Winter Break Research Project: A Brief Analysis of Race and Gender in Popular Drama Television Shows

After a long semester of traversing multiple classes and activities while having the time of my life, I looked forward to heading back to the Bay Area for the last winter break of my undergraduate career.  Living with my family, hanging out with friends, eating at Sol Food, and driving across the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco were all on my list of things to do, but I focused on one activity throughout my entire break: research.  I spent easily 3-4 hours every day doing research on the emerging “angry white man” character in three critically acclaimed drama television shows: How to Get Away with Murder, Scandal, and Grey’s Anatomy.

Before you read any further, this analysis is definitely not my justification for the hours spent every day during my break watching Netflix.  Also, there will be some spoilers, but I won’t say anything that will make you want to hunt me down.  Shonda Rhimes, the mastermind behind these three shows, has historically gone against the grains of modern television by including female protagonists, tackling issues of race in the shows, and even using color-blind casting techniques.

While many of her characters in these shows exhibit certain trends, cursory and generalizing statements about Shonda’s protagonists attenuate how multifaceted each character really is.  For example, certain individuals would say that Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) from How to Get Away with Murder, Miranda Bailey and Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) from Scandal parallel each other as strong black female protagonists.  Yet it is simply unfair to encapsulate the life experiences of Annalise, Miranda, and Olivia without understanding how uniquely different their lives are.

Similarly, the same thing occurred with the white male individuals on these shows: I began to generalize them very quickly.  I saw Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) from Grey’s Anatomy, Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) from Scandal, and Sam Keating (Tom Verica) from How to Get Away with Murder as the white male counterparts to the female protagonists in these shows.  Specifically, I developed a dislike for them because they all seemed to really mess with the female characters in one way or another.  These three men enforce a certain power they have over female characters in the show (I mean, Fitz is the President of the United States… you can’t get much more powerful than that…) and I found that incredibly irksome.  What I realized though, in my hours of reflection upon collecting all the data from my research, was that I began pigeonholing these characters as “angry, power-hungry males” in my head, which also is unfair to do.

Race and gender are topics incredibly difficult to tackle and even harder to fully comprehend.  Are they even able to be fully comprehended?  At Pitzer, I have taken many opportunities to learn about race and gender, whether in my classes or through my social interactions with fellow Pitzer students, which have provided a stronger sense of Intercultural Understanding.  A takeaway from this “research” experience is that even through the years of reading relevant literature and learning advanced theories on race and gender, Pitzer has helped me develop a keen sense of awareness that, to this day, I am trying to apply in my everyday life.  Also, Netflix is great and I highly encourage people to conduct “research” on it as often as they can.



  • My thoughts racing through my brain after I watch an episode before Netflix plays the next episode
  • Image source:

Posted by Charlie Yates ’15, Double Major in Science, Technology, & Society and Psychology