proF Idol takes a look at positive representations of women in popular culture, particularly those that reflect and inspire women in academia.
photo: ABC Television Network
In one of my favorite scenes from the Shonda Rhimes drama How to Get Away with Murder, which will start its fourth season on ABC this fall, Professor Annalise Keating, the show’s central character (played by the always-impeccable Oscar winner Viola Davis), is seated at a large table in a boardroom at the fictional Middleton University, below an oil painting of an elderly white man (typical boardroom decor, let’s face it). Seated around the table is a group of administrators, headed up by the university president, Soraya Hargrove (Luna Vélez). They inform Professor Keating that due to a recent, highly public spate of threats she has received, she is being suspended from teaching her Intro to Criminal Law course for the semester. “No,” she says simply, noting that she is merely the victim in this situation. “We are contractually within our rights,” a university official says, unmoved. Keating is incensed. She stands. “Lock me out of my classroom, I dare you,” she says, voice shaking with rage. “But you can’t keep me from teaching my students.”
It’s a powerful display of resistance from a faculty member, but it’s particularly striking coming from a woman – and a woman of color at that. Upon first viewing, Keating’s reaction seemed to me to be over-the-top. Would a faculty member really say something like that? I wondered. Wouldn’t she be risking her job altogether by directing such anger at her employers? It seemed to me too melodramatic and unrealistic. But then I replayed the scene in my head with a white male in Keating’s position – Mad Men’s Don Draper, perhaps (who responded with similar aggression in almost too many meetings to count). And I realized that realistic or not, this is the kind of behavior we see all the time from men on television – and I rarely question the quality of those programs in the way I was questioning How to Get Away with Murder.
In recent years, we’ve gotten used to seeing a certain type of male character portrayed on television, a type that has been dubbed the “antihero”: Don Draper, Tony Soprano, Walter White, Omar Little, Hank Moody, Raylan Givens – the list goes on. These characters are ambitious, abrasive, brilliant, and often depicted as outsiders. We root for them, even admire them, despite their often-grave flaws. But female antiheroes are less common, and less lauded, than their male counterparts, even though we’ve seen more in recent years.
Enter Annalise Keating, the female antihero we didn’t know we needed. Keating ticks all the standard antihero boxes. Abrasive personality? Check. Brilliant mind? Check. Alcohol problems? You know it. Occasional-to-frequent unprofessionalism? Big ol’ check. Trouble with the law? Despite being a criminal lawyer herself, Keating checks that box, too. To put it bluntly: she’s no role model. And yet she’s compelling, even admirable in that antihero way. And, as played by Davis, she’s impossible to take your eyes off of.
Though she shares characteristics with the aforementioned antiheroes, make no mistake: there has never before been a character quite like Annalise Keating on TV. She is, after all, a successful criminal lawyer and professor at a prestigious law school who also happens to be a black woman, who undoubtedly would have faced a great many obstacles on the way to the top. And personality isn’t the only similarity Keating shares with Don Draper: like Draper, she grew up in poverty-stricken and abusive circumstances (though she only ended up changing her name, not stealing a new identity).
I’ll acknowledge that How to Get Away with Murder is not exactly cinema verité – it has elements of soap opera, with head-spinning plotlines revolving around murder and deception, often told through jarring flashbacks. But like Shonda Rhimes’s other properties, the craziness of its plot does not detract from the authenticity of its characters. In addition to Keating, How to Get Away with Murder depicts a diverse group of strong, intelligent women – the aforementioned university president, law students Michaela Pratt (Aja Naomi King) and Laurel Castillo (Karla Souza), and Keating’s law associate Bonnie Winterbottom (Liza Weil, Paris Gellar to Gilmore Girls fans). It’s worth noting that of the actresses I’ve mentioned, only Weil is white – Davis and King are African-American, Souza is Mexican-American and Vélez is Puerto Rican.
Fans of Rhimes will not find this surprising. Her shows are known for their almost casual diversity, where race and ethnicity (and in turn, interracial relationships and racism) are neither completely ignored nor the central focus – you know, kind of like in real life. It’s not what we’re used to seeing in the whitewashed world of Hollywood (though Rhimes’s increasing clout is a sign that this may be changing). In addition to these factors, How to Get Away with Murder is especially compelling to us at proFmagazine because of its depiction – quite rare in television and movies – of women in academia. And that’s women plural, not just one ambitious female in a sea of men.
So what makes Professor Annalise Keating, antihero, worthy of being a “proFidol”? Let us count the ways: She’s a female professor who is great at her job. She refuses to minimize herself, to shrink from the spotlight, to be shaken by the many battles she faces, some of them personal. She won’t, as in the scene mentioned above, be pushed around. She truly cares about her work, her clients, and her students while still making time for a (admittedly rocky) personal life. And while Keating does have a vulnerable side, for better or worse, the face she shows to the world is tough as nails. When taking on a difficult situation (as she so often is), she pours herself a few fingers of vodka, straightens her perfectly tailored skirt, and gets on with it.
And while I don’t condone emulating Annalise Keating, with the questionable ethics and intrigue that implies, she can be a source of inspiration. For female academics who feel beaten down by institutional biases, by casual sexism and racism and daily microaggressions, there’s something fundamentally appealing in her steely reserve, her bravado, her ability to go into a meeting or courtroom and hold her ground, with an expression that communicates one simple credo: don’t you dare underestimate me.