Grey’s Anatomy has a reputation for being a show about sex and surgery. But sex and surgery are symbols of two facets of its greater, global theme: the lives of post-women’s-liberation women (…and men). All the regular female characters in the show are in the first generation that has had true freedom to choose how their life will go. It was only a generation ago that control over one’s body and career were things women were burning their bras for. A generation before that, women had no choice: they became housewives and mothers…or outcast spinsters.
But now women have the freedom to pursue careers, have a voice in their marriages and have the freedom to choose whether motherhood is what they want in life. Women having these freedoms changes things for men as well and both genders are feeling out their new roles as equals who are different but still equal in talent and ability. The show is about sex and surgery but with a qualification. It’s about women having the freedom to pursue sex at their own discretion and surgery as their own profession.
We can find this theme in the plots that have occurred over and over again. First there are plots concerning the surgeons’ careers. We have watched these women pursue careers as surgeons in what was once a man’s world but is now a world where more women are graduating from med school than men. They are transforming the profession. We’ve watched Izzie and Lexie have to contend with their very empathetic and emotional natures in a surgical world that used to exclude empathy and emotionality. We’ve also seen many of the doctors make mistakes but with the freedom to make a mistake and not have it blamed on their gender. This is a testament to how women have proven ourselves to be just as capable and therefore respected, even when we are making mistakes.
Second, there are the relationship plots and showrunner Shonda Rhimes herself has said that she always considered her show to be a relationship show. Here we have an exploration of how women today relate to each other and to men. We are no longer only wives and mothers we are now colleagues and equal partners in marriages. Marriage didn’t used to be this hard. It was being a wife that used to be hard. But now that women have an equal voice in marriage, marriage is a constant give and take and the work that is marriage is well represented in the show. In a wedding-obsessed culture, the realities of marriage are not often explored. Women relating to each other is also being well portrayed. We are no longer caged behind picket fences and can develop complex relationships with people other than our children. Meredith and Cristina, the true central relationship of the show, are deep best friends who consider each other their plutonic soul mate, their “person.” Has this depth of female friendship complete with severe fights both with and for each other been explored in a television show before to this extent? The sisterhood between Meredith and Lexie has been developed including how that relationship is just a little different than that of friendship. Family means staying by a family-member’s bedside all night and co-habitating and sharing babysitting duties. Finally, we live in an age where women who discover that they would prefer to marry other women is now becoming a freedom as well and of course the love story and marriage between Callie and Arizona has been one of the strongest story lines in the show’s history. Grey’s Anatomy continues to explore the variations of marriage and female relationships in new ways and a marriage between two women is this year’s new ground-breaking development.
The third major theme that keeps recurring in the show is motherhood, not only in the choice to be a mother but also how the characters relate to their own mothers and their experience of being raised by their mothers. Meredith has struggled for years with coming to terms with being raised by a neglectful and pathologically selfish mother. Her fear of mothering a child like she was mothered kept her from truly wanting to be a mother herself. But when motherhood was thrust upon her, she discovered that she is the opposite of her own mother, that she is in fact nurturing and selfless. She discovered who she was through motherhood. This is a common issue for women: the fear of becoming our mothers. But when we fear becoming our mothers, we tend to take the good of our mothers and do the opposite of the bad in a reactionary way. Meredith’s awful childhood was what made her such a good mother, and person, today. The choice a woman has to become a mother has come up time and time again with different reasonings and results. Callie and Bailey became mothers and wanted children and are learning how juggling motherhood and a demanding career will work for them. Arizona initially did not want to be a mother because she didn’t think she was “cut out for” the responsibility of it but because she loves and has a natural gift with children, she was able to open up to the possibility of having dependents (and thus not being so independent) because she loved Callie enough to do so. Her transformation into being a mother has been subtle and gradual. Cristina, on the other hand, adamantly does not want children and the show has portrayed how women can not want children without needing a reason and without it resulting in them being any less of a woman. In her story with Owen this year, it has also explored how you cannot force motherhood on a woman. Forced motherhood is not good for the mother or the child. It will destroy both.
The show’s greater “About”ness being Women doesn’t discount the male characters nor does it leave them one-dimensional. The truth is, the world has changed for men as well. Now that they don’t have sole responsibility as providers for a wife and gaggle of children, they have freedom to, well, lighten up a little. Alex’s arc has been one of discovering the truth about himself: that he is not the jerk he was raised to believe he is. Mark’s extended adolescence has blossomed into desired and responsible fatherhood. Jackson has overcome the crippling fear of failure that occurs when you come from a family of rockstar surgeons. They too are rich characters. They just take their shirts off more.
By the way…
• The work with Cristina and Owen this year has been very good from both a writing stand point and a performance stand point. They are probably the two people on the show who are the most deeply broken. This exploration of the marriage between two broken people who love each other deeply but may not be right for each other has been a fantastic new dimension to the series. And tonight’s metaphor patient story—A textured performance from
Uncle Phil James Avery of a man whose husband of many years was brain dead and needing to be taken off life support—was yet another symbolic illustration of the challenge facing the regular characters. In this case, his difficulty with letting go when he probably should was an echo of Owen and Cristina and their difficulty of letting go of each other when perhaps they should and even more specifically of Cristina’s difficulty in letting go of her fears and suspicions.
• I love how Callie is now attending to all of the other doctors’ problems. She’s no longer the self-professed “freak” who gets accidentally married or accidentally pregnant. She’s the happily married family woman, the stable one. She fixed things with Teddy’s surgical trial, she’s helping Meredith study for her board exams, she’s observing what’s going on with Alex and expressing concern about it to Arizona…and Alex. Our beloved insecure basement-dweller who tended, once upon a time, to make bad decisions, is now all grown up. It’s beautiful and we love her all the more for it.
• Morgan is so perfect for Alex not only because they have chemistry and because she’s smart and comes with a kid (and I can’t be the only one who has been hoping to see Alex as a father one day) but also because she’s all three kinds of inappropriate relationship: she’s his intern, she was a patient in the hospital and she’s the mother of one of his patients. Those are the three off-limits. In other words, perfect for Alex!
• I’ve been wondering for a while if something is brewing for Arizona (but it may be wishful thinking because she’s yet to have a multi-episode arc that’s independent of her relationship with Callie or of being supporting-player to Alex). It didn’t come up tonight, but there has been revelation that she can be a “monster” and she admitted to Alex that she was a “horror show” when she was a resident. Is this simply an explanation for why she has taken Alex under her wing and an example of who Alex might become or are these seeds being planted for something to come later?
• I really enjoyed the storyline for the Shepherd-Grey family in tonight’s episode. I think it will bring growth for all three of them as doctors and possibly as a family. They are now sharing the house (for now) as a lovely happy family and it’s good to see further development of that family dynamic.
• I think this new Oxford Smarty Pants is great for Jackson: she’s someone who can really challenge him. I hope she sticks around. She’d be a great addition to the cast.
• The show is sometimes criticized for portraying characters that are too dysfunctional. But the truth is, we’re all dysfunctional, some just hide it better than others. Besides, characters who are perfect are boring.
• I challenge anyone who says that Grey’s Anatomy could do better in the diversity of its cast and characters to watch this episode and defend their position. Aside from their regular diverse characters in tonight’s episode (8.17 “One Step Too Far”), they had four guest starring black characters in two different story lines—one of which was in a long-term gay marriage—and one Indian guest actor with only two white guest stars. They had three white doctors working with a black patient—a law school graduate—and three black doctors working with a white patient. Grey’s Anatomy has being doing this since 2005 and this easy, non-sterotypical diversity is only showing up in other shows now. But because Grey’s Anatomy has had such an easy diversity amongst its characters for so long, it’s just a normal part of the show and is only notable when someone accuses them of not being diverse enough. That accusation is ridiculous and evidence of someone who does not watch the show. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again: Shondaland is how the world should be.
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