask that you guys trust us in the storytelling. I had conversations with the producers and there is a bigger story here to be told, and we are going to tell it.”
So, he’s telling us that we will see the continuation of Culber’s story and Culber and Stamets’ relationship. HOWEVER, I’m still mad.
Did it have to be this way, showrunners? On the one hand, I understand that if I was in the creator’s chair, I would have qualms killing characters off regardless. As someone who wishes to create her own show one day, I’ve already realized I am too mushy to kill of characters, even if the story calls for it. Perhaps that’s to my detriment. But, a part of me feels like having a dramatic death at the beginning of a premiere is beginning to be a pattern for Star Trek: Discovery. Case in point–the death of Georgiou, another death I thought wasn’t necessary because, similar to Culber’s, it felt like a bait-and-switch.
However, with as much work as Wilson Cruz has done speaking out on behalf of the LGBT community, and with the showrunners themselves running this storyline by GLAAD, I’d like to believe that this gamble will pay off. I mean, it’d better–Star Trek: Discovery’s life is on the line with this type of gamble. If the story can show a death that exists beyond trope, then maybe there’s a conversation worth having. It’s also worth pointing out that one of the showrunners, Aaron Harberts, is openly gay. Perhaps some of his own feelings about the treatment of LGBT characters in the media will make Culber’s death feel more organic and less of a trope. From what he told IndieWire’s Liz Shannon Miller, it would seem that’s the case.
“This is something we knew we wanted to do pretty much from the minute we started breaking the arc of the entire season. We wanted to have this be the first chapter for this gay couple, who we plan to make one of the most important couples on our show. So, to do that, we needed to tell some tough stories to get this couple where they need to be, and to continue to expand their importance in the fabric of the show. So, this is a first step that we knew we had to take, and we weren’t afraid to take it, because we know where it’s going.”
…“It’s absolutely essential [for Culber’s death to be organic]. It was essential that this crime not be gratuitous. It had to push the story, and it had to come from character and emotion. Culber is killed because he’s the smartest person on the ship. He’s not killed because he’s gay. He’s killed because he’s a threat to Tyler, and to what Tyler’s going through.”
I won’t say Culber’s death was entirely for shock value–I believe Harberts when he says he wanted Culber’s death to not be gratutious–but there is still a shocking element to how he died and the type of episode he died on. A midseason premiere is all about bringing eyes back to the show and attracting new eyes as well, but does a death really win more fans? At this point, from what I’ve seen on Twitter, it seems like all it’s done is piss people off–both longtime viewers and prospective viewers, some of whom are now waiting until the season is over to see how the Culber situation is handled. Regardless, for many, Culber’s death is just one more reason to keep distrusting the media’s handling of LGBT characters since they keep getting killed off or denied their right to happiness.
To be honest, killing off characters for dramatic effect has become a go-to for lots of shows nowadays, and it annoys me. The glut of great television has also made TV watchers desensitized to a certain extent–there are show many shows to watch and so little time, so people have to pick and choose what they give their attention to. Therefore, it’s becoming increasingly harder for shows to garner and maintain an audience when there’s so much competition out there. What I’ve been seeing is an increase in “Can you believe X got killed off?!” moments on TV–moments that result in tons of press and tons of online chatter and attention. Killing off a character can mean your show gets a quick boost of notoriety and promotion. The best example of this is The Walking Dead, the originator of the modern-day “Kill off important characters” tactic. At one point in time, doing such a thing was bold, risky even. But nowadays, the tactic has become stale and, in some cases, hokey. At worst, the tactic has become offensive–The Walking Dead has had a habit of killing of black characters, black men in particular. Also, Glenn, a fan favorite, was believed to have been saved by the writers, only to be brutally killed later on. The most recent kill, protagonist Rick Grimes’ son Carl, deviates from the comic book, in which Carl still lives. If I were a regular viewer of that show, I’d consider it a huge betrayal.
My point is this–what do character deaths amount to in the end? Are they entirely necessary for every story? And will Culber’s death prove to be necessary for the story Star Trek: Discovery is trying to tell or will it turn into another Georgiou moment that leaves fans frustrated? We can only wait and see as the story develops.
Regardless, the sting of seeing Culber killed goes deep. As Harberts said in his interview, we know Culber isn’t killed because he’s gay–it’ because of what he knows about Tyler and because Tyler is fighting his Klingon programming (the buried lede in this article is that Tyler is, in fact, Voq. But he’s a Voq at war with himself, because he doesn’t even remember his former life). But even with that knowledge, I hope the folks behind the show realize that there’s a large contingent of fans who might hit pause on Star Trek: Discovery, at least temporarily. After seeing so many LGBT characters treated wrongly, it’s almost second nature to become wary of any death, regardless of the underlying reasons for that death.
It’s on the show now to win back some fans’ trust and allay fears. If they can’t do that, then the show will have a big problem on its hands.