There is a lot going on in ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder, from cheating spouses and murdered sorority girls to dueling timelines and a truly impressive amount of gay sex scenes. And that’s just in the first half of the show’s debut season. Lurking in the background throughout most of the show’s tenure, however, is what I see as a one-sided love affair between Viola Davis’s Annalise Keating and Liza Weil’s Bonnie Winterbottom. Annalise is a married defense lawyer and law school professor, and Bonnie is her single legal aide and assistant (assumed to be heterosexual from the text, but assumed bisexual by me).
From the beginning of the series, Bonnie is right by Annalise’s side, helping her coach the law students she’s mentoring as well as helping with research and defense in court. There is an underlying feeling of tension, however, one that is never really explained. It is assumed to be a result of Annalise’s belief that Bonnie is in love with Sam, her husband, or engaged in a relationship with him. Part of this belief comes from the fact that Sam cheated on his first wife with Annalise, so she fears he will do it again (a fear that is well-founded, considering what occurs later).
A dominant reading of their relationship is that the two are coworkers and friends, with an added source of tension. However, I am firmly committed to the reading of Bonnie as bisexual and in love with Annalise, rather than Sam. There are more instances of Bonnie interacting with Annalise than there are of her interacting with Sam, and Bonnie’s interactions with Annalise feel more fraught with sexual tension than any of Bonnie’s scenes with Sam.
In the final two episodes of the show before the winter break, there are multiple instances of Bonnie showing her love and desire for Annalise, as well as her inner turmoil over that desire. There are also attempts by the show-runners in this episode to position Bonnie as entirely heterosexual, which don’t dissuade me of my oppositional reading of the episode.
A quick summary of the show: Annalise’s husband Sam has been cheating on her with Lila, a sorority girl who was found murdered and pregnant. Sam was the father of her child and her suspected murderer, until he was killed by Wes (a student of Annalise) in the midseason finale. Annalise had defended Sam despite knowing about the affair, until he insults her and almost kills her in the finale. As mentioned previously, there have been hints that Bonnie is in love with Sam throughout the entire season, and finding out about Lila’s pregnancy shakes Bonnie’s faith in Annalise.
In this episode, Bonnie gets drunk because she feels guilty about Sam kissing her in an attempt to manipulate her in the previous episode, and makes the choice to sleep with Asher, one of the law students Annalise is mentoring. The clip below is the introduction to the one-night-stand.
There are obviously some issues of consent here, due to Bonnie’s intoxication, but Bonnie proclaims that she is “a grown-ass woman” and they continue. This is the first time in the show that Bonnie is explicitly shown having sex with anyone. The dominant reading of this scene would place Bonnie as the heterosexual female preparing to have sex with a heterosexual male, and the show doesn’t dispute this notion outright.
However, Bonnie’s heterosexuality comes into question in the next scene, where she tells Asher that they will not be having another sexual tryst and drops everything to come to Annalise’s aide. This is especially impressive and indicative of larger feelings, because in the previous episode Annalise fired Bonnie.
Bonnie’s response to Annalise’s request for help is to immediately leave Asher’s home and come to Annalise’s office in order to comfort her and help her figure out what to do. To me, this seems above and beyond what a friend or coworker might do; Bonnie’s no longer an employee of Annalise’s and she’s not particularly close to the office, but she quickly makes her way to Annalise’s side.
The implication of Bonnie and Asher’s sex scene is that both are heterosexual and consenting participants in the act. Assuming Bonnie is heterosexual due solely to her sexual relationship with Asher and her kiss with Sam, which she did not initiate and was a failed attempt at manipulation, is incredibly flawed. That assumption erases bisexuality as an identity (along with a myriad of other sexualities) and enforces the idea that everyone in media is straight until proven gay.
As a bisexual woman, I choose to view Bonnie as bisexual in the same way that black female spectators “project their own desires in terms of both race and gender on the screen” (Hollinger, 297). I look at Bonnie’s relationship with Annalise and see not only one of mentorship but one of romantic love, at least on Bonnie’s side. When Bonnie is fired by Annalise for kissing Sam and telling her that Sam knew about Lila’s pregnancy, her reaction is to get on her knees and beg for her job and her chance to stay with Annalise.
Bonnie is broken by the idea of not being a part of Annalise’s life anymore, and that emotional turmoil also leads to her drunken tryst with Asher.
According to Jane Gaines, “gaze theory posits a monolithic male perspective without any recognition that the power of this gaze is invested not in all men, but in White men” (Hollinger, 194). The dominant reading of Bonnie as a heterosexual woman plays to the white male spectator, where Bonnie is an object of his sexual desire and thus cannot be attracted to other genders. For the white male spectator, Bonnie’s sexuality is for him and him alone, which makes the dominant reading of Bonnie’s character problematic. Not everyone watching this show is a white man; in fact, most people watching this show are women.
For me and many other queer spectators, Bonnie’s sexuality is a reflection of our own sexuality. As Alexander Doty says, “Queer reception doesn’t stand outside personal and cultural histories; it is part of the articulation of these histories” (15). When I view this show and see Bonnie look at Annalise like this:
I don’t see it through the eyes of a heterosexual person; I see that look as one of love and admiration. I can’t remove my sexuality from my viewing position, and so I come to this show ready to find any characters that act like me and represent me, even if those representations aren’t explicit or I have to work really hard to find them.
By bringing my personal experiences as a bisexual woman as well as the history of bisexual erasure in the media to my position as a spectator of this show, I routinely bring in what Jacqueline Bobo calls cultural competency. Bobo defines cultural competency as “the repertoire of discursive strategies, the range of knowledge, that a viewer brings to the act of watching a film and creating meaning from a work” (219). As an individual, I have certain experiences that allow me to see Bonnie as bisexual and engaged in a one-sided love affair with Annalise, rather than the dominant reading of Bonnie as heterosexual.
For me and my queer roommates and friends, it is incredibly difficult to find characters that behave like us and represent us, so we have to create our own readings of certain media texts in order to find something that works for us. In a way, looking at media with an oppositional gaze about sexual orientation is easier than looking with an oppositional gaze toward race or gender. Sexual orientation isn’t immediately evident based on appearance, so when characters don’t explicitly state their sexuality I can project whatever I want onto them. This system of looking is not as satisfying as having a character who is openly bisexual or queer and affirmed by the text as such, but until there are more characters who fit that identity I will content myself with viewing Bonnie and other characters like her as bisexual and proud.
Bobo, Jacqueline. (1988). “The Color Purple: Black Women as Cultural Readers,” in E.D. Pribram (ed.) Female Spectators: Looking at Film and Television.
Doty, Alexander. (1993) “There’s Something Queer Here” and “Whose Text is it Anyway?” in Making Things Perfectly Queer.
Hollinger, Karen. (2012). “Feminist Film Studies and Race.” In Feminist Film Studies.