I still watch Grey’s Anatomy. I haven’t missed an episode since it aired. And now that I have cancelled cable and rely on Netflix for my shows, I spend the last hour of my evening — after my grading is done, kids’ homework is checked, kids have been put to bed, bills have been paid, whatever writing I can muster is written — collapsing on my couch to watch Grey’s Anatomy— from the beginning.
I am also a feminist, and lot of people think that the two don’t go together, as they relegate this show to the petty corner of chick flick entertainment. But it is not. The reason I gravitate to this show each week — still — is because it speaks to me as a woman. And it’s not the sex and relationships that I am after. I can honestly say I’d like to fast forward past the sex that does overwhelm Shonda Rhimes’ shows. I even stopped watching Private Practice, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder because of the barrage of sex that seems to overshadow characters for the sheer sake of sensationalism. I can do without those, but I always go back to Grey’s Anatomy. And the reason is because its female characters appeal to my feminist inclinations.
In the end, this is a feminist show with female empowerment at its core. It not only dramatizes relationships that women have with men and women, but it also brings to the forefront the struggles and choices women must make when they want to be surgeons — professionals — and the complicated dance that comes with it that includes balancing family, love, and the self. In my forties, I find myself pulled in by the choices and struggles these professional women face because I face them each and every day — as a woman, a feminist, a mother, a wife, a dreamer, and an ambitious writer. I find my struggles in the experiences of Cristina Yang and Meredith Grey and Miranda Bailey in each episode, for they represent today’s feminists, today’s ambitious and driven women. This is why the show has been so successful, its 12th season having just begun, with 25 Emmy and 10 Golden Globe nominations since its inception in 2005.
Motherhood as Choice: Some women are mothers, and some are not. Some want to be mothers, and some don’t. And we see all kinds of mother-women in Grey’s: Meredith Grey’s mother was a neglectful one, but Meredith Grey is a good model for a working mom. Callie Torres and Miranda Bailey also work and have children, and the issue of balancing both becomes a conversation that is being vocalized in this show. We see their children, hoisted on hips or pushed in strollers, as the doctors bring them into Seattle Grace in the morning, drop them off in the hospital’s day care center (now this is how all businesses should run), run off to their surgeries, and then carry them off — usually in the evening — to their home and to bed. We are given the antithesis of this kind of working mother in Cristina Yang — the best female character ever imagined.
Cristina is a surgeon who only wants to be a surgeon, and although she has relationships with men, and even marries them, she has no desire to have a baby. She even went so far as to abort her baby while married to Hunt, and he held her hand throughout the procedure even though it went against his own desires (and he eventually resented her for it). From beginning to end, Cristina chooses her self, her gift — her art — over family and domestication, knowing that becoming a mother will affect her ambitions as a surgeon. She is hardcore, and she exemplifies the women who inherently know that they will not be good mothers because they choose themselves and their needs first. Our society will tell you this is selfishness, but selfishness is knowing this about yourself and having children anyway — bringing them into the world and not taking care of their needs or feeding them with love. We saw this kind of mother — the neglectful and selfish one — in Meredith Grey’s mother. This is good, because the fact that today’s women have a choice is becoming the norm. Motherhood is not the fate of all women, nor is becoming a mother every woman’s desire or calling.
Working Mothers: In the show, we see working mothers and the ordeals they face while pursuing their dreams of having it all. They have relationships, children, and work that they love. As a working mother, I enjoy the fact that Shonda Rhimes and her writers show the public exactly what it’s like to be a mother and to work. They show what partnership parenting is all about when Meredith and Derek work together to get breakfast on the table, get the kids to day care, and then spend the day or night performing surgeries. We see the same kind of tag team efforts between Callie and her wife, Arizona, and Bailey and her husband, Warren. Of course, it helps that they all work in the same place and that their employers supply staff with a 24-hour in-house day care facility. This makes the work/family life possible and ensures that these women are provided with equal access to work and family.
And then, of course, we also see the fragmented family and how the women are usually the ones who are left to shoulder the burden of both family and work. When Derek takes a job in Washington, Meredith chooses to stay in Seattle, refusing to give up her home and work in pursuit of his. She is the sun and will not let his dreams eclipse hers. Naturally, it seems, he goes off without the kids and she stays behind working and taking care of their two young children. The same thing occurred when Bailey’s second husband took a fellowship in another state, leaving her behind to care for their son while she worked a surgeon’s endless hours. This is pivotal for me in my own life, as my husband just took a job in NY while I work and parent without him in our home. He visits every three weeks, and while I support his work, I am also reminded at how it’s women who usually stay behind, taking care of the kids, and doing it all.
I have never been a confident mother or wife, acquiring most of my confidence from working and teaching and writing, and every day, I feel overwhelmed by the fact that I am doing so much on my own. I am learning how to balance my life and my work, how to let things go as a parent, and that as an admittedly fallible human being, I give myself permission to NOT be perfect. I make mistakes, and I learn from them, and I am teaching my children that it’s OK not to get it all right all the time. But I will tell you one thing. I have never felt braver, stronger, tougher than this past year, doing it all on my own. I am learning that if anything happens to my husband and I am really left alone in life, I can manage it. I am strong enough to do it on my own. And I did not have this kind of knowledge or understanding of myself – of my strengths – until I was left alone to do it all. And I can do it all. I can have it all, on my own. That is great, pure, empowering knowledge. I wake up everyday tired and anxious – but so damn proud of myself. No one can take this away from me.
Female Competition: Girls learn to compete for stupid things: clothing, shoes, looks, desirability, money or cars their boyfriends have, and of course, the attention of boys. They grow into women who compete for the same trivial things. In Grey’s Anatomy, we encounter women who compete for surgeries, for sutures, for advancement, for a seat on the hospital’s board – not for looks or men. Their hair is piled on top of their heads or in ponytails, they all wear loose-fitting scrubs, and the only thing that distinguishes them from one another is the type of surgeon they are. The kind of workers they prove themselves to be. Only the tough survive, sacrificing sleep for a gallbladder removal or for trauma experience, and each season, we see the scuds – the weakest ones – disappear from the show. Even Meredith and Cristina – who are best friends – compete with each other for surgeries, and when they fought one another for the use of the 3-D printer, they did if for their work, their research, advancing medicine for the sake of saving lives and making a name for themselves. Their friendship survived because these two friends used each other and their friendship to drive each other.
Competition brings out the best in people – and the worst – but it pushes you to experience your limits and your full potential. Boys learn this through sports and playing on teams of 8-15 other boys; they learn how to compete against each other, pass the ball to each other, learn the position they are best at to win the game as a team, and then they continue to be friends outside of the game. Their competition is centered on achievement and winning, not superficial agendas the likes of who looks good in his uniform or whose pecks are more accentuated. Girls need to be taught this drive, this competition that pushes them to be their best, to reach for the unimaginable – drive and competition that is not situated in outward appearance but on achievement and success. It’s not a recurring motif that should only exist in a television show; it needs to be taught to our girls so that they can be strong and ambitious and driven to succeed in their personal and professional lives. No other show provides us with these kind of women who compete over surgeries like it’s a sport, fostering strength in each other and in themselves, using their intelligence to solve surgical problems, and pushing boundaries. It’s to Shonda Rhimes, the one who created this environment for healthy competition among women in the workplace that we owe our thanks.
Female Ambition: Cristina Yang continually surrenders motherhood for her ambition; she wants to be a cardiothoracic surgeon, and she doesn’t let anyone get in her way. Meredith Grey, Miranda Bailey, Callie Torres, Arizona Robbins, Amelia Shepherd, April Kepner, Addison Montgomery, Maggie Pierce, and all the other minor characters on the show are heralded as women with one ambition – the same ambition: to be the best surgeon in their field. That is the cornerstone of their existence, and no matter how many children they have or lose, how many men they love or lose, they are grounded in their ambition as surgeons. In Season 12 – the newest clips – we see the major characters as heads of departments in the hospital: Bailey is Chief of the entire hospital, Grey is Chief of Surgery, Pierce is head of Cardio, Amelia Shepherd is head of Neuro, Callie is head of Ortho, and Arizona has been and continues to be head of Peds. This is feminism – when the creator and the writers of a show create realistic portraits of women in powerful and influential positions. We had Bailey call herself a feminist when she cornered Grey into demanding her worth and negotiating a higher salary after being offered the Chief of Surgery position as Bailey’s right hand. Even Cristina, who left the show, ended up as Director of Cardiothoracic Research in Switzerland.
Feminism is at the forefront of this show, and this is why it’s been around since 2005. Women need it, need to see other women in power, hungering for more than beauty products and liposuctions and botox and clothing and accessories to match our shoes and jewelry and all the other stupid things we are told each and every day that we want because it’s what all women want. They don’t even acknowledge these ridiculous stereotypes of the female entity. Instead of all this superficial crap, they pursue Harper Avory awards, and they win them in competition with each other and with men in their field: Cristina Yang technically won one, even though politics got in the way, and Ellis Grey won four of them. Shonda Rhimes’ women are complicated and ambitious geniuses who don’t settle for anything less than they want. They are feminists. They know their worth, and they end up acting as mentors for the younger female interns who are just figuring it out.
Female Strength: From the moment we are young – even as young as preschool – we are told that we are not as strong as men. My daughter has heard it from her own little friends –both girls and boys – who are taught that girls are weaker than boys even as young as five.
In Grey’s Anatomy, we encounter emotionally strong women, but even better, we see physical strength in them. Early on in the show, we experienced power when Izzie Stevens drilled holes into a man’s skull on a bridge with nothing but a drill – and not a surgeon’s drill, either. We have watched Yang – in slow motion – straddling patients on gurneys, performing CPR. We see prissy and religious Kepner abandon her marriage and job at the hospital to head out to war-ridden countries and tend to soldiers as a war trauma surgeon. After serving in the warzone for nine months, she earns the rank of Captain in the Army. Serving in the army began as an escape from the loss of her baby, but the army made her stronger, and when she returns, we encounter an empowered and confident Kepner having found a way to bring an injured man stuck inside a car to the hospital – car and all – on a flatbed, with her standing on it, guarding the man and taking control of the situation.
There’s also Jo. Karev’s love interest, Jo is as tough as he is. Having grown up homeless and in the foster care system, she put herself through med school and was revealed to us as being intensely strong. She put three men in the hospital, and we saw the results of her prowess when she hospitalized a surgeon she was dating who laid rough hands on her. Once, she was even the only one who could pull scissors from a patient’s skull. Callie teaches her to use her anger in a more constructive manner – by joining her in ortho, breaking and resetting bones. Callie is intense, and we see her power when she applies her strength to bones. These are physically strong women – surgeons – who thrive on the physical demands that surgery entails. They are the embodiment of power.
Female Friendship: In the end, Grey’s Anatomy is about friendship – female friendship –how women foster these friendships, compete within them, and rely on them for their emotional and professional growth. The most important friendship is the one between Grey and Yang. They are each other’s person, above husbands and children. Since the beginning, their friendship withstood separation, competition, ambition, and divergent paths, but Cristina and Meredith always found their way back to each other. And when Yang left, she reminded Meredith to stand her ground and fight for what she wanted, not what her husband wanted. They didn’t hug or say “I love you” to each other, but the depth of their affection for the other was evident and lasting, and as a woman in my forties, I love this friendship more than any sexual or love relationship each woman pursued. The Cristina Yang/Meredith Grey friendship was the relationship that survived all changes and boundaries, and it is a friendship very few women have and one I wish I could foster in my own life. I would love to have “my person,” and even though I once thought my husband was all I needed, in my midlife, it would be nice to have a woman know me as well as he does. Someone I could complain to who would complain back, without judgment or ridicule, without superficial competition that does not reduce us to petty females. Someone who has my back – all the time.
Grey’s Anatomy isn’t a superficial television show about petty women in love and in sex. There is so much more to it. It’s about feminism, power, strength, ambition, and motherhood. It’s about women – from the perspective of women. A look at women from a female gaze, as we want to be seen, and not as we are typically portrayed by media, or how men perceive us to be. This is why we need Shonda Rhimes and more women like her in Hollywood – to show us what we can be, what we can achieve, and how good it feels when we see strong women like Yang and Kepner and Torres and Grey pursuing their dreams and having their adventures — dreams and adventures that have more to do with self-efficacy and empowerment than they do with finding the right man and falling in love.