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How To Get Away With Murder And The Rise Of African-American Female Anti-Heroes

Viola Davis, How To Get Away With Murder

The sixth and final season of How To Get Away With Murder dropped on Netflix this weekend. First released in September 2014, the show has set a benchmark in its portrayal of a strong Black female-led cast. It is a legal murder mystery, a genre that has typically been dominated by white males. The only female characters we’d get in such shows were either victims of a crime or the female romantic love interests. But HTGAWM has it all: female murderers, female legal professionals and female law students. The show is produced by Shonda Rhimes, a name famous for developing some of the most powerful women characters in the industry. And in a world seeing worldwide protests on BLM, we need more of such empowered African-American female representations.

This show, like any other, had its ups and downs over the years. But it undoubtedly pushed for the representation of marginalised people.

Female Anti-Heroes

Women in central roles are not a new concept for television—even for the stodgy, patriarchal networks. But all of these women were, by and large, portrayed likable. They were “good” women. Even the idea that a woman could be truly unlikable, like so many male characters, was anathema. But this show left no stones unturned in showing its female lead in a grey light. Annalise Keating, played by the Academy winner Viola Davis, is a complex protagonist. She cannot fit into the neat boxes of a “good woman” or a “bad woman”. And in addition to that, she is a force to be reckoned with, whether the audience likes her or not. She does some pretty questionable things throughout the series, but we constantly empathize with her.

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This is not a new trope. Especially given the amount of audience sympathy that controversial male-characters like Dr. Gregory House (House MD), Dexter (Dexter) or Joe Goldberg (You) have found over the years. There have been few attempts to push women leads in those shoes, notedly in shows like The Americans, Revenge, and The Affair. But for an African-American woman to play such a role was first in its kind.

One of the best things about this show is that it just doesn’t have African-American characters just for the sake of it. Or it doesn’t overlook the struggles of the community. Rather, it acknowledges the socio-cultural factors that affect them as a marginalized group in America. In Annalise’s characterisation as a black woman, the writers didn’t ignore her racial identity. Instead, they actively incorporated different aspects linked to Annalise’s experience as a black woman in America. The plot investigates her childhood and makes the audience aware of things she has experienced as a disadvantaged black person.

Annalise Keating, played by the Academy winner Viola Davis, is a complex protagonist. She cannot fit into the neat boxes of a “good woman” or a “bad woman”.

Breaking Stereotypes

Channing Dungey of ABC once said in an interview: “What we’re trying to do [with shows like How To Get Away With Murder] is show women in all of their strength and beauty; to not be afraid or shy away from the parts of these women that are a little more complicated and challenging.” Women characters on TV are often not given as much history and depth as their male counterparts. And even if they are, it is usually only in relation to their status as love interest/sex toy. In this series, we see multiple women given interesting backstories and multi-faceted personalities. What’s more, these personalities don’t just stick to typical female tropes. Annalise Keating and her assistant Bonnie Winterbottom actively go against the “nurturing” “motherly” tropes that women are so often stuck with. Neither are they vilified for being “barren and cold-hearted bitches”. Instead, they are characterized as accomplished lawyers who are worthy of respect.

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This show, like any other, had its ups and downs over the years. But it undoubtedly pushed for the representation of marginalised people. It subverted the sexist trope of dominant males and submissive females. It brought an HIV-Positive character to Primetime, giving it an innovative and empowering approach. And for all of that, it shall always be remembered.

Image Credit: ABC

Dyuti Gupta is an intern with SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are the author’s own.