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.
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.