Friday, February 28, 2014

Women in Power: A deeper look at the women of Grey’s Anatomy

Shonda Rhimes, a very well known television writer and producer that has created a number of popular television shows in the past decade including Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, and Scandal writes her shows with one common characteristic, a female lead role. Not only do these television shows have women as their lead characters, but Rhimes purposely positions her female characters in roles that portray women to be powerful and successful in the workplace. You might be reading this expecting another feminist based essay which blames men for the reasons we don’t typically see women in power. Wrong! This is not that kind of essay.

Instead, this essay will focus on the ways female characters with well-respected, high profile professions on television often become trivialized and represented as being unable to balance both their professional life and their personal life. To make this clearer, I will attempt to use Rhime’s famous production of Grey’s Anatomy and its female characters as examples in order for you to fully grasp the concept of the typical female stereotypical plotline that involves choosing between their career or three reoccurring issues:  a family, their happiness, and most commonly, love.
In an Oprah interview with Rhimes a year after the pilot released for Grey’s Anatomy, Rhimes explained why she developed her female roles into multifaceted characters, “I wanted to create a world in which you felt as if you were watching very real women. Most of the women I saw on TV didn’t seem like people I actually knew. They felt like ideas of what women are. They never got to be nasty or competitive or hungry or angry. They were often just the loving wife or the nice friend. But who gets to be the bitch? Who gets to be the three-dimensional woman?” (Rhimes, 2006).  And that’s exactly what she does with her shows. Shonda Rhimes mentions how she made sure that her female characters were able to have a family, happiness, and a love life—all because IT IS happening in the real world.

          Ellis Grey a character on Grey’s Anatomy is a legendary former surgeon at Seattle Grace Hospital and also happens to be Meredith’s mother with Alzheimer’s disease. Ellis plays a significant role as being the stereotypical “too busy for a family” female surgeon. Because of Ellis’s actions, Meredith grows up basically without a mother that was there to care for her, due to the fact that she was too busy at the hospital pursuing her career. Knowing this, Meredith does everything she can to be a great mother once she adopts her first child Zola. Meredith is not the only female surgeon that has children, Dr. Miranda Bailey who also happens to be the chief of surgery has a son, and later on in the seasons two more women surgeons have children, which only emphasizes the certainty that women in successful careers can have both their career and a family to come home to.
Dr. Bailey is one of the primary characters that exhibit the emotionless, heartless, cold personality that is necessary for women in authoritative positions. When we are first introduced to Dr. Bailey, she scares the interns so much that she earns herself the nickname of “the Nazi”. Throughout the show, Dr. Bailey begins to know her interns well, which in turn creates a sense of mutual respect and additionally developed a soft spot for them in Dr. Bailey. In the clip below, Dr. Bailey breaks down for one of the first times in a professional setting. 

What this short clip exemplifies is the possibility for women in high authoritative positions to let their guard down once in awhile, and that it should be considered okay rather than not normal.

The final storyline that is often utilized in relation to female lead roles concerns the belief that women need to choose between love and their career. Meredith Grey is an example of a female character that is able to balance her career and love life with her boyfriend Derek almost equally. In fact, at a point in the show, Meredith demands that Derek gives her the same attention as the other doctors in her class, in hopes to keep the atmosphere as professional as possible while staying involved in her romantic relationship. Rather than punishing her for her choices or ignoring her wishes, Derek respects her choice and keeps his space in order for them to continue their relationship. This is much different than the stereotypical television falling in love phenomena. Critic and writer Elena Levine, comments on how the female characters overcome obstacles of love in their personal lives by stating, “The active and satisfying sexual and romantic lives of these characters challenge the postfeminist assumption that career and interpersonal happiness are either incompatible or that they require super-woman perfection. The female characters of Grey’s are flawed, best with troubles, and frequently unhappy, but their work as surgeons is never represented as a mistake or even as a particularly costly choice. It defines them and makes them proud, another nod to daytime soap opera, with its accomplished career women who suffer unrelated personal travails” (Levine, p. 141-142, 2013).

It is very evident that Shonda Rhimes tries to make her shows as close to real life as possible. Rhimes’s female characters do not let men manipulate or ruin any aspect of their lives, just as it should be with women in the real world. Writer and critic Marcia Reynolds, states it perfectly in her new book Wander Woman, by stating “More than ever, women are making their own career choices and setting the terms for what they call success. If someone tries to keep them from getting what they want, they feel motivated to try even harder to prove they can succeed” (2010).

Whether you enjoy Grey’s Anatomy or agree with Rhimes’s reasoning behind her plentiful female cast or not, the fact that her passion to create quality television that frees itself from the typical female stereotypical plotlines is indisputable. Being a huge fan of Rhimes’s work, I cannot wait to see what new creation she is waiting to surprise us with in the near future. 

Works Cited

Reynolds, M. (2010). Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers

Corn, R. (Director). (2010, May 20). Death and All His Friends [Television series episode]. In S. Rhimes (Producer), Grey’s Anatomy.

Thompson, E. (2013). How to watch television. New York, NY: NYU Press.

Winfrey, O. (2006). “Oprah Talks to Shonda Rhimes”. O, The Oprah Magazine. Harpo Productions, Inc.


  1. Great Analysis with proper video clip! However, this post reminds me of the Cosby Show's example. Even though the producer Bill Cosby tried to exclude gender stereotypical images in his show, this ultimately consolidated the stereotype of blacks. Like this case, I just thought that this representation of women in Grey's Anatomy might reinforce the image of woman as a more emotional subject who needs to control herself for being 'professional'.... But it's just my opinion!

  2. Wow, bravo! You took a show I thought I knew like the back of my hand and completely took me through a different way of viewing the shows listed above, but also Shonda Rhyme's work as well. I am a huge fan of Grey's Anatomy and Scandal, and although I never got into Private Practice I would consider myself to be drawn to the work of Shonda Rhymes. I love that you were able to take a show that most people are familiar with and bring it to light with a new twist. I always admired the women cast members for being so powerful, strong, and respectable. They are women who value education, hard work, and relationships and they prove you don't have to choose just one. I love that at the beginning you completely dismissed the idea that this was going to be solely a feminist essay and I applaud you for acknowledging that someone may begin to read your blog and assume that. I think that the way in which you highlighted that Shonda Rhyme's writes about what women are actually doing in real life was crucial for the purpose in which this essay was written. The quote you incorporated in which she speaks to the fact that most television shows were depicting women in ways in which they are thought of by society, not how they actually are, was absolutely brilliant. Your analysis of women in power on television today, specifically in Shonda Rhyme's shows, really proves that we are making headway as a society on what we deem as acceptable. These shows have such high ratings and are so loved by many; and they each happen to have a strong, female lead that proves women out there can have it all and have been balancing family, love, and work for quite some time now. I love seeing credit where it is due. In my opinion, more shows should depict what women are ACTUALLY doing, instead of what women are thought of as by society; because women are so much more than society gives them credit for. I never thought it was possible, but I love Grey's Anatomy and Scandal even more now after reading your analysis about the way in which the lead, women roles are depicted throughout Shonda Rhyme's shows. Great post!

  3. Awesome post! I also enjoy both Grey's Anatomy as well as Private Practice and the strong female roles have always been apparent to me but before this class I never realized what she was actually doing in trying to break this women have to be career oriented or family oriented, but never both. I also really enjoy Shonda Rhyme's because her strong female leads are apparent in both Grey's and Private Practice. Every bad thing that could possibly happen does in Grey's but if I am remembering correctly a lot of the times it is the female roles that "save the day" so to speak a lot of the time. Meridith and the bomb, Meredith and Christina in the shooting at the hospital, the plane crash, etc. but these women never question their desire to stay at their positions...they never get up and I think this also speaks a lot for their characters too.


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