Gay Sex on How to Get Away With Murder: Offensive, Crass, and Smart
This is a show full of people indulging in their worst behaviors, so regressive "bottom shaming" isn't irresponsible writing. It's consistent.
How to Get Away with Murder's woefully inconsistent freshman season chugs along with its sixth episode tonight, and there are so many questions viewers need answered. (Spoilers from here on out.) Will we find out whether Rebecca (Katie Findlay) is absolutely innocent of murdering Lila Stangard? Will we learn why Prof. Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) is the way she is? Will we figure out why Annalise's husband's nude pic is on a dead girl's phone?
Will the characters engage in bottom shaming?
Oh, that wasn't your question? Apologies, I was relaying Slate editor J. Bryan Lowder's concerns from his Tuesday article "What’s With All the Bottom Shaming in How to Get Away With Murder?" Bottom shaming, as he puts it, "is the cultural tendency to deem the receptive partner (bottom) of anal (and sometimes oral) sex as somehow lesser than the penetrating (top) partner." In his piece, Lowder posits—and provides good evidence—that the show is guilty of depicting its characters engaging in such behavior.
He’s right. There has been some degree of bottom shaming in every episode of Murder so far. Lowder finds it "confusing" as to why that’s the case. But actually, there might be a good explanation for it.
Murder is a show about pretty terrible law students and their even worse professor indulging in their most transgressive behaviors. So far, viewers have seen characters help multiple murderers escape punishment (no surprise, given the show's title), exploit sex for personal and professional gain, cover up a murder they possibly committed (in the future!), and lie constantly. These people are ugly to one another, mean-spirited in even their most humorous moments.
It follows, then, that Connor (Jack Falahee), the show's most prominent gay character, would embrace an unfortunately pervasive trend among gay men to consider bottoms the submissive and/or effeminate position—and thus, for reasons that go far beyond just gay men, the lesser. It follows that the other characters would tell crass jokes about prison rape. Even if these are the most progressive, liberal people—though the show doesn't really get into political affiliations—they are still just terrible. It's the same reason why a liberal lion like Alec Baldwin can also be a tremendous bigot: Progressivism and being a jerk are not mutually exclusive.
I bring up the idea of progressivism because of what Lowder says in his piece when talking about why the specific instances of bottom shaming were included in the show:
I’ve watched the clips many times, and I just don’t get why they’re there. Leaving them out would have done nothing—except prevent a show that wants to be progressive in its sexual politics from taking up a damaging old stereotype and broadcasting it to audiences that may not know any better.
It’s not clear, though, that the show actually “wants to be progressive in its sexual politics.” It has been called progressive, sure, because it features explicit gay sex scenes on network TV. But being described as something and trying to be that thing are wholly different. One actual, clear goal of Murder is to show how awful people can be. (Again, this show is named for the evasion of punishment for a heinous felony.) The series accomplishes that goal beautifully, despite Murder's ups and downs quality-wise.
Murder never judges its characters, merely allowing them to make their choices as actual human beings might. Are all people in real life as terrible as the Murder characters? Of course not. The target audience is mature enough to know the difference between TV and reality. The show is a depiction of extremities, not normalcy. If Murder were refreshingly progressive about bottom shaming, it would be inconsistent with its own tone.
Which isn’t to say the show lacks a social conscience. Though the Alessandra Stanley/"angry black woman" debacle from earlier this fall drew attention to the fact that Murder is not really driven by Shonda Rhimes, the show is still is part of Greater Shondaland. And one of the defining features of Shondaland—as seen on Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, and Private Practice—has always been to feature diverse casts, which allows the characters to push back against sexism, racism, and homophobia without making a big deal about it. If creator Pete Nowalk really did want to endorse bottom shaming—and thereby reinforce old, damaging ideas about masculinity, femininity, and sex—he’d be pretty out of step with Rhimes's mission.
It seems more likely that he’s hoping his audience will understand that bottom shaming is bad, just like undercutting your classmates and cheating on your spouse and tampering with juries are bad. Or, like how racism and sexism is bad. For comparison, look at how Scandal leaves a lot unsaid on the issue of race. In Season 2, when Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) describes her relationship with the white president of the United States as “a little Sally Hemings-Thomas Jefferson.” It’s shorthand for Olivia’s discomfort with their situation—and the audience is trusted to both know the reference and know why she sees it as a negative.
This is where Lowder has a good point: How to Get Away With Murder may indeed be "taking up a damaging old stereotype and broadcasting it to audiences that may not know any better." Unlike racism, or sexism, or simply lying, bottom shaming isn’t a practice most people are conscious of—much less one that most people recognize is regressive. It’s admirable that Nowalk might put so much faith in the audience, but he’s probably aiming too high. Some viewers likely don’t even know the terms "top" and "bottom," much less understand the complexities of bottom shaming.
Still, it's not as if this is an entirely new subject for TV. Just earlier this year, HBO's Looking aired an episode that featured lead character Patrick (Jonathan Groff) and his boyfriend Richie (Raúl Castillo) discussing sexual roles and, yes, bottom shaming. It offered a remarkably smart take on the topic, but anything less would have felt cheap for that show. It had different goals than Murder does. One is not intrinsically better than the other because of what they aim to do—it's much more about how they approach their intentions and whether they ultimately succeed or fail.
I get where Lowder is coming from: While a show like Murder pushing the boundaries on gay sex and relationships is exciting to see, there are always bits and pieces that could be better. It's also hard when, as previously mentioned, the show is so inconsistent in its execution. If it were a better show, it might not inspire such quibbles.
But people should applaud its ambition and its lack of pandering. It's trying to do something different, to allow the morally dubious people that populate its narrative to remain so. So it's fine to closely watch Murder and call out problems. But the show also deserves patience to execute its mission.