Thursday, April 21, 2016

Masculinity Monday: 'Mr. Robot', Elliot, and the Role of Mental Health

[I know, I know. Masculinity Monday is now just a metaphysical concept rather than an actual day. Masculinity Monday is a feeling. Masculinity Monday was in all of us all along. Maybe we were all Masculinity Monday somewhere deep down inside...]

This is Arab-American Heritage Month, and so in honor of that we've been doing a series of articles looking at representations of Arab-American (or Arab-descended) masculinity in American and British pop culture. I'm being kind of broad here because, frankly, if you're looking for characters more complex than terrorist stereotypes, you have to dig a little. Which says as much about the subject as any of these articles.

So far we've looked at two relatively well known and beloved characters: Abed from Community and how his story reads as an assimilation narrative and Dr. Bashir from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and how his depiction gives us an idea of what a post-racial society actually could look like

Today we're going to pivot off of that and look at another nerdy Arab-American character - which is just a coincidence but it is super interesting that all of these guys are giant nerds - whose story brings up another element of the human experience rarely shown on television and even more rarely shown as an aspect of Arab-American life. I'm talking, of course, about Elliot Alderson on Mr. Robot and the show's treatment of mental illness.

Elliot Alderson is not a well man. He is, one might even go so far as to say, unwell. Elliot suffers from a variety of intense and sometimes debilitating mental disorders, a smattering of clinical depression, anxiety, dissociative identity disorder, and episodes of mania. He medicates these problems by lying to his therapist and taking controlled doses of morphine. He's not in great shape.

Why is this on the "good representations" list? Why am I celebrating a drug addict who genuinely qualifies as "a danger to himself and others"? I like Elliot Alderson because, like it or not, his characterization is one of the most compelling, if extreme, representations of mental illness we've seen on television in years. And a big part of that isn't in how it shows the effects of his mental health problems, but in how it goes into their cause.

See, mental health is a complex issue. Our brains are so complicated and we understand so little of what makes them function and sometimes not function. Environmental stressors, diet, sleep, childhood trauma, chemical imbalances, smelling the right things, smelling the wrong things, having an unusual first name...these are all factors that have been proven to impact our mental health. Like, scientifically proven. With science.

Our brains are complex and therefore the things that influence them are complex. Too often, though, our stories about mental illness fail to take into account this complexity. They fail to recognize that everything in your life can and will play a role in determining your mental health on a given day. Movies and television shows like pat answers. They like it neat and they like it to fit with narrative structure. This is understandable, but it doesn't really help us as a culture to better understand mental health. Instead, it allows us the freedom to assume that everything is easy and simple and straightforward. It's not. It's really really not.

Before we get any further into this, though, I should take a minute to explain the basic premise of Mr. Robot. So, here's the rundown: Mr. Robot, a surprisingly gritty USA show about technology and hackers, follows Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), a deeply unwell cybersecurity expert working in New York City. The story starts when Elliot is tasked with stopping a collective called fsociety from hacking into one of his firm's clients. The problem? Elliot hates said client - he calls them "EvilCorp" - and he's pretty morally opposed to helping them. So instead he helps the hackers and he's slowly drawn into their orbit.

It's hard to explain much more than that, to be honest. The show is a nesting doll of theories and conspiracies and shocking revelations. Christian Slater plays the titular Mr. Robot, the head of fsociety and Elliot's eventual mentor. Carly Chaikin shows up as the mysterious and incredibly fascinating Darlene, a fellow hacker, and Portia Doubleday comes in as Elliot's only real friend, Amanda. 

The majority of the story is basically inside Elliot's head, with him going through his life, trying to decide if he's going to help fsociety or not, and with his constant struggles to know if what he's seeing is real.

What really sets Mr. Robot apart from other shows that deal with mental illness, however, is that Elliot's difficulty distinguishing reality and his sometimes tenuous grasp of the truth isn's a tangential part of the story. It's not played for laughs or some weird weakness that magically turns into a superpower as soon as he needs it. It's not something that makes him "special" or "unique", but it's also not shown as something that makes him nonfunctional or useless. Instead, Elliot's mental disorders are presented as being simply a part of who Elliot is right now. 

That is, while it might not sound like it, a pretty big deal for a show like this. Because the story puts us very firmly inside Elliot's head, we're forced to contend with his mental issues just like he is every day. We sit with Elliot during panic attacks, during withdrawal from morphine and the hallucinations that come with it, during his occasional delusions of persecution and outbursts of rage. We're there with him and in a lot of ways we're just as lost as he is. 

We're inside his head and we the audience aren't really sure if what we're seeing is real or if we're just seeing what Elliot thinks is real. So Elliot's mental health becomes a fluid and integral part of his character and we are not allowed to let it slip out of our heads when it's no longer convenient to think about. We have to deal with it all the time, which is what I'm getting at here.

It's phenomenally rare for us to see representations of mental health this complex and this present in the media. But it's even more rare for those representations to be realistically linked to race, upbringing, and socioeconomic status. That's what I feel Mr. Robot does best. It shows how Elliot's mind works, and then it slowly unfurls for us why Elliot is like this and how it's all connected.

Unfortunately, since the show is hella complicated and hates spelling things out, taking an almost perverse pleasure in never explaining things, a lot of this is conjecture. But it's solid, well researched conjecture, so there.

Elliot Alderson, despite having a very white name and a white father - who passed away when Elliot was a child, but we see a picture at one point - is still a man of color. He's mixed race, and it's implied that while his father was white his mother was/is of Arab descent. We can figure this out first by just kind of looking at her in the few flashbacks we get, but second by thinking through the logic of the casting and creation of this show. Mr. Robot was created by Sam Esmail, an Egyptian-American screenwriter and producer. The title character is played by Rami Malek, an Egyptian-American actor. I feel pretty comfortable extrapolating here and assuming that Elliot Alderson is also Egyptian-American. That seems right.*

Elliot's mother, who we must then assume was/is Egyptian-American, was abusive towards him. This is established in the show and is heavily implied to be the source of much of his anxiety and possibly depression. After Elliot's father died, a father with whom he was extremely close, Elliot struggled to relate to his mother. She found him difficult to deal with and hard to discipline, probably because of his already burgeoning mental health issues. So her behavior exacerbated those issues, bringing Elliot to where he is today.

It's this kind of complexity that I really appreciate in Mr. Robot. The self-reflexive nature of Elliot's mental health problems. And again, it's subtle because the show is super subtle, but I don't think it's an accident that Elliot, the son of a white man he adored and an Egyptian woman he despised, has chosen to fully embrace white culture and completely ignore his Egyptian heritage. I don't think that's an accident at all. 

I also don't think it's an accident that his childhood has left Elliot so crippled when it comes to social interactions. Again, it's hard to say because we just plain have very little information to go on, but even what little we do know remains one of the most nuanced and holistic understandings of how mental illness actually works. What was that line from Criminal Minds?** "Genetics loads the gun, environment cocks it, and opportunity pulls the trigger." Something like that.

The point is that mental health and mental health breaks are created by a wide variety of factors, and I really really appreciate Mr. Robot for getting that right. Not only does it bring up how Elliot's childhood primed him for all of these problems - from the tragedy of losing his father to the trauma of his abuse - he also has to deal with racial and economic factors which also put him at risk.

While Elliot works a white collar job now as a cybersecurity analyst, we know that his background is firmly working class. It's unclear whether or not social class has any direct correlation to a higher rate of actual mental illness, but it does have a provable link with a lower rate of treatment. Mental health is more likely to go untreated and therefore fester into something worse, and a working class culture of self-reliance can sometimes isolate struggling individuals. Like, say, Elliot.

Additionally, we have to imagine the stress of being an Arab-American man living in post-9/11 New York City. Yikes. The show doesn't really get into this explicitly - possibly because Elliot can and does pass for white - but even still we can only assume that this contributes to the levels of stress he feels all day every day, thus contributing to his mental decline.

I mean, pretty much any way you look at it, Elliot is a mental health bomb waiting to go off. And even though Elliot would be a great character even if he were actually white, it's far more interesting to have a character like this who isn't.

Okay. Unpleasant honesty time. 

I have to admit that I have a vested interest in Elliot's complexity here. I have a vested interest in more nuanced and diverse representations of mental illness because I, myself, have a mental illness. I'm bipolar. I've possibly mentioned it on this blog before - it's not a secret even if I don't bring it up much - but it bears repeating.

Part of the reason this blog has been so inconsistent lately is because I've been in the grips of a depressive episode. A pretty long one too. Longer than usual, at least. For me, depression doesn't mean sadness or suicidal ideation or despair. It's a wall of cotton in between you and the world, the feeling that you don't want to get out of bed and even when you do get out it's like you're wearing your comforter around all day. 

It's being quiet and still inside your head but being utterly indifferent to most of everything. It's feeling blank and passive and apathetic. It's not fun, obviously, but it's also not agonizing. At least, not for me.

A depressive episode for me means that I have trouble forcing myself to do things, like change out of my pajamas or bring the dirty dishes downstairs or update this blog. To me it seems trivial, even when it goes on for weeks on end, because it's my own brain. I live here and this is what it's like sometimes. Othertimes it's not like this and that's fine too. 

But when I try to tell people this, when I try to explain that I'm not super interested in going out or meeting up or working on a project because I'm depressed, I am immediately met with worry or fear or revulsion. People assume that I am admitting this as a cry for help. That my ability to verbalize my mental illness is a sign of my instability. Or, worse, that because I'm not crying and because I can say it out loud, I must not be depressed after all. 

It's frustrating. Sometimes it's infuriating, though the side benefit of having all your emotions on mute is that you don't get very angry about things like this. Mostly, though, it's sad. It's sad that I have such a small and unremarkable problem, the mental equivalent of a bum knee, but that I cannot talk about it without people running away in horror.

That's why Elliot Alderson matters to me. By giving us a character as truly and genuinely fucked up as Elliot and by forcing us to live inside his head and deal with all of his mental issues all the time, and then pointing out that in spite of all of this, in spite of his not actually knowing for sure that anything happening to him is actually happening, Elliot can still get up every day and do his job, Mr. Robot is giving us a genuine image of what mental illness means to the people living with it. 

It's the closest thing a mentally healthy person can get to actually experiencing it for themselves, at least as far as I can tell, and I think that if nothing else the show has the potential to make our society more empathetic to these problems. But here again is why it matters that Elliot is Arab-American - as the highest profile mentally ill character on television, Elliot becomes our touchstone for the mentally ill community. 

And that community is diverse as all get out. It's so important that this prominent, important character be a man of color. It's so important that he remind everyone that mental illness isn't just a problem that upper middle class white ladies have - it's universal, and in fact is actually sometimes more common in communities of color.

Elliot Alderson matters because he's not a poster child for healthy living. He's not a great role model. He's actually a pretty good example of everything that you shouldn't do if you want to keep yourself feeling mentally and emotionally stable. And that's awesome. We need more characters like Elliot because we need to live in his shoes, to see the world through his eyes, and to remember that even if we don't understand, Elliot's perception of reality is just as real to him as ours is to us. We need Elliot to be not a saint, but a human being with bad days and slightly less bad days and a complex medical history and no idea what the hell he's doing. We need that because that's who we all are, whether we admit it or not.

So even when this depressive episode of mine is over, and it will be over eventually because they always are, I'll still be grateful for Elliot. Even if telling him that would make him super uncomfortable.

*SPOILERS: When it comes to Elliot's sister, I do find it interesting that they cast a white actress in the role, presumably with the foreknowledge that this is where they were going with her. I mean, we have to assume that she and Elliot are both of mixed race, but it's frustrating when everything is so ambiguous except Elliot's casting.

**Criminal Minds, ironically one of the few other shows to actually do a fairly accurate job at representing mental illness. Unfortunately, it's pretty much always represented in relation to serial killers. Not awesome.


  1. I'm so glad I read this, it made me think more deeply about this show that I kind of wrote off as a disappointment and too close of a Fight Club knock-off (I also loved the toxic masculinity analysis on it as well).

    You got me curious, so I looked up Carly Chaikin, the actress who plays Darlene, the sister. She is American but was raised Jewish, and she's a big supporter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). I wonder if the NAMI tie was part of her casting? Or her desire to be on a show that is so heavily focused on mental illness?

    Thank you for bringing up race. I'm embarrassed to say I didn't really stop to think about that and it is something that would certainly have a big impact on a person.

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  3. This is off... as an Arab, the greatest point of tension and suspense watching this show, is seeing a full blooded, unmistakingly Arab man exist as himself without an Identity or explanation. A huge component of Elliot's character did not seem to me like acting at all, if you knew 100 Arab American men... he is just living out a thus inexplicable existence like the rest of us, helplessly letting his life be written for him. Rami literally married a white girl or 2... none of this even scratches the surface of Arab identity, of the complexity elliot or Rami himself. It takes an Arab writer to look at Sam Esmails work for what it is and disassemble it. This notion of Mr. Robot being a cornerstone of mental illness is so narrow minded, it's almost fucking ironic... that this cornerstone whitewashed Arab gets a whitewashed interpretation. Had the same effort been put into deconstructing Arab identity... the truth is that nobody, not you, not rami, not any American, Arab or otherwise, gives a fuck about Arabs anywhere. We remain the same tool to you people.

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