Monday, October 5, 2015

Masculinity Monday: Is 'HTGAWM's Wes Gibbins a Good Man?


As I'm sure all of you television watch-y people are aware, the epic drama How to Get Away with Murder has kind of a lot to say. We've even discussed some of that here - last year I wrote an article talking about how the show works as one big indictment of the patriarchy. We've talked about the inherent badassness of Laurel Castillo, one of the main characters, and we will definitely get around to in depth discussions of Michaela, Annaliese, and Bonnie too. Have no fears.

But for today I want to take a closer look to the character who might as well be our protagonist for the first season - though Annaliese takes that role more strongly in the second. Let's talk about Wes Gibbins.

Specifically, in light of our recent series on masculinity in the media, let's talk about how Wes Gibbins, an African-American man attending law school on scholarship and as a waitlisted student, who comes from a lower class background and had a mentally ill mother, is or is not a good man.

On the surface this can look like a loaded question. If, for example, I decide that Wes isn't a good man, then am I saying that black men with poor backgrounds are inherently untrustworthy or bad? And, alternately, if I say that he is good, am I just deciding that he might as well be good because the difficulty of his circumstances makes him unaccountable for any bad things he might have done? 

Well, as it turns out neither of those is true. Wes isn't a good man, nor does he appear to be a particularly bad one. Or, to be more precise, we just don't know what kind of man Wes really is. And that is what makes him such a fascinating character. It's also what makes his appearance on How to Get Away with Murder a good moment for the exploration of masculinity, black masculinity in particular.

But more on that later. First, the background!

So Wes Gibbins (Alfred Enoch) is our eyes in to the show. He walks in on the first day of law school to attend Professor Annaliese Keating's infamous class on how to be a defense attorney called "How to Get Away with Murder". He's late. He hasn't done the reading. It turns out that he only found out he was going to the school a few weeks ago because he was waitlisted. In other words, Wes is a complete outsider in this world of privilege and cut-throat ambition. He gets made a fool of that first day and it looks like a lot of the show is going to be us cringing as Wes the puppy is turned into bloodsport.

That, however, is not what happens. Instead we see over the course of the first season a curious thing. It's not so much that Wes really changes that much - though the events of the season do definitely change him - but more that we see more of who he is and we are given a much more complex idea of his personhood.

Like, for example, the fact that Wes is very compassionate. A "bleeding heart" as his classmates put it. Early in the first season, Wes becomes invested in the life of his neighbor, Rebecca (Katie Findlay). When she is arrested for the murder of a student at Wes' university, Wes sides immediately with Rebecca despite really not knowing her at all. He even persuades his boss, the aforementioned Professor Annaliese Keating to take the case. So, yeah, definitely a compassionate guy.

But, as it turns out, a suspicious one too. When Wes realizes that Rebecca might have left out some key details when explaining how she didn't kill her friend and was totally innocent, he gets suspicious and stays there. He doesn't just fawn over Rebecca and assume she's innocent and good. He looks into things. He tracks things down. He uncovers Rebecca's admittedly very shady actions and calls into question the very relationship that he originally pursued.

Yet through all of this, we're never told explicitly whether or not Wes is right to do these things. Is he right to try to defend Rebecca, or is he right when he decides to investigate her? Neither? Both?

And it's all complicated by the slow revelation over the course of the season that Wes might actually turn out to be a murderer - he is, at the very least, quite comfortable and collected when disposing of a body. Yeah, with the flash-forwards to the titular murder, we get a fuller and fuller story of what actually happened. And what happened really doesn't answer the question of whether or not Wes is a good person.

See, Wes is definitely the one who struck the killing blow, but he did it to defend Rebecca. On the other hand, did it have to be a killing blow? After the murder he's much more collected than anyone else. He even is the one to go back to the scene of the crime and get the murder weapon. In other words, Wes Gibbins is a lot more complex than he looks. 

He has moments of being a really genuine and good person, or so it seems, but then he has moments where all of that turns on a dime. Because we never hear Wes' side of the story, we only see how he behaves, we don't actually know that much about him. He's not a bragger. He's not particularly public. He's just a quiet guy who might be capable of murder but might also be a giant puppy dog inside.

I find that very compelling.

I find it all very appealing because in a lot of ways, Wes as a character is an antidote to the way black men are so frequently treated on television. Because he is neither a clear sinner nor a clear saint, he becomes something else entirely: a person.

Wes doesn't fit into the normal archetypes for African-American men in fiction. He's not overly sexualized, but he does have a healthy sexuality. It's made clear that Wes enjoys sex and has had it, and there's a lingering interesting possibility that he and Annaliese might eventually have an affair, but he's also not defined by his sexual allure or magnetism. He's not considered bestial like too many African-American men are, and he's not defined by his looks or his history or any of that. Wes is a sexual subject, not object. We see his sexual decisions from his perspective, and so we are not allowed to dehumanize him.

He's also not characterized as a thug. While Wes is from a lower-income background, he's not defined by his relationship to the criminal world. It's never implied or stated that Wes was a drug dealer or went to jail or any of the tropes about the "inherently criminal" black man. Even his background as the child of a single-parent household where his mother eventually committed suicide is brought up not to show how he's a "thug who only knows the ghetto", it's to actually make it clear how little anyone knows about Wes. He's not a gangster, he's a mystery.

I mean, obviously he's invested in his education, right? He's going to one of the top law schools in the country, working extremely hard to get ahead in a class and in a firm that does not provide any easy way to success, and he's doing it all on scholarship while living in a tiny crappy apartment and riding his bicycle around. He's dedicated. But we're never told why. 

He doesn't say anything like, "I want to be a lawyer because when I was a kid I saw how the lawyers never had to live in poverty like my mother and I so I swore to myself that one day I would have my law degree and make a better life for all those people who need a chance." Nope. No grand speeches. Wes' reasons are his own, so there's no room for trite or easy storytelling.

Alternately, he's also not characterized as a "magic Negro" or some kind of sainted black man. You know, the token character who's really just there to make everyone feel bad about how they treat some marginalized group or whatever but who has no actual personality beyond being noble and tragic? That. He's not that.

Wes doesn't give long and meaningful speeches about what it means to be a black man in America in 2015. It's even worth noting that when the students realize they're about to pin a crime on an innocent black man - Nate Lahey - Wes is not the one who protests and brings up the over-incarceration of black men in the US. That role goes to Michaela. Wes stays silent through the whole thing, and we're left wondering if he cares at all.

What I'm getting at here is that Alfred Enoch and Shonda Rhimes have done what seemed impossible. With Wes Gibbins and How to Get Away with Murder they have given us a picture of what it means to have a black male character who is just a person. He's a complex and interesting and kind of terrifying person, but he's never made to be a symbol of his race; he's never forced to stand in for every black man ever. He's just Wes Gibbins, and that's plenty.

So to answer my own question from the title, I honestly don't know if Wes is a good man or not. He does some things that are good, and others that really definitely are not. He has his moments of being a wonderful human being, a great boyfriend, and a big-hearted lawyer, but by the end of the first season we're left wondering if Wes is a murderer twice over. And it's not like he's a compelling character in spite of this.

Wes is a great character precisely because he's so hard to pin down. I can name a dozen white male characters with this level of complexity and moral ambiguity from shows this good, but when it comes to men of color, we're dealing with a much scarcer situation. Men like Wes, men of color who defy all attempts to fit them into stereotypes, are tragically underrepresented on television. And that sucks.

Still, if we can learn nothing else from how Wes is written, at least there's this: writing stereotypes and racial generalizations is nowhere near as interesting as writing a character with full complexity and agency and personhood. There's just no comparison.

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