How A Dystopian Hacker Drama Remains One Of The Most Feminist Shows On TV
If you've ever added an unnecessary "sorry!" to soften a work email or gotten the third degree from your nosy aunt about putting career over starting a family, you know how it feels to be trapped in traditional expectations of womanhood. In USA's hacker drama Mr. Robot, Portia Doubleday plays Angela Moss, someone who rejects those standards, becoming one of television's most compelling characters in the process. But because she puts her own motivations first, the cool and collected Angela has been labeled by some with the dreaded, gendered b-word: b*tch. Because she's a woman living in the world, Doubleday is bitterly aware of the double standard.
"What if it was a male character that wasn’t as emotional and was more intrinsic or was more incredibly motivated or wanted to climb up the corporate ladder?" Doubleday says to Bustle. The unspoken answer to that rhetorical question is that no one would call that character "a b*tch."
"I said, 'Wow, women just come off as a b*tch if they’re serious and pointed.'"
Angela may not be real, but reactions to her choices demonstrate the "double standard" that 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton told the audience at one of her book tour stops this fall "is alive and well" in modern society. She advised future female candidates to continue thickening their skins, because "there’s a particular level of vitriol, from both the right and the left, directed at women." That vitriol could be seen when Trump supporters were photographed at campaign rallies wearing anti-Clinton shirts emblazoned with slogans like "Better to grab a p*ssy than to be one" and "Trump that b*tch." But insidiously gendered criticism came from the other side of the aisle too, often in the form of comments on the volume of Clinton's voice, the ease of her smile, or her general "likability."
And the perception game doesn't just apply to politics. In the business world, where Angela is trying to make her name on Mr. Robot, determined, successful women are simply viewed differently than men with similar personalities. In Fortune, Kieran Snyder compared performance reviews from the tech industry, and found that women received more critiques — and more personal critiques — than their male colleagues, no matter the gender of the person filling out the report.
“You can come across as abrasive sometimes," one report read. "I know you don’t mean to, but you need to pay attention to your tone.”
"I think there’s an aspect to Angela that is" — Doubleday pauses and chooses her word carefully — "colder," the actor says. "But I think it’s just colder-er because she’s a woman."
Sipping a Diet Coke at Bustle HQ, Doubleday looks like a laid-back version of the tense and focused Angela. And it's not just because she's traded her character's signature Betty Cooper ponytail for loose waves and her starched white shirt for a festival-appropriate peasant-sleeve top. The actor shares her emotions much more readily than Angela does, and emphatically taps my knee with a manicured finger whenever she's making a point.
Still, Doubleday holds her character close, and the rush to judgment clearly frustrates her. She remembers approaching creator Sam Esmail with her worries about how Angela's shift from loyal friend to corporate climber would be perceived.
"I said, 'Wow, women just come off as a b*tch if they’re serious and pointed,'" she says. "And I feel like that’s a slot; that’s a really easy stereotype to fit into. And he was like, 'Don’t be afraid, that might happen.'"
Angela has perhaps changed the most of any Mr. Robot character in the show's three seasons. The first significant transformation occurs at the end of Season 1, when Angela takes a high-ranking job at E Corp, aka Evil Corp, the multinational conglomerate that she, Elliot (Rami Malek), and Elliot's sister Darlene (Carly Chaiken) blame for the death of their parents following a lethal chemical leak. In taking the job, it seems as though Angela has turned her back on the revolution and her friends. And fans spent much of the second season coming up with theories to "explain" why she accepted a job that came with money, power, and a bright future, because it didn't jibe with their projection of who Angela is.
"Like, 'there must be some other agenda,'" Doubleday says, paraphrasing the internet chatter. But the actor believes that Angela was rising to meet a challenge after her male future boss "demoralized" her, something with which too many professional women can identify.
When The New York Times invited women readers to share their stories of workplace sexism, the publication received more than a thousand responses, with stories ranging from male colleagues re-stating ideas and then taking credit to being chastised for expressing frustration with power imbalances. A 2014 George Washington University study found that men interrupted 33 percent more often when their conversation partner was a woman, and professional mansplaining-spotting has become something of a sport for the internet. (This egregious instance, in which men explained astrophysicist Veronika Hubeny's own research to her, is my personal favorite.) The bottom line? Women must be more aggressive and vocal to even be heard, but those efforts will often be perceived as too aggressive and too vocal.
That's why Doubleday's Angela is the uncompromising character we need to see on TV right now, in the heart of the anarchic action with the guys. The actor is a caretaker of Angela's intelligence and grit, even within the show's sci-fi-adjacent structure. That's why, when it came to filming a key conversation between Angela and B.D. Wong's Whiterose in Season 3 — one that many fan theories are centered on — Doubleday wanted to make sure that no one would be making a fool out of her character.
"I don’t think that Angela is easy prey, and I talked to Sam about that, too," Doubleday says. "I was like, 'This had better be really impressive.' Because I don’t want her to be someone that is easily swayed. There had better be a damn good argument for why this is happening." (For the record, the actor seems satisfied by the pitch.)
Whatever happened in that room — and guesses range from time machines to parallel universes — Angela's allegiance to the Dark Army requires her to buddy up with Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), her best childhood friend Elliot's alternate personality, even though she knows very well that Elliot is trying to kill that side of himself. It's a betrayal that is already driving a wedge between them, which is ironic when you consider that the first description Doubleday read of Angela only addressed how she related to the main male character.
"Sam [Esmail] didn’t write this, but we get breakdowns when we get auditions. The description was" — she raises her voice dramatically — “'Elliot’s close friend/romance. Works at E Corp.' There is nothing about her."
Doubleday says that a read of the pilot script illuminated Angela for her, in the sense that she got the idea that there were infinite options as to where this character — "Elliot's close friend/romance" — could go. And perhaps the most interesting result of Angela's evolution over three seasons is that, after spending many episodes watching Elliot battle his alter-ego, lately it seems it's not the Mr. Robot persona who is Elliot's parallel and foil on the series; it's actually Angela, who is just as single-minded and determined as he is.
Elliot and Angela's closeness and similarities have led to some brushes with the "romance" that the initial character breakdown teased. And Doubleday is thrilled that it's Angela, of the two of them, who's been the one to shut it down.
"How cool is that? It’s so cool. How often do you get to see that in TV shows, where [the woman is] like, '"Well, like men, I’m actually going to put my motivations [first]?'" she says. "I know it’s not black or white, either. I know that she cares about Elliot, deeply. I think he is the only person that through how much she has changed, he knows who she is at her core ... So I know that she’s connected to him in that way but I also feel that, yes, she deeply cares what her own motivation and drive is. And about justice and getting justice, just as much as he does."
Angela's disinclination to return Elliot's feelings by no means indicates that she's heartless. In fact, Doubleday says that her character very much believes that she's acting not just in her own self-interest, but to help "everyone around her." It's unfortunately still so rare to see a woman character choose power over love without being completely demonized — something male characters do all the time.
Even women on TV who are renowned for their strength are usually handed a love interest by the story, or set up to be the love interest of a male lead (see Daenerys Targaryen on Game Of Thrones, or Scandal's Olivia Pope, for example). Mr. Robot's rejection of that trope, through Angela, stands out. Angela just can't focus on romance right now, and Doubleday points out that that's also true for Elliot. The story, refreshingly, treats them the same.
Considering the journey Angela's been on up until this point, her future is impossible to foresee. But the fact that her moves thus far have been unpredictable and mercifully genderless has been encouraging. And then there's Doubleday herself, who's made it her mission to do right by her character, who refuses to subscribe to anyone else's idea of what a woman should be. Though Portia Doubleday doesn't know where Angela Moss will find herself in Season 4 or at the end Mr. Robot, at least we know she's going to ensure that she gets there on her own terms.
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