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Grey's Anatomy Helped Redefine the Feminine Ideal for Millennials

Shonda Rhimes' medical drama has become a feminist fantasy where women pick themselves and are rewarded for it.
  • Debbie Allen, Ellen Pompeo, and Chandra Wilson in Grey's Anatomy (Photos: ABC)
    Debbie Allen, Ellen Pompeo, and Chandra Wilson in Grey's Anatomy (Photos: ABC)

    We’re now 20 seasons into Grey’s Anatomy. A lot has changed at Seattle’s most famous, fictional hospital (including its name, a couple of times) over those two decades. But even as main characters come and go, the show that made creator Shonda Rhimes a household name has remained true to its interest in exploring a new feminine ideal. 

    From its first seasons to its most recent episodes, Grey’s Anatomy focuses on messy, sexy, brilliant, and accomplished women breaking intergenerational curses. It’s the ultimate millennial fantasy and while it’s unclear if that’s life imitating art or art imitating life, the fact is that Grey’s is a rich text on which to build an understanding of millennial women’s dreams and anxieties. It certainly has the ratings and longevity to merit a closer look.

    Grey’s premiered in 2005. Elder millennials were starting their first jobs and graduating college. Younger ones were hitting puberty and figuring out sexual attraction. The whole generation was ripe for a show about beautiful, diverse, bed-hopping doctors and Grey’s particularly spoke to girls and women, who make up three-quarters of its audience, which also skews millennial in age. The first seasons were a cultural phenomenon and while Grey’s no longer has that same cache, it remains one of the most popular shows — particularly for 18- to 49-year-old women aka millennials and our younger counterparts.

    Part of that is certainly how the show conceives of its women characters and how they maneuver in a sexist society. “A lot of procedurals, particularly where there are women leads, the assumption is, ‘well, why would they worry about romance? They don't have time for that. They have to focus on being lawyers or police officers or whatever,’” Dr. Kristen J. Warner, Associate Professor of Performing and Media Arts, Cornell University, tells Primetimer. But Grey’s Anatomy always took a different approach, portraying “the totality of what women's experiences can be… It's not about needing a man. It's about liking romance, it's about enjoying sex.”

    Now, perhaps not every woman in Grey’s had equal access to that totality. Dr. Warner describes Chandra Wilson’s Miranda Bailey character as “a new version of a mammy” in those first few seasons, as her role is to take care of the white interns and Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh), before adding, “I understand things improved for Bailey's representation: she has a husband, she's able to leave the hospital even — great things. And kudos for figuring that out, years after they probably should have.”

    Likewise, when we are introduced to Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez), our protagonist Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) calls her the “dirty hot.” Although what marks her sexuality as different from Meredith’s, Christina’s, or Izzie Stevens’ (Katherine Heigl) isn’t made clear initially, it appears to be her race/ethnicity. As a Latina, Callie is “spicy” in a way the other women aren’t. But Grey’s doesn’t leave it there. Indeed Callie goes on a whole redemptive arc, moving from outside of Meredith’s circle to an integral part of it and eventually one half of the longest same-sex couple on TV

    Professor of Communication and Digital Media Studies at Ontario Tech University Dr. Sharon Lauricella attributes these changes to the show proving itself, telling Primetimer, “Once the show becomes successful, then it becomes possible to navigate issues like same-sex relationships and things like that. The show takes on the confidence to do that once it becomes an established pop culture entity.”

    With time and high ratings, later seasons of Grey’s can go places less successful series can’t, including its own previous seasons. Take Yang’s pregnancies. In Season 2, she intends to have an abortion but miscarries. In Season 8, she’s pregnant again and has the procedure. Rhimes herself has cited her confidence and rising profile as part of what made that happen.

    Indeed, its extensive run has given Grey’s plenty of opportunities to fix many of its early mistakes, moving beyond what Assistant Director of First Year Courses at Eastern Kentucky University Dr. Miles Feroli, who’s written on the show, calls “racialized gender stereotypes” to portray much more nuance. “The way Grey's Anatomy defined femininity was really endless… they disrupted this idea that just because they're women, they're caring, nurturing, altruistic, that that's a sort of biological condition of being a woman,” he continues, praising the show for “representing women as fully sexual beings.”

    While the sex (and melodrama) certainly draws in viewers, what distinguishes Grey’s from so many of its competitors is its penchant for “really provocative images and metaphors,” says Dr. Latham Hunter, writer and communications professor at Mohawk College in Ontario. She cites, “that episode where Meredith had to carry around a severed penis in a little cooler all day” and “that image of holding up that bloodied bag full of Judy heads [the show’s Barbie stand-in] with ‘toxic’ or ‘biohazard’ on it” as particularly dark, funny, and complex.

    This toying with gender narratives in ways big and small continues into Season 20. Take the character of Catherine Fox, played by the formidable Debbie Allen, who also executive produces. She has the most institutional power of anyone, ever, on the show, running the foundation that owns the hospital and gives away the awards everyone keeps talking about. She’s also a urologist, meaning she mostly treats penises. She’s a woman with access to and power over the phallus and she’s totally comfortable with it — in a Season 20 episode, Benson Kwan (Harry Shum Jr.), the intern who most takes after Alex Karev (Justin Chambers), faints while assisting one of her surgeries. His traditional masculinity can’t handle it.

    More than male genitalia though, the most potent symbol on the show is that of the mother. “The foundation is Meredith and her mother,” says Dr. Lauricella. “It's the mother, who's the surgeon. It's Meredith who’s the protege, not a male. She is the next in line. And it's actually her mother who's the professional.”

    Dr. Hunter agrees, describing the first four seasons’ organizing question to be how Meredith is “going to become a woman when she has such a poor model of female happiness in her mother. And the fact that her mother has dementia is very provocative and very compelling. She can't even remember who she is, [so] how is Meredith going to navigate this world?”

    Meredith, and pretty much all the characters, end up rejecting Ellis Grey’s (Kate Burton) example — the personal one, not the professional one. Meredith follows in her mother’s footsteps as a general surgeon but doesn’t see the desire for love and family as being in conflict with that. In fact, “Meredith had this almost utopia without her husband. She had a kind of beautiful family structure,” explains Dr. Hunter. “The kids were all quite happy, everybody's eating their food, and there's no real chaos.”

    While real-life women continue to struggle to achieve work-life balance, the surgeons on Grey’s Anatomy have figured it out — partly, yes, thanks to their at-work day care and high salaries, but also thanks to their communities. As Dr. Lauricella says, “Meredith has friends coming into the house, and they're hanging out. Her work family, so to speak, are the cool aunts and uncles who helped raise the children — it shows that you just can't do this alone.” It also helps that all the fathers are present and competent too, “no one's vilified as a dad,” adds Dr. Lauricella. As such, Grey’s Anatomy is “disrupting the idea that men are naturally these doofy sort of dads that don't know any better,” asserts Dr. Feroli.

    It’s a fantasy that plays into the story millennial women have been sold all along — that the girl-power children of the ’80s and ’90s would encounter equal gender roles as adults. It’s a falsehood that’s easy to swallow until motherhood comes into play. The ideal is writ large in Grey's in the form of supportive partners and active communities engaged in raising kids so mothers can shine without sacrificing parts of themselves either at home or at work. In the Shondaverse, it works by allowing female characters a range of options in their personal lives. Not everyone has to be a mother or a wife; the show doesn't punish those who decline to have kids. 

    Instead, Grey's presents Ellis as a cautionary tale to allow its characters new, healing pathways. When Cristina has an abortion, Meredith defends her friend to her partner Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd), telling him that she knows what it is like to be the child of a woman who didn’t want kids — and why that sucks for everyone.

    In Season 19, Meredith’s half-sister Maggie Pierce (Kelly McCreary) is facing a crossroads with her husband Winston Ndugu (Anthony Hill). She ends up leaving him, choosing her professional ambitions over his needs. In keeping with its cycle breaking, Grey’s Anatomy presents Maggie’s choice as a triumph. As she takes the elevator, she’s joined by Ellis and her adoptive mother’s approving ghosts. They’re backing their daughter, proud that she is able to leave a man who would limit her, while they mistakenly chose to stay.

    Indeed, Grey’s is filled with moments where all the characters choose their careers over personal obligations and no one, not even the women, are shamed for it. “Someone was always late for a wedding, even if it was their own wedding, because of a surgery, because of work. There was an interesting prioritization of professionalism, over personal issues,” says Dr. Lauricella, before also noting that none of the brides change their names. Grey’s is a feminist fantasy where women pick themselves and are rewarded for it.

    Which is perhaps ironic given how Meredith’s iconic Season 2 “pick me” speech has become synonymous with “women who will go against other women to be selected by men,” says Dr. Warner. It’s a phenomenon she describes as “lazy” and “a disservice to the generations of women who struggled,” because that meme-ified meaning takes the speech out of its early 2000s context.

    Back then, Meredith was showing bravery in her personal life, a place where she had more difficulty than in the operating room. But more than that, we as a society were still debating whether “it's permissible for [a woman] to want that, to be an initiator of those things, to want to desire romance and to not wait for somebody to claim you,” according to Dr. Warner. That’s quite a distance we have traveled.

    And that progress is both reflected and dreamed up in Grey’s Anatomy, a definitive text of millennial female aspirations. In it, the women do the desiring while being personally flawed, professionally successful, and best positioned to determine their family structure. There is no compulsory motherhood, but for those who do choose it, there’s a bottomless well of support. It’s the dream. 

    As such, it engages in conversations with our reality but imagines something different. And while that imagining certainly flattens some pressing, real-life problems, it also gives viewers space to envision what a true plurality — of gender, of race — in leadership would look like. 

    Grey’s sets about answering that question, showing us the answer in the end of Ellis’ intergenerational trauma. Meredith and her cohort break cycles of oppression and build a better, if still imperfect, world. That, and still being desirable in mid-life, is the real millennial aspiration. One that echoes in media as varied as Encanto and Poker Face, that still calls millions of people, mostly millennial women, to tune in each week. One that Grey’s Anatomy has been serving us for 20 seasons and counting, reflecting our desires while also shaping them.

    A writer and activist, Cristina Escobar is the co-founder of LatinaMedia.Co, uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media. She writes at the intersection of race, gender, and pop culture.