Content note: this post talks about the abuse and murder of women. I have no intention of going into deep specifics about anything, but the links and quotes I use will. Just keep that in mind as you read this…
Also, I’ll be spoiling a couple specific story-lines of the first season of Mr. Robot… if you care about that.
You know… it takes a lot to make me not like a writer. I even enjoyed reading Dan Brown back when I did that (it’s been years), and a lot of people agree that he’s a crappy writer (even I do).
One thing I do enjoy is stumbling onto a show with excellent writing. It’s rare, honestly.
If you’re now officially questioning why I love Doctor Who, I should remind you that Doctor Who is not a series written by one person. Usually, the showrunner only writes three or four episodes of a season, while other writers write the other episodes. Sometimes there are amazing episodes, sometimes there are terrible episodes, and usually there are episodes that were written well enough to keep my attention and be enjoyable to me.
A while back, my brother and I started watching the first season of Mr. Robot. I found the writing to be quite good, so it kept my attention… sort of. We weren’t binging it, and I had zero desire to. I just didn’t care about seeing the next episode right away… I could wait until my brother wanted to see it. And yet, I was enjoying it.
But I was very worried about one particular character… specifically, Shayla Nico…
The main character, Elliot Alderson, is a very good hacker and a morphine-addict. Shayla served as his drug dealer and eventually became his girlfriend. We got to meet the man, Fernando Vera, who supplied her with the morphine she sold to Elliot…
And my guess is that y’all already know where this is going, don’t you? You don’t even have to see the show to know exactly where this is going…
Of course, Vera is a possessive, misogynistic piece of shit. Elliot, and us, meet him in Shayla’s apartment after he’s drugged and raped her.
Because Elliot is a “good person”, he thinks about quitting his morphine habit and getting Vera thrown in prison. Remember… Elliot is a hacker. He’s also a “good person”, which means he’s taking on the persona of a vigilante who brings bad people to justice. The show opens with him getting a pedophile arrested, to establish his character.
But he also hacks everyone in his life. Of course this includes Shayla and literally every character in the show except for fsociety (the hacker collective Elliot joins) and one of the antagonists, Tyrell Wellick (who, BTW, later on in the series, strangles the wife of one of his competitors to death while kissing her… because… again… women are only good to be fucked and then targeted by sexual violence in this show, I guess), but only because he can’t hack them. He even hacks his fucking psychiatrist!
So of course he hacks Vera, and obviously he discovers a lot more criminal activity than just drug-dealing.
Shayla, of course, practically begs Elliot to not do anything.
And let’s talk about that for a moment… when someone you care about gets raped, the best thing you can do is give them power. If they ask you not to do something, you absolutely should not do it… that goes double if they ask you not to get revenge on their rapist. Doing that will only make things worse, not better.
So Elliot, obviously, uses the information he found on Vera to get him arrested.
Because you already know where this is going, I’ll speed through the rest…
From prison, Vera makes Shayla “disappear”, forcing Elliot to set him free from prison. Vera then tells Elliot where Shayla is…
In Elliot’s car’s trunk with a slit throat.
So a quick rundown on a trope called Stuffed into the Fridge:
A character is killed off in a particularly gruesome manner and left to be found just to offend or insult someone, or to cause someone serious anguish. The usual victims are those who matter to the hero, specifically best buddies, love interests, and sidekicks. In some cases, the doomed character may be killed by natural forces or by a character who doesn’t have the intent to cause someone else angst—in this case, the intent comes solely from the writer, who wants to rouse strong emotions in another character. If the said character was killed by a villain, this guarantees to become a motivation for a Revenge plot or an immediate Roaring Rampage of Revenge.”
“The term (sometimes formed as “fridging”) was popularized by comic book writer Gail Simone through her website “Women in Refrigerators.” On that site, Simone compiled a list of instances of female comic book characters who were killed off as a plot device. The term came to be used more broadly, over time, to refer to any character who is targeted by an antagonist who has them killed off, abused, raped, incapacitated, de-powered, or brainwashed for the sole purpose of affecting another character, motivating them to take action.
Shayla was very obviously fridged. And I’m not the only one who thinks so…
As far as I know, there is no codified method for figuring out what constitutes a fridging. In terms of Mr. Robot, specifically, I offer the following evidence that suggests Shayla’s death was an example of the “women in refrigerators” trope. First and foremost, as a character, Shayla has only ever been understood as a part of Elliot’s life. Her own interiority is a complete mystery, and we’ve only ever encountered her by way of Elliot, whereas characters like Darlene and especially Angela have segments apart from Elliot where we see them do their own thing without having the experience colored by Elliot’s presence, his narration, or his subjective point of view. We know very little about Shayla as a person, and what we do know comes about because Elliot specifically asks her to tell him about herself when he asks her out. Although we’re over halfway through the first season, Shayla remains a non-entity. Admittedly, there are other characters we know very little about as well, but when we’re talking about Shayla and her involvement in the story, which has presumably ended, the possibility of further development down the road is no longer an excuse of sorts. Granted, we could see her developed further through flashbacks (a la Abigail Hobbs on NBC’s Hannibal), but as of right now her development is finished. She died the way she lived—a supporting character in another person’s story.
At this point, it’s hard not to see Shayla’s death as the pay-off from the time and effort the writers put into developing a relationship between Elliot and Shayla and Elliot, Shayla, and the audience. We got to know her just well enough to care about her so that her death would matter. Not to mention the fact that she’s already been victimized once already (drugged and raped) to drive Elliot to give up his morphine hookup and put the vile Vera away. Shayla was only ever adjacent to the main plot action of the series (taking care of Elliot’s dog at times, serving as an impromptu date to Elliot’s boss’s party). I have admittedly been bothered by how Elliot has varying degrees of romantic tension/possibility with so many members of the female cast. He’s been attached to Shayla, but it’s been suggested that he wants to be with Angela. Darlene is still a bit of a wildcard; however, the way that she’s been treated as something like a grungier version of a “manic pixie dream girl” makes her seem like a male fantasy and potential partner also. Like I said before, though, Angela definitely seems to be striking out on her own and acquiring more agency apart from Elliot and her ex-boyfriend. Conversely, Shayla’s role on the show has only ever been defined by her position next to Elliot, and we never really saw her in her own element, though her night on the town with Angela hinted at possibilities we’ll never see bear any fruit (and I’m not just talking about the kiss the two shared in a bathroom). What I’m saying is, “Rest in peace, Shayla. We hardly knew ye.”
(Side note: Darlene turns out to be Elliot’s sister, which we don’t find out until immediately after he kisses her… which I’m sure surprises none of you at this point. The above was written pretty immediately after the episode where Shayla was murdered aired for the first time, which was before we found out about the relationship between Elliot and Darlene.)
I consider this trope to be incredibly lazy, to the point where it’s use can sour my opinion of a writer I deemed brilliant up until the point they decided to use it. To me, it suggests a lack of imagination, specifically in how to use and write women and their relationships to men.
Shayla’s entire purpose in the show was to be raped, abused, and murdered, all to motivate Elliot’s plot. She could have been not included in the show at all, and it actually would have been better.
What I think would have been a much better story for Shayla is if she got herself a job, worked her way out of that apartment complex, and eventually out of Elliot’s life… maybe they break up because she finds out what Elliot’s doing and doesn’t like it… or something.
What the use of this trope in the show tells me is that the writer (Sam Esmail is the creator, and is credited as the writer for the vast majority of the episodes) doesn’t know how to motivate a male character without sacrificing a female character to that male character’s plot. For a show that many praise as “feminist”, I can’t trust that Sam treated any of the other women characters he created for the show any better.
It’s upsetting, too, because it’s an interesting show with an interesting premise, and the dedication to showing hacking and general coding in a realistic way is amazing. Honestly, I would prefer to recommend it to y’all, because it is otherwise a good show… just one I don’t think I’ll be seeing much more of…
Note to future writers: there’s nothing wrong with killing characters you create… even women. Just don’t do it to motivate a male character to move forward in their story. Because even in fiction, women should be more than that. Shayla, despite promise, wasn’t… and that’s a failure of the imagination of the writer.