Like everyone else on the internet, I heard about the New York Times review of the first episode of How to Get Away With Murder, wherein the author used the phrase “Angry black woman” to describe Viola Davis’ character in the show. Shonda Rhimes, show runner of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, probably didn’t need anyone’s help getting her new project tons of viewers, but the furor certainly got me to check it out. Here’s the short version: I love it. It’s a really fun program, and there’s a good stable of characters that, despite their archetypal presentations, break out and distinguish themselves. Which brings me back to the Times review. While the actual phrasing leaves a lot to be desired, it’s kind of just that—bad phrasing.
Viola Davis’ attorney/professor character Annalise Keating introduces herself to her new class as pretty much the professor from hell. She’s Professor Snape, if you’re one of the students that isn’t a little snot like Harry Potter. There’s a chance to learn a lot, but you’re going to work really, really hard and she isn’t going to coddle you or be nice (at all) when you screw up.
“I don’t know what terrible things you’ve done in your life up to this point, but clearly your karma’s out of balance to get assigned to my class….”
If this show were badly written, if all Keating did was be incredibly stern and severe to her students, it would have gotten tons of criticism from the same people criticizing the Times writer, saying that the character is an “Angry black woman” and nothing more. That’s just the impression you get when she walks in and gives her first-day-of-class spiel. Fortunately for everyone, the show deliberately plays with archetype. She’s introduced as a singular image we all know, and over the course of the episode is shown to be sexy, amoral, vulnerable (Or is she? This is that kind of show; who knows!?), and an effective, if unorthodox, mentor. She’s a three-dimensional character that happens to fit the description.
Which is what the Times review was attempting to say. Black women are in a restricted cultural space, and representations of them are rather pigeonholed. Showing anger, period, is a risk, because it opens up the very real possibility of people labeling and dismissing the character as one of three types they’ve already assigned to black women. So to see the show’s writers rise to the occasion and go with a cold, borderline evil black female lead is really quite heartening.
This doesn’t change the review’s incredibly bad opening line:
“When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called “How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.””
Wow. Much inadvisable. Phrased in a less eye-jabbing way, it encapsulates what makes How to Get Away With Murder special. This show’s headlining character freely admits to defending guilty clients, and as her students see as they assist with her case, has no qualms about illegal or immoral methods of securing the not-guilty verdict. She sets murderers free because that’s how she’s chosen to make money.
There’s a pretty rich tradition of this kind of character; it’s basically all we’ve gotten in the past decade or so of award-winning cable dramas. But like Broad City, How to Get Away With Murder is an entry into an established genre by a group (or two) generally shut out. By circumstance, by the genre’s conventions, or by the fear of falling into a stereotype, black women don’t play the anti-hero role. Now we’ve got one, and she’s attached to a rip-roarin’-fun show.
I still haven’t gotten to the rest of the characters I like, but how much more do I need to say? Trashy legal drama with sexy law students behaving badly! At the end of the day, I just want everyone to watch this show so we can geek out about it. As for 11-year TV crit veteran Alessandra Stanley, go back…to…writing…school?