Even though How to Get Away with Murder (HTGAWM) is a brilliant show in terms of its character development, casting, and plot structure, it still has fewer viewers than Scandal, a show that’s been on its last leg for the past couple of seasons. HTGAWM, unlike Scandal, is unflinching in its complex representation of Blackness.
When I watch HTGAWM, I am able to emotionally connect with the heroine and sometimes villain of the show Annalise Keating the way I have been unable to connect with Scandal’s Olivia Pope. Keating is complicated, the way my friends and I are. Unfortunately some viewers are not interested in seeing this complication.
When I first discovered Shonda Rhimes and her creative brilliance, I became a permanent resident of Shondaland. I was never a fan of Grey’s Anatomy but I tuned in every week to see how Olivia Pope (played by Kerry Washington) was handling Washington D.C. However, over the course of the changing seasons, Scandal has become less about a Black woman and her power and more about two men who continue to objectify her.
Over time, I became unable to connect to Olivia Pope. She’s a petite, fair-skinned woman who loves drinking wine, whose hair is always perfectly pressed like her designer pants. Truthfully, she is devoid of a personality. I’m not petite and never will be. The only wine I drink is twist off Carlo Rossi, and I have too much personality. Despite all this, I continued watching because there were no other Black shows.
Even though the show headlines a Black woman, the Scandal rarely tackles Olivia Pope’s Blackness. Instead, the show references Blackness every few episodes but her race and what it means to be a Black woman in a powerful position is quickly forgotten. For Scandal, what it means to be Olivia Pope has nothing to do with her Blackness and her experiences with it—being Olivia Pope has everything to do with what man she happens to love at the time or what her despicable daddy is up to.
Where Scandal has faltered in its representation of Blackness, How to Get Away with Murder has never missed a beat. Annalise Keating (played by Viola Davis) is a powerful Black queer woman. She may not have all the answers. She is not a saint or a villain. She has lived life as a Black woman, and the viewers never forget it.
In some episodes she wears her hair natural. In flashbacks she wears braids, and, when she goes clubbing, she even has a special clubbing wig. She reminds me of my sisters, my aunts, my mother, and myself. Most importantly, Annalise Keating shows us both a powerful and vulnerable Black woman. As viewers we feel her pain and her power, and her realistic vulnerability is refreshing to see on screen.
Black women have been told that we are not allowed to be weak or scared. We have to always be powerful and able to take in all the racism, sexism, and hate that society gives to us without finding a way to release it.
Even though HTGAWM is perfect in its complex representation of Annalise Keating, it is still struggling to gain higher viewership. People are used to seeing people of color in stereotypical roles or in roles that are still controlled by white men. Olivia Pope may be a powerful Black woman, but all of her actions, emotions, and power are dictated by men, and some viewers take pleasure in seeing the same power structures rehashed.
HTGAWM refuses to represent people of color the way that society expects them to be viewed. It challenges power structures and inspires more people of color to tell their unique stories. Television networks are finally taking a step in the right direction with fresh and powerful characters like Annalise Keating who dismantle the tired stereotypes of what successful people of color look and act like. Next, we just need more viewers to tune in and keep these shows on air.