Imani Smith

Online Managing Editor

16 May 2023

Image courtesy of Google

How many shows can successfully portray the trials and tribulations of a Black woman in power, in a way where it does not come off as cheesy or performative? 

 In 2014, Peter Nowalk, creator of How To Get Away With Murder (HTGAWM), created a realm where Black and queer people are portrayed as human beings rather than accessories; ones who suffer through love, hate, and depression. Following this story feels like watching a slow burn of various mental changes, rather than walking tropes.

I have always been the type of person who refused to watch the Grey’s Anatomy or 13 Reasons Why type shows because they simply seem corny. But after giving in to watching the first episode of How to Get Away with Murder, I only fell further down the rabbit hole of mystery and the judicial system. The show easily gets viewers hooked by foreshadowing entire seasons by showing intense scenes out of context during the first few episodes. Watchers like me stay engaged by actively guessing who will end up dead next and why.

Despite HTGAWM airing in 2014, the themes it tackled continue to be extremely relevant today. The struggles that minorities such as gay couples and Black women often face in their fields substantially drive the plot along. Oftentimes, consuming media that covers the more serious subjects such as these can get very draining; it can be difficult to stomach, especially for someone who has experienced similar traumatic circumstances. But for me, as a Black person, HTGAWM approaches such topics in a way that brings me a sense of comfort by avoiding invoking more widely associated feelings of pity and sadness.

My favorite scene from the series depicts the main character, middle-aged Annalise Keating, sitting on the floor beside her bed along with her mother, Ophelia, sitting on the bed. Ophelia combs through Annalise’s kinky hair, not without tangled disruptions, and tells her a moving story about her past abusive marriage. The aspect that comforted me in this scene was the memory of being a little Black girl coping with accepting her full head of coily hair. It brought me back to a more carefree, youthful shared experience of a lot of little black girls learning to love their hair and abandoning the idea of it being a time-consuming nuisance. I was able to recognize that I have not often seen clips similar to this in mainstream shows. This was a specific minority experience that touches home.

Later in the series, the topic of Black hair continues to be explored. In one particular scene, prior to a huge supreme court case that Annalise mentally prepares for as an attorney, she contemplates wearing her natural hair or throwing on a straight wig. This is a very real experience for a lot of Black people, who unfortunately have to consider whether their natural appearance is appropriate in professional settings. The show hits the nail on the head with its ability to not overachieve, or over explain its statements. 

What I continue to notice in many shows that attempt to touch on topics like this is a poorly hidden political statement. Some shows come off as expecting some sort of praise from consumers for including minority characters, as a ploy to appear more relevant in the current day. Performative activism is what usually makes these kinds of shows unbearable to watch, as it makes someone like me feel like some sort of taboo specimen for white people to watch behind a glass barrier. On the other hand, the way HTGAWM approaches the everyday tribulations that come with blackness in America feels so much less performative than what I am used to seeing. The hair scenes do not serve to make a statement or evoke pity, but to recognize an experience behind closed doors that is very rarely depicted.

This kind of performative activism is too often used when showcasing gay couples on TV. Unutilized gay characters, or the simple mention of a character being gay, is often thrown into movies solely so that companies can parade the fact that they are “inclusive” enough to have LGBTQ figures. One major event that caused controversy was over Disney’s Strange World movie, which came out in 2022. Many movie-goers had never heard of the film prior to its release. Disney paraded the fact that they debuted their first gay main character more than they promoted the movie itself. They benefited off of the status that inclusivity would bring for such a big company, without putting in the work to effectively represent said minority.

On the other hand, How to Get Away with Murder actively aimed for greater than a lazy excuse for diversity. Two of the main male characters, Oliver Hampton and Connor Walsh, were a couple that lasted through the entire six seasons of the show. In the midst of this, the series depicted many of the troubles they faced as a gay couple, including verbal and physical abuse in public spaces, the process of testing for HIV/AIDS, and the hypersexual stereotypes surrounding gay men. On top of this, their wedding was one of the most integral plot lines to the show.

Their relationship never felt like a blatant statement about gay relationships because they were so important to the story, as opposed to a one-off publicity stunt affair that would never return to the show again. Their relationship felt more “normal” than many other shows have been able to accomplish. Not to mention, the slow-burn process of watching Annalise Keating grow into herself as a bisexual woman who had struggled with understanding her sexuality her entire life was a beautiful experience. Passively seeing her end up with the first woman she had ever loved by the end of the series was a seal to the emotional battle that just felt right.

Despite the heavy subjects the show covers, HTGAWM has the power to leave a watcher knowing more about life than they did before. Utilizing the minority characters in a respectful way is effective for educating outsiders to the respective communities. In the words of Professor Annalise Keating, “Never take a learning opportunity away from another student. No matter how smart you need everyone to think you are.”

Posted by Imani Smith

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