“In recent years, writers of Grey’s Anatomy have gained the courage to adapt a more intentional approach to diversity.”
Title: Grey's Anatomy
Episodes Reviewed: Seasons 1-8 and 14
Creator: Shonda Rhimes 👩🏾🇺🇸
Writers: Shonda Rhimes 👩🏾🇺🇸 (317 eps), Jen Klein 👩🏼🇺🇸 (49 eps), Peter Nowalk 👨🏼🇺🇸🌈 (34 eps), Stacy McKee 👩🏼🇺🇸 (33 eps), William Harper 👨🏼🇺🇸 (30 eps), Meg Marinis 👩🏼🇺🇸 (24 eps), and various
Reviewed by Catherine Bailey from Think or Blue 👩🏼🇺🇸
In Grey’s Anatomy, Seattle Grace Hospital provides the backdrop for the show’s good-looking medical professionals. Week after week audiences are treated to watching crops of interns get their asses handed to them by hospital elders intent on banishing weakness.
With 14 seasons under its belt and renewed for a 15th, Grey's Anatomy is the longest-running drama to dominate ABC, as well as the 8th longest-running across television networks. The show’s staying power has solidified creator Shonda Rhimes' stature as queen of primetime, spawning several more hits like Private Practice, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder. Unfortunately, any series spanning this much time will inevitably sag, and for me that point came after eight seasons of predictable, soapy plotting. The good aspects never left: the emotional patient storylines, ethical dilemmas, career struggles, and a soundtrack worth Shazam-ing. But the dramatic mass shootings and plane crashes began to feel a bit too General Hospital. When I found myself rolling my eyes during Meredith’s monologues in Season 8, I knew it was time to quit the show.
Yet the mid-series lull is mostly forgiven in light of Rhimes' broader dedication to rich and complicated women and people of color. I especially pleased to see the show reclaiming some of its early buzz around diversity, hearing that writers for Season 14 were tackling some of the toughest, but most important issues of the decade—Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo and Time's Up movements, inherent biases, domestic violence, and transgender issues. So I returned to the series and was happy to see it didn’t disappoint.
Off-screen, too, the actors of Grey's Anatomy have grappled with issues of the moment, including Isaiah Washington's alleged gay slur (and subsequent firing), Ellen Pompeo's public acknowledgement of pay inequity and discord with Patrick Dempsey in salary negotiations, Rhimes' dedication to elevating Pompeo's power, and Jesse Williams' memorable BET Humanitarian Award speech that caused conservative fans to call for his termination. These incidents all add to the sense that, despite the show’s long reign, Grey’s Anatomy continues to have new things to say.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
The fixations on romance in earlier seasons eventually balance out through the writers’ deep commitment to developing women across time, personally and through career challenges. Women of color particularly shine. Dr. Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson), who is black, is at first a no-nonsense doctor awkwardly nicknamed “The Nazi”. Luckily, she unfolds as a caring person who struggles, often unsuccessfully, to balance her high career aspirations with family caregiving.
Meanwhile, Dr. Cristina Yang (played by Sandra Oh, who is Korean Canadian) at first threatens to perpetuate the hyper-driven, model minority stereotype, but the audience quickly learns she is a steadfast friend, never submissive, and harbors a strong and unapologetic sex drive. She knows she's the best and is determined to prove it. A blog by Northwestern University students taking the ‘Asian American Popular Culture’ course describes Yang’s character as someone who “revolutionizes the expectations and portrayals of Asian American women with her uniqueness and multidimensional personality.”
Also satisfying is the evolution of lead character Meredith Grey, who begins as a whiny, McDreamy-obsessed, and monologue-prone intern in Season 1 to an accomplished and wise surgeon in Season 14.
One must wonder, though, whether today Rhimes would have chosen different romances for the two lead interns, Dr. Grey and Dr. Yang, who engage in sexual relationships with their superiors, Dr. Derek Shepherd AKA McDreamy (Patrick Dempsey) and Dr. Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington), respectively. Both attending surgeons held considerable sway over the careers of their female subordinates, and while the relationships were presented as consensual, the show fails to explore the nuances of consent when wrapped up in complicated power dynamics.
Grey's Anatomy tackles race through sheer representation. Various ethnicities grace our screen with levels of diversity that generally reflect real-world Seattle—more than a third of the population was non-white in 2016—and are distributed through patients, nurses, and doctors alike. It’s not uncommon to come across a scene featuring a group of doctors who all belong to ethnic minorities. In addition to the complex women of color mentioned above, black men like Dr. Richard Webber (James Pickens, Jr.), Dr. Burke, and Dr. Jackson Avery (Jesse Williams, who is mixed-race with some Seminole) garner significant screen time.
When the series first aired in 2005, it was lauded for this diversity and its "color-blind" casting, where Rhimes refrained from designating ethnicities to any of the characters she’d written. In the following years, Rhimes mirrored this color-blind approach in her own life when she expressed frustration with the attention to her race and gender, wanting to be recognized not just as the most powerful black, female showrunner, but as a powerful showrunner, period. In 2014, she tells The Hollywood Reporter, "I find race and gender to be terribly important; they're terribly important to who I am. But there's something about the need for everybody else to spend time talking about it...that pisses me off."
Nonetheless, Rhimes’ attention to gender and race has grown more intentional in recent years. Season 14 looks very different than its earlier, perhaps naive "color-blind" writing, instead addressing race and gender with precision. Plotlines such as police officers shooting an unarmed 12 year-old black boy, bias against black female patients in health care, and internalized racism and bias in the workplace all appear with more maturity than what we saw in 2005.
One of the most poignant scenes of Season 14 involves Dr. Miranda Bailey and husband Ben (Jason George) giving “the talk” to their black adolescent son, as they instruct him on how to interact with law enforcement. "Tell the police what you're doing. If your white friends are playing with toy guns or running from cops, you can't run away from them, no matter how afraid you are. Never, never run," Bailey says, capping off an unforgettable scene.
Grey's Anatomy has featured several major and supporting LGBTQ characters throughout the series. The writers give beloved, series stalwarts such as Dr. Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) or Dr. Arizona Robbins (Jessica Capshaw) significant challenges throughout the series, including amputation and miscarriage, writing them as multidimensional people rather than token bisexual or lesbian characters.
As with the above categories, it took time for the show to achieve this level of nuanced representation. The first same-sex kiss by recurring characters, between Dr. Hahn (Brooke Smith) and Dr. Torres in Season 4, Episode 15, occurs in front of a straight, white man. The ensuing jokes about three-ways lends a voyeuristic, straight-centric quality to what would have been a compelling moment. Luckily, Grey's Anatomy earns back points over time due to its long-term commitment to portraying queer women in major roles. Dr. Torres, in particular, embodies a fresh perspective: a Latina orthopedic surgeon who loves broken bones, was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, and comes to terms with her bisexuality in a nuanced way across Seasons 2 and 3.
When I came back to the show in Season 14, I was pleased to see thoughtful trans characters who were cast authentically. Dr. Casey Parker (Alex Blue Davis) enjoys several episodes that do not revolve around his status as a trans man—a fact that is only revealed late in his character arc. Writers reportedly worked closely with GLAAD to craft the story carefully; after Dr. Parker spends a whole day with Dr. Bailey, it leads to a discussion about the sex designation on his driver’s license. He says, "I'm a proud trans man, Dr. Bailey, but I like for people to get to know me before they find out my medical history."
A second trans character who sees multiple episodes, this time as a patient as well as a doctor, is Dr. Velez (Candis Cayne). She wants Dr. Avery to join a new vaginoplasty that would break ground in gender confirmation surgery, a plot that was inspired by a true story.
The trans representation on Grey's Anatomy evinces the show’s commitment to getting LGBTQ representation right. One can't help but wonder, though, in almost fourteen years...where are all the gay men? We see some as patients, but none in major or supporting roles. As one of the Top 5 destinations in the country for gay men, as reported by the New York Times, this feels like a bit of an omission.
Bonus for Age: +0.50
Several characters in Grey’s Anatomy are over the ages of 50 and 60, including stars like James Pickens, Jr.; the legendary Debbie Allen, who appears in more than 50 episodes as the mother of Dr. Jackson Avery; and Kate Burton in the role of Meredith Grey’s mother, who is a brilliant surgeon in her own right despite battling Alzheimer’s. Their storylines feature career aspirations and romantic relationships, and are generally given the same level of depth as their younger cast mates.
Deduction for Disability: -0.25
Deduction for Body Positivity: -0.25
While I would love to give a bonus to the show for showing major characters with disabilities, such as Dr. Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd) as he experiences PTSD or Dr. Arizona Robbins' contending with a newly amputated leg, criticisms from the disabled community should be heeded. Grey's Anatomy has been called out for fat shaming, problematic Deaf characters, or other incidents of casual ableism that suggests the writers have more work to do on this front.
Mediaversity Grade: B 4.19/5
While the early years of Grey’s Anatomy are extra sudsy, with little exploration of race beyond cast representation, writers have gained the courage to adapt a more intentional approach to diversity in recent years, particularly with women of color. Despite my multi-season break from the show, I was heartened to see Grey's Anatomy propel itself back into the cultural spotlight with new focus on timely issues. Fingers crossed this standard-bearer for primetime television continues to push itself on representation, particularly for the disabled community which has yet to see much progress made.