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Grey’s Anatomy

The Complicated Intersection of Love and Excellence

Our relationships are supposed to make us stronger: “you challenge me to be better,” “I learn so much from you,” “you’re my best friend.” They’re all clichés you hear at weddings and see on anniversary cards. Yet, as a recent New York Times article reminded us, relationships don’t always turn out to be fountains of support and encouragement — particularly for women.

The stats show that despite what the fairy tales tell you, women are less happy when married and our earnings go down when we have families (while men’s remains unaffected). So for many women, the struggle between love and professional excellence is on-going and often ending in loss: careers suffer, relationships suffer.

So what’s a modern, ambitious woman to do? Where can we look for role models? Please don’t point me to the thousands of starlets and women business leaders who’ve answered the “how do you balance it all” question. That’s a dead end — I’ve never found anything useful there and I bet you haven’t either. Instead, let me present an unlikely source of knowledge and understanding: Shonda Rhimes’s Grey’s Anatomy.

Most medical shows have life-and-death as their central conflict (and Grey certainly has plenty of that), but for the last 15-seasons, I’d argue, the show’s central question has been how do you navigate the intersection of love and excellence, the ways in which they conflict and the ways in which they merge.

Hear me out. The show literally starts with young resident Meredith Grey sleeping with her superior. Their relationship — Meredith and Derek — propelled season after season of the show and arguably still does, even after Derek dies in season 11. Yet, it wasn’t all candlelight, love triangles, and steamy sex. There was also Meredith navigating how having Derek as her partner helped and hurt her career. It starts with her subverting the perception that she’s sleeping her way to the top. Then, there’s how she changes her specialty, giving up neurosurgery because it’s better for her relationship if the two don’t work that closely together.

In the later years, when Derek’s tapped by US government (this was under Obama mind you) to head a groundbreaking research product into the human brain, Meredith has to grapple with balancing Derek’s needs and her own. How can she fight for her career and the community she’s built in Seattle if they stand in the way of Derek’s destiny to save humankind? Unsure of what to do and even what to feel, it’s Meredith’s (real) person Cristina who has the solution. She says Derek may be very “dreamy, but he is not the sun. You are.” With these words of wisdom, Meredith goes ahead and picks herself. It’s a brave and somewhat controversial chose, particularly for us women who are taught to be self-sacrificing, especially in this sphere. Her stance works for her but it’s not easy — Derek, like so many real men, doesn’t just see Meredith’s worth and respect it. He has to be dragged into accepting her autonomy and her status as an equal. And he’s one of the good ones!

Of course, Derek isn’t all bad for Meredith’s career either. Yes, he gets her more time in the OR and research opportunities (even if they’re ill-fated), but he also serves as an intellectual partner, encouraging her to challenge herself. They draw that tumor on their bedroom wall and figure out how to tackle it together. They bounce ideas off each other and share successes and failures. It’s not as simple as him standing in her way. It’s complicated.

And Meredith isn’t the only one with complex relationship dynamics. Think about Cristina’s pension for sleeping with her mentors. Burke, Colin Marlow (her professor at Stanford), even Owen — she picks her partners because she finds their brains, their knowledge, their accomplishments sexy. They teach her so much, particularly Burke whose tremor and the ensuing cover-up send Cristina’s learning and skills at cardiothoracic surgery into warp drive. But the lines get murky when this extremely ambitious woman finds that her lovers’ wants don’t match her own (see having children). When you’re in a relationship with your mentor, breaking up means a broken heart and major career setbacks.

It turns out, aligning two separate people’s dreams and ambitions is not easy. Navigating this conflict is made more difficult in our patriarchal society that puts men’s needs above women’s, particularly when it comes to career. But that doesn’t mean these issues only exist for women in heterosexual relationships. Callie and Arizona deal with it, both about going to “Africa” for Arizona’s Carter Madison grant and then later co-parenting Sophia with Callie’s very heterosexual baby daddy Mark.

In a recent episode, we see Meredith’s latest love interest Deluca unsure how to navigate his colleagues and particularly his superior Richard Webber (and Meredith’s defacto father) knowing about his relationship with Meredith. Deluca brings his awkwardness into surgery, potentially letting his love life get in the way of his learning. The scene mostly plays for laughs — it is easier for men in this particular sphere after all — yet the conflict remains.

It turns out there is no easy answer for how to navigate the intersection of love and excellence. Remember that episode in season six “I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked,” when the residents discuss “if you had to choose between the thing you love, surgery, and the person you love, which would you choose?” Of course, it’s Cristina asking the question (because she’s facing it with the Owen-Teddy-Cristina love triangle to end all love triangles). And of course, Cristina chooses surgery while Izzie chooses love. But the rest of the group is unsure. Meredith tries not to answer, advising her friend not talk about it. Cristina only sort of heeds her advice, declaring later to Teddy, “I choose surgery over a guy. I’m not gonna apologize for it, especially to you… I want to be great, and I want to learn from you. I choose my gift.” And the episode ends with a tense conversation between Meredith and Derek in which she tells him “in the choice between surgery and love, You chose surgery. You chose ambition today.” And he responds, “so did you… We’re the same.”

These discussions where we clearly name how our relationships hinder and help our professional ambitions are rare. They’re infrequent in real life and on screen — even broaching the subject can be taboo. But they are vital to address the gender gap at home and in the workplace. How else do we suss out our personal priorities, get the support we need (from our partners and friends), and make the best decisions? We can’t unless we know what we are facing. So let’s follow Shonda Rhimes’s lead and recognize the intersections of love and excellence. It’ll be good for all of us.

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The Case for Still Watching “Grey’s Anatomy”

It’s official. Grey’s Anatomy is now the longest running medical drama in TV history. With its 332nd episode, it surpassed the previous record holder, ER. I have watched every single episode, and some many times. I unabashadley love Grey’s Anatomy and no snark, hot take, or hip millennial opinion will get me to stop.

The show was wildly popular when it premiered with viewership peaking at over 25 million. Life was different then. Facebook was just for students, Twitter didn’t exist yet. George W. Bush was President. You get the picture. I was still in college, not a married professional with kids. The show spoke to my friends and me – the interns on Grey’s were who we wanted to be (but weren’t yet): brilliant, complicated, sexy, ambitious.

A lot has happened since 2005, both in the world of Grey’s Anatomy and (dimmer, less-just) real life. Along the way, people have stopped watching Grey’s Anatomy: its most recent season premiere had less than 7 million viewers. But, as one of the 7 million, nearly everyone I talk to has a Grey’s story. They remember the brilliant first few seasons and how they were transfixed with Meredith and Cristina’s love life. Perhaps they followed the on-set drama. They definitely have an opinion about Katherine Heigl. Regardless of when they stopped watching, these 14 million people still carry parts of the show and its worldview with them. And I’m here for that.

I’m not saying the show is perfect. There have been bad episodes, ridiculous arcs. Izzy’s sex-with-ghost plotline comes to mind. The episode when they first revealed Dr. Miranda Bailey’s mental health problem was not great. April Kepner’s introduction was rough between her awkward crush on Derek and how long it took for her to have an actual backstory.

I weathered these rough moments waiting for the more brilliant ones to shine through. And they do. Take the case of Dr. Miranda Bailey. She started the show off as so tough and exacting as to earn the nickname “The Nazi.” At first, we see her as her interns do – a slightly unknowable authority figure who expects the best of you. But as the show progress, we see more of her. We see her give birth in harrowing circumstances, losing her edge as her ability to control dissipates. We see that first mental health breakdown, the cost of always being strong and hyper-competent. And we see her take risks in her love life and as a mother – some that pay off and some that don’t. We’ve learned so much about her and the fascinating, complicated, strong woman that she is. That’s the type of nuance you get when you’ve stayed with characters for fourteen years, 330+ episodes.

Not that all the characters have stayed. Of the five original interns, only Meredith and Alex remain. Webber and Bailey are still there but that’s about it. Derek, Bourke, Addison, Callie, they’re all gone. I wasn’t sure the show could withstand the departure of Sandra Oh’s Cristina Yang. More than Meredith’s relationship with Derek, the Meredith and Cristina friendship was the central bond guiding so much of the early action. They coined “you’re my person.” They fought and reconciled and supported each other. Without that central relationship what would be the show’s heart? (Certainly not Meredith and Derek. Derek never compared…)

Luckily, the show’s ambitions were always greater than the five original interns. For example, did you know that Callie Torres is the longest running LGBTQ character in TV history? She was introduced in season two and left in season twelve leaving a string of broken hearts behind her (including mine for no longer getting to watch her). Or did you see the recent episode in which a trans character outs himself by revealing the great lengths he went to change his sex on his driver’s license? Or the compassion for Dr. Sam Bello when she faced deportation?

And less you think Grey’s is just a lefty fantasy writ large, the show also explores what it means to be a Christian in a largely secular world with the much-missed April Kepner. It explores veteran reentry issues with Dr. Owen Hunt, advocating for better medical care for veterans while valorizing their service.

You see at the heart of Grey’s Anatomy is not a single relationship or person. At its core, the show is about love and excellence, the ways these things sometimes compete and also drive each other. It’s about challenging us to love each other better and not be divided by race, class, sexuality, you name it, while also acknowledging and decrying the unjust structures that make those divisions so strong. It’s about what we can accomplish when people at all levels compete and contribute. It’s about a world where women, people of color, and particularly women of color have their talent and skill recognized.

It’s this radical vision of what humanity can be at its best that keeps me tuning in. And I’ll watch for another 300 episodes if they let me.

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Jane, Eve, Issa

Some 75% percent of our media comes from the white, male perspective and it all feels the same to me: tired. Men have been speaking for so long, it’s like they’ve run out of things to say (not that the prospect of repeating themselves is getting them to shut up).

Luckily, there’s a lot of amazing, women-centered media out there from comedies to thrillers to prestige dramas. To help you avoid the same old, I’ve pulled together the ten shows I’m most looking forward to in 2019 — that all just happen to center women (last year’ spoilers ahead):

Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies

The award-winning first season of Big Little Lies featured Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley as mothers in the elite community of Monterrey, CA, subverting the superficial suburban mom trope and portraying domestic violence in a more thoughtful way than I’ve seen before.

The second season, set to premiere in 2019, is a bit of coup — partly because the first season wasn’t supposed to be a “season” at all but rather a self-contained mini-series and partly because it was based on a book with no sequel. But the market talks and season two is bringing in none other than Meryl Streep, promising more of Zoë Kravitz’s character Bonnie Carlson, and (finally) featuring a woman director. Count me in.

Call the Midwife

Call the Midwife

Taking place in 1960’s London, each episode (for seven seasons and counting) of Call the Midwife features at least one birth, depicted with unusual candor, sympathy, and heroism. The show has not been great on race (the first two plots with Black characters featured interracial babies born of affairs between Black men and white women) but Call the Midwife added a Black nurse in season seven and has since been clearly trying to address its wrongs.

Centered on women and our bodies — both the act of giving birth and the physical nature of nursing — Call the Midwife dramatizes aspects of the human experience we rarely see. With season eight coming in 2019, tune into this show for beautiful costumes, a warm vision of humanity, and women as nurses, nuns, and mothers.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Round Up

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

This musical comedy exploring mental health issues and the false romance narratives that bombard women, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend manages to leave you humming and thinking. This year will complete its final and forth season and lots of questions remain: what does a happy ending look like when it comes to mental health? Will Rachel Bloom’s Rebecca end up with one of her past flames? Or would she be better off alone?

As I’ve written before, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a feminist project, featuring a diverse cast and re-writing the rules of who can be loved. It’s also one of the least watched shows on television so it’s good to support and show content makers that audiences will tune into quality, feminist content. Plus, there’s lots of salty pretzels.

The Crown

The Crown

Netflix’s budget-busting juggernaut, The Crown, is back for a third season with a new cast as the Queen and her royal family age. I’ll miss Claire Foy’s ability to be emote without emoting, simultaneously expressing power and insecurity. That said, I trust the show creators to cast well again and this time hopefully without a gender pay-gap from the beginning.

I’ve learned a lot of history from this show as the Queen engages in nearly seven decades of world events. And while the colonial perspective can be rough (who cares how the monarch feels when its millions of brown people risking their lives for their self determination?), the show explores the difference between public and private personas beautifully while offering a unique insight into privileged British life.

Grey’s Anatomy

Set to become the longest running medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy will finish up its 15th season and probably run the first half of its 16th in 2019. Shonda Rhimes is no longer involved in the day-to-day but seasons 1-7 veteran Krista Vernoff is at the helm and bringing the show back to its old stalwarts: love-triangles, extreme medical situations, steamy hospital romances. I love Grey’s and having it made it this far, plan to see it to the end.

Grey’s Anatomy has always featured a diverse and inspiring depiction of leadership, excellence, and sexuality and that hasn’t changed. And as the titular Dr. Grey has gone from starry-eyed intern to widowed, award-winning physician, these fifteen years have allowed us the rare treat of watching a complicated woman’s evolution and continued adventures, sexual and otherwise, into middle age.

Insecure

Insecure

I’m excited for the fourth season of Issa Rae’s Insecure, coming out in 2019. Following a group of “basic,” 30-something Black women in LA, Insecure deserves all the awards for its hilarious exploration of identity, romance, and what it means to be a striving Black woman. It’s fixed everything you hated in Girls and Sex in the City, somehow making you nostalgic for your old, shitty apartments and ringing humor out of racial injustices large and small.

Season four promises to be just as good with the group’s lives only getting messier as Issa and her best friend Yvonne Orji’s Molly Carter date roommates and Issa seemingly going into business with her ex’s current partner. Bonus points of you watch live with Black Twitter.

Jane the Virgin

It’s Jane the Virgin’s final season and I’ll miss the Villanuevas. This Americanized telenovela started with an accidental, artificial insemination and has built upon this fantastical premise to explore motherhood, class, racial identity, Catholicism, and immigration to name just a few. The original love triangle seems to be back with Brett Dier of Michael Cordero fame returning in the season four finale to mess up the expected proposal between Justin Baldoni’s Rafael and Gina Rodriguez’s Jane.

You’ll be hard pressed to find a more thoughtful, fun, and heartwarming portrayal of Latina identidad on television. In fact, the show’s secret weapon seems to be its compassion for all its characters — mothers of all stripes and types, people rich and working class, women with hugely different attitudes toward sex — allowing the viewers to sympathize with each end of spectrums we normally find so polarizing. Also Jamie Camil is an international treasure.

Killing Eve

Killing Eve has everything spy aficionados could want: globe trotting, international intrigue, double crosses, and murder. Sandra Oh as Eve Polastri, the bored M16 operative, became the first Asian women nominated for a lead actress Emmy and is set to host the Golden Globes. Her talent is met by Jodie Comer’s diabolical assassin, Villanelle. The binge-able BBC hit is now on Hulu and season two is slated for release in 2019.

With all the trappings of a traditional thriller, the woman-ness of Killing Eve is unmistakable. Both the killer and detective are women and that opens up new avenues of psychological intrigue like when Villanelle, obsessed with Eve, fills her suitcase with beautiful, perfectly fitting clothes and sends it to her house, managing to fulfill a female fantasy and threaten her love object at the same time. The sexual tension between Eve and Villanelle further heightens the drama (particularly in contrast to Eve’s relatable but boring relationship with her husband) as does the female-gaze of the camera work. With Oh and Comer signed up for the second season, 2019 is sure to bring more of the steamy, pulse-racing fun.

Shrill

Based on the book by the same name by Lindy West, Shrill is set to premiere in 2019 starring and co-written by Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant and produced by Elizabeth Banks. Those names are enough to get me excited — especially because I love Lindy West. She came up as a journalist under Dan Savage, helped pioneer Jezebel, and has since graduated to a feminist New York Times column and writing best-selling books.

Shrill is West’s memoir, telling the story of a fat young woman who’s striving to improve her life and career but not her body. All of which makes it the perfect vehicle for Bryant and I can’t wait to catch it on Hulu.

Vida

Vida

Latinas are the least represented demographic in media so a show that’s Mexican, queer, and ambitious has me tuning in. Starz’ Vida follows two Latinx sisters returning to Boyle Heights to take over the family business after their mother’s death. There, they confront gentrification, their mother’s lesbianism, and aspects of their own identity.

Picked up for a second season in 2019, Vida is clear in its intention to expand the portrayal of Latina and Latinx experience on TV. Latinx show creator Tanya Saracho has spoken out about how she uses her success to lift up la raza and the show even has a Latina behind the camera in Carmen Cabana — this despite the notoriety of cinematography for how few women fill its ranks even in the sexist entertainment industry.

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I Want to Live in Shondaland

I Want to Live in Shondaland

by Cristina Escobar

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?

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