Okay, before we get started today, I have to admit that I am a few (lot) of episodes behind on How to Get Away With Murder. I'm in the second season, but not super far what with the whole being super busy all the time thing. So I apologize if this article comes off as horribly ill-informed and doesn't mention how Character A has totally murdered Character C and Character B is taking the blame. I do not know these things, but as for the character development side of things, I'll just call it like I see it from the episodes I have seen.
Disclaimer aside, for this second SFC article of Black History Month*, I thought it would be nice to talk about the concept of respectability politics and a character who spends most of her life defining herself on those terms. Said character is, as I'm sure you've guessed, Michaela Pratt (Aja Naomi King) from How to Get Away With Murder, a girl who other characters once referred to as a "shooting star" because she was so wound up they were sure she would explode.
Michaela is an interesting character in large part because she's not the kind of character we want to relate to. Annalise is a straight-up boss and Laurel gets a lot of epic mic-drops, and even Rebecca and Bonnie have their moments of interesting, but Michaela is an uncomfortable combination of bitchy, uptight, and status-conscious that none of us want to admit we identify with. Michaela is uncomfortably real.
She's a mess, but a mess that refuses to admit it and will snap at you if you point it out. So, in a lot of ways, while Michaela is the character we all least want to admit we're like, she's arguably the most human of them all.
But that's really a false competition, pitting really well written characters against each other in a contest to figure out who's the coolest. What I'm really getting at today is something more complex. I want to talk about how Michaela views herself, and how that changes throughout the events of the first season.
So Michaela is all of the things I described above, but she's also a really complex figure once you start to dig a little deeper. At first all we know about her is the surface stuff she wants us to know about her. She's a straight-A law student with a prestigious internship and a hunger to succeed, and she's engaged to "the perfect guy". Her fiance is handsome, from a wealthy family, and all set up to succeed in life. She loves him very much. That's where we start off with Michaela. That's who she wants us to see.
When it comes to respectability politics, what Michaela wants us to see is a black woman with nothing wrong or dramatic in her life. She has it all figured out. Happy relationship, successful start to her career, the works. She's beautiful and classy and smart and talented and she fits right in at the country club or the club club. She's respectable. She's ticking all the boxes that suggest she's a nice girl from an upper-middle class background who attended boarding school and got a BMW for her sweet sixteen and all of that class-level signage. Image is very important to Michaela. Why?
Because the truth is a bit different. Michaela wasn't born to money, and her pedigree isn't nearly as solid gold as she wants everyone to think. She was actually adopted (we find out much later) and comes from something closer to a lower class, heavily Southern background. Again, it's not like we know this explicitly. With Michaela it's all about the surface and putting on a good show - she only admits things like this when she's super comfortable or her temper gets the best of her, and that doesn't happen often.
It's also worth noting that one of the great things about How to Get Away With Murder is how the show refuses to spoon-feed the audience exposition. So while we do learn things about the characters along the way, we learn them sporadically, almost as asides. There are very few episodes where a character sits down and says, "This is who I am and this is where I came from and now you understand me as a human being." This show is all about picking up clues based on subtext, and I respect that.
Going back to Michaela, then, the things we know about her are largely what she wants the world to know about her, and that's telling in and of itself. Her interest in making sure that the world sees her as respectable and important implies that she actually has pretty low self-esteem, which becomes even more evident over the course of the show. This is most obvious not in her law school work - because she is actually a very talented, smart woman who is good at her job - but in her romantic life.
Michaela puts a lot of stock in her relationship with her fiance, Aiden (Elliot Knight). He's a "black prince", as she puts it, the son of wealthy upper-class black parents and a walking talking status symbol. It's not that Aiden is a trophy husband, exactly, but rather that Michaela puts a lot of her self-worth in her ability to land a guy like Aiden who is rich and handsome and smart and successful. We know she values the hell out of that relationship because of the meltdown she has upon realizing she can't find her engagement ring.
I mean, granted she lost said ring during the coverup of a murder, but still. She puts a lot of time and effort into looking for it and stressing over it, which shows us just how invested she in this relationship. Unfortunately for her, Aiden is probably not quite as invested as she is.
She's hurt and confused and angry and...she doesn't call off the engagement or even really say anything to Aiden about it. In fact her strategy seems to be to pretend she never learned this and go about her life anyway, which says a lot about who Michaela really is.
That personal life, the mess that we slowly come to understand is her relationship with Aiden, gets even more sticky when Aiden's mother shows up and tries to intimidate Michaela out of marrying her son. The mother wants Michaela to sign a pre-nup, implicitly telling Michaela and us that she thinks Michaela is a gold-digger. And the thing is, Michaela takes it. She takes it for a while. Sure, she avoids signing the pre-nup, but she puts up with her future mother-in-law's behavior and her fiance's lies of omission and all of it for a long time. She wants this to work so bad. She so desperately wants to be a respectable black woman with all the trimmings.
And then the breaking point hits. At lunch with Aiden's mother, where the woman apologizes to Michaela for treating her badly and basically begs her to marry Aiden, Michaela just reaches her limit. Whether it's because she's emboldened by having successfully covered up a literal murder, or whether she's just decided that enough is enough, Michaela decides to spit a little truth. I can't do her speech justice by paraphrasing, but here it is in its entirety:
"I am that girl. The one that tried to slap you from the backwater bayou, that Southern ghetto trash. I just spent a long time trying to hide her away so I could claim the prince. Your shining black perfect son. A prince. And I did. But that girl isn't me... I'm sorry. He doesn't love me. But here's the thing: I love me. So I'm done."This moment is cheerworthy not just because it's really the first time all season we see Michaela stepping into her power as a character, but also because her power in this scene comes from her dropping of the pretense. She's not pretending to be anything other than what she is here.
She's open about how she's from a poor background and how she's not someone Aiden's mother thinks he should marry unless the alternative is even worse. She's not covering up her thick Southern accent and she's not grasping after the respectability that marrying Aiden would get her. She's done.
I love this scene, and all of Michaela's arc, because it posits a tension between respectability politics, which are so often based around signifiers of external respectability, and self-respect. At the beginning of the show, Michaela is the queen of respectability politics. She's hidden anything about herself that could be taboo or off-putting or in any way scandalous, but she's also buried herself in the process. It's this moment that shifts her around and allows her to actually focus on self-respect. When she stops caring quite so much about other people's respect for her, Michaela is able to focus on her own view of herself, and that changes things.
Heck, the second season is all about Michaela's relationship with herself. From the revelation that she never had an orgasm and her then pursuit of it to her varied relationships and flings and experimentations, Michaela is trying to figure out who she is when she's not pretending to be someone. I love that. And I love that it starts with the simple words, "I love me."
As a white person, I obviously can't give perspective on what black women experience in life and in culture. But I can guess. There are so few representations of black women on TV, and outside of shows produced by Shonda Rhimes (like How to Get Away with Murder, naturally) the representation of black women isn't that great. There aren't a lot of characters who are allowed to step out of the generalized caregiver roles and "strong black women" stereotypes and just figure out who they are and what they want.
Michaela's journey is important because it's a reminder that black femininity is not often allowed the luxury of self-expression. Michaela is bound at the start of the show by societal expressions. Either she's a perfect, proper, respectable young black woman who doesn't put a foot wrong, or she's a whore, a slut, and ghetto trash. For Michaela in the very beginning, there's basically no other option. The beauty comes, then, when she decides that there is a third option and makes it for herself. I mean it sucks that she has to do that, but it's great that she does, you know?
And I love Michaela for sticking it to respectability politics. The idea that you are inherently worth more if you adhere to an external-based judgment of your moral standing is just awful and the kind of thinking we really really need to get away from as a culture. Black women in particular face this kind of scrutiny and it's horrible. Characters like Michaela, though, remind us that there is a third path between madonna and whore, and for that I am really grateful.
Now bask in an epic gif of her talking about how she loves herself. It's good for the soul.
*Last time we talked about the importance of implicitly black characters in speculative fiction by looking at Garnet from Steven Universe.