OK, so everyday I get hits on this site from people looking for a feminist analysis of the hit TV show, Grey’s Anatomy. I guess they end up here because I have the show linked in my sidebar and, well, I write about feminism. Since Grey’s Anatomy is my new favourite TV show since the untimely death of my true all-time favourite, Alias, and in keeping with Ballgame’s post about feminism in film, I thought I’d give them what they come here looking for.
First: why I love Grey’s Anatomy.
- I tend to generally like medical TV shows (I’ve been watching ER for as long as it’s been on TV)
- I love Ellen Pompeo, she’s totally cute and I loved her in that movie, Moonlight Mile, with Jake Gyllenhall, who I also love
- I also love Sandra Oh, I think she is a comedic genius
- Patrick Dempsey is… dreamy
- Isaiah Washington floats my boat
- smart dialogue
- good friendships
- an ethnically mixed and representative cast of characters in positions of power and status
Is the show always realistic? I don’t know, I’m not a surgeon. Hell, it’s a TV show for christ sake, it’s meant to entertain us. What I think it does well is show the competition and determination and dedication that medical professionals have in order to get where they are, and it also shows us the massive egos involved. 🙂
Next, where does the feminist critique come in?
For starters, the show has a lot of female characters, all of whom are doctors – surgeons in fact. Surgery is a difficult specialty, and very competitive. These women are portrayed as smart and strong, dedicated and deserving. One is Jewish-Korean. One is from a trailor park and put herself through medical school by modelling underwear. One is Hispanic. One is Black. They are all kind of a mess emotionally. None of them hold a top administrative position. Two are attendings, and one is a chief resident and oversees the interns.
The men on the show are handsome and smart. The chief of surgery is black. The next in line for his job is also black. The guy who owns the bar across the street is gay and his partner is Asian. A couple of them are assholes. But all of them are portrayed as having a sensitive side, being good guys who just act out sometimes.
One of the main relationships on the show is between Meredith, played by Ellen Pompeo, and Derek (AKA McDreamy), played by Patrick Dempsey. Here’s how that went: boy meets girl, they fall in love. Boy just happens to be girl’s superior at work. Boy was married all along to Mrs. McDreamy, girl dumps boy, girl pines after boy while he tries to work out his marriage, boy still loves girl, girl meets a new boy, boy gets jealous, boy and girl have sex, boy leaves Mrs. McDreamy, boy and girl are still messed up emotionally but want to give it a try. So, the one with the power in this relationship? The boy. He also holds all the cards in his marriage because his wife cheated on him and he feels that gives him moral superiority that allows him to be kind of an asshole to her. He lied to Meredith about being married. And she has to deal with accusations of sleeping her way to the best surgeries and claims of favouritism, while he just gets to do what he wants. But, he’s just so darn dreamy! With the floppy hair and the dimples, he is oh-so-hard to resist. I should note that Meredith is quite often referred to as the Slutty Intern, especially this season since she slept with McDreamy once after knowing he was married. hmmmm.
Another big relationship on the show is between Cristina (Sandra Oh) and Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington). Once again, he is her superior at work. She is the one who is vulnerable to criticism and accusations of using her sexuality to get ahead, while his sexuality or morality is never put on display or questioned in any way. Currently, Burke is having difficulty returning to full ability after a shooting accident last season, and Cristina is covering for him so he can maintain his image of ultra-egoiste, powerful, best in the world heart surgeon. Now she’s getting in trouble for covering for him and keeping his secret. She is making sacrifices that could really cost her and put her in an even more vulnerable position so that he can maintain his super-masculine image of the brilliant doctor. hmmm.
Then there’s Izzie, played by Katherine Heigl. She’s beautiful, blonde, smart, sweet. She bakes for relaxation. She grew up in a trailer park and modelled lingerie to pay for school – which posed a problem for her when her fellow interns found out about it. She reclaimed that situation by stripping down in the locker room in order to shame the asshole who was giving her a hard time and spouting my favourite line of the entire show thus far: “Yes, I have breasts! God, how can anyone practice medicine with these?”Last season, Izzie gave that asshole, Alex played by Justin Chambers, a chance and carried on a sexual relationship with him for a time. She was somewhat redeemed when she fell in love with one of her patients and he asked her to marry him. Too bad he died. hmmmm.
Then there’s poor old Mrs. McDreamy, Addison, played by Kate Walsh. The whole truth about her when push comes to shove is the fact that she was: a) married to Derek and b) had an affair with his best friend. Oh, and she happens to be a talented neo-natal/obstetric surgeon. Whenever an intern gets the chance to work with Addison, the situation is referred to as being stuck on “gyne patrol”. hmmm.
Last, there’s Miranda Bailey, played by the brilliant Chandra Wilson. She’s tough, strong, dedicated, private. She has a husband and a new baby, but she is just as determined to be the best damn surgeon around as she ever was. She is the supervisor of all the interns – what do they call that, chief resident I guess. She wields the power she has, and is a force to be reckoned with. She is judgemental of Meredith and Cristina for sleeping with attending surgeons. She has a strong sense of what’s right and what’s not and that is definitely out in her books – she’s demonstrated that by riding Meredith’s ass. She has no power over McDreamy, but she did chastise him for his inappropriate relationship with Meredith. She is the kind of moral centre of the show – and the show’s only mother. Tough disciplinarian, but caring bedside manner. hmmm.
The only other women we see on an ongoing basis is the Chief (James T. Pickens)’s wife, played by Loretta Devine, and Meredith’s mother Ellis. The chief had a long-term affair with Ellis, a demanding and severe surgeon who was overbearing but now has Alzheimer’s disease. The chief’s wife knew about the affair – which broke up Ellis’ marriage to her husband, who deserted Meredith – but the chief’s wife stayed. She even put aside her own desire for children so the chief could pursue his career unencumbered by familial responsibility. She just kicked him out for refusing to retire. Her role is definitely the victim/martyr/good wife, who always supports her man. hmmm.
In addition to all of this, most of these women are all beautiful and slim and have perfect hair. We never see any of them exercising and we often see them eating sweets and ice cream and things that Izzie has baked. Of course, they are not really surgeons, they are actors and their job is to present an image of perfect femininity to the world, so what else can we expect from people on TV shows. But still, unrealistic demands of femininity are perpetuated by this show.
That’s all I have to say about Grey’s Anatomy. On the one hand, it portrays strong, successful women. On the other, the men on the show have more power than the women in every situation. Art imitating life? Seems like it to me.