By Jasmine Lester
Television needs Shonda Rhimes. Two years ago Kerry Washington became the first black female lead in a network drama in nearly 40 years (Teresa Graves was the first in 1974’s Get Christie Love!). Scandal’s success ushered in a new era of primetime television, where black women are no longer relegated solely to supporting roles. Nicole Beharie now costars in FOX’s supernatural police drama, Sleepy Hollow; Megan Good starred in NBC’s short-lived crime-drama, Deception; Halle Berry stars in CBS’s science fiction drama, Extant; and Viola Davis stars in ABC’s legal drama, How to Get Away with Murder, Rhimes’ latest executive producing endeavor.
As a black woman and avid fan/critic of pop culture, I’m invested in shows with characters who look like me. Black women make up 13 percent of the U.S. female population but make up only 3.8 percent of characters on television. There’s something empowering about seeing yourself projected and reflected. Watching characters live through and triumph over obstacles similar to yours represents societal acceptance and possibility. Growing up I was grateful for the few black female lead characters I had. I looked more like Tia and Tamara than Mary-Kate and Ashley, related more to Moesha than Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and preferred That’s So Raven to Lizzy McGuire.
How to Get Away with Murder is Rhimes’ greatest accomplishment in terms of media representation. Something about rarely seeing Olivia Pope’s hair between relaxers makes Murder’s scene where Annalise Keating removes her wig and makeup incredibly powerful. It’s a rare moment in pop culture history that was Viola Davis’s idea, where natural, dark-skinned, black womanhood is celebrated, as-is, by mainstream media.
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But while praising Rhimes for what’s great about Murder, it is imperative that we consider the show’s glaring feminist shortcomings, namely the show’s complete disregard for rape culture and the inherent power imbalances in romantic and sexual relationships between professors and students. This asymmetrical power creates situations where professors may not be intending to abuse students, and where students may not realize their agency and ability to say “no” is undermined by a professor’s power over students’ experiences in college and their academic futures. Many university policies recognize this danger and require professors to recuse themselves from their positions of authority over the students they’re dating.
From Yale’s Policy:
“The unequal institutional power inherent in this relationship heightens the vulnerability of the student and the potential for coercion. …Therefore, teachers must avoid sexual relationships with students over whom they have or might reasonably expect to have direct pedagogical or supervisory responsibilities, regardless of whether the relationship is consensual. …No teacher shall have a sexual or amorous relationship with any undergraduate student, regardless of whether the teacher currently exercises or expects to have any pedagogical or supervisory responsibilities over that student.”
Murder never acknowledges these serious risks.
In the pilot episode law professor Annalise Keating quips to her male assistant, “What slutty undergrad spread her legs and made you forget your job this time?” The unspoken assumption is that those in subordinate positions (students) are capable of having mutually consenting relationships with those in positions of authority (professors, professors’ assistants). The plot of Murder revolves around a slain female college undergraduate who was having an affair with Annalise’s husband, Sam, who is also a professor. When Annalise learns of the affair she is furious, but not because her husband used his position of power to sexually exploit multiple students; Annalise is only concerned with Sam’s infidelity and her own feelings of jealousy and insecurity.
No conversation is had to acknowledge that professors who flirt with and date students are abusing their power. When Annalise asks her husband why he kept his affair from her, he tells her, “I was afraid you’d think I hurt her, and I could never do that,” obscuring the inherent danger of Professor/student relationships. Sam is portrayed as a villain not because he exploited his power over his student for sexual gain, but because he cheated on his wife and made her feel bad, took a young woman’s virginity, got her pregnant, broke up with her, and possibly killed her. Sam is never portrayed as what he is, a sexual predator.
This isn’t the only asymmetrical power relationship Murder normalizes; one of Annalise’s female students is portrayed as taking advantage of Annalise’s male assistant, and Annalise’s female assistant is sleeping with her male student. These relationships are presented as normal, and asymmetrical power dynamics are never addressed or taken seriously.
I’m an anti-rape culture activist and a victim of a professor’s sexual harassment and emotional abuse, and I can’t make it through an episode of Murder without feeling triggered and like my experiences with Professor/student-induced trauma don’t matter. A student I work with, whose professor emotionally manipulated and raped her, told me she cried when she watched the pilot and heard the “slutty undergrad” line. “That’s exactly what people think of me,” she said. “I was raped by a professor and people think I’m a dumb slut who spread my legs for my rapist.”
I watched, in awe, as Davis removed her wig and wiped makeup from her face, revealing unaltered black beauty. But as I fight with professors over their “right” to take sexual advantage of students and I watch policy that would have prevented this abuse fail at my own alma mater, story lines like Murder’s leave me feeling betrayed and powerless. I am disappointed and afraid that television shows we hail as “progressive” and “feminist” continue to romanticize relationships between authority figures and students. The trivialization of the very rape culture that derailed my college career and tested my mental health prevents me and other victims from fully enjoying what positives Murder does have to offer.
Television needs Shonda Rhimes and the strong black female characters she and the writers and producers she works with elevate. But television also needs feminist representations that don’t contradict themselves. Television can’t truly celebrate the inherent beauty and value of black women while simultaneously silencing and trivializing the ways we are sexually victimized.
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Jasmine Lester is an activist and alum of Arizona State University. She founded and directs Sun Devils Against Sexual Assault and is a coordinator for Know Your IX‘s ED ACT NOW campaign. She also writes resources for Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center helping K-12 educators teach about social justice.
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