Grey’s Anatomy, to be honest, is the television version of the proverbial rom-com. There is romance and there is comedy and using the Seattle Grace Hospital as a premise, there is medical drama at the heart of it all. On a surface level it may all seem like fluff (especially compared to the likes of Big Little Lies, Game of Thrones etc) but Grey’s Anatomy, created by Shonda Rhimes, is anything but. The series is awesome in the way it has broken stereotypes without ever sounding preachy or patronizing. Shonda Rhimes very aptly summed it up when last year, while accepting the 2016 Norman Lear Achievement Award in Television at the 27th annual Producers Guild Awards, she said, “It’s not trailblazing to write the world as it actually is.” She said it made her sad to think that it was such a big deal to create strong women and influential characters of colour.
As the show continues, it is evident that Grey’s Anatomy continues to push boundaries in subtle ways.
Today, fourteen years into the show, almost all department heads are women, whether it’s Miranda Bailey, Meredith Grey, Maggie Pierce, Arizona Robbins, April Kepner or Catherine Avery. Dr. Amelia Shepherd is one of the lesser popular characters but she does head Neurosurgery very successfully. Her story has just taken an astounding turn and suddenly we’re more interested than annoyed by her.
The two-hour season debut this Thursday brought up a small incident, drawing attention to gender discrimination (and how to deal with it) at the workplace. Dr. Bailey, when getting ready for work, eyes her heels with disdain and annoyance. Why is it that I have to walk in these ridiculously uncomfortable shoes as Chief when the two former Chiefs – Webber and Hunt – could wear surgical clogs, she questions herself? She goes to work and closets her heels, taking out her comfortable albeit unstylish clogs.
Dr. Bailey is, in fact, one of the most fascinating characters on the show. She was introduced to us as ‘The Nazi’ in initial seasons and stepped in as a strong, extremely competent Afro-American character. Miranda Bailey’s character, Shonda Rhimes revealed in an earlier interview, was originally sketched as a petite, adorable blonde with lots of ringlets but that changed when Chandra Wilson walked through the door for auditions. The way Dr. Bailey’s character has evolved is equally progressive; not only does she get promoted to Chief of Surgery but, after her divorce, she finds love, affection, and companionship with a younger man. In Shonda Rhimes’ world, it isn’t always necessary for young, good-looking men to pair up with equally young and good looking women.
Fourteen years ago, Seattle Grace – the hospital at the epicenter of all drama – was conceived as a “frenetic, multicultural hub” and needless to say, it continues with ethnic diversity at its core. There are, most significantly, several actors of colour in the main cast.
“Ms. Rhimes has also worked hard to extend diversity to her show’s smallest roles,” New York Times writer Matthew Fogel wrote back on 2003 when the show made a debut. “Determined not to have a program in which ‘all the extras are white, except the lone janitor,’ she has created one of the most colorful backgrounds in television, a hospital in which punked-out bike messengers and suffering Hasidim roam the corridors.”
“Shonda’s only rule is drug dealers and pimps cannot be black,” said Dr. Zoanne Clack, a black writer for the show who also practices medicine. Even the episodic roles – a gay African-American, a young Hispanic couple – are multicultural. Truly, there isn’t a single race that has not been featured though we do miss having a character of Asian descent on the main caste. The half-Korean and brilliant Cristina Yang has not been replaced in ethnicity or character.
There are so many other ways in which Grey’s Anatomy continues to push boundaries and bring issues to the surface. It has dealt with alcohol addiction and drug abuse, mental health issues and psychological disorders, trauma faced by war survivors and servers, dealing with death and disabilities so on and so forth. Love and romance at the hospital are emancipated and teaches tolerance for people of all sorts of diverse sexual orientation. It’s incredibly racy, pun intended.
When one watches the kind of layered, nuanced storytelling as is witnessed in Grey’s Anatomy, local television appears all the more primitive. Will it ever be possible for a local drama to be progressive without appearing overtly preachy? Can a social drama ever be entertaining or will the audience always have to swallow bitter pills of poverty and oppression without any relief or pleasure? The trick is to tell the story and convey the message in a way that is not depressing; one waits for our writers and directors to learn and master that trick.
- This article was first published in Instep on Tuesday 3rd October 2017