Trans representation is so sparse in media that, for some, you can squint and pretend like it doesn’t exist at all. There have been a few noteworthy standouts in recent years (e.g., Pose, Orange Is The New Black, Grey’s Anatomy, arguably Steven Universe, etc.). Yet for most of cinematic history, the few visible trans characters on film and television have been either “evil” or tragically silenced.
Trans people have barely started to see themselves reflected back, albeit imperfectly, from the silver screen. We had only just gotten to the point where trans characters were being portrayed as actual people when Whiterose, from the hacker tv show Mr. Robot, effortlessly walked on screen and changed everything.
Her portrayal, though controversial and flawed, will undoubtedly represent a shift in how we will perceive trans characters in the future. She is one of modern cinema’s most enticing villains, and yet, one has to ask: is this portrayal the breaking of a trend or the enforcement of one?
An Abridged History Of Trans “Evil”
When we first meet Whiterose, as she casually lights up a cigarette, we are told upfront how powerful “he” is (at first, the protagonist Elliot mistakenly assumes the gender of the world’s most legendary hacker). She is the leader of the Dark Army, the elusive hacker collective behind some of the world’s greatest hacks. Her time is so precious that she times their initial conversation, and will allot Elliot no more than three minutes.
This initial impression of power is never questioned. There is a moment in episode ten of season two where Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer), the CEO of E Corp (a combination of Enron, Bank of America, and Facebook all rolled into one) is talking about the worlds most influential people and says:
“In my life, as I was making my way, I always asked the question, am I the most powerful person in the room? The answer needed to be yes. To this day, I still ask that question. And the answer is still yes.
In every room in the entire world, the answer is yes with the exception of one. Or two. And that drives me.”
He is referencing her. She is the exception.
Historically, trans people in media have been allowed to be a lot of things — duplicitous, confused, tragic — but powerful has rarely been one of them.
This was by design.
Under the threat of greater regulation from Congress, the Association of Motion Pictures adopted the tediously named Motion Picture Production Code in 1930 to “maintain social and community values” in films. This set of rules would become known as the Hay’s Code after the then-president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), William H. Hays. The moral conservative and former chair of the Republican National Committee would start to more strictly enforce the rules in1934, which is “coincidentally” when films began to get a whole lot less progressive.
The Hay’s Code does not reference LGBTQIA+ people directly — that would require recognition — but it does forbid films to make references to “sexual perversions of any kind,” which queer people would have been considered to be at the time.
The Hay’s Code also required that criminal activity in films be portrayed in a way that neither provides sympathy for the criminal nor encourages imitation. Aspects of transness are still illegal today, and would undoubtedly have been more so when the codes were drafted.
These regulations meant that if a filmmaker wanted to have a queer character, then they couldn’t make direct reference to their queerness, and their portrayal could not be openly positive. This moral framing meant that queer characters were almost exclusively linked with criminal activity, which affirmed the widely-held conservative belief that they were criminals in real life.
A classic example of this is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho, which is about a motel owner, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who kills their clientele. We are led to believe that they are following their mother’s wishes, but in the film’s shocking closing moments, it is revealed that Norman has been cross-dressing as her this entire time. Their gender identity is a byproduct of mental instability.
Even when the Hay’s Code was overturned in the mid-60s in favor of a rating system, the queer association with criminality would not end. The trans serial killer, in particular, would remerge now and again in pop culture such as with Christopher Morley’s transvestite character in “Freebie and the Bean” (1974), psychiatrist Robert Elliott (Michael Caine) in “Dressed to Kill” (1980), Angela Baker (Felissa Rose) in “Sleepaway Camp” (1983), “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine) in Silence of The Lambs (1991) Leatherface (Robert Jacks) in “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation” (1995), and many more. We would see this trend continue well into the 2010s with “Insidious: Chapter 2” (2013), where the main villain was shown to crossdress before committing murders.
For the sake of our comparison with WhiteRose, however, a telling example is the 1994 cop comedy “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.” The antagonist of the film turns out to be Lieutenant Lois Einhorn (Sean Young), who changed their gender to get revenge on their former football teammates. The protagonist, Ace Ventura (Jim Carrey) makes Einhorn reveal her genitals to prove she isn’t a real woman. Her transness is the butt of a joke and effectively undermines her villainy.
Whiterose counters a lot of these old assumptions. Although she is a criminal of epic proportions, her transness is not the reason why she is “evil.” She is, importantly, never portrayed as a person deserving of mockery. Her identity is not a twist, but rather something we are aware of from her opening introduction.
The question becomes whether this breaking of the old and offensive trans criminal stereotype is enough.
Whiterose’s “Problematic” Identity
The first issue people have with this character is one of representation. Whiterose is played by cisgender actor BD Wong. There is a long history of cis actors, or in the case of sexuality, heterosexual actors, playing LGBTQIA+ roles (see Jeffrey Tambor in “Transparent,” Jonny Beauchamp in “Penny Dreadful,” Rebecca Romijn in “Ugly Betty,” etc.). This “cis” or “straight” washing denies LGBTQIA+ actors’ roles in an industry that has historically barred their entry with a vengeance.
Whiterose falls into this phenomenon. Show creator Sam Esmail reportedly saw several trans actors for the role, and yet he ultimately went with BD Wong. As Wong told Vulture in September of 2015:
“I was then told Sam did meet some trans actors but didn’t pick them, and then he asked me to do it. I don’t know why he was asking me to do it, and I was putting up a little bit of resistance.”
Wong is a great actor, but for some people who are tired of ciswashing, it understandably might be a bridge too far.
Casting is not the only problem people have with her character. There is also the issue with the arguably predatory romantic relationships Whiterose has had with her subordinates. She is one of the most influential people on the planet, maybe even the most powerful person on the earth, and it’s implied that she engages with sexual relationships with her assistants. As Dark Army operative Irving told then-Whiterose assistant Grant in Season three:
“Tell me something. She still making her spontaneous overtures? She make you taste her yet? Remember, doll face, I was you years ago. And I’ve already done my time. I think she’ll be good with me.”
While the idea that a powerful person would abuse their position in this way is not unrealistic, this accusation hits close to home because of the stereotype that trans people are inherently predatory. Straight men will often accuse transwomen of “trapping them” into sex — sometimes referring to them as “traps” for short. This meme recasts trans identity as being duplicitous. It consequently is often used as a pretext to assault and kill trans people, which is partially why trans individuals are killed at such an alarmingly high rate.
On a societal level, this same justification was and is still used to discriminate against trans people. The bathroom debate of the mid-2010s (and now) framed trans women as men using their trans identity as a pretext to gain entry into female spaces. Former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory is infamously remembered for warning people that trans rights would “[put] citizens in possible danger from deviant actions by individuals.”
Whiterose’s predatory framing is further complicated by the fact that she is a Chinese woman, which means her relationships with her subordinates can arguably fall within the Dragon Lady stereotype. This trope is when strong Chinese women are depicted as overbearing and emasculating (see the majority of Jackie Chan’s American movies). As Elizabeth Ho wrote in The Michigan Daily:
“In her relationship with Grant, whiterose epitomizes this stereotype with her domineering behavior. While the Dragon Lady can also positively represent Chinese women as assertive and independent, in this case, it only further emasculates Chinese men.”
Season four tries to reverse course with this association by giving Whiterose a female-presenting assistant Wang Shu (Jing Xu). This relationship is not framed as abusive or sexual, but respectful and professional. The final season clearly learned from some of its past mistakes.
In doubling down on Whiterose’s power, however, the show highlighted another chief problem — that of placing a trans character in the center of a vast, globalist conspiracy.
The Trans Agenda
Whiterose is not just in charge of a malicious hacker collective but also moonlights as Zhi Zhang, the male Chinese Minister of Defense. She uses this high-ranking position in the Chinese government as a cover to control much of the world’s affairs, and this trope falls into a tragic stereotype about marginalized people.
Discrimination has manifested in conspiracy theories for centuries. It doesn’t take too long on the Internet to find bigots justifying their hatred of a marginalized group by claiming that said group is a part of a cabal of people secretly running the world. Anti-semitism, for example, has been an unfortunately stable aspect of anti-globalist discourse for hundreds of years. The European world has blamed the Jewish population for everything from eating babies to poisoning wells to spreading the black plague itself.
In 1903, a pamphlet titled The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (sometimes abbreviated as The Protocols) began circulating in the Russian newspaper Znamia. The document claimed to print the notes from a secret meeting, where the Jewish people allegedly planned to undermine Christian civilization through a vast conspiracy. This pamphlet, which was later deemed fraudulent, was “coincidentally” released around the same time the Russian people were expelling their sizeable Jewish population from the Pale of Settlement through a series of violent pogroms.
The idea that Jewish people are undermining the world through the secret control of established institutions has never entirely died. The Protocols would recieve renewed interest under Nazi Germany and controversially are still spread today by organizations around the world. Its footprint can even be felt indirectly. The 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, for example, believed that Jewish billionaire George Soros single-handedly controlled the world economy.
Jewish people are not the only marginalized group to be the object of such conspiracy theories. When LGBTQIA+ rights started to pick up steam in the United States in the lates 80s and early 90s, it was not uncommon for conservatives to claim that there was a “gay agenda.” Critics labeled many queer civil rights campaign as an attempt to make society, particularly children, gay. As hate activist Phil Burress remarked of a California bill that would require foster parents to recieve LGBTQIA+ sensitivity training:
“This is the way the homosexual activists continue to build their numbers — is to get people confused about their gender identity and start acting out.”
Some people are likewise convinced that we are amid a trans agenda. As the ideas of genderfluidity (i.e., the concept that not all people embody a rigid male-female dichotomy) has entered school curriculums across the country, similar conspiracy theories have amassed. The state of California’s decision to pass an LGBTQIA+ inclusive sexual-education curriculum, for example, has been met by some as an attempt to convert their children. One parent told Vox News they wanted the law to be overturned or otherwise:
“… our children are going to be against us.”
From stealing babies to brainwashing them, conservatives have been blaming social minorities for such conspiracies for centuries. Whiterose fits into this long, complicated history because, in the world of Mr. Robot, such a globalist conspiracy is real. An investment firm called the Deus group (a pun on Deus Ex Machina) has been pulling strings since the end of the Cold War. As Phillip Price said in episode two of the last season:
The Soviet Union, a great world super power, was collapsing.
And where some saw freedom, a young, imaginative Minister Zhang saw possibility.
A new world order.
So Zhang formed an investment group called Deus.The goal, bring together the world’s wealthiest, most powerful men to consolidate control and manipulate global events for profit.
Whiterose, a trans woman, is the de facto head of this globalist conspiracy to hoard the world’s wealth. Her goal with that wealth could arguably be construed as good. She is trying to build a machine that “makes the world better” (note — we never learn what the machine does), but that doesn’t change the fact that she has done a lot of bad to achieve this goal. Her grasp on the world’s most powerful institutions comes with all the baggage that that power represents.
Given that we exist in a world where some of the world’s most powerful men believe in conspiracy theories like the “trans agenda,” Whiterose’s character should not be taken lightly. The criticism that “this narrative is inappropriate” is worth listening to.
Loving Whiterose, Despite Her Edges
Near the end of the final season, Whiterose’s position at the Deus group is revealed to the world. The camera opens on her looking into a mirror to finish up her makeup. When she is ready, armed guards escort her down the stairs of her elegant mansion. We, for a moment, think that this is it for her — that these are the guards sent from the Chinese government to whisk her away to prison or worse.
We then see the dead bodies everywhere and realize that she has won this battle. She leans over a dying soldier and says:
“You were looking for Minister Zhang? He isn’t here.
There is only Whiterose.”
When trans people transition, they sometimes take on a new name, and their old name is referred to as their deadname. To deadname someone is a way to invalidate a trans person’s identity. You are aware of their preferences and refuse to recognize them anyway.
When I first watched this scene, I burst into tears. As a nonbinary person, I have been misgendered countless times. I have grown accustomed to the feeling of discomfort as I navigate whether or not I should be open with those around me. There are few moments where people come to my defense, let alone armed guards.
To witness a transperson powerfully rebuke her deadname, even as someone as “evil” as Whiterose, was something I had rarely experienced in media. It made me feel powerful, and despite Whiterose’s many character problems, I will always remember the catharsis I felt from this single scene.
This is all to say that Whiterose straddles a lot of complicated intersections. She is a trans character played by a cisgender actor who, at times, embodies some problematic tropes that have haunted trans people for decades.
She is also a powerful trans woman in charge of everything, and there is an odd beauty in being able to witness her trying to control a world that hates her.
I can’t say the world of media was ready for the first trans supervillain, but because of Whiterose, it will undoubtedly be prepared for many more.