If you live for Shonda Thursdays like so many of us do, you probably cheered for Viola Davis back in September, when she accepted the historical Emmy award for her lead role in the hit drama How To Get Away with Murder. You bubbled with giddiness as Taraji P. Henson jumped out to share in the collective celebration (also known as black girl magic), and you dabbed at your misting eyes as Kerry Washington cried tears of joy for her acting peer. Then you applauded Viola Davis as she quoted Harriet Tubman, and spoke about the invisible line that exists between white and black actresses, adding “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” While white feminists like Nancy Lee Grahn attempted to de-center Viola Davis’s race, and pivot to how all women have it tough in the industry, any member of the TV audience with sound mind should have known exactly what Davis was talking about.
The kind of complex roles that get the attention of the Academy do not go to black women. More importantly, the kind of roles that fully convey the complexity of what it means to be a black woman do not get written. Rather, black women are almost always situated on either side of these different binaries that trap them in essentialized character portrayals. While there is meaningful push back against the ‘single-mother-on-drugs’ roles that were often relegated to black actresses in year’s past, the over-correction of playing characters who are respectable, hair-flipping, boardroom bosses also works to pigeonhole black women into stagnant portrayals. There then comes this burden, for black artists in particular, to always play noble characters. But How to Get Away with Murder is doing the difficult work of changing this familiar narrative.
Viola Davis’ Annalise Keating manages to be that boss we love to see women—especially black women—being on television, but without the static, one dimensionality that might have plagued her on another series. It’s Keating’s unlikability that makes her so beloved as a character. She is successful and manipulative. She’s (likely) an alcoholic. She’s sexual and brilliant. She is an anti-hero, an archetype usually reserved for brooding, white men on television—she’s a Jack Bauer, a Dr. Gregory House, a Walter White, or a Don Draper. But her personal narrative, which we’ve seen unfold in various ways throughout two seasons of How to Get Away with Murder, makes her stand apart from these usual suspects in an exciting way.
Keating is not the ‘strong black woman’ who comes to kiss boo-boos, stroke egos, save the day and then ride off emotionally healthy, and no more worse for the wear. Keating reads like a real person, with real scars and very real shortcomings. And those scars are revealed in a way that neither victimizes or sanctifies the woman who bares them.
The proverbial cherry on top of all this character complexity is that Annalise Keating is also Queer. Black and Queer, at the same damn time, in a world where only one non-cishetero-white-male can typically exist in an entire production on primetime television. Such an achievement seems organic to the series, as creator Peter Nowalk gives the television audience layers upon layers of other forms of character development in any given scene—it just so happens that the leading anti-hero is Black, woman, and Queer. (Although, it’s important to acknowledge that Annalise hasn’t self-identified as Queer so far on the show.)
In the pilot episode of the series we saw Keating sitting on her desk (her throne?), being devoured by a lover who we later learn is not her husband. She is positioned in a way that gives her a sexual agency so often lacking in similar on-screen depictions for all women, though especially for women of color. Fast-forward to Season Two, and we’ve witnessed a shift, where Keating’s lover is now a woman (played by Famke Janssen). It’s also important to highlight that the sexualization of Davis’s character is unique not only because she is a black woman, but because she is a dark-skinned black woman. Davis has opened up about how those few sexualized roles for black women often go to actresses who look more like Halle Berry. Davis speaks to the black aesthetic that is more likely to be accepted as “sexy” in Hollywood; slender and light-skinned. This, of course, marginalizes, or completely ignores the women who do not fit this very specific (and problematic) mold.
So although it’s not enough, it is incredible that we now have Annalise Keating, anti-hero—complicated, sexually empowered, flawed and queer. Please note that our television sets did not get swallowed up by the third ring of hell. (Although there have been, unfortunately, a plethora of conspiracy theories on social media about the “gay agenda” and the decimation of the black family, via shows like HTGAWM and of course Fox’s Empire.)
My excitement about this character portrayal is not rooted in a need for my own identity to be validated by Hollywood, but it’s about knowing that pop culture has a way of pushing the inherently political to the forefront. In a recent episode, Keating announces that she ‘caught Wes and Nate together,’ which prompts a sincere, yet nonchalant, “screwing?” response from Frank. This small, humorous moment represents something crucial. HTGAWM pushes past the hetero-normativity we often see in television. Annalise’s Queerness doesn’t become something we have to overwhelm ourselves with explaining, in the same way that we are never consumed with explaining heterosexuality. It isn’t pathologized, or made a plot device—it just is, and the story moves on.
It’s true that there is a reality where some black women are poverty-stricken, struggling, single mothers, and it’s true that there are others who are pantsuit wearing, church-going executives. And, yes, those stories should be told. There is, however, so much life and complexity between, beyond and even within these stories. More TV writers and creators need to actively explore that space (and more of those interested in doing so should have access to platforms where they can share these stories) if these shows are to become accurate reflections of reality. Annalise Keating is not only a refreshing pivot from shallow stereotypical roles; she also represents a step away from characters drenched in respectability politics—a critical move that’s closely connected to the ongoing fight for black women to have our whole selves seen in everyday life.
Cherrell Brown is a community organizer, social justice educator and graduate student studying Culture, Diaspora, Ethnicty. Follow her on Twitter.