USA’s fast-paced, lawyer show Suits quickly hooked me when I began watching. Early on, the series centered on the professional relationship and friendship between hot-shot lawyer Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht) and his genius protégé Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams) who poses as a Harvard graduate at what is then the Pearson Hardman law firm. It’s your typical dude bro buddy show in a lot of ways with dubious applications of law to set it apart. But, this series featured the showstopper Jessica Pearson portrayed by my queen Gina Torres. Torres’s portrayal of one of very few Black women, real or fictional, to have her name on the door of a major law firm glued me in every week for two seasons.
Then the Suits writers damn near ruined it.
Season 3 began with the fallout of the merger between Jessica’s and Edward Darby’s respective law firms. (You may recognize Darby as Varys from HBO’s Game of Thrones.) Harvey, in the midst of one of the most sustained temper tantrums I’ve ever witnessed, quickly threw himself in league with Darby to “take down” Jessica and become the managing partner of the Pearson end of the merger. He’d evidently decided that Jessica not choosing him to be a managing partner, despite his making more than one bad decision that put the firm in jeopardy, warranted her removal. This is Harvey Spector, the same man who brought in someone he knew to be a fraud into the firm without Jessica’s knowledge and then put Jessica in a position where she had to be complicit in Mike’s fraud so as not to undo every case in which he had his hands.
Harvey’s “take down” plot absolutely reeked of a racialized sexism that saw three white men and a white woman (Harvey’s administrative assistant Donna) conspire to remove a Black woman from her hard-fought position because, at the crux of it, she wouldn’t just hand Harvey what he wanted. Even Gina Torres noted some of the issues with the storyline saying:
I remember getting ready to shoot one of those infamous rooftop scenes with Gabriel [Macht, who plays Harvey], and…[he’s] defending Harvey, I’m defending Jessica and I just had to say “Hold on, hold on … do you not get that every move that Jessica has made since the beginning of season two has been to cover your ass?” [laughs] I mean, she’s trying to save this company and whenever I talk to Aaron [Korsh, creator], my thing is, let’s not pretend that it’s all OK. There have been distractions along the way, but there’s a problem. There’s a ticking bomb in her firm that [Harvey] brought in and as much as she loves [Mike], and as much as she wants to make this work, it’s ticking, and no one knows what is going to set it off. So part of Harvey’s maturity is taking responsibility for that, and up until now, he’s refused to take ownership of the dominoes that he set in motion [by bringing Mike into the firm]. (ET-Online)
The social media marketing campaign around this storyline further unsettled me when it pointedly asked us to take on Harvey’s perspective when looking at a picture of Jessica and also scolded Jessica for not having more faith in Harvey. We are never asked to take on Jessica’s perspective.
This type of racialized sexism also appears in the relationship between Mike Ross and Rachel Zane (Meghan Markle). As the only other woman of color on the show, and indeed the only other regular person of color on the show from the beginning, Rachel’s trajectory on the show highlights Mike’s privileges as a white man practicing law and not in a way I believe the writers intended. Mike literally ran into the firm with a briefcase full of weed while trying to dodge the police, wowed Harvey with his photographic memory, and is now a key player in the firm. Contrast this with Rachel who has worked at the firm for a decade, diligently applied to and was rejected by Harvard, applied to other law schools and was accepted, and came to Jessica in a show of confidence and respect and asked Jessica to allow her to practice law at the firm. We see Mike handed an opportunity that Rachel worked ten years to achieve, and we see Harvey and others go to great lengths to protect Mike’s position while Rachel rarely receives the same sort of consideration.
This differential treatment applies to others as well. Katrina Bennett (Amanda Schull), a young lawyer and recent hire by Harvey, constantly faces ire and derision from Mike, Harvey, Rachel and Donna for the egregious crime of being driven, ambitious, and ruthless, all qualities that are praised and admired in Harvey and Mike. A friend of mine, Carlos Perez Rojas, pointed out that the mistreatment of Katrina’s mentor, Louis Litt (Rick Hoffman), may also from a place of sexism, cissexism and heterosexism (even if Louis doesn’t personally experience these) when he noted that Louis possesses qualities that may be associated with “femininity” such as loving cats and relaxing mud baths, both of which we’re supposed to find humorous and odd.
As Season 3 comes to a close, it appears that much of the trajectory of the show points to the elevation of the relationship between these very privileged white men, Mike and Harvey, above all other considerations. We are, as previously noted, asked to identify with them even as they cut down ambitious upstart women and men who don’t behave in normatively masculine ways (like Louis), even as they conspire to take down a powerful Black woman for not catering to their egos, and even as we see a young Black woman working so hard to achieve her dream of being a lawyer.
Come on, Suits writers, I know you can do better.