How to Get Away With Murder is not my preferred kind of show. I got into it because I heard such good things of Viola Davis' performance in the leading role, and my God but she makes all the twists and turns not only riveting, but worth sitting through the rest of the characters' less interesting arcs in order to watch her tear things up.
At first, I had Davis' character—Annalise Keating—slated to be the first woman features in my BGSD segment. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that though Annalise could easily be categorized as a 'bitch', her character is worth discussing for far more worthy reasons.
First, a little background.
Annalise Keating is a professor in law school, running a class she calls “How to Get Away With Murder”. It's every Legally Blonde-esque depiction of what a hardcore law class under a hard-ass law professor is; grueling, unforgiving, where a good grade basically guarantees success for those who achieve it and failure denotes mediocrity.
Keating herself is brusque, sarcastic, and not interesting in shepherding her charges through the mountains of information they must learn. No, she sets her bar high and those who can't leap it are quickly washed out.
During the first few episodes, Keating seems invulnerable. She's regularly questioned about her methods and extracurricular actions by the school administration, to which she calmly replies that she's too good to be fired. She's vilified by her students; their opinions don't hurt her. No matter what she faces in the classroom or the courtroom, her talents and success put her beyond the reach of simple mortal pain.
Until, of course, she's not.
Every TV show or movie with a put-together, hard-as-nails female lead seems to rejoice in showing us her emotional comeuppance and subsequent downfall. Always there's a scene where the protagonist or villainess is crying, stripped of her warrior makeup, sitting alone in a bathrobe, yoga gear, or other shapeless, unflattering clothing. It's supposed to be either a glimpse of humanity (for the heroine) or a schadenfreude romp (for the villainess), but the visual motifs are usually the same.
HtGAWM would have been no different, were it not for Viola Davis' influence.
The first time I saw Annalise Keating sitting in the bathtub without her penciled eyebrows, fake eyelashes, and wig, I sat back as though I'd been slapped. Because it was literally the first time in my life I'd been face to face with how much some black women must alter their physical appearance in order to pass in white society.
I am not a very feminine woman; while I enjoy makeup, I take advantage of my laid-back job and rarely wear it during the week. My morning routine can easily fit inside ten minutes, and that's from getting out of bed to locking the front door behind me. I have no idea how to put on a wig, unless it's a cheap Halloween affair. My hair, though frizzy and tricky to manage, is presentable enough to pass professionally with a quick brush and a few products.
There is nothing about my appearance I have ever had to completely mask in order to be accepted.
Watching Viola Davis via Annalise Keating give her unseen audience a lesson in interracial beauty standards—all without saying a single word—is masterful. It's poignant. It's liberating. It's infuriating.
This is why I wanted to discuss Annalise Keating. Because the fact that this was my first brush with a truth of a black woman's reality is embarrassing.
This blog only occasionally deals with intersectional feminism, and that is definitely my fault. The media I consume is typically not dramatic; it's sci-fi and fantasy. Shows in these genres are a little more involved with broad social justice matters and action, and less concerned with their characters private lives. The fact that I have not watched many of the shows out there focused on African-American families or issues is on me.
Yet that does not excuse the majority of mainstream media. Viola Davis has undoubted talent and experience. Yet I don't doubt that if HtGAWM were produced by white men or women, her suggestion to have her character be seen without her wig would probably have been ignored. A daily fact of life for many black women was a complete mystery to me, despite the fact that I watch movies and TV shows with many black characters.
What's more is the way Davis changes Annalise's actions when she's in her public persona and when she's out of it.
In her wig, sheath dresses, and heels, Annalise is unassailable as the first few episodes make us believe. She assumes a persona that masks the frightened, vulnerable, self-loathing woman inside. When she's out of 'costume', so to speak, Annalise is almost an entirely different woman. She drinks heavily, screams, cries, expects to be hated and hurt because she despises herself and believes to her soul that she deserves it.
To watch this kind of woman on-screen is terrifying. Because she's so real.
We all have a side to ourselves we never want others to see. We all have days when we indulge our favorite vice and hate ourselves for it. We all take off our masks at the end of the day and dislike what we see underneath.
So to watch a woman as talented as Viola Davis do that...to see her strip her character bare and show us all the ugly, pitiful, and human facets within, is amazing. Her performance elevates what might have been a run-of-the-mill murder drama into a rich character study. It's not a comfortable experience. It's not soothing.
But it's important. And we should see more like it.