Acceptable Sexualities on TV

There’s a moment on How to Get Away with Murder where Michaela (Aja Naomi King) learns that fellow student and co-intern Connor (Jack Falahee) slept with her fiancé, Aiden Walker (Elliot Knight), at some point in the distant past. She’s furious, upset, conflicted, spending the episode in a state of anger not about the fact that her beloved once slept with someone — the two discussed their sexual histories earlier in the relationship — but that he slept with a man. The situation isn’t made any better by Connor’s taunting, which starts the minute he finds out who Michaela is engaged to and just gets more brutal throughout the episode. At one point, he even leans over her shoulder in court, saying that it was so long ago, he doesn’t remember what Aiden’s penis looked like — ‘oh wait,’ he says, ‘I totally do.’

The episode presents some fascinating and interesting social tensions, feeding into the larger themes that How to Get Away with Murder explores, and reminding me that it’s amazingly great television. Now only that, but it’s one of the few shows on TV that unabashedly shows queer sexuality, and in a nuanced way, too. It shows hot gay sex. It shows brutal gay sex. It shows a gay man (Connor) using other men to extract favors and information. It shows gay switches (Connor). It exposes gayness in a way that may make straight audiences uncomfortable, and certainly has sparked commentary on the Internet as some people are clearly not into All the Gay Sex, despite the fact that it’s perfectly on par with the straight sex shown on other shows (including this one — there’s an oral sex scene, for example, with a man going down on a woman, which is another potentially unacceptable display of sexuality, as female pleasure is not popular on television).

Michaela, in this episode, reveals herself as rather a prudish bigot, given her level of upset and the anger she flings at Aiden for having a mixed sexual history. She’s fine with the women he’s slept with, acknowledging that it’s common for people to have sex, and that it’s rare for people to approach relationships without some sexual past. But she’s not fine with the idea of Aiden having slept with at least one man, though Aiden is cagey about the details, so it’s unclear, which is also telling — while Michaela may be homophobic, so is Aiden, in a way.

He dismisses his sexual past with Connor as the outgrowth of going to a boys’ school, where everyone did it with each other, acting as though it wasn’t a big thing, a phase he grew out of. Aside from reinforcing the popular cultural stereotype that people in gender segregated schools can’t keep their hands off each other but promptly revert to straightness upon graduation, it was also a dismissal of his sexual experiences and past. He was so eager to distance himself from any form of gayness that he was willing to minimize who he had been, and who he had, well, done.

Yet, the depth of his relationship with Connor was obvious. While Connor, being his usual self, was especially cruel about it (perhaps even more so because he felt hurt by Aiden’s distance and rejection), he also made some sharp points about their history together. He commented about how he’d thought it might be an engagement ring on his finger, once upon a time, and insinuated that their relationship had been lasting and deep. ‘Smile, or Go to Jail’ was about more than unfolding the next step of the interior situation the characters were caught in.

It was also, in a way, about having to ‘Smile, or Go to Jail’ in terms of relationships. Michaela was forced with some tough choices, as she was reminded by Annalise (Viola Davis) at the end of the episode, when the attorney told her to choose her husband wisely, because she’d be stuck with what she had. It was a reference to the marriage that had just fallen apart in the courtroom, but it was also a veiled commentary on the attorney’s own marriage, which was raveling at the seams, though she tried to keep it from her students. Annalise knew firsthand what the trap of a terrible marriage looked like, and she wanted to pass the knowledge on to her students, another form of information-sharing in a show where characters lie to each other constantly, but occasionally convey nuggets of truth.

Perhaps Michaela was angry about the secrets more than the gay sex: The two were tangled around each other. It raised a gulf in the formerly loving relationship, as she asked herself whether she was able to take the plunge into marriage if she couldn’t trust her partner to tell the truth. Would she, the episode posited, be better off without him? Was she running the risk of trapping herself in a marriage that would turn into a snarl of resentment and lies?

How to Get Away with Murder pushes at the notion of acceptable sexualities on TV, and it’s one of the few shows that does so. In this episode, as in others, it challenged notions of queerness and relationships in ways that feel uncommon on popular television. Viewers were supposed to be upset by Michaela’s bigotry, just as they were supposed to be upset by Connor’s cruelty. It was an episode, as with others in the series, where everyone came out looking badly, a reminder that humans in general can be rather terrible people, regardless of orientation.

We need more, not less, nuanced depictions of queer sexuality on television. Can Hollywood rise to that challenge?

Image: ABC  | Disney Television Group, Flickr