Law drama Suits' women say the show is progressive in depiction of race and gender

Suits Season 3 starring Sarah Rafferty -- PHOTO: DIVA UNIVERSAL
Suits Season 3 starring Sarah Rafferty -- PHOTO: DIVA UNIVERSAL
Suits Season 3 starring Meghan Markle -- PHOTO: DIVA UNIVERSAL
Suits Season 3 starring Gina Torres -- PHOTO: DIVA UNIVERSAL

The creators of television drama Suits obviously wanted to make the legal profession look sexy and glamorous, realism be damned.

That is no doubt why they cast three gorgeous actresses, Gina Torres, Meghan Markle and Sarah Rafferty, and have them routinely strut around the fictional law offices of Pearson Specter in vertiginous stilettos and skin-tight designer threads.

Speaking to Life! during a press visit to the set in Toronto, where the show is filmed, the actresses acknowledge that this may strain the boundaries of credibility. But they appreciate how smart and capable their characters are - and how the series has been subtly progressive in its depiction of race as well as gender.

"The show's like a fantasy world, in a lot of ways," says Rafferty, 41, who plays the firm's allseeing secretary, Donna, the gatekeeper to its top legal eagle Harvey Specter (played by Gabriel Macht).

"Especially considering that Donna's a secretary and she wears Dolce & Gabbana. She's wellcompensated for her efforts," she says, laughing.

But as dolled up as they are, the women of Suits are also whip-smart and often act as the conscience or voice of reason for Harvey and his sidekick Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams), whose complex bromance is the centrepiece of the story.

The showrunners were deviating from the original script when they made the head of the high-powered firm a woman - and one who also happened to be African American.

Torres, 44, who plays the woman, says: "Jessica Pearson started off as a Jonathan Pearson - the character was originally conceived as a man, and then maybe a much older woman."

Yet the producers eventually chose her, she says, because they "wanted people who would best bring forth these characters and had absolutely nothing to do with genetic make-up or cultural background, which I'm incredibly grateful for".

"The female characters are so beautifully realised and well-drawn and they're running it. I'm literally running the firm, and the women in Suits in general really hold the emotional and moral truth of any given storyline.

"They tell the truth and they don't care who they're telling it to - it could be their boss or subordinate - and that's refreshing. We are a fearless bunch of warriors. Well-heeled warriors."

Torres, who has played formidable femme fatales on other TV series, including the hit spy drama Alias (2001 - 2006), meets many female lawyers who are "huge fans of the show" and see Jessica as an inspiration.

"They love the in-fighting, love the drama, love the suits, love the dresses - and love how unapologetically witty, smart and sexy everybody is, especially the women.

"Female lawyers I've encountered say they are so grateful that I'm representing them. And one young woman who's an associate told me, 'When I make partner, I'm wearing colour,'" says the actress, whose glamorous wardrobe is far removed from the palette of black, grey and navy which most female lawyers wear.

"And here I am strolling down the hallway, queen of the kingdom in a red dress, and it gives them hope and something to shoot for. And that's great."

Markle, 32, loves that her character Rachel is a bright paralegal who is working her way up to becoming a lawyer.

If the show was being made a few decades ago, "we'd all be secretaries, right? Or maybe the wife of Harvey would be the female role", she says.

"It's a real testament to our writers and, specifically our creator, Aaron Korsh, for creating such strong female archetypes.

"And we all get a different response. Look, not only is the head of the firm a woman, but she's also a black woman. In the past, the character would have been written as a white male - that alone is pretty huge.

"And for me, I make a lot of young girls feel inspired, which is really exciting. But all of us are very grateful to have more to do than just prance around in pencil skirts - though that's part of the job as well, let's not kid ourselves."

Rachel is biracial, and while her and Jessica's ethnic background is rarely referenced directly, it does have an impact on viewers, says Markle.

"I meet a lot of parents of biracial kids who go, 'Finally, there's a role model who looks like us,'" says the actress who, like her character, is half African American. "That part thrills me. I'm really grateful to have colourblind casting."

Once again, this was not in the original script.

"It was just written as 'the dream girl' and different actresses had tried out for the part - I remember seeing Katharine McPhee at the audition," says Markle, referring to the American Idol alumna who went on to star in the musical series Smash.

"Frankly, how characters were being written 10 years ago, Rachel would have 100 per cent been blonde-haired and blue-eyed. So just to see how TV has changed, and that I can be cast in that sort of role, is a testament to our show and our network and what they have been able to see for it."

Suits Season 3 airs on Tuesdays at 8pm on Diva Universal (StarHub TV Channel 522).

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