Outfitting the Technological Revolution
The hacktivist’s guide to style.
December 1, 2015 | Cult | Fall 2015
Ever since finishing the debut season of Mr. Robot, I’ve been thinking about the common pop culture trope of obscured identity—how audiences revel in the slow reveal, the plot twist. In this regard, Mr. Robot is a total fever trip. Over its ten episodes, the show manages to capture a sense of imminent social collapse, where nothing is as it seems and selfhood becomes a dangerous game.
For the uninitiated: Mr. Robot follows Elliot Alderson, cybersecurity underling by day, hacktivist by night. As the show progresses, we meet a supporting cast of technology overlords, corporate puppets, and the ragtag group, fsociety, intent on balancing out the world’s debts and disrupting the status quo.
At the centre of fsociety is Elliot (Rami Malek), who makes the audience question exactly how one can exist within our social media saturated, capitalist society, and still remain hidden. It’s clear as the plot progresses that the masks Elliot wears—both transformative and arousing of suspicion—say a lot about how bodies (and the way we dress them) become interfaces for experiencing the world.
In news media, the only times we ever see masked figures are in regard to violence or deviance—robbers in ski masks engaged in shootouts and Guy Fawkes-masked social activists breeding chaos on the streets. Part of the sensationalized fear associated with masks comes from the criminal justice system’s need to identify. When everyone looks the same, how do we single out the real dangers to society? And what does it mean then that Mr. Robot makes the conscious decision of providing Elliot with masks that the audience never gets to see behind? One of the great things about Mr. Robot is that it provides no easy answers. What it does do is define the perfect outfit for the hacker revolution.
In interviews, Rami Malek describes his character’s look as being inspired by urban armour and combat uniforms—partly a mask under which to hide, but also an attempt at toughness, at unapproachability. This shield of sorts—all black streetwear, hoodie up—offers him the conformity needed to assimilate undetected, besides making an unintentionally political statement. Not only do anti-heroes wear hoodies, so do hoodlums.
Because recent years have seen frightening commonplace stories of targeted violence dominate news media—often times cases of criminalized identity and racial profiling—it is hard not to notice that the ways in which visible minorities dress can become fatal decisions. It is especially hard not to remember Trayvon Martin, the seventeen year old African American teen shot and killed on his way home by a neighbourhood watchman in 2012. Pursued for perceived “suspicious” behaviour on the assumptive stereotype that hoodie + black body = threatening anonymity, the clothing item has now become associated with the broader #BlackLivesMatter movement. As we’ve come to expect, the association between hoodies and gangster or “thug” culture can be devastating.
“The fact that Elliot Alderson is written and perceived as white…is a lost opportunity to explore the implications of race within tech and hacker communities.”
It is interesting then, that despite his shady, glazed eye behaviour, hoodie-wearing Elliot remains in relatively safe from this type of profiling. But, it would be remiss not to point out what I see as a major character flaw—the fact that Elliot Alderson is written and perceived as white. Portrayed by Egyptian American actor Rami Malek and led by showrunner Sam Esmail (also of Egyptian ancestry), it is a lost opportunity to explore the implications of race within tech and hacker communities from the perspective of the show’s main character.
To be fair, Mr. Robot makes a good attempt at diverse representation. I think of the potential racism and/or violence that Elliot could have encountered, however, given that actor Rami Malek is someone who could easily be mislabelled a terrorist in America’s current social climate. I also think of the privilege and ease of access that Elliot is afforded as a whitewashed character; instead of his hoodie-wearing ways generating fear, it allows him to conveniently disappear.
There’s a scene in episode “1.3_da3m0ns.mp4” of Mr. Robot that sums up a lot of ideas about Elliot’s unintelligible identity thus far in the show. It is when the audience sees fsociety leader Mr. Robot in front of a camera filming a viral video that speaks, with direct and intimidating ferocity, to the multinational corporations it plans to take down. As Elliot enters into frame, Mr. Robot takes off his mask, handing it to Elliot and revealing an identical mask beneath it. The mask, as Elliot is told, is “made for you, now.”
It is clear that this visual metaphor is meant to be heavy-handed—a literal manifestation of confused identity. Think of the mask as an alter ego, a disguise that transforms Elliot’s behaviour and allows him to be aggressive in a way that he is unable to be without it. Although intimately attached to his identity, the Mr. Robot mask is highly political and the show illustrates this en masse, populating the real New York streets of its world with hundreds of masked followers.
In the same way that Anonymous followers wear Guy Fawkes masks to hide their identities in a show of unity and collective action against governmental control, Mr. Robot’s mask soon becomes a symbol of revolution, a self-empowering tool that everyday people are able to use for freer assertion of anarchist agency. Resembling the Rich Uncle Pennybags character of the classic Monopoly board game—menacing smile, white mustache, and angry upturned eyebrows—appropriating the likeness of an established figure, in this context, is a way of reclaiming power and satirizing the obvious corruption of certain corporations and capitalist enterprises.
Although quite a comical image, it actually manages to produce a great deal of fear.
“There is something inherently suspicious about a full facial mask. For official bodies of power, being unsure of one’s race or gender can cause persistent anxiety.”
Like the hoodie, there is something inherently suspicious about a full facial mask. For official bodies of power, being unsure of one’s race or gender can cause persistent anxiety. Even more so, the inability to recognize and thus categorize specific people as dangerous makes for true terror in the eyes of the law, and isn’t that what revolution should aim for?
As fsociety members and other characters on the show illustrate, there are other ways to dress a body for the purposes of anonymity or online sleuthing. Ways that call for critique, but that are also just essential items in a typical hacker’s arsenal.
Sunglasses are one of those items that have obvious connotations with “shady” behaviour. They’re the sort of thing that are cause for concern when worn out of context—say, in an underground subway, where they soon become the mark of a potential spy. Characters Darlene and Mr. Robot have their own signature sunglasses of course: heart-shaped and aviator respectively, the benefits of which include being able to hide the lack of sleep required for on-the-clock network hacking, especially when working under the strict timeline of the Dark Army.
Besides items used as ways to hide, backpacks are also a featured staple. Elliot, for instance, is rarely seen outside of his apartment without his heavy-duty black backpack large enough to carry around a collection of hacked information, which is stored and disguised as mixtape CDs. His backpack also allows him to blend in as just another techie on his way to and from work, deflecting attention away from some of his more covert and suspicious activities. Plus, how else would one be able to carry their laptop from place to place in search of stable wifi?
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As Mr. Robot shows, the ability for clothing to provide anonymity is important in that it allows characters to carry out risky hacker schemes without calling too much attention to themselves. Not only does it serve to mask identity, however, but it can also be used to show collective solidarity. As the plot develops in the next season, it will be interesting to see how clothing and other masks transform characters, disguising some and revealing others. Until then, it probably won’t be long until fans of the show start taking to the streets with their fsociety masks on and hoodies up—a cyberpunk statement for the new technological age.
Megan Low is a writer, editor, and artist interested in film/tv criticism, mental health advocacy, and good coffee. Living on unceded Coast Salish Territory (Vancouver, Canada), most of her time is spent lost or in between places. Follow her: @meganklow.