Monday, March 9, 2015

Core Response #5: Wigs and Masks: The Deep Problem of Meritocracy in How to Get Away with Murder

In the context of both Jennifer Esposito’s essay on Ugly Betty’s interest in the problems of meritocracy (524) and Hollywood ethnography (525) and Christine Acham’s Cosby Show chapter’s critique of the mainstreaming impulse, I’d like to take a look at the complicated posture of one of this year’s new shows, How to Get Away with Murder.

Specifically, the show makes a tangle (perhaps with good rhetorical purpose) of the issue of meritocracy. The show borrows the form of the legal procedural and yet it disavows the putative rationalism of legalist procedure. The law as the epitome of a meritocratic playing field is both promoted and continually critiqued in the show. On the one hand, the show’s five law student characters wage an ongoing merit contest over a statuette of blind justice. On the other, one of the two black students among them is nicknamed “waitlist” by the others, with a clear implication of affirmative action. The reality of merit-based success is always at play. But in no one is it more problematic or tangled than in the central character, law professor Annelise Keating (Viola Davis).

Annelise’s great legal gift in the show’s courtroom scenes seems never to be mastery of the “rationalized” legal profession but instead of its theatricality: sophistry, stagecraft, and deceit. For the show’s writers, theatricality defines the limits of the strict legalism of the courtroom setting. The show seems constantly to be pointing its finger at the historically and culturally contingent nature of legal practice. Likewise, Annelise slips repeatedly between being an exemplar of the meritocratic ideal and a challenge to it. In episode 1.13, “Mama’s Here Now,” we learn both that she’s made good on the American rags to riches narrative and that she’s done so through a series of self-negations and by adopting different guises, among them a new name: she was born Anna Mae (coded as black, Southern, and poor) but rechristened herself Annelise. 

Central to the show’s portrayal of Annelise has been the matter of veneer, disguise, and artifice. A moment at the end of the fourth episode (“Let’s Go Scooping”) offers something of a statement of purpose. Faced with undeniable evidence of her white husband’s infidelity and potential involvement in a murder, Annelise sits before a mirror and begins removing her make-up. And no sooner is her face bare, but she reaches up and removes her wig to reveal a crown of small braids. Viola Davis addressed the moment in an interview with The Wall Street Journal’s “Speakeasy” blog: “It was my idea that I pitched to [series creator] Peter Nowalk before I even took the job. I said, ‘The only way I can play someone this hard is for something to be peeled away each week, and the first thing that needs to go is the wig.’ I just wanted to deal with her hair. It’s a big thing with African-American women, in a way that’s far more complicated than I can possibly tell you over the phone. […] It’s a part of Annalise that I needed the writers to deal with because I’ve never seen it, ever, on TV and I thought it would be very powerful. It’s part of her mask.” (

Annelise’s success in the nominally meritocratic field of law is predicated on an anti-meritocratic masking. Without ever directly taking on the problem of the law’s deep historical contingency and its structural biases, this moment goes a long way to fulfilling the show’s argument about the irrational passions that bedevil the institution and the society it stands for. 


  1. I thought this was a very powerful statement on "How to Get Away with Murder" that definitely plays into the ideas of "color blindness" addressed by Esposito. Since the "normalized center [is] (whiteness)" (Pg. 522) in American culture, we as viewers are lead to believe that all people, despite their race, have the same problems, including the same hair. The styling of African American women's hair, including wearing wigs, is a extremely political and emotional issue that many non-African American people have never even thought of or heard of. I applaud the show's boldness in peeling away this artifice and addressing this issue that even though we are equal, we're still not all exactly the same.

  2. Hey J. J.

    Great post! I don't watch How To Get Away With Murder, but your point about the show's indirect and subtle ways of referencing structural inequities within the law and society makes for an interesting comparison with the pilot episode of Black-ish we watched in class last week. Black-ish seems to take a much more direct approach in its attempts to raise consciousness of race and class; however, it risks reading as overly didactic - and could even be seen as making a spectacle of Blackness - in doing so. Though I found the pilot of Black-ish to be promising overall, I have read many critiques about the show as it has evolved over the season and was particularly disappointed with what I read about its MLK Day episode (where Dre apparently spends the entire day trying to prove to his kids that racism still exists, but is unsuccessful in finding a situation in which the family is treated unequally). From what I have read, Black-ish seems to focus too much on individual and interpersonal identity politics at the expense of larger structural critique. Your analysis of HTGAWM suggests that Davis's Annelise is a deeply complicated character who perhaps reveals more about our societal ills by saying less....though it's hard to know without having watched either show in full.