How to Get Away with Murder: An Intersectional Analysis of Wes Gibbins
How to Get Away with Murder is a show documenting the legal cases of lawyer Annalise Keating, the “Keating 5” – five first-year law students, and Annalise’s associates, Bonnie and Frank. For this paper, I will focus on one character: Wes Gibbins. Wes is undoubtedly Annalise’s favourite student. Wes is a young black law student, and was only accepted to the school from a waitlist. He lives in the poor part of the community and graduated from a community college. Wes is an interesting character to analyze because the writers of How to Get Away with Murder have portrayed him in such a way that he defies almost all stereotypes that we have come to expect from black men in the media.
One of the first cases that Keating and her five choice students work on is the defence of Rebecca Sutter. She was accused of killing her close friend, Lila Stangard. Rebecca also happens to be Wes’ neighbour and later, girlfriend. At first glance, it might seem that Wes is taking advantage of Rebecca. After all, she is in a rather vulnerable position. Rebecca is white and as Stuart Hall writes in The Whites of Their Eyes, there have been “racist stereotypes that have been used throughout US history … stereotypes of dark men desiring and preying on innocent white womanhood” (81). When first analyzing the relationship between Rebecca and Wes, this seems like what we would expect from a popular television show. Despite this, Rebecca and Wes are portrayed as having a rather healthy relationship – at least as healthy as it can be when murder is involved. Furthermore, John Solomos and Les Black write in their piece Races, Racism and Popular Culture that often popular culture will portray black men as “ignorant, uncouth and driven by sexual lust” (247). Wes’ character is able to defy this as he and Rebecca develop their relationship slowly and actually wait quite a while before having sex. This is important because popular culture very rarely shows healthy and desirable interracial relationships which can enforce the idea that they are bad or unhealthy.
On the other side of the spectrum, Hall also describes an oft used racist stereotype, “the familiar slave-figure; dependable, loving in a simple, childlike way” (21). Wes can often be seen in this stereotype. The other members of his group of friends often refer to him as the “puppy” of the group because he is childlike in a way. Annalise also views him as a sort of son, which reinforces the idea that he is loving in a childlike way. Wes also suffers nightmares similar to how a child would. There have been several scenes where Rebecca has had to wake Wes from a nightmare to comfort him. All of these attributes contribute to this particular stereotype. This innocence stereotype can become harmful as it may seem that black men are only seen as non-dangerous and “safe” when they are infantilized. Later in the show, Wes breaks this stereotype by turning on Annalise. In this situation, the rest of the group become somewhat frightened of him. It seems that the writers of How to Get Away with Murder have a difficult time finding a balance for Wes’ character where he can be respected and valid without being infantilized or demonized.
Furthermore, Wes comes from a poor background. It is not mentioned often, but the audience is made aware that his mother died when he was 12, he graduated from a community college and only got into Middleton Law School off of the waitlist. Despite all of this, Wes is treated as an equal by both his peers and his teachers. At first, his friends refer to him as “waitlist”, referring to his last minute acceptance to the school. However, Wes quickly proves himself and the others learn to respect him. This is unusual for a popular culture piece because often poor black men are portrayed in a negative light, often playing the role of criminal. This type of representation is important because it teaches any black man who comes from a similar background as Wes’ character that he is able to pursue his dreams if he works for them, just like anybody else. Later in the show, Wes is forced to kill Sam Keating – Annalise’s white husband – in order to save Rebecca. It would be expected that after killing a white man, Wes would be demonized and ostracized but instead, he is celebrated for doing what is right (it is revealed that Sam killed Lila earlier in the show). Annalise vows to protect him and the rest of the group who were indirectly involved, which reinforces the fact that Wes is valid and worth protecting.
Many of the other characters in the show are portrayed in similar ways to Wes, which is why it is worth mentioning the thought from John Storey, “human biology does not divide people into different “races”; it is racism that insists on this division” (167). This raises the question of whether the writers of How to Get Away with Murder are attempting to make a statement about race or if they are trying not to at all. Wes is a well-rounded character who has flaws and positive attributes like any regular human being. It seems like his character is revolutionary in some ways and stereotypical in others. It is important to intersectionally analyze characters like Wes because it gives insight onto the impacts that they can have on the people who watch the show. While not all audience members will analyze Wes’ every action from an intersectional standpoint, often these messages are absorbed subconsciously which is why it is important for popular culture creators to be held to high standards. Overall, it seems that How to Get Away with Murder is challenging the norm of the typical stereotypical black male and is doing a rather good job of it.
Black, Les. “Races, Racism and Popular Culture.” GNDS125 Course Reader. By John Solomos. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 247-56. Print.
Hall, Stuart. “The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media.” GNDS125 Course Reader. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 18-22. Print.
Storey, John. “‘Race’, Racism and Representation.” GNDS125 Course Reader. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 167-80. Print.