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Jessica Pearson: The Suits Character’s Understated Impact on Black Women’s Roles in Television

SUITS -- Season: 4 -- Pictured: Gina Torres as Jessica Pearson -- (Photo by: Nigel Parry/USA Network)

Black women TV characters are leading shows into a more representative future. Scandal just ended a historic, epic run after seven seasons of twisty drama. D.C. political fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) was the first Black woman to lead a primetime network TV show in nearly 40 years. Now, the continued success of How to Get Away With Murder will carry the Shondaland torch with the ever-complicated legal genius Annalise Keating (Viola Davis), actresses Yara Shahidi and Logan Browning are putting young Black women’s stories at the forefront with Grown-ish’s Zoey Johnson and Dear White People’s Samantha White, and Sonequa Martin Green’s Michael Burnham is taking the sci-fi world by storm as the leading lady on Star Trek: Discovery. These characters (among many others) are all brilliantly nuanced, refreshingly real, and bring diverse depictions of Black women to life, but Suits character Jessica Pearson (Gina Torres) is often left out of this conversation. She’s been a TV mainstay since 2011, but her impactful character doesn’t garner enough praise.

Jessica Pearson may have flown under the radar for a few reasons. Suits airs on USA Network and is treated like a flagship show with social media campaigns for dedicated fans (known as Suitors) and marathons leading up to new seasons. The show did receive a recent visibility boost after actress Meghan Markle decided to leave following her engagement to Prince Harry, but USA is not a primetime network and can’t quite compete with juggernauts like ABC, CBS, and Fox in terms of marketing efforts. Characters Olivia Pope and Annalise have the power of ABC and TV maven Shonda Rhimes behind them, whose ability to create compelling women characters made viewers want to check out these new shows.

Suits also typically airs during the summer, which is still seen as a “less popular” season for TV programs. From a character perspective, Suits’ premise was Mike Ross’ story about his shady rise to becoming a lawyer; photographic memory; broship with Jessica’s muse, Harvey Specter; and love story with Rachel Zane. Jessica was not the leading lady, but she was without doubt THE BOSS—a well-developed character who played a pivotal role.

The show introduced Jessica Pearson as a managing partner of Pearson Hardman, a high-powered law firm in New York City. Her road toward this coveted role was paved with hard work and playing the corporate politics game. The Harvard graduate was originally hired by the firm (then known as Gordon Schmidt Van Dyke) to check off diversity boxes, but she had her own strategy in mind. She fought her way to senior partner, cunningly set up a coup with fellow lawyer Daniel Hardman, and forced out leadership to become a name partner. It was a morally muddy decision, but in the cutthroat world of corporate law, a move she likely felt was necessary to acquire a position she may not have gotten due to her sex/race.

Throughout the series, Jessica has not shied away from the challenges of being a Black woman in her industry. The legal genius often uses others’ preconceived notions and ignorance to gain leverage against her opposers. Her role as a high-powered lawyer is a necessary and powerful look into the hoops Black women must jump through to garner promotions and recognition in their careers. A 2016 article by ABA Journal revealed that 85% of minority women attorneys quit large firms because they are excluded and made to feel invisible in their workplaces, and only 2.55% of women held a partner position in their firms at that time. The New York Times also explored the lack of Black attorneys at the top of their firms, with fewer than 2% of Black law firm partners—the majority of whom are Black men. A Black woman’s climb to this position IRL is hard, but what happens when one becomes a partner? Jessica gives viewers a unique and thought-provoking look at the constant challenges to remain at the top in a brutally competitive industry dominated by White men.

She seems to “have it all” from an outside perspective—tall, wealthy, and gorgeous, with an impeccable style that easily ranks her in the upper echelon of TV’s best-dressed women. Her stride oozes unbridled confidence and effortlessly commands attention. She’s clever, resourceful, witty, graceful, and unbelievably clutch in a high-pressure situation. There have been countless legal, financial, and personal dramas over the years, but Jessica has always been a key component to the firm’s success. Her brutal honesty is equally matched by her compassion for her work family. She’s an unapologetic career woman who takes ownership of her mishaps without wasting time wallowing in regrets.

In a refreshing twist of workplace dynamics, her White male co-workers acknowledge and respect her brilliance. Jessica exerts a profound influence over every major player in her firm, particularly Harvey and Mike. The handsome and impeccably dressed Harvey may have seemed like a natural-born lawyer, but Jessica paid for his education and groomed him into a powerhouse professional. He’s cocky and brash with everyone else, but he knows the boss lady won’t go for his ego. He calls her his Number One, and both he and Mike defer to her expertise for guidance. They are extremely loyal to her and won’t hesitate to have her back.

Harvey eventually became a name partner, along with Louis Litt, to form Pearson Specter Litt, but Jessica shook things up in Season 6 when she decided to leave the firm and head to Chicago to begin a new life. The scandals, double crossing, and power pressures left her feeling like she’d forgotten her passion for helping people. She loved her workplace family and had fought to keep Pearson Specter Litt alive, but she chose her own sanity above all.

Her absence was strongly felt by Harvey, who struggled in his new role as the managing partner of the firm. Jessica’s mentorship and continued influence on Harvey still made her a key player in Season 7. Her dedication to protecting her work family came back to haunt her after she lost her New York license because she helped cover Mike’s fraud. Harvey wanted her to fight to keep her name on the wall, but she was ready to turn over the reins. Jessica’s character arc on Suits came to an end in Season 7, after she decided to accept a position in the Chicago mayor’s office.

But this is only the beginning of her journey. Gina Torres will star in a Jessica Pearson spinoff —a move that will allow her to become the centerpiece of the story, focusing on her professional and personal life in Chicago. She’s out of her natural habitat and will have to learn who she can trust. It’s also a chance peel back the complicated layers on her relationship with her father’s family. Her Chicago relatives see her as privileged and disconnected from the everyday struggles of Black people in working-class neighborhoods, and she admits to a disconnect, but wants to right her father’s abandonment of his family.

Her new journey will likely pit her desire to fight a corrupt legal system against her duties in the mayor’s office. Can she play both sides of the coin? It will be an intriguing and (potentially) dangerous path where she doesn’t have the upper hand. She’ll be forced to check her own socioeconomic privileges while simultaneously dealing with her lack of privilege as a Black woman in her new career.

This is Jessica’s time to claim her spot as the latest Black woman leading character. She’s the kind of interesting, complicated, and realistic character whose story imprints on a viewer’s heart and makes them want to follow her every move. And, if Jessica has her way, she will get what she wants in Chicago by any means necessary.

Tai Gooden is a freelance writer, mom, wife, and dedicated Whovian. She has written for VICE, The Guardian, Paper Magazine, Paste Magazine, The Frisky, Geek & Sundry, Syfy Fangrrls, The Learned Fangirl, Upworthy, The Mary Sue, Bustle, and many other publications. When Tai is not waiting for the TARDIS, she’s either on Twitter (@taigooden) or reading Walking Dead fanfic.

(image: Nigel Parry/USA Network)

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