Smitten is not the right word: I am obsessed with Viola Davis’ performance on the first season of How to Get Away with Murder, the new ABC crime drama otherwise known as The Third Triumph of Shonda Rhimes. It’s pretty “basic,” this obsession, given that Davis’ acting on the show is, like a pumpkin spice latte, something pretty much everyone can get down with. In January, the Screen Actors Guild awarded Davis outstanding performance by a female actress in a drama series. Last September, when the show premiered, the AV Club prophesied: “Viola Davis’ Performance Anchors the Scattered How to Get Away With Murder.” Davis brings great nuance to the Can’t Have It All archetype imagined for her character Annalise Keating, a woman-with-immense-professional-success-in-traditionally-male-dominated-profession-with-troubled-love-life. Ratings-wise, HTGAWM is the “top freshman” of ABC’s 2014-2015 season and it’s difficult to believe this would have happened without Davis. As one Jezebel author blogged six episodes in, “I barely care about the supporting characters. The reason I’ve stayed dedicated is, without a doubt, Viola Davis’ performance as Annalise Keating.”
What’s especially exciting about the show’s popularity and in particular Annalise Keating’s appeal to the public is that, unlike most of her peers in crime drama female leads, she is black. If anyone doubts the snow whiteness of that population: there’s Detective Kate Beckett of Castle, Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson of The Closer, Dr. Temperance Brennan of Bones, Officer Carrie Mathison of Homeland, Agent Elizabeth Keen of The Blacklist and Superintendent Stella Gibson of BBC’s The Fall, to name a few. Critics and fans alike have expressed relief in seeing an African-American actress cast as a character with material and professional success as well as a bold and complex personality, free from the stereotypical “Mammy” and “Sidekick Best Friend” trappings. How to Get Away With Murder’s success promises progress: the more successful this show is, the more likely it will be for networks to endorse other shows with emotionally rich African-African female protagonists. Most importantly, the show’s popularity further highlights that black female characters (and by proxy black women) are as deserving of time and attention as white characters and white women.
And yet, if you were an alien visiting Earth, and for some reason decided the best way to spend your time was to binge-watch primetime TV, you might be confused watching HTGAWM. You might observe, smart alien that you are, that most female lead roles in major network dramas go to white women and that this fact belies vast inequality and racial prejudice in the real world. You might then wonder at the characters on HTGAWM and how they seem to exist in a blissful harmony untainted by racial prejudice. No inequality acknowledged between black and white, no talk at all of Annalise Keating’s brilliant success in a profession so dominated by men, especially white men. As Kia Natisse of TheGrio writes, Shonda Rhimes likes to “cast her shows in a seemingly post-racial world”, meaning that characters within the world don’t address the fact of the protagonist’s race. I question how much this applies to Rhimes’ first creation, Grey’s Anatomy, but that show doesn’t feature a lone African-American lead. Rhimes’ second show, Scandal, is another story. Like HTGAWM, Scandal’s female protagonist, Olivia Pope, is African-American but, as Natisse points out, “nothing is made of her ‘blackness’ in the show at all.” Natisse delves into the question of whether this quirk (perhaps tactic?) of Rhimes’ is constructive. Would it be better to make more of Annalise Keating’s being black, in order to celebrate it? In order to address real world situations of prejudice?
What I’ve realized is, although How to Get Away With Murder might be attempting a “post-racial” world and although Annalise Keating is a multi-faceted and complex character, she does face racial prejudice in the show, although it’s not being acknowledged as such. I know: how can I, a viewer, be seeing something in context of the show that isn’t being acknowledged directly? Well, it’s the dark side of the moon effect: that indirect presence is always there, whether you acknowledge it consciously or not. In her article “Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire, and Their Homegirls”, Professor Carolyn West cites Black feminist scholar bell hooks, who has argued that “we should take an ‘oppositional gaze’ toward the images of black women” in popular culture. West explains that bell hooks wants everyone, scholars and lay people alike, to question and examine the constructions of black female characters.
I didn’t intentionally take up this mantle of the “oppositional gaze” when I started binge-watching How to Get Away With Murder on Hulu. I was armed with Twizzlers and coffee, I think, not a readiness to critically examine Annalise Keating for potentially destructive racial paradigms. But the first time I heard Annalise compared to an “animal” in an early episode, a little alarm bell went off in my head.
In college, I once attended a lecture that made a huge impact on me, about the sexualization of women’s bodies in popular media. The speaker talked about black women being compared to animals (a notable example from my own childhood: the black Spice Girl, “Scary Spice”, who was forever in leopard print). I remembered this lecture, then kept watching. Maybe I was overthinking things—maybe the writer just happened to apply the word “animal” to Annalise arbitrarily. Then, a few episodes later, Annalise is once again called an “animal” during a pivotal scene in “Hello Raskolnikov”. One reviewer called it his “favorite moment” in the episode. In the scene, Annalise is in a bathroom stall, decompressing, having just presented critical evidence to the court that incriminates her own husband. Two white women, who look preppy, unfavorable, distinctly un-edgy, enter the women’s room to powder their noses, or whatever. They’ve just watched Annalise in court and begin to gossip about her:
She’s not like you or me.
You’re defending a woman who just sold out her husband?
God no, I’m just saying, she’s not a person like the rest of us are people.
What is she then? An animal?
Not even an animal’s that heartless.
Here’s what is fascinating to me about this word choice. When I think “heartless” and “not a person,” I think—robot. Not “animal.” After this scene, I paused the show. While still giving myself a hard time about reading too much into things and being too academic about something I should just sit back and enjoy, I googled until I found literature about black women as animals in popular culture. I read excerpts from Black Woman’s Burden, a book by Kent State University Professor Nicole Rosseau that traces this conflation of animals and blacks in popular culture back to 19th century paintings:
Paintings of the slave period can be found often depicting naked bodies of Black Africans arriving on American shores, seemingly writhing…unable to control their insatiable desires…Subliminal hints…implying that Black men and women are not only animals, but even demonic…
Rosseau goes on to explain that female slaves were painted, literally and figuratively, as “animal” to account for sexual liaisons between white masters and their female slaves. The white man could not be held accountable, so the female slave became scapegoat. She explains:
…when sexual liaisons did occur between the black female slave and the slave owner, the compelling image of the bad-black-girl, or Jezebel, was used to explain this relationship. That is, slave owners who privately coerced their female slaves, or surreptitiously offered them harsh alternatives if they were unwilling to submit to their owner’s sexual whims, attributed these liaisons to the hypersexuality of the female slave who was purported to be the aggressor or seducer. Therefore, the bad-black-girl image as a symbol of African American women has been used to depict the African American woman as an eager, available and willing sexual partner for her slave owner and for other males, with relative degrees of power and wealth, in American society.
I had an uncanny experience reading this description of the “Jezebel.” Professor West writes in her article that “contemporary Jezebels can be found…gyrating in hip-hop music videos.” Rosseau’s description above seemed to me much more broad than the “hoochie” stereotype West refers to, and brought to mind yet another scene from How to Get Away With Murder.
The episode before the bathroom scene, “Kill Me, Kill Me, Kill Me”, had featured a violent fight between Annalise and her (white) husband, Sam, that left me feeling really uneasy. This scene is also a featured clip on ABC’s website, called “The Final Fight.” Annalise has been goading Sam, throwing the affair she’s had in his face, aiming to wound him. Sam follows Annalise around their house before finally pinning her against the wall and choking her. With desperate breath Annalise begs Sam to admit that he murdered Lila, the student he had an affair with. Then Sam lets go, and the really disturbing exchange begins.
Sam: You’re a monster.
Annalise: That’s all you got? You can do better than that.
Sam: You want the truth? You’re nothing but a piece of ass. That’s what I saw, when I first talked to you in the office that day, ‘cause I knew you’d put out. That’s all you’re really good for: dirty, rough sex I’m too ashamed to tell anyone about. That’s how foul you are, you disgusting slut.
If you’ve never seen the show, let me be totally clear: Annalise and Sam have been married for decades. So when he says “when I first talked to you in the office that day,” he’s referencing an event from many years before. I have so many questions about the language here. First of all, I realize it’s not ideal at any time to call someone these names. But “piece of ass” and “disgusting slut” seem more like shallow accusations a man might more plausibly throw at a woman he’s known for two weeks, two months, even two years. But decades? Also, why the concern about being able to share the details of your sex life with the homies, Sam? “I’m too ashamed to tell anyone,” he seethes. Reading this script blind, you’d think Sam was in his early twenties. Minus the mention of an office, I’d think he was still in high school or college. Not that older men can’t talk about sex with their wives or experience shame, but objectively this language seems really infantile…And even if he was going to talk about Annalise’s sex here, why take it in the “dirty, rough” direction? Wouldn’t it make more sense to call her a “disgusting slut” for having an affair, rather than for the type of sex she had with Sam himself?
I have to conclude one of two things: A) the writer of this scene completely spaced and couldn’t come up with anything believable for a man to say to his wife of many years who has just admitted to having an affair or B) behind this questionable language is a charge that speaks somehow to the root of the relationship between Annalise and Sam. When I watched this scene for the first time I felt that charge, though I couldn’t understand what it was that had triggered me. It was hardly the first time I saw a man on TV put a woman in a chokehold. Or call her a slut. Or a piece of ass. For better or worse, like many of us, I’m now usually desensitized to fictional interactions like these. But reading up on the Jezebel stereotype allowed me to articulate what had initially struck me on viewing this scene: when Sam accuses Annalise of being “nothing but a piece of ass,” wild “rough” sex personified and the author of his sexual shame, he recalls from the dark recesses of American history the bemoaning of the white master. Your sex is evil; your passion stifles the good white boy I really am inside.
One might argue that this scene reveals gender discrimination, not race—that Annalise could be a white woman and this scene wouldn’t be any different. But I don’t think so. Hear me out: if Annalise were white, Sam would probably still become violent and he would probably still call her a slut. But there is no friggin’ way he would highlight the roughness of her sex. If Annalise were white, Sam would call her cold and frigid. Case in point: Superintendent Stella Gibson on BBC’s new hit series The Fall.
Gibson and Keating are more alike than the other crime drama heroines I mentioned at the outset: they are not characterized as especially romantic, like Olivia Pope on Scandal or Elizabeth Keen on The Blacklist, but rather as mature women who wield their sexuality with confidence. Their sex is not, or not only, a means to a romantic end. In fact, Stella’s sexuality is more “wild,” in the sense of unpredictable, than Annalise’s: Stella comes onto a male coworker out of the blue and then shames him for seeming to want a continued connection. Then she comes onto a female coworker over drinks, also quite out of the blue, and asks her upstairs to her hotel room. The actress who plays Gibson, Gillian Anderson, says “Stella is definitely not square.” The show’s creator wrote in an article for The Guardian: “Under patriarchy, women’s sexuality is often only permitted a limited expression. Gibson insists she has a right to autonomous sexuality.” For example, Gibson tells a married coworker and former lover that she’s actually relieved he never left his wife for her. He is utterly taken aback, as not wanting a mate is unfeminine by patriarchal standards.
On both The Fall and HTGAWM, these female protagonists with boisterous sexualities are shamed by other characters for being “unnatural.” However, whereas Gibson is decried as cold, cool and an Ice Queen with emotional limitation (read: strength) like a man, Annalise is not. She is made subhuman. A piece of ass, a monster, an uncontrollable animal of “foul” quality. In fiction, successful white women who behave outside of the sexual norms are somehow “promoted” in the hierarchy of power, but this is not so for black women. “Black women and girls have…historically battled the stereotype of innate and uncontrolled lasciviousness,” as writes Bitch magazine author Irana Douer in a recent article about Beyonce.
Because these diminutions of Annalise come from the mouths of untrustworthy characters, it is not suggested that the audience is to believe the allegations. We are never meant to believe she is an animal or a monster and we celebrate our privileged insight into her humanity, just as we applaud Stella Gibson when she stands up for her “right to autonomous sexuality.” And yet, the particular language used to put down our heroine within this would-be “post-racial world” is significant, I think. Why, in reviews of the show, is Annalise Keating’s sexuality never described as “cool” but rather as “sultry”? She is both celebrated and shamed in language that, I believe, has its root in the damaging historical stereotype of the Jezebel.
I’m not advocating for TV shows to depict post-gender worlds where women are not shamed for being sexually unconventional. In fact, until gender and racial equality is achieved, I think it’s very important to reflect in fiction the inequalities of our world; not to reinforce them, of course, but to offer up prejudice as fodder for criticism and public debate. What I am advocating is that we stop looking at the fictional world in How to Get Away With Murder as already representing a climate blind to race. I don’t think it’s possible to write that world yet, not when we live in one still fraught with so much prejudice.