The Anatomy of Grey’s Anatomy

25 Jul

Doctors? Female doctors? A female main character who is a doctor?

Yes, yes, yes.

It is rare for an advertisement of an ensemble cast to feature more women than men, especially in a show about doctors (the fields of medicine are still abundantly male-centric).

But the figures of Grey’s Anatomy are generally of the female anatomy, where their bodies are tools for medicine instead of just tools for men.

Grey’s Anatomy is a female-driven drama that allows its characters to make mistakes, attain success, be sexual,  be emotional, and just generally be.

There are male characters (who do make up the majority of head positions), but they are usually first introduced in relation to the female characters (Derek to Meredith is an obvious one from the pilot).

This is somewhat of a subversion of the typical tv dynamic. Usually it is female characters that first are wives, mothers, and love interests  before they are characters in their own right (see: Robin Scherbatsky). Here, instead, complex women dominate the screen with their triumphs and failures alongside some men.

The premise is freaking female friendly.

So I’m distressed to find an article (written in 2007, so at least it’s outdated) that asks is Grey’s Anatomy bad for women? I was taken aback, but wondered if the article would touch upon some of the problematic natures of the relationships, or for the love of Grey’s, bring up the gaping problem of George O’Malley.

Instead the writer, as they astutely put it, finds Meredith “whiny, spineless and selfish,” and that not even Cristina and Bailey, two characters regarded as cold, respected, and powerful (cough, typically masculine, cough), can “make up for Meredith’s mushiness.”

SANDRA OH, ELLEN POMPEO

This, ladies and gentlemen, is faux feminism. And it is bullshit.

The worst part? The above quotes were in response to an article published in The New York Times that said Grey’s Anatomy is bad for women because these tv career types have “devolved into basket case[s].”

Women are constantly policed for how we look, act, and generally appear. What these articles propose is that seeing women that are not perfect on tv is somehow demeaning to women, instead of empowering.

It is okay to be a doctor. It is okay to be a mess. It is okay to be a doctor and a mess. It is okay to be a “basket case.” It is imperfect, it means that these characters have complexity,  and it means that women are allowed to be whiny, spineless, and selfish. It means that isn’t all we have to be either.

Even if there are those who refuse to see it, this is the takeaway message from Grey’s Anatomy — women can be more.

Women are more.

More than what media expects us to be, what the audience expects us to be, and what both are comfortable with women generally being. We are complex, human beings, and Grey’s Anatomy not only recognizes this, but shows us.

This is especially highlighted through the relationships between the (differing) women. A big part of the show is the relationships (romantic and otherwise) between characters, especially in the friendship between the main character, Meredith Grey, and Cristina Yang.

My best friend once told me that I was her person, a direct reference to Meredith and Cristina’s relationship that goes beyond friendship to a kind of kindred sisterhood. They are even called “The Twisted Sisters” by their male counterparts.

The show explores sisterhood in this way — because going through the internship process to become surgeons is a maturing experience. They all have a lot of growing up left to do, something Meredith and Cristina face together. They support each other’s careers, dramas, and baggage. They support each other through one’s choice to abort, in miscarriages, adoption, and birth.

These moments are typically a part of the significant others’ role, which Meredith and Cristina take on when they are able to. Not everyone has a significant other they can rely on, and even when they do, not everyone’s significant person is a romantic partner.

Often times women find partners in sisters and female friends. We bond. We fight. We love. This is often overshadowed by bromances and male relationships.

There are a tremendous amount of male-dominated relationships in our media. Brothers. Bros. Bromances. Fathers and sons. Uncles and nephews. Husband and husband. And so on.

Then we get to the women! Husband and wife. Main character and romantic interest girl. Father and daughter. And so on.

Then at the bottom of the media barrel are the sisters, female friends, mothers and daughters, and wives.

Positive relationships between women aren’t regarded as important as relationships that involve men because the main demographic for our media is men. Most of tv is written, produced, and directed by men. Men, men, men…(oh, don’t get me started on that).

So it’s important that we have characters on our screens that show us these positive female friendships, even if we only find them in shows marketed to women. (Because only women want to watch or read about women, right?)

I’ve written a little about how media portrays sisterhood as a mostly negative experience (read: (Not so) Modern Family), so when Grey’s brought Lexie, Meredith’s half-sister, into the mix, it could have pitted the sisters against each other.

Lexie had the family that Meredith didn’t — a loving mother and father (Meredith’s father who left and started a new family).

Yet Meredith and Lexie grow past these differences, become friends, and ultimately consider each other as sisters.

Isn’t sisterhood awesome?

But not all of Grey’s is about the positive. It’s a drama, remember?

It is not uncommon for women to suffer in media. A lot of what we do is suffer. So that the men can have characterization. So that plot can be furthered. Even so that men can be sexually pleasured.

Grey’s Anatomy makes its characters suffer a whole lot. It’s dramatic. It’s soap-opera like. But it gives women the courtesy to own some of their own tragedies, at least, whether it is backstory (the death of Cristina’s father) or part of the plot (the plane crash).

Rarely does the media spotlight on a character with a disability. I have to be honest and say that I am not completely sure that Grey’s Anatomy handles one well in terms of representation. I do not feel qualified to voice such a strong opinion on it. What I do know is that we need more representation of men and women with disabilities, which the media often pretends don’t exist.

How many people have you known, or seen, that are physically disabled? As a reader, you may have a disability, yourself, and it is your voice that matters most in this. (But do we hear it?) In contrast, how many people have you seen in visual media with a physical disability? (How many of them have voices?)

Michael P. Murphy, in his article ‘Combating Stereotypes,’ says —

“In movies, on TV or in novels, physically disabled characters are rarely the protagonists. Rather, the disability is the catalyst which propels the main character–generally a photogenic, able-bodied person–to act/react/grow/save/emote/empathize. The token disabled person serves one dramatic purpose: moral impetus for the hero.”

So, in these terms, Grey’s Anatomy fairs pretty well when Arizona Robbins loses her leg. Arizona’s disability is not a catalyst for her partner, Callie, to grow. The disability affects their relationship, yes, but when the spotlight leaves Arizona to go to Callie, it does bounce back.

I just wish they had cast an actor or actress with a disability for such a role. I wish more than one character on one mainstream tv show represented an entire (marginalized) group of people.

But it’s a start, and Grey’s Anatomy is in the forefront of my mind for positive, diverse representation overall. Not only is the cast racially diverse, the body types are, as well.

Grey’s not only tell us that women are doctors, but that women of color are doctors, small and big women are doctors, disabled women are doctors, and bisexual and lesbian women are doctors.

And no one in the hospital bats an eyelash.

callie and arizona wedding

Grey’s Anatomy is the go-to show for representation of a long-lasting relationship between two women. Arizona Robbins is a lesbian, and Callie Torres is a bisexual woman. Their daughter is the biological daughter of Callie and plastic surgeon Mark Sloan, but Arizona is very much a mom to little Sofia.

Modern family can take note on this unconventional family dynamic. It’s absolutely refreshing to see LGBTQ representation that isn’t all about (white) men.

All in all, you would think that Grey’s Anatomy would get an A+ on a feminist grading system…but not quite.

We need to discuss George O’Malley.

Trigger warning: rape.

george and mer

I wish that I didn’t understand why the audience and show runners love George. We are taught to root for the underdog, unconventionally attractive, white male. He’s the friend. He’s the nice guy. He doesn’t get women at the bar.

And, sometimes, he’s a rapist.

Nice Guys are the ones that get “friendzoned,” a bullshit word for men who are sexually interested in female friends (who are only interested in remaining friends). We’re supposed to feel really, really bad for them. Because unrequited love (and sex) sucks.

But being a Nice Guy doesn’t mean he deserves the girl. It doesn’t mean she owes him anything.

So when Meredith and George get into bed, and Meredith starts crying, I could not believe that Grey’s Anatomy turned it into a story about how awful Meredith was for not wanting to have sex with George.

She cried because she realizes that she doesn’t want to have sex with him, and in that moment, the very moment a woman does not consent mentally, physically, and/or verbally, she is raped.

There a million feelings crashing into Meredith, not one of which was that she wanted to hurt George. Yet somehow George thinks it is the worst thing Meredith could have ever done to him, and the show agrees. The other characters and narrative treat Meredith like a vindictive vixen, instead of a woman who realized that she did not want to have sex.

And possibly realized that she was being raped.

Meredith was visibly upset when George entered and professed his feelings. But when she starts crying during his thrusting, his response is something about how sex with him is that “awful,” and storms out of the room.

And the show thinks he’s the mature one?

It’s the absolute worst storyline Grey’s Anatomy has ever done, and at times, it made me physically ill to watch unfold. Women and men who are raped are never the victims. They’re the vixens. The sluts. The ones who asked for it. The ones who wanted it. The ones who cried.

When rapists go on trial, they’re the victims, the ones whose lives are being ruined. It’s disgusting, and I am still upset that a show with such good representation utterly fails by victim-blaming and victim-shaming their main character.

And they don’t even know they were wrong for doing it. The characters and show still revere George. I don’t even know why, other than he’s the Nice Guy, the underdog…

The white, male underdog, sure. I have no respect for the Nice Guy syndrome, especially when it ends up hurting women, as it always does.

Ugh.

After it all, I would still recommend the show because of its vast representation of women. I honestly believe Grey’s Anatomy tries to be good for women, but when it’s problematic, it doesn’t know when to stop.

grey's girls night

I will always love Grey’s girls, their relationships, and triumphs and failures as individuals and as a whole. I hope there are many others who feel the same.

I want my future baby brother, nieces and nephews, and possibly children to grow up knowing that women are complex enough to be surgeons, and complex enough not to be defined by only that.

Because we are not just basket cases. We are not just whiny, spineless, or selfish. We are not just what the media says we are.

We will always be more.

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