Trigger Warning: This article will discuss issues regarding sexual harassment and assault
In the television series, “How To Get Away With Murder”, the main character Annalise Keating (Viola Davis), is portrayed as a successful and determined lawyer and law professor that is both feared and admired by her students. Throughout the first season of the show, it is constantly hinted that Annalise met her husband Sam Keating (Tom Verica), as she started therapy to help with a traumatic event she had experienced in her childhood. It was soon revealed in episode 13, when Annalise’s mom (Cicely Tyson) visits her, that Annalise was the victim of sexual assault as a child. Annalise has resented her mother, Ophelia, for never acknowledging that her Uncle Clyde had raped her as a child. Ophelia responds to Annalise by telling her that sexual assault among the women in their community is very common and “Men take things”. Ophelia’s response to Annalise reflects how cynical many women, especially women of color, become towards issues of sexual harassment and assault given its recurrence and how it is ignored. Annalise’s experience can very much be connected to the experiences of young girls of color, who are often read as ineligible for innocence.
Reflecting back to my childhood, I constantly remember my mother telling me how to compose myself; when wearing a dress I had to sit with my legs crossed, I could not wear very revealing clothes, and wearing make-up was out of the question. My mother enforced many of these rules, when she knew I would be around male family members or friends; from a young age my mother’s way of protecting my “innocence” was by policing my body and how I acted around men regardless of my age. Many people would respond to my mother’s parenting by looking down on the ways in which she policed my body and actions, since I was just an innocent child. However, the concept of innocence is not for everyone; parents are aware that innocence is a privilege that many young girls of color are not eligible for.
The discourse revolving innocence is further complicated by race and mainstream Eurocentric standards of beauty. In Janelle Hobson’s article “The ‘Batty’ Politic: Toward an Aesthetic of the Black Female Body, she explains that, “The body of the black female, the ultimate “wild savage”, elicit only “complex interstices of desire and repulsion that… convey a sexual grotesquerie” (Hobson 94). This lack of eligibility for innocence influences the treatment of young girls of color; arguably there is an inherent rape-ability that is associated with women of color that affects their predisposition to be victims of sexual assault or harassment. While all women are at a great risk of experiencing sexual assault or harassment, there is a long intergenerational trauma that follows the bodies of women of color.
The ways in which innocence, sexual violence, and race interact can also be seen in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Through the character of Maureen Peal, it can be seen how beauty and colorism affects people’s perception of innocence; Maureen is a light-skinned, wealthy girl who is well-liked in her community, however, it is shown that Maureen is not the nicest girl to her peers. After Maureen takes Pecola, a girl that is often characterised by her “lack of beauty”, to get ice cream she mocks Pecola. When the other girls attempt to retaliate by calling her meringue pie, it is explained that, “Grown people frowned at the three girls on the curbside” (Morrison 73). Maureen, despite her actions, she is read as an innocent girl given her light complexion, while Pecola is heavily judged. Pecola’s innocence is constantly overlooked throughout the novel, and she is also seen to be the victim of sexual violence. There is an inherent lack of innocence that is attached to the bodies of women of color, making them ineligible for sympathy when they are the victims of sexual violence.
Janell Hobson, “The ‘Batty’ Politic: Toward an Aesthetic of the Black Female Body,” Hypathia (2003): 94
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye, (New York: Vintage Books, 1970), 73.