Monday, February 17, 2014

Secretly Subversive Portrayals of Women in the Workforce? (Suits)

It only takes a single look at the posters to know that Suits, USA’s little darling show about inordinately attractive people doing morally ambiguous things, is a man’s show. Or, maybe more accurately, a show about men. The plot revolves around two white, straight, attractive men: Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht), an egotistical but talented lawyer, and Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams), his brilliant but undereducated associate. 

The hook is that Mike doesn’t actually have a law degree. He was kicked out of Columbia and never finished college, and spent the last few years taking the LSAT for money. But Mike is smart – crazy smart, and Harvey knows that. Since Harvey needs to hire an associate (kind of like a baby lawyer assistant thing) when he’s promoted to Senior Partner, and because he hates all the other candidates, Harvey hires Mike, and they both collude to hide Mike’s real background.

Sounds catchy, right? But definitely a show about men. The central conflict is whether or not anyone will figure out that Mike is a fraud, and all the episodes revolve around a case that can only be fixed by one of the two men. Even the main antagonist, the divinely slimy Louis (Rick Hoffman), is a man. 

What’s notable here, though, isn’t that a USA show chose to make the main conflict and storyline center around attractive white men (shocker), but that there are, as it turns out, so many female characters of worth in the show, women who are just as developed, interesting, and integral to the plot as the men. I’m not saying the show is a bastion of feminism, but I do think it’s worth noting how much the creator, Aaron Korsch, seems to have attempted to say here. Specifically on the topic of women in the workforce, and how race, class, and gender all intersect to create a vision of discrimination, and, in some cases, triumph.

Pearson-Hardman (and later, Pearson-Darby), the firm at which most of the show’s action takes place, is represented as a top Manhattan law firm, pretty typical in its practices, gender dynamics, and hiring habits. What makes the show unique is that it criticizes these hiring habits: the firm’s conceit is that they always hire lawyers and associates with Harvard Law degrees, because presumably Harvard is the best. 

What this means, other than that Mike is doubly screwed because he didn’t go to law school anywhere, but he has to fake having gone to a school that everyone knows every detail about, is that there is an implicit class bias built into the hiring strategies at Pearson-Hardman. Harvard is a hard school to get into, yes, but it’s an even harder school to pay for. As a result, most of the lawyers at Pearson-Hardman are from privileged families, and used to trading on that privilege.

And when I say privileged, what I mean is that most of the men we see on the show, all of the associates, most of the lawyers, even most of the background characters, are young white men. While this seems like the casual whitewashing we can usually expect in shows like this, it actually appears to be something a little deeper.

Mike’s introduction as a lower-class, undereducated character is the first blow to this image of upper-class white male supremacy, but he’s certainly not the last or the most important. When it comes down to it, the intersectional struggle on the show is defined not by Mike, but by the women they work with. 

By their boss, Jessica Pearson (Gina Torres), a black woman who runs the top law firm in Manhattan, commands the respect of everyone she meets, and mentors the male lead (Harvey). By their coworker, Rachel Zane (Meghan Markle), a talented paralegal who desperately wants to be a lawyer, but can’t quite make the cut. And by their subordinate, Donna Paulsen (Sarah Rafferty), a seemingly all-knowing assistant who remembers exactly where the bodies are buried, can cry on cue and isn’t afraid to use it to her advantage, and who seems content to be the “power behind the throne”. 

All three characters represent very different images of what it means to be a woman at work in one of Manhattan’s top firms. And all three characters are vitally important to an understanding of women’s role in the workplace. Besides, did I mention? They’re all friends.

I first mentioned Jessica Pearson (Gina Torres) because, well, who wouldn’t mention Jessica first? She’s by far the most exceptional woman on the show, and also the most politically charged. By that I mean not that the character herself is political – she appears to have the same laissez-faire attitude towards politics that the show itself has, and has no moral compunctions about the extreme wealth and moral quandaries to which her occupation lends itself. Rather, I mean that making Jessica Pearson both a woman and a character of color is in itself a political statement.

Let’s talk implicit backstory, shall we? Now, we know from the very get-go that Jessica is both a powerful woman, and a smart one. We know that she’s the managing partner and cofounder of Pearson-Hardman and then later Pearson-Darby (note that it’s her name on the firms’ letterhead), and that she’s Harvey’s mentor. She found him in the mailroom and sponsored him all the way through Harvard, his first job at the DA’s office, and on until he made Senior Partner. Jessica is a tough lawyer, and she taught Harvey everything he knows.

That would be reason enough to stand up and cheer, since platonic female-male mentorships between non-relatives are virtually non-existent, but it’s not all. What we really want to get at here is the simple fact that Jessica, an African-American woman in her forties, is the co-founder and managing partner of a top law firm in Manhattan. That means that not only did she achieve great things relatively early in her life, but also that she was the daughter of second-wave feminism, fighting her way through law school as it was only just starting to open up to women, and that she faced immense gender and race discrimination. She’s amazing. There’s no two ways about it.

And then we have Rachel Zane (Meghan Markle), a paralegal who’s been with Pearson-Hardman for years, but who longs to be a lawyer. Rachel has the money and the talent to go to law school, but she’s held back by a test anxiety that makes taking the LSAT virtually impossible. Still, Rachel perseveres and eventually manages to get a solid score on the test, only to later be turned down by Harvard Law School. 

Rachel is also Mike’s closest friend in the firm, the first face he meets there, and one of the very few to know his secret. She later becomes his girlfriend, a relationship which seems to be good for both of them. She’s classy, well-educated besides her test anxiety, and a foodie. She has quirks. She’s complex. And she’s a biracial woman working in a highly sexist and more than moderately racist environment. 

But while Jessica is implied to have really worked her way up to the top with some help from her mentor, Daniel Hardman, Rachel is actively trying not to trade on her family name. It’s established that her father is a celebrated attorney, and that Rachel has intentionally chosen to go her own way through the legal world, not trading on her name, but doing it the hard way. That she fails is actually a more interesting story than if she were (at this point, the story’s not over yet) successful. She’s a woman working in a man’s world, trying to walk in her father’s shoes, and not really succeeding. Which is okay. 

Rounding out the threesome, then, is Donna Paulsen (Sarah Rafferty), Harvey’s long-time assistant. Donna is arguably the least realistic female character we’re given, in that she’s presented as a submissive genius: beautiful, cunning, resourceful, and yet totally willing to subsume her career into Harvey’s, to devote her life to his success. I’m not saying that there aren’t women who do this, just that it’s a little unrealistic to think that with Donna’s skills, which are shown to be many and varied, she’s decided to be content with making Harvey the best lawyer he can be. It seems even that her character, by adhering to so many tropes of the white, attractive, submissive secretary, is a fetish object rather than a character in her own right. But, that’s not exactly the case here.

Donna is an interesting character. Her devotion to Harvey is actually matched by his devotion to her. When he made the leap from working as the Assistant Defense Attorney to working at Pearson-Hardman, he did so with the caveat that she came with him. He was the one who paid her salary until he made partner and the firm officially allowed him a legal secretary. And, while it is sometimes hinted that their relationship could tip over into romantic, it has stayed firmly platonic, making them life-partners without a sexual undertone, something hard to find on television. 

What makes Donna compelling on the show, however, is her place in the world of Pearson-Hardman. It’s much harder to define than Jessica’s or even Rachel’s. Because Donna is a secretary, she’s under the radar most of the time. Like furniture. 

And she unabashedly uses that to her advantage. She acts sweet, she dresses sexy, she lets people underestimate her, and then she helps Harvey to destroy them. Donna is aware of the ways in which her sex and chosen profession try to limit her, but she has chosen to use those limitations to her advantage.

And, really, that’s what makes all of these women interesting. That’s what makes the show interesting. Jessica, Rachel, and Donna are all women working in a male-dominated industry. Jessica has overcome the sexism in the workforce by out-thinking it and by dominating the competition. Rachel has chosen to forego any help from her father, in favor of trying (and failing) on her own. And Donna has seen the patriarchal systems of power, and used them to her own advantage.

It’s no accident that the female characters we’re given represent a wide spectrum of female experience. Sure, Mike and Harvey are the nominal main characters on Suits, but they’re not the reason you should watch it. And I’m not saying the show is without its problems. By no means is this a feminist utopia of a show. But it’s interesting. It’s trying. And that’s more than you can say for most shows.

Badass ladies who are friends? More please!


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