Grey's Anatomy vs. Scrubs*: Or the Limits of Representation

I’ve started watching Grey’s Anatomy really regularly (they’re repeating Season 1 in NZ), I’m not quite sure why – because I don’t really like it that much. I don’t think it’s well-written, by half-way through season two I hated almost all the characters. But watch it I do, if nothing else it gets things to blog about it.

Shonda Rhimes (Creator of the show) said that she wanted Grey’s Anatomy to look like America, and she did quite well. Of the four authority figures we see most regularly, three are african-american, and one of those is female. This is a world where you can live in a trailer park and grow up to be surgeon. Rich or poor, male of female, Korean, African-American or white – anyone can work at Seattle Grace.

Compare this to Scrubs, the authority figures are all white men, and while you can be a doctor and female or a doctor and African-American, the women of colour are all nurses.

There was this episode of Scrubs where all the main characters were speaking to the camera about their lives. I don’t remember the reason but Carla (the Latina Nurse) was telling a story about when she was a girl, and how she came to be in the job she was in. She was in a store and someone was injured in some way and a doctor came in and saved the patient. Her segment ended with her saying “That’s when I realised I wanted to be a doctor.”

The show didn’t have to tell us why Carla didn’t become a doctor, because it was really clear. What I loved about Scrubs is that it showed a society where racism, sexism, and the class system were all problems.

I don’t believe that individuals can overcome racism, sexism and their position in the class system by themselves, even if you do manage to achieve a position of power despite belonging to and oppressed group then there are going to be scars.

When Izzie told a girl from her trailer park to give up her baby, because Izzie had given up her baby and become a doctor – the show is arguing that anyone can make it. In our society it’s simply not true, and any show that pretends it is is lying to us.** Give me a show set in a world I can recognise.

*Or at least the first couple of seasons of Scrubs, I haven’t watched the show in years, and suspect it has gone downhill.

** Grace Paley, short story writer activist, said of writing that all your characters had to have blood and money. Meaning that everyone comes from somewhere, and where that is shapes who you are, and that everyone is also shaped by the way they meet their material needs . Most TV shows ignore the second rule, and the worlds they create are that much poorer because of it (and, Firefly excepted, Joss Whedon was unfortunately no exception).

Also posted on Capitalism Bad; Tree Pretty.

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14 Responses to Grey's Anatomy vs. Scrubs*: Or the Limits of Representation

  1. 1
    Tara says:

    I never really got into Scrubs and I’m a fan of Grey’s Anatomy, though sometimes I get really annoyed with it. Anyway, I guess I think that there is a value both in having our actual world(s) reflected at us and at having a more ideal world reflected back at us. Being able to visualize something different can be a step to getting there, and I do think TV can help. Real role models are better than fictional role models but fictional role models are better than nothing even though TV in no way can substitute for the work of actually making our world more egalitarian.

  2. 2
    debbie says:

    I also watch Grey’s Anatomy on a regular basis, and I find the show very frustrating. I also hate most of the characters, particularly Meredith – I always end up ranting afterwards that she’s so whiny and self-involved, and that I can’t imagine why anyone would want to be with her, yet the whole show seems premised on her relationship with McDreamy. Of course, I understand exactly why Meredith is so desireable to all these men: she’s stereotypically attractive, and despite being smart and ambitious enough to be a surgical intern, she’s emotionally fragile, needy, and dependent on men for approval.

    I do like that there are people of colour, particularly women of colour in positions of authority. I don’t like that there is never any discussion or recognition of this, or the barriers that these characters have faced due to racism (at least not that I can remember).

  3. 3
    Mike says:

    I grew up in a trailer park and am going to be a surgeon.

    Imagine that.

  4. 4
    Angela says:

    Well I hate to admit that I watch Grey’s Anatomy (never got into Scrubs). The characters are annoying, but they are so amusing. I’m particulary enjoying the guest appearance by Dianne Carroll as Mrs. Burke (Dr. Burke’s mom). She’s a sterling actor.

    Take Grey’s Anatomy for what it is, mindless entertainment. I like tv shows that allow some escape from the real world. Every program doesn’t have to be a depiction of reality.

  5. 5
    Jessica Atreides says:

    Carla attributed her lack of doctorness to a lack of money, not racism. The implication may still be there, though. J.D. came from a poor background, and he’s no smarter than she is, yet–doctor.

    I see some examples of Buffy taking economic background into account when shaping its characters. The pressure of being a poor single “mom” AND the Slayer didn’t help Buffy to be carefree and happy, which she wasn’t from about the time her mother died onward. Xander largely repeated his parents’ blue-collar existence. Cordelia treated everyone as inferiors until awhile after she lost her trust fund. And there’s Faith.

  6. 6
    Timewalker says:

    Agree w/ Jessica,
    Joss *did* explore those areas, most often once they got out of high school (with high school being that insular place where he explored popularity in all its evil forms). Unfortunately, the after high school seasons are seen by most early fans as the lesser episodes.

  7. 7
    debbie says:

    I hate the attitude that tv shows are just/should be treated as mindless escapes from reality. The media and pop culture reflect reality (to an extent) and shape reality. In a cultural context that tries to tell us that if we haven’t achieved the American Dream, it’s because we’re not trying hard enough, the kind of depictions on Grey’s Anatomy are dangerous.

  8. 8
    Dreama says:

    I’ve always thought that the “anyone can succeed” ideal present in Grey’s Anatomy is rather obviously attributable to Shonda Rhimes being a fairly good example of that ideal in real life. As one of very few African-American women to create and run a show for one of the major four networks (I can only think of one other, actually) she’s broken through a significant barrier and did so (from everything I’ve seen) on the merits of her own creativity. If she can break into the predominantly white male world of television creation, why can’t Izzie Stephens from the trailer park break into medicine?

  9. 9
    Tara says:

    I’m also in the boat of being SO frustrated by Meredith’s behavior and nonetheless hooked on GA. I think it’s the fact that (even Meredith, at least in season 1) most of the female characters act like and are allowed to be real people, not always lovable. I love that Addison Sheppard is also a character that we like and respect.

  10. 10
    novathecat says:

    I personally can’t stand Grey’s Anatomy. I ‘ve worked in different hospitals over 15 years and there is no where the level of sleeping around that occurs on that show. Not to mention, the main character who sleeps with the attending would have fired by the 3rd or 4th episode in the real world (and the male attending goes his merry way). It seems that all those residents do is screw each other and save lives in between trysts. Have they started boinking the patients yet? Blechh!

  11. 11
    Sebastian Holsclaw says:

    (Season 2 Spoiler Alert)

    I think one of the truly interesting things about the show is that has been designed for us to really root for Addison. When first introduced, we thought her character-line would follow the familiar arc–she would be the nasty wife that Mr. Dr. Sheppard had to get away from to get together as the main-character love interest. But pretty quickly we came to like her–maybe even more than Merideth. Rooting for the main character’s love interest to stay with his wife? That actually is daring television in the modern era.

  12. 12
    Blue says:

    As one of very few African-American women to create and run a show for one of the major four networks (I can only think of one other, actually) she’s broken through a significant barrier and did so (from everything I’ve seen) on the merits of her own creativity.

    It’s no coincidence that her cast looks more like America than the average drama either. To me, it’s an obvious example of why people from all sorts of groups need access to the highest levels of all professions — a person of color is the only one who will really make representing more people of color a priority in primetime network tv.

  13. 13
    debbie says:

    Good for Shonda Rhimes for succeeding. It doesn’t mean the system isn’t overwhelmingly stacked against women of colour. Her success should be seen for what it is – an anomaly, as opposed to being used as proof that anyone can do it if they’re willing to work hard enough. It just isn’t true. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who manage to do it through some combination of intelligence, talent, connections, and luck.
    And I agree with Blue – I think that the diversity of the cast is indicative of why we need more people from oppressed and marginalized groups in the highest levels of all professions. It is a vast improvement over the whiteness of most television shows, particularly medical dramas. But I think that in some ways, we can see the real limits of representation in this example, as Maia discusses in her post.

  14. 14
    Sailorman says:

    You may be interested in this blog link, which discussed the data behind the phenomenon: