“How to Get Away with Murder” and Social Position in the Legal System

“‘You slut white trash killer. You made Griffin strangle that girl on the roof, and you liked watching her die because that’s the piece of garbage you are.’

That’s what everyone in the world is going to say about you.”

Thus ends some tough love from our favorite defense attorney/law professor, Annalise Keating, in last week’s episode of How to Get Away with Murder (HTGAWM). The briefest of plot summaries if you haven’t been watching: Annalise is defending Rebecca Sutter, a townie drug dealer, who, along with Christian quarterback Griffin O’Reilly, is accused of murdering popular cheerleader Lila Stanguard, and in this episode the information that Griffin and Rebecca had sex the night of the murder is leaked to the press. Later, while petitioning the judge for a gag order in the case, Annalise says, “It doesn’t matter who leaked it, everyone knows it’s the woman who gets vilified in these scenarios.” Later in the episode, Rebecca violates the gag order to make an apparently false rape accusation against Griffin to the press, which is her last attempt to reclaim the public narrative forming against her qua “slut white trash killer.”

Oof. There’s a lot going on there.

What’s nice about this episode in the context of the show in general is its recognition that different people have very different interactions with the same legal system. Annalise’s strategy differs depending on who she is defending and for what crime. Of course, that’s not how it’s supposed to work. In an ideal world, anyone accused of wrongdoing is given an adequate opportunity to defend herself. The evidence is marshaled by both sides, exposed to argument, and a neutral third party decides what really happened. But we all know this isn’t always how it works. White collar defendants face a different justice system from poor repeat offenders (or: Judge Rules White Girl Will Be Tried As Black Adult).

In a similar way, different types of victims face different challenges in the legal system. As readers of a blog on academic feminism and pop culture, I assume you all know about rape shield laws. Part of why we need laws that prohibit the defense from bringing in evidence about the sexual conduct of victims is that allowing it in plays to the worst in us as people: we put the victim on trial in ways we never would for comparable assaults because ours is a society with a great legacy of sexism. For a common expression of this view from our legal history, feast your perceivers on this tidbit from an 1838 sexual assault prosecution in New York, People v. Abbot: “[A]re we to be told that previous prostitution shall not make one among those circumstances which raise a doubt of assent?—that the triers should be advised to make no distinction in their minds between the virgin and a tenant of the stew?” In HTGAWM, Rebecca might as well be a tenant of the stew, so low is her credibility in the community. And that’s in 2014 with the benefit of time and legal and social change. Indeed, victims or even witnesses are often put on trial by the public as much or more than aggressors if the social position cards shake out right.

What I didn’t like about the episode was that little false rape accusation I mentioned. That was uncool. I waited until seeing last night’s episode to finish this post because I wanted to see if they would develop that part of the story more, but as of now, they haven’t even mentioned it again. It was just a one-off strategic move to show us that Annalise is willing to do anything to get her clients off, which is a common theme in the show. There’s still time to make more of it, though it seems like the story is going to have to shift almost completely to Sam’s murder, leaving the trial of Rebecca and Griffin behind. It’s understandably difficult to know what percentage of accusations of assault are false, but most statistical estimates are low. In addition, we know that most assaults go unreported. It’s always frustrating, then, to see the narrative of the lying, vindictive woman in a story arc that is simultaneously about how some women are presumed to be lying and vindictive in virtue of their social position. Repeating the false accusation narrative makes it easier to dismiss victims of sexual assault, which in turn discourages reporting, and makes it easier to throw up our hands and proclaim a he said/she said impasse. HTGAWM is such a shock-driven show that I wouldn’t be surprised if the accusation turns out to be true, or they might revisit it in some other way, but it’s not so well written that I expect them to return to the issue with finesse.

2 Responses to ““How to Get Away with Murder” and Social Position in the Legal System”

  1. Daniel Susser

    Yes! Thank you for writing this post. I’ve been watching the show, and while I haven’t been loving it, I hadn’t really taken offense to much of it until the false rape allegation. Shonda Rhimes seems like someone who really understands what she’s doing, so I hoped there was more to it. But like you, I’m not super confident.


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