Every year since 2005, Shonda Rhimes’ “Grey’s Anatomy” has rattled millions of viewers across the nation. The series is currently running its fourteenth season and has already been renewed for a fifteenth and sixteenth, even with a firefighter spinoff entitled “Station 19” in the works.
Rhimes is the creator, head writer and executive producer of “Grey’s Anatomy,” and she was rightfully inducted into the Television Hall of Fame last year. Rhimes continues to change the face of television. She recently tweeted in frustration with the industry’s pattern of describing her characters as “Smart Strong Women.”
“There are no Dumb Weak Women,” she wrote. “A smart strong woman is just a WOMAN. Also? ‘Women’ are not a TV trend — we’re half the planet.”
Last year, television’s new golden age was celebrated for its steps forward in representation — we’re seeing more diverse narratives across genres, and slowly, we’re hearing more voices behind the camera as well. Though there’s still much work to be done, a great deal of this is thanks to Shonda Rhimes, who, since day one of her career, has prioritized narratives of women, especially women of color. While she created “Grey’s Anatomy,” and later its first spin-off “Private Practice,” her current trifecta of medical, legal and political dramas continue to change the game — and the latter two star women of color.
Prominently, Oscar winner Viola Davis leads Rhimes’ legal and crime drama “How to Get Away with Murder,” while Emmy and Golden Globe nominee Kerry Washington helms the political drama “Scandal.”
Even at the start of Shondaland — the Shonda Rhimes universe for which her production company is named — before Davis became Annalise Keating or Washington became Olivia Pope, there were a plethora of women starring in “Grey’s Anatomy,” and several of them changed television’s perception of women.
As Meredith Grey, Ellen Pompeo showed the television world what season-arching character growth looks like for women. Meredith isn’t one-note, and neither are her colleagues, friends and family.
Her best friend, Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) demonstrated a professional drive, stamina and sharpness that is still rare to this day. Together, Cristina and Meredith modeled supportive female friendship, where competition helps each of them grow without enforcing a need to stomp on each other along the way.
Similarly, Meredith’s mother, Ellis Grey (Kate Burton), was a groundbreaking surgeon. Their relationship was complicated, and Meredith has faced much of her childhood trauma throughout several seasons of “Grey’s Anatomy.” Ellis’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis highlighted not only important discourses on mental health, but also the ways that women are dismissed professionally as they age. Before, and especially after Ellis’s death, Meredith has constantly been compared to her mother. Early on, Meredith’s colleagues attributed her skill to her mother (and, unrelatedly, often attributed her upward movement to her relationship with one of her bosses). Even now, Meredith’s achievements are compared, even if more subtly, to those of her mother.
Okay. Entertainment industry, time to stop using the phrases "Smart Strong Women" and "Strong Female Leads". There are no Dumb Weak Women. A smart strong woman is just a WOMAN. Also? "Women" are not a TV trend — we're half the planet.
— shonda rhimes (@shondarhimes) February 1, 2018
Last week, Rhimes’ “Grey’s Anatomy” highlighted one of its most influential and long-lasting characters: Dr. Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson).
Dr. Bailey describes herself in this latest episode as a science fiction-loving, life-saving doctor who is also an African American woman in her 40s.
On her first day as an intern, Dr. Bailey stood up to one of her superiors and saved her patient’s life. Her advocative, take-no-shit spirit make her the ideal mentor on “Grey’s Anatomy.” She made sure she was taken seriously while training Meredith, Cristina, and all of their friends, who later trained subsequent interns while Dr. Bailey became Chief of Surgery at the hospital.
Dr. Bailey is obviously a “Smart Strong Woman” — she is a powerhouse of complexity. She demands rigor. She demands respect. She commands the attention of her peers, her superiors and everyone who learns from her — including her husband, ex-husband and son.
She breaks down the pattern of exceptionalism that is demanded of women, people of color and especially women of color by calling attention to it. She calls attention to privilege where she sees it, and advocates for her patients and herself. She doesn’t allow other doctors to trivialize her story to one identity: Her Blackness, her obsessive compulsive disorder, her gender or her motherhood.
Last week’s episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” provided a deep-dive into Dr. Bailey’s experiences, her intersectional identity, her history and her character. Dr. Bailey, like each of the many central women characters on “Grey’s Anatomy” is not one-note, nor is she perfect.
In the episode, entitled “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” Dr. Bailey has a heart attack. She admits herself to a nearby hospital so that her coworkers don’t have to see her sick or weak, and ultimately receives sub-par care due to the biases of the white male doctors who fail to hear her symptoms or meet her medical needs. It’s a narrative that echoes those of many women whose doctors dismiss their needs and fail to give them proper care. It calls to mind tennis champion Serena Williams’ story of the birth of her daughter last year.
In the process, Dr. Bailey calls out their biases and her symptoms worsen. While trying to advocate for herself and the care she needs, she must do the additional work of educating white male doctors on their biases against her as a woman of color.
Her heart attack could realistically be the result of any number of stressors both physically and mentally, but televisually, the meaning of Dr. Bailey’s heart attack is clear. She has carried the weight of representation for so long. She brings so much Black Girl Magic to the screen, and that work — being an advocate, an icon, a token in a sea of television shows that don’t see women like her; being a voice for the many — is exhausting.
Women, people of color and, once again, women of color in particular bear this emotional weight so often, and, on top of that, are often asked to explain why representation is important in the first place. For Shonda Rhimes’ one and only articulation, watch her Television Hall of Fame speech, in which she was introduced by Oprah.
When there are few series that provide dynamic, complex and well-rounded characters that aren’t white men, those exceptional shows, actors, writers and characters have an undue burden.
It’s impossible to develop women characters that speak to “all women’s experiences” — one experience of womanhood is simply not enough, our experiences are plentiful, rich and diverse, they cannot be encapsulated in one or a few deep characters.
Diversity on-screen must go beyond token images and token backgrounds.
Although there are diverse representations of womanhood on “Grey’s Anatomy,” we need them elsewhere as well. The same is true for the experiences of women of color, whose experiences cannot be lumped together, either.
Now, “Grey’s Anatomy” is by no means perfect. But, this and other series, often those led by Shonda Rhimes, are held to a higher standard because they’re already doing the work that other series (and other films, and other media) should be doing as well.
We need several shows with plentiful characters of varying backgrounds and identities. In short, we need more complex women characters, characters of color and queer characters — and not just one character, or several characters with similar experiences.
The expectation of exceptionalism arises particularly when there aren’t enough voices in the first place. In turn, expectations are high and narrow — one has to work harder, take fewer sick days, in order to be given a seat at the table.
This week, “Grey’s Anatomy” interrogated that exceptionalism. This episode demonstrated that exceptionalism is taxing, and so is the work of pleading with folks in power to expand their worldview beyond biases and privilege. (Read: It’s exhausting to articulate, to yell, about the importance of representation to an audience that’s already well-represented and has never needed to care about representation in the first place.)
For this reason, we should all be thankful for shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” and we shouldn’t discount the power of television and film to explore diverse experiences. We should be thankful to writers, artists and creators like Shonda Rhimes who understand the importance of representation. each of us getting to see ourselves and people like us on screens big and small.
We can and should also each leverage our own systemic privilege to uplift each others’ voices, without claiming each others’ stories. As a start, we can acknowledge our privilege in relation to those most marginalized — I, as a white woman journalist, can use my privilege to uplift Black women’s narratives without speaking over them — and without tokenizing those experiences.
We should also be thankful to the advocates who work on the ground on the daily — doctors, writers, activists, students, teachers, counselors, the list goes on — who use their voices to uplift narratives that go untold too often.
Black women are too often asked to perform emotional labor, to articulate their experiences, to speak for the many instead of for themselves, as white men and women are often allowed space to do. For example, without Black women, without Tarana Burke, the #MeToo movement would not have happened. Black women often carry these conversations by bringing nuance to discourses on feminism and representation, and they shouldn’t have to do it alone.
To those who use their voices to uplift others: We see you, we thank you.
Sophie-Marie Prime covers television. Contact her at [email protected].