(FYI: this post is full of spoilers for Mr. Robot, the biggest of which is: Mr. Robot made me really mad!)
Last week I started watching Mr. Robot, and for the first few episodes I really liked it. I liked how weird and stylized it was. I liked that the main character, Elliot, had social anxiety but a good sense of humor; I liked the twistiness of the plot and the way I wasn’t entirely sure if the narration was reliable or it wasn’t. I liked the cute dog. And I liked it because frankly it’s rare that my husband and I can find something to watch together where one of us doesn’t feel bored or vaguely insulted at some point in the first half hour. For a couple of days there it seemed like maybe Mr. Robot was going to be that kind of show that both of us could be really into.
Guess what! It wasn’t!
Pretty soon, there were a couple of things that started bothering me. The first was the weird Madonna/whore thing the writers set up to contrast Elliot’s childhood pal Angela with his drug dealer and friend-with-benefits, Shayla. Angela is blonde and perky looking. She dresses in collared shirts; she has a steady boyfriend and a corporate job. Shayla…wears a lot of eye makeup, is friendly but stupid, and has sex with Elliot even though he’s categorically not very nice to her? She sews artistic pillows, though, which made me think the writers were at least trying to do something with her, so I did what I do a lot when I’m watching TV and I shrugged off the laziness of the trope.
A thing that was harder to shrug off, though, was the bit of casual rape they threw in there For Grittiness. A couple of episodes in, Shayla’s supplier (whose name I don’t remember and can’t be bothered to Google, so let’s just call him Bad Guy) drugs and rapes her, then deposits her in a bathtub for Elliot to come rescue after a tense standoff. Elliot’s understandably alarmed, but Shayla insists she’s totally fine, so it’s never mentioned again. In fact, Elliot’s voiceover tells us explicitly what we’re meant to take away from the episode: that Bad Guy is escalating in his Bad Behavior. What happened to Shayla isn’t actually about Shayla at all.
My feelings about Casual Rape on Television For Grittiness are well-documented and could be a whole other blog post, so I won’t go into them too much here (except no, I HATE CASUAL RAPE ON TELEVISION FOR GRITTINESS; in addition to all the obvious reasons for hating it, such as being a human woman, I think that nearly all of the time it is lazy, lazy writing). Suffice it to say, the whole thing really bummed me out, but even then I was willing to keep going because I liked the other parts of the show, I wanted to see what happened next, and, maybe most importantly: being a lady who loves television often means accepting the fact that even really, really good shows are going to let you down from time to time when it comes to the way they treat people like you. If I stopped watching a show every time it made my face do a weird thing, I would have nothing left to watch (except the first season of Friday Night Lights, obviously; the first season of Friday Night Lights is perfect and if you can think of a reason why it’s not I don’t want to hear about it). Nah, it’s okay, I said to my husband. Let’s watch another one.
And then, at the end of Episode 5, Shayla turned up dead and mutilated in the trunk of a car.
Now, look. I feel like it’s worth noting here that I make stories for a living. I understand how they are structured. I can imagine what the conversation must have been like in that writers’ room: Guys, we’re halfway through the season! We need to raise the stakes and change expectations and give Elliot something to fight for and BLAH BLAH BLAH GUESS WHAT I DO NOT CARE, BYE FOREVER, I’M OUT.
I’m tired of bad things happening to women to motivate men to greatness. I’m tired of looking at pretty girls covered in blood. And I’m mad and embarrassed that I waved off the other parts of the show that bothered me, the parts that set Shayla up as less-than and disposable to begin with, as if those parts were somehow less egregious than what came next.
My feminism is not particularly academic. I don’t always have the right vocabulary for explaining why things upset me. But a thing I do know, and which I said on Twitter the other night, is that my standards are very low. Please no mutilated girls in your trunk, is my standard. Please no mutilated girls in your freezer, or your storage unit, or your basement.
Apparently, that is asking too much.
I read somewhere that if anyone actually puts you in the trunk of their car, you’re supposed to kick the taillight out from the inside and wave your hand until someone sees you. This is a weird, gross, horrifying fact to find useful, but because of the world we live in I do find it kind of useful, and I found myself wishing that I knew a similar tip for making that kind of thing disappear from TV.
For now, what I could do was change the channel. So I did.