I want to live in Shondaland. Ideally, the universe of Grey’s Anatomy (and Station 19 and Private Practice). And not just because the God of Shondaland is a benevolent black woman. Or because Grey’s did a Dia de Los Muertos episode last week (and a voting episode the week before that).
No, I want to live Shondaland because I love its vision of humankind. You see in Grey’s Anatomy (and to a lesser degree Scandal and How To Get Away with Murder), we see people at the top of their profession, doing life-changing work. And what do those people look like? Yes, of course, they’re TV-level beautiful. But more than that, the doctors, lawyers, firefighters, and heroes of Shondaland are black and white and brown. Skinny and thick. Women and men, cis and trans. Christian and atheist and Jewish and Muslim. Some are addicts. Some are differently abled. Some are rich and some grew up as foster kids. There are no boards solely composed of old white men deciding the fate of the world. Instead, you have the beauty of all of humankind represented.
In Shondaland, POC characters like Olivia Pope may “have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have” but they rise to the challenge. The Doctors of Grey-Sloan Memorial exist in a true meritocracy, where previous generations (thanks Dr. Richard Webber, thanks Meredith’s mom) fought the good fight and pathed the way for this hard-earned present.
That isn’t to say that Shondaland’s fictional today is post racial. It’s not – there’s still discrimination of all kinds. In Grey’s Anatomy, we see it in the ways patients try to navigate a dysfunctional insurance system that leaves them picking between bankruptcy and life-saving medical treatment. We see it in Dr. Jo Wilson’s powerlessness in the face of domestic violence. We see it when patients and colleagues underestimate Dr. Miranda Bailey (remember when she messed up that white supremacist’s tattoo? Or had a visiting doctor running around the hospital trying to find the “Nazi”?).
I was particularly impressed when the show delved into the reason a (good) white doctor Amelia Shepherd believes a white intern (Dr. Jo Wilson) over a black intern she works with more closely (Dr. Stephanie Edwards). It may be implicit bias but Amelia doesn’t get off the hook easily as another black doctor (Dr. Maggie Pierce) holds her accountable and asks her not to make Edwards pay for mistake twice by forcing the issue of forgiveness. That’s what happens when you have several black characters, not just one. Those are the types of issues you can delve into when you’ve been passing the Bechdel test for 15 seasons. This nuance is so rare on TV where race and discrimination issues are usually either A. ignored or B. treated like a completely black-or-white issue with racist villains against justice-seeking (often white) freedom fighters (pun intended). We’ve got to get deeper in the stories we tell about what it means to be a person of color and Grey’s+ does that, week in and week out.
Now, I’m not saying Shondaland is perfect. It certainly mirrors some of the problems of today. It erases nursing for one, having the doctors do the work that nurses and other medical professionals do in real life. And since nursing is so tied to womanhood and femininity, this privileging of “doctor” over “nurse” reinforces our broader privileging of the “masculine” over the “feminine.”
Shondaland in general and Grey’s in particular romanticizes relationships between unequals, relying too much on young woman falls in love with male superior (see also Scandal). If there’s anything we learned from #MeToo and Bill Clinton, it’s that it’s actually pretty unsexy to sleep with a subordinate. And, of course, to live in Shondaland is to live in a world full of terrible tragedies and deadly violence whether it’s plane crashes, shootings, or bomb explosions. Lots of bad stuff happens and it happens at an alarming frequency. I’d have to worry about what crazy, once-in-a-lifetime type tragedy would happen to me every year.
And yet despite the increased risk of death, near death, and general drama, I’d live there if I could. It’s the leadership porn I so desperately need in the Trump era. You see, Shonda Rhimes writes about teams of diverse people who achieve great things. Teams with leaders like Dr. Miranda Bailey and Dr. Richard Webber. These are the people you want to be running your hospital, to be your teacher or boss, or dare I say leading the country. They tell you the hard truths, keep the bigger vision in mind, and act with integrity. They make you laugh and they falter, humans with their own quirks, regrets, and weaknesses. Yet, fundamentally, they are good people who are rewarded for their hard work and strong character. Doesn’t that sound like the universe you want to live in too?