According to Sewell, popular culture is an “exceptional means for gaining an insight into what masses of people are thinking, feeling and dreaming” (2012). In addition to that, however, popular culture pieces are a range of cultural texts that represent certain ways that society views, and wants us to view different and interlocking systems of power, privilege, and oppression (Milestone and Meyer 2012:5). The television show, How to Get Away with Murder defies many of the societal and popular culture rules by representing their characters in a multitude of different ways that people in society don’t often get to see. Generally, in popular culture, there is an absence of characters that defy the norms and stereotypes that society has conjured up. However, through Annalise Keating, one of the main characters in the show, we can see that How to Get Away With Murder, or HTGAWM, takes a step away from the traditional norm of popular culture and attempts to touch on a very commonly known stereotype of black women known as “The Strong Black Woman”. In this show, Annalise is shown as being a part of and breaking away from this stereotype in very powerful ways. Normalizing diversity and creating a system of equality in popular culture is extremely important because everybody wants to be able to connect with the people that they can identify with and they want there to be someone who accurately represents who they are without being subject to a stereotype. This is why demonstrating how HTGAWM escapes the traditional norms of popular culture through the representation of Annalise Keating as, and in opposition to, the strong black woman, is so important.
The starting point in understanding how Annalise fits and defies the stereotype of the strong black woman is to understand what exactly this stereotype entails. “Popular culture has a history of representing women as centrally concerned with and in need of love romance and relationships” (ibid:87) however the strong black woman stereotype goes against this completely. Annalise Keating is a black woman; not only does she experience oppression for her skin color but also due to her gender. Although everyone has their own configurations of intersecting privileges and oppressions, in comparison to white women or black men, a black woman, such as Annalise has two intersecting oppressions just within the “black woman” identifier. According to Arthur (2016), the strong black woman typology is a culturally generated stereotype that is enforced in the media and throughout all popular culture outlets by blacks and whites alike. This statement is especially important because it suggests that both white people and black people alike support and reinforce this stereotype. There is an interesting point to be made about the black people who are said to enforce this stereotype. White people generally would enforce this stereotype by believing every aspect of it and then reiterating this to others which would allow a continuance of the belief of the stereotype. However, because popular culture is said to be an insight into other people’s thoughts and beliefs, for black people receiving this depiction of people with they same color skin, they may also begin to believe that this is how they should act and represent themselves. The strong black woman is said to be a fighter, a woman who shows no weakness, nor fear, and is required to be tough, “the sassy friend”, the “overeducated, work-obsessed” always presentable woman (Harris 2014). Now some of these indicators should not be considered as bad and seeing someone you identify with who has some of these characteristics might be very empowering, however, there are a lot of expectations held within this one stereotype.
Annaliese Keating fits this stereotype in many ways. According to Harris, the “Strong Black Woman” is a cold, overworked, overeducated woman who doesn’t need help. In the show, Annaliese is a defense lawyer who is known for being a manipulative, cold, strong willed, woman. She is seen as a cruel woman who works too hard at her job that she has no personal life and barriers herself in work. She also always refuses help in any way and never allows people to know any weakness that she has. She is an alcoholic and does her very best to hide it from her coworkers. In public, and in particular her job, she only allows people to see her as someone who has no emotion and is just amazing at her job. In this case, she throws herself into the stereotype of the strong black woman. However, according to Arthur (2016), this stereotype was developed as a defense mechanism against the negative stereotypes that black women would encounter. Not only does Annaliese have to deal with the stereotypes and oppressions of being a woman and being weak and fragile and inadequate in comparison to men, she also must deal with all the negative aspects that people attach to a black woman. This is an interesting point in the sense that Arthur is suggesting that black women support and try to fit into this stereotype in order to deflect representations of the other negative stereotypes that are out there. So overall, Annalise fits into the stereotype of the “strong black woman” by being a cold, overworked woman who hides her emotions in order to deflect other stereotypes that are created by the interlocking systems of power, privilege, and oppression.
On the other hand, however, How To Get Away With Murder defies the usual representations of black women in popular culture by portraying a very different side of black women that opposes the stereotype of the strong black woman. The stereotype states that black women can’t show emotion and they aren’t allowed a time to be vulnerable and afraid. They are never shown as someone who has moments of weakness and moments when they can’t keep is together and they fall apart. Everyone has these moments and for white women, that is okay and it is represented as such, however black women are not granted these moments through the eyes of popular culture and society. Annalise Keating, however, breaks away from these societal rules and has many moments in the show where she shows great weakness. There is one episode where she is having a breakdown and had just found out that her husband had killed a teenage girl and before she was going to confront her husband she sat down in front of the mirror and took off her weave and her makeup and just sat there and shed a tear and looked at herself and there was such a moment of vulnerability and sorrow that she let out which defies all of the rules of being a “strong black woman” that society has set.
So, in conclusion, Annalise Keating is a strong advocate and opposition of the strong black woman stereotype. Annalise has used the strong black woman stereotype to try and escape the negatives that society has attached to being a woman, let alone a black woman. She also defied this stereotype by showing herself as vulnerable and in a moment of weakness that was ironically empowering. “Popular culture has helped to produce much of the racial imagery with which we are so familiar today” which is why it is so important that popular culture has depictions of black women in very real ways (2007). There will never be just one way to represent a woman or black woman, and there will never be a representation that accurately represents every part of women and their lives but this was a huge step forward. Annalise was an empowering character for all. By defying and advocating as the strong black woman she showed that is was okay to be vulnerable and afraid and to show weakness when you feel weak but she also showed that it was good to be strong and show people that the oppressions you face in life can be fought and you can be seen as tough and do amazing things in your life whether or no you are a woman or a person of color. In How To Get Away With Murder, they showed an empowering black woman as both strong and weak which is what popular culture needs more of; accurate representations and a diverse range of characters that people can connect with.
– By: Alyssa Wichers
Word Count: 1285
Arthur, S. For Black Women, Looking Tough Takes A Toll. 2016, Aug 12. Recorder Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/1813539620?accountid=6180
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