Emergency! Gender and Racial Equality in TV Medical Dramas

by Ella Voss

Since the 1950s, medical dramas have been popular among viewers across the United States. Throughout the years this genre has evolved but has always provided society with the same exciting fantasy of the medical field. Today, medical shows are still considered to be “the cough syrup of television—sturdy, dependable, and widely available” (Fogel 1). With so much availability, it can be easy to confuse which character belongs to which show, who has died, slept with whom, been fired in real life, and what exactly happened during the season finale. One show, however, stands out from the rest. Grey’s Anatomy, which first aired in 2005, continues to captivate its audiences with a plot constantly thickened by life-and-death choices, tangled friendships, heartbreak, and gore. What sets Grey’s Anatomy apart from other contemporary medical shows (and soap operas) are the characters. With Ellen Pompeo as the lead female role and a cast comprised of over 50% men and women of color, Grey’s Anatomy has set precedent for the genre to disrupt traditional views of the medical field by increasing the gender and racial diversity of its characters.

Grey’s Anatomy is just one of many successful medical dramas in the genre’s history. During the 50s, the United States saw huge strides in biological technology and an increase in healthcare spending. In “Hospital Drama,” Rebecca Feasey identifies these changes as prompts for the birth of the medical drama, with shows such as Medic and Emergency Ward quickly engaging audiences across the nation (68). As healthcare became an increasingly sought after subject, these shows tried to portray American healthcare in the best light possible. Medical associations collaborated with television producers to ensure storylines were accurate and audiences’ expectations met. The idea, Feasey explains, was to create an image of the perfect doctor and hospital so that the public would not “lose their faith in medicine” (69). Thus, both Medic and Emergency-Ward created storylines revolving around professionalism, medical advancement, and, most importantly, “the capable figure of the male doctor-hero” who could always be counted on to save the day.

The trend of “male doctor-hero” continued into the 1960s with the NBC series Dr. Kildare, following an intern as he tries to please his patients and superiors in a city hospital. Similar to shows of the 1950s, Dr. Kildare was highly censored. Feasey observed that in order to continue portraying healthcare in the most flattering light, the show ignored economic and political concerns that would have played a large role in healthcare at the time (70). Dr. Kildare used other established tropes as well: a good-looking doctor, high professional standards, and low levels of patient mortality. But one new evolution that set it apart from previous shows like Medic was the relationship between mentor and mentee. Dr. Kildare is treated as his boss’s “protégé”—a relationship that can be found in almost every subsequent medical drama, including Grey’s Anatomy.

By the 1980s, medical dramas took up a greater responsibility towards realism. While the American Medical Association praised the shows for maintaining the ideal image of healthcare, individual physicians complained that the shows were “unrealistic” and placed unfair expectations on them (Feasey 70). Censorship decreased as a result. In the series St. Elsewhere, which aired from 1982 to 1988, controversial medical and political issues including AIDS, abortion, homosexuality, and organ transplantst that had been previously excluded from TV medical dramas were discussed (71). Another big shift took place with plot lines moving away from strict professionalism to include more personal matters: St. Elsewhere featured elements of the doctor’s’ personal lives including problems at home and with colleagues. At the same time, the doctor-hero became more vulnerable and medical dramas overall became more cynical. The result? More entertainment.

Modern-day shows, including ER, House, and Grey’s Anatomy, place even more emphasis on the doctor’s personal lives. Grey’s Anatomy follows interns at Seattle Grace Hospital as they learn to navigate their new lives dedicated to medicine. However, long hours at the hospital result in scandal as work and personal lives intertwine. One notable example is the intern Izzie Stevens, who falls in love with a patient and then, in an attempt to get him higher on the heart transplant list, makes his condition worse. On the lighter side, many episodes show interns getting caught sleeping with their residents in the “on-call” room. Not only does this demonstrate how personal matters cannot, literally, be kept separate from the hospital, but it also shows a major shift away from the “doctor hero” to the imperfect doctor. In fact, Matthew Czarny writes in “Bioethics and Professionalism in Popular Television Medical Drama” that many of the residents and interns are purposely depicted as lacking integrity and responsibility with their colleagues (203). With little concern for perpetuating an ideal perception of medical professionals, the show strives to entertain and includes many moral dilemmas.

Grey’s Anatomy reflects both the roots and growth of the medical genre. Like the shows of the 1960s through the 80s, it places less focus on the “male doctor hero” and more on the mentor/mentee relationship. There is a clear hierarchy in Grey’s Anatomy, with the head of surgery at the top, followed by attending surgeons, residents, and finally interns, but there is also a clear emphasis on collaboration since they all work together to learn each other’s techniques. While this hierarchy exists at the hospital, it does not carry over to the show itself or its cast. There is no singular character that is the hero; they are all flawed, vulnerable, and thus equal. Even with Meredith Grey arguably being the main character, she overturns any notion of a traditional hierarchy by being an intern and woman. Grey’s Anatomy also follows the trend of cynicism established by St. Elsewhere. The former does not shy away from the controversial topics of mental health or the high mortality rates of certain conditions. Grounding the show in realism shows the devastation and tragedy that can take place in a hospital. The frequency of tragic events is slightly blown out of proportion, but Carny argues that the skewed representation of tragedy helps to maximize entertainment (203). These elements of mentorship, cynicism, and sensationalism contribute to Grey’s Anatomy’s popularity, but its diverse characters are what set it apart from other medical dramas.

One major distinction in the characters of Grey’s Anatomy from those in past medical dramas is the increased number and prominence of female characters. The lead role of Grey’s Anatomy is a woman, with Ellen Pompeo playing Meredith Grey. In the 1950s and 60s, medical dramas lacked female roles, let alone lead roles, with women usually relegated to an appearance as guest stars (Feasey 72). Moving forward, as more women began to apply to medical school, medical dramas included more women but preferred to have them cast as nurses (72). Even in more recent shows such as House, Dr. House is depicted as the all-powerful doctor always a step ahead of his co-workers. House often puts down the ideas of his fellow doctors, particularly those of the female doctors. While he opposes the archetype of a “kind caregiver in a cold system,” as Sara Jordan and Phillip Gray interpret the “male doctor hero,” he is still the only one capable of saving the day (101).

The new standard that Grey’s Anatomy set for female doctors to be in medical dramas can be attributed to writer and producer Shonda Rhimes, who created the show when she saw a lack of female leads on television (Warner 637). Throughout the series and trials of her surgical internship, Meredith Grey is shown to be strong, determined, and independent. According to Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times, Grey’s Anatomy is a “Girl Power version of ER” (2). In contrast to other shows in which female characters are torn between choosing a career and having a family, Grey’s Anatomy shows interns Meredith, Christina, and Izzie torn over picking a surgical specialty. The show does counterbalance a possible overemphasis on work by devoting attention to their love lives and interests outside of the hospital. Overall, Grey’s Anatomy provides viewers with strong, female roles that are not often represented on television, particularly in medical dramas. These roles not only attest to the growing number of women in the medical field, but also contribute to the feminist movement.

Another notable distinction in the characters of Grey’s Anatomy from those in past medical dramas is the racial diversity of the cast. Grey’s Anatomy features numerous races in various positions in the hospital’s hierarchy. Rhimes went into producing the show knowing that she wanted a diverse cast and achieved this through unique means. She used a method called “blind casting,” which means writing a script without assigning race to any particular character so that any actor can audition for a role. As Fogel observes in the NYT, race, for Rhimes, was not a factor (1). As a result, half the cast are men and women of color, and three of five authority figures are African American.

It is powerful that the characters of the show are diverse, but perhaps what is more powerful is that race is not the focus of the show. There are many instances where the show has the potential to make racial statements but does not. For example, Dr. Burke, an African American surgeon, is dating Christina Yang, an Asian American intern. Dr. Burke’s parents dislike the two as a couple, but because of her messy habits—not because she is a different race. Refraining from any official statement about race or interracial couples, Rhimes powerfully implies that race is not an overpowering part of someone’s character or identity. In her article devoted to unpacking “the racial logic” behind Rhimes’s series, Kristin Warner observes a dichotomy between the show’s discourse and public discourse. While Rhimes enjoys that in the “post-racial space” of Seattle Grace Hospital race does not have to be an issue that is constantly discussed, most of the press around the show is centered on race (637). Many newspapers tout Grey’s Anatomy and its diverse cast as ” a corrective for years of neglect” (636). Paradoxically, by not directly addressing race as an issue, Grey’s Anatomy’s ideas involving race, television, and society resonate even more powerfully.

Medical dramas have been around for decades, but Grey’s Anatomy makes strides beyond a show Americans have seen before. Its realistic and uncensored image of hospital life, paired with the drama and heartbreak of the doctor’ personal lives, makes for a highly entertaining show. But it is not simply entertaining fodder. Due to its inclusion of lead female roles and a racially diverse cast, Grey’s Anatomy packs a socially-conscious punch. The popularity of Grey’s Anatomy indicates that its ingenuity is not only appreciated but also demanded by viewers, and that further medical dramas follow its lead. Perhaps, television as a whole will catch up eventually.

Works Cited

Czarny, Matthew J, et al. “Bioethics and Professionalism in Popular Television Medical Dramas.” Journal of Medical Ethics, vol. 36, no. 4, 2010, pp. 203-6. Web. 16 Sep. 2016.

Feasey, Rebecca. “Hospital Drama: Reassurance, Anxiety, and the Doctor-Hero.” Masculinity and Popular Television. Edinburgh UP, 2008. Print.

Fogel, Matthew. “‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Goes Colorblind.” The New York Times, 8 May 2005. Web. 14 Sep. 2016.

Jordan, Sara R., and Gray, Phillip W. “Unpacking the House: Images of Heroism against the Regulatory State.” Homer Simpson Marches on Washington: Dissent through American Popular Culture, edited by Timothy M. Dale and Joseph J. Foy, University of Kentucky Press, 2010, pp. 99-110.

Stanley, Alessandra. “Tales of Sex and Surgery.” The New York Times, 25 Mar. 2005. Web. 14 Sep. 2016.

Warner, Kristen J. “The Racial Logic of Grey’s Anatomy Shonda Rhimes and Her ‘Post-Civil Rights, Post-Feminist Series.'” Television & New Media, vol. 16, no. 7, 2015, pp. 631-47. Web. 13 Sep. 2016.