Mr. Robot, Social Anxiety Disorder, and Debugging TV Narrative

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I’ll start with a disclaimer: I’m not a medical professional. Mental illnesses are complicated, deeply individual things, and many disorders overlap in all kinds of nuanced ways. What I write about is based on my own experience, and what is the case for me, or what I’ve found helps, may not be the case or helpful for someone else.

The USA network has been a consistent cable home for original programming, yet a home largely been for some of the better light-ish entertainment dramas on TV.  Mr. Robot (from writer Sam Esmail) is a bit of a departure for the network; it’s a darker, more cinematic series. The show has been getting excellent reviews, and is noteworthy for its authentic portrayal of hacking (in this week’s episode, two hackers poke fun at the depiction of hacking in Tron, when one comments that he’s sure that some TV writer is coming up with a with a TV show that will have the next generation mistaken about hacker culture) as well as tapping into contemporary anxieties about cyber security and corrupt, too-big-to-fail corporations. In short, the show is about Elliot Alderson (excellently portrayed by Rami Malek from Short Term 12), midlevel but deeply talented security engineer for a cyber security firm that works for E Corp; one of the largest corporations in the world. After preventing an aggressive DDoS attack, and finding a mysterious file buried in code, he is recruited by a mysterious Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), a hacker revolutionary who is seeking help in a plan redistribute the wealth of the world’s large corporations.

But there is another aspect of the show which is, to me, most significant. Elliot suffers from Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD). If you’ve followed my blog, you know I’ve been trying to post about media and mental illness as a way to be more open about my own, long relationship with social anxiety disorder. My major interest in media ultimately stems from a desire, as someone who likes to watch movies and TV, to see people like me (btw, 15 million people suffer from SAD), so I was more than happy to finally see a character on TV who faces similar issues as I have, portrayed rather accurately. But it’s not just about representation. At times when SAD has been more assertive in my life, I often have trouble relating to the very narratives themselves; narratives that are driven by multiple character relationships, character arcs, and actions with linear cause and effect. While Mr. Robot, as a TV show, has to have those elements (unless it were some avant-garde project), having a character who has SAD and focusing the show through his very subjective point of view does challenge some of the norms of “prestige” television.

First, a definition. The ADAA defines Social Anxiety Disorder as:

…the extreme fear of being scrutinized and judged by others in social or performance situations: Social anxiety disorder can wreak havoc on the lives of those who suffer from it. This disorder is not simply shyness that has been inappropriately medicalized: Read about the difference.

Symptoms may be so extreme that they disrupt daily life. People with this disorder, also called social phobia, may have few or no social or romantic relationships, making them feel powerless, alone, or even ashamed.

Although they recognize that the fear is excessive and unreasonable, people with social anxiety disorder feel powerless against their anxiety. They are terrified they will humiliate or embarrass themselves.

The anxiety can interfere significantly with daily routines, occupational performance, or social life, making it difficult to complete school, interview and get a job, and have friendships and romantic relationships.

SAD is extremely difficult to portray on screen, and this is probably why there have been so few portrayals of characters who have it. This difficulty is because SAD doesn’t lend itself well to narrative storytelling arcs (as with most mental illnesses) nor does it lend itself to the mostly externalized mediums of film and TV. If you’ve ever taken a screenwriting class, you quickly realize that in film and TV all that you can really tell the audience about the character is done through externals, and most importantly their actions and interactions with other people.

Other types of anxiety disorders have been portrayed more often on film. Though many of those are anxiety disorders that can be displayed through external action. SAD can be considered a social phobia, and there have been many films made about more specific phobias (Vertigo, for instance). These more specific phobias are also more film-friendly because, according to Wedding and Boyd(1999), “many phobias are triggered by a specific traumatic event” (14). SAD, on the other hand, doesn’t always need a traumatic event (it most commonly develops around 13; I started noticing mine at about 11).  One potentially problematic aspect of Mr. Robot’s portrayal of SAD is that Elliot has several childhood traumas; an abusive mother and the death of his father. While  trauma is one possible cause of SAD, it’s only one of many along with genetics, issues in development, substance use/abuse, or negative cognitive schema; that last one being especially fascinating for this show in its potential analogue to computer programing. Yet, the trauma event/specific phobia is easier to fit into a typical film narrative arc, and was perfectly displayed in Will Farrell’s would-be April Fool’s Joke Lifetime movie, A Deadly Adoption. In the film, after a traumatic incident with water, the character avoids it until in the climax he must confront and overcome that very phobia in order to save the day (the fact that it was included in an homage full of cliches, demonstrates the ubiquity of this trope).

The other somewhat common film depiction of anxiety disorders manifests itself in obsessive-compulsive disorder. This was perhaps most notably seen in another USA series Monk, or in the film As Good as it Gets (which Wedding and Boyd call the most realistic depiction of OCD). This anxiety disorder is easier to display because many people who suffer from OCD participate in sometimes elaborate rituals that involve physical actions (Nicholson’s hand washing or Monk’s compulsion to place things in proper order).

SAD is far more difficult to portray because it is often an illness of inaction. In the pilot, Elliot is supposed to meet his childhood friend/coworker Angela and her boyfriend at a bar. Elliot walks up to the bar, looks inside the window, hesitates, and then leaves with a look of frustration. This, or something very similar to it, has happened to me countless times. The hesitation was, for me, the key element of how the scene played out. I know what’s going on in that moment: a cost benefit analysis of potential enjoyment versus the anxiety and physical energy that will be spent to enter into that social situation.  For me, it’s that anticipatory anxiety that’s the most difficult; I’m generally OK 15-20 minutes into a social event, but walking up to meet someone at a restaurant or trying to get out of my car after I parked outside of a house where someone is holding a party can be mortifying. In my life, what Elliot experiences is a very real event, but its an action that in some ways isn’t an action, and therefore doesn’t progress a traditional narrative forward.  As the ADAA definition notes, for me this a very real physiological experience: a rush of chemicals and muscle tension. My fight or flight responses are triggered (made worse by the fact that I know they’re silly and unfounded), and the physiological alarm system in my body goes off telling me to run—that I am in mortal danger. And while the worst thing that someone who has SAD can do in that situation is to walk away like Elliot did, it is often what I have done to get that alarm system to stop (one of the major breakthroughs for me was finding tricks or ways to force myself to stay at an event; the anxiety is still there but desensitization therapy really helped me to come to terms with it). Another way that people with SAD attempt to get these symptoms to stop is often through self-medication which can easily turn into addiction. In the first episode, Elliot tells us that while he takes morphine, he carefully balances out the dosage alongside medication used to ween people off of the drug to prevent becoming addicted. In the most recent episodes, we realize that he is in denial about being a full-fledged addict. Another far less drastic coping mechanism is Elliot’s black hoodie, which in a small way helps insulate him from the world.

Film and TV are built around casts of characters, but SAD often results in isolation. However, this is the aspect of the show which is far more conventional. Much like The Last Man on Earth, TV shows don’t seem willing to explore solitary characters; the most recent episode featured two subplots from its other characters  that weren’t related to Elliot (who, to be fair was having an extended hallucination). Still, the relationships aren’t exactly par for the TV show course. Angela is Elliot’s only friend, and his only other real acquaintance is Shayla, his neighbor and drug dealer. In a recent episode Shayla and Elliot awkwardly become a defacto couple,  in part because a potential relationship with Shayla seems to Elliot as a potential way to live a “normal” life; the same can be said for Shayla, who turns to Elliot after an abusive relationship with her supplier. Throughout the series, Elliot seems obsessed with this idea of a “normal life,” looking at people who he believes can live it with a combination of disdain and envy. This was another common thought for me. I assumed social situations were easy for everyone; that results in that idea of not being “normal.” This thought, while self-effacing, also contains a bit of selfishness found in Elliot’s disdain where in mostly thinking about personal difficulty, the potential of difficulty for others can be overlooked.

A related interpersonal aspect to externality of film and TV, is that the are mediums that prioritize physical relationships. The way film and TV show emotional connection is through physical interaction. Elliot complicates this because he doesn’t like to be touched; another familiar issue for me, not that I don’t want physical interaction, it’s just that when by body is anxious, it can catch me off guard, or initially be misread by that alarm system as a threat.

Technology, inaction, and isolation combine to challenge  narratives where external action in the external world is driven by the physical actions of two or more characters. In Mr. Robot, a major aspect of the show occurs with Elliot, alone, in his apartment, cyber stalking people he has met or seen. Initially, the only way he seems to feel like he can know people is by hacking into their social media and reading about their most private details, going so far as to hack into webcams to watch people. The darker aspect of this, is that at night Elliot works as something of a cyber vigilante. Blackmailing his psychologist’s cheating boyfriend, and in the first scene of the series, turning a child pornographer into the police. After each hack, Elliot burns their information to CDs, perhaps as a way to keep a tangible connection, which he labels with classic album titles. He may justify these hacks and invasions of privacy as vigilante justice, but there is an aspect to them which suggests that these are attempts at some sort of intimacy.

Perhaps the major intervention of show into the world of prestige TV is also an outgrowth of portraying Elliot’s SAD. Nearly all prestige shows are told in third person. Inspired by European art films, these prestige dramas keep a cold distance from their characters. While a show like Mad Men gave us Don Draper’s memories and dreams, perhaps the whole mystery of the show was the elusive question of “what exactly is going on in his head?” From the start, Mr. Robot is told in a highly subjective first person, narrated by Elliot’s to the audience (a more unreliable approach to Michael’s “how-to” narration in Burn Notice). This may seem like a creative choice, perhaps a way to differentiate it from other dramas out there. But I had a deeply personal connection to this, one that really moved me. Perhaps the most sinister element of SAD is that it’s not obliviousness to social situations or being uncaring about social interaction. It’s quite the opposite; it’s hyper attentiveness to social stimuli. This means that people who suffer SAD from think way too much about social interactions; every little action, word, or element of a situation is scrutinized and worried over to the point that we can become afraid to do or say anything because we’re too busy worrying about all of the possible (and almost always negative and catastrophic) ramifications of our words or actions. Elliot’s narration illustrates a portion of this kind of thinking. His internal, subjective monologues, memory recalls, and reading of situations, often drowns out most of other character’s dialogue.

A key point is that the presentation of this subjective narration isn’t as internal monologue. Rather, Elliot is talking to us, his imaginary audience. In a particularly great moment in the second episode, after having no narration for the first 15 minutes, Elliot beings “Don’t think I’ve forgotten about you. I need you now more than ever.” For me this has a real, personal counterpart. In High School, when I was in an anxious situation I would narrate my actions as if I were a character in a novel. It was something of a defense mechanism, perhaps an attempt to distance myself from the situation which was causing me discomfort. Mr. Robot takes this specific, real world aspect of SAD and uses it to imaginatively challenge the far more distanced approach of most prestige TV. It takes this subjectivity so far that we start to see the world as Elliot does. Sure, this shows up in the blocking and cinematography (characters stand at the edges of out of balanced frames and are often given far too much head room) but also in ways that transgresses the objectivity of TV show worlds. Elliot calls E Corp “Evil Corp,” and from that point, when we see the logo, or hear the name, we also see or hear Evil Corp.

What Mr. Robot demonstrates is that tellings stories about diverse people (it has a diverse cast outside of Elliot, as well) and experiences provides storytellers with exciting new, and different ways to reimagine media. Using Elliot’s subjective mental state allows the viewers to experience a new way of experience, and provides alternative to established notions of prestige television. If TV is to become the serious artistic medium that many have suggested or promised, if it is the “new art house,” we need far more shows that do the same.

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4 responses to “Mr. Robot, Social Anxiety Disorder, and Debugging TV Narrative

  1. This was such an excellent article to read. I myself suffer from SAD as well as agoraphobia so it is extremely difficult for me to not only socialize, but to be outdoors for an extended period of time.

    I feel so connected to this show (mainly Elliot) and that is very rare for me. Needless to say, it feels nice.

    Thanks again! Can’t wait for the new episode tomorrow!

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  2. What a great article. I just finished the latest episode of the show and I absolutely love it. The SAD he experiences transitioned into much more than that in the recent episodes, but still very easy to relate to.

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  3. I agree that this was an excellent article to read, being an SAD sufferer.

    However, I was shocked by the line, “SAD is far more difficult [than OCD] because it is often an illness of inaction”. In fact, I had to go back a few sentences and make sure I was reading it in the right context.

    It’s incredibly hypocritical that in writing an article combatting the misrepresentation of one psychological disorder, you used the same words to throw another disorder under the bus.

    The information you collected on Social Anxiety Disorder is thorough, which makes me wonder why you couldn’t have done the same degree of research for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

    The (gimmicky) examples you referenced, As Good As It Gets and Monk, use famously uninformed stereotypes that focus on Hollywood’s favorite stereotypes, cleanliness and organization, to turn the characters of Monk and Udall into comedic caricatures for entertainment. The “elaborate rituals that involve physical actions” are, in actuality, not as common as other, invisible and very debilitating, symptoms in OCD sufferers–symptoms that for many, make OCD an “illness of inaction”, as it happens.

    I found your casual disregard completely insensitive, and personally offensive, as I myself am a sufferer of not only SAD, but also OCD, and I can assure you that neither is “far more difficult” than the other. There’s no need to undermine and illegitimize battling one illness in order to support and advocate for another.

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    • I apologize; I could have been clearer in that section, but by difficulty I was talking about the ability to portray SAD on screen; that media prefers actions. The stereotypes you mention would be examples of that; that Hollywood is more comfortable reducing people to actions instead of exploring internal experience. I in no way meant to suggest that one is “harder” than another. Thanks for reading, and thank you for your concern.

      Like

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