Tuesday, October 03, 2006

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. 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 at Alas


  1. Anonymous3:15 am

    "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."

    Actually, this looks nothing like America. America has a 17% African-Amercian population, not 75% (as in the three out of four reference). As far as surgeons go, the percentage of African-American surgeons is lower than that of the general population. This is a view of how the writer wishes America looks. Quite often, television shows and commercials feel compelled to portray white males as the evil enemy or the bungling fool. This is an intentional act on the part of liberal writers to both correct past wrongs and project their notion of a "good" society. Reality is much different. In reality, there are more African-American males in jain than in medical school. This will continue to be a problem for as long as people refuse to address the core issues of race/poverty/education/crime and focus instead on counting minority faces on the television screen. This practice is an ill-conceived panacea. If things look good on TV, then we dont have to worry about reality. After all, we have much more interations with television characters than we have with real human beings.

  2. Anonymous4:02 am

    Hi Maia,

    Couldn't find an email for you so am posting a comment instead.

    I really love this post. Would it be possible for me to cross-post it at our blog, Racialicious.com? It's a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture.

    I would post it with the byline: "by guest contributor Maia, originally published at Capitalism Bad, Tree Pretty" (with that linked back to your blog, of course).

    Please let me know - carmen@newdemographic.com

    Take care,


  3. Anonymous5:43 am

    Maia, I think Scrubs is a very interesting show and I've wanted to blog about it myself. The first two seasons are wonderful. They deal with topics like personal growth, life/death, friendship, dating, overcoming obstacles. They're very heartwarming. However, as the show goes on, the writers got less interested in the good stuff and more interested in gender roles, sexism and homophobia. The men in the show constantly work on their "game" because if "their game is good enough" they can "score". They don't care if they have to lie or do whatever. Elliot, the main female character, gets a makeover to look more "feminine" and is obsessed with getting married and having babies. She thinks her body is disgusting, and will cry if you mention her eyebrows. The mere mention of a gay person is cause enough to laugh, they don't have to do anything funny, and a person who doesn't behave they way their gender should is made fun of. Of course, many tv shows are like this, but it is interesting that Scrubs started out good and then got into all this crap as the seasons went on.

  4. Carebear - that's exactly what I find so interesting about Scrubs. I can't put my finger on what made me so sure in those first few seasons that it was a show that was depicting racism, sexism, homophobia, and the class system and pointing out how wrong it was.

    Now, from what I've seen, it's a racist, sexist, homophobic show that has no problem with the class-system. I wish I had time to go back and watch those old episodes and specify exactly what hte difference is. Because it can be quite a fine line.

  5. Someone brought up at dinner last night the interesting impact that sponsorship has on TV in the USA, from a book they had read years before called Primetime Feminism. She was particularly talking about Murphy Brown and how it got shifted out of primetime, despite the excellent ratings and critical praise, because of political criticism and withdrawl of advertising and sponsorship, both from conservative forces.

    I wonder if this kind of thing sometimes happens with shows like Scrubs, except instead of putting up with being moved they alter their content instead... Witness the ridiculous timeslot The West Wing is now in (whatever you think of the politics of it, it sure gets up the nose of Republicans.)

  6. Anonymous10:05 am

    Quite often, television shows and commercials feel compelled to portray white males as the evil enemy or the bungling fool.

    I don't know where you get the impression that the only portrayals of white men on television are bad ones.

    They're still the main protagonists on most shows (in pretty much every single genre. Hell, JD's Scrubs' main protagonist), and there are many "good" roles for white men to balance out the "bad" ones. There are some groups that don't have balanced portrayals at all.

    Of course, you only see what's bad for you, and ignore the massively good.

  7. I really enjoyed reading the posts realted to Grey's Anatomy. As a physician, I hate this show and find it incredibly dishonest, not just on a factual medical level, but also in its portrayal of relationships within the medical profession. Watching this Sears Catalogue of TV residents and attendings fraternizing and bedding each other, angers me in how it trivialises the difficulties I faced in my own medical training. As someone with a facial disfigurement, I was subjected to all kinds of humiliation and meant to feel extremely unwelcome by the local medical establishment during the course of my residency training.

    Having experienced discrimination first hand, I became keenly aware of the terrible discrimination experienced by my colleagues, who were either female, or of a visible ethnic minority. I was left to feel that the mandate of Canadian residency training programs, particularly surgical ones, was to create a "whites-only" country club of homophobic, sexist racists.

    Grey's Anatomy propogates a myth that becoming a doctor is a much fairer and more equitable process (regardless of your background), than it used to be. However, I will grant that all the characters in Grey's Anatomy are very attractive and telegenic, and so in reality would presumably not face the same challenges that they would, if they were as ugly as they are ethnically diverse.

  8. Anonymous6:45 pm

    I really don't understand this post. So you would rather see African-Americans portrayed as criminals, inmates, prostitutes, poverty level, and uneducated? Which they almost always are. In fact, I'm sure for every Grey's Anatomy, you can find 10 million documentaries on rapper shootings, inmate documentaries, and a crack ho struggling to raise her child stories. I, for one, am just happy that Grey's Anatomy has the makeup that it does. Perhaps the three authority figures are African-American but the story centers around Merideth, a white intern, and "McDreamy" a white doctor. Also in case you didn't notice, there is not one African-American intern making the 75% ratio absolutely ridiculous.

    Shonda Rhimes said that she wanted to cast blindly. That is, the best character for the role without regard to race. Isiah Washington's part was written in for him, and the black woman resident was originally envisioned as a blonde white woman.

    I am so tired of seeing the complete eradication or stereotypical portrayals of people of color on television. Friends and Seinfield, both two top rated shows rarely ever showed any kind of diversity despite being set in large urban cities. I live in an urban city and believe me, even if you wanted to, you cannot ignore the diversity. And you have to acknowledge the fact that this show is not set in the Midwest. In larger cities, there is more diversity in higher ranks.

    Yes there are African American, Korean, and Mexican doctors. Yes, I'm sure they face lots of issues in the workplace about their race. But who wants to watch a show day in and day out about the racism they face? There are a million shows depicting people as unable to get ahead because of their race. This show goes so far as to throw the race card out of the window and say, if race wasn't a factor, could these people prove themselves as doctors? What issues would they face? How do they deal with the pressure?

    And besides it doesn't need to be realistic... it's just a TV show.

  9. I don’t think this post is saying that we should see more minorities committing crimes on television. It’s saying that a show that acts like issues of class, race, and sex don’t matter is making these problems worse by making the viewers believe that these problems don’t exist. Scrubs shows these issues as problems in episodes like the one described in the post.

    Another episode of Scrubs that deals with issues of gender is the episode where Elliot starts dating a male nurse. In this episode Elliot goes out with a coworker from the hospital and really likes him until she finds out that he’s a nurse. After that she considers dumping him for that reason only. This white male carries a stigma because he has a job that society believes is a job for a woman. I’m not saying we should feel bad for white males who are nurses, but we should try and unlearn our socially constructed instincts that tell us that leadership jobs are for men and subservient jobs are for women.

  10. Anonymous5:02 pm

    To be quite honest, I think Heather has made a few good points but the rest of you have too. I have never watched Scrubs, but have heard that it is a very entertaining show and would enjoy to watch it at some point. However, I am a devoted fan to Grey's Anatomy and think a lot of you are taking the racial aspect of the show far too seriously and spending way too much time contemplating it. While there may be an "unrealistic" representation of the authority figures in the show being African-American, never once is race mentioned, displaying the unimportance of race in the show itself. Never once is ANY character discriminated against or anything close to it because of their race. And if there is any mention of it at all, Cristina may crack a joke or two about being Korean. Other than that, race is never mentioned at all.

    And is it a crime to cast roles of a television show based on acting ability rather than race? The creators have stated that they did not take race into consideration while casting the show. Therefore, all talk of the show being racially unrealistic is both ridiculous and unneccessary.

    However, I do also agree with Malvolio about the show being rather unrealistic about the relationships held within the medical workplace. I think it is absolutely absurd to have Izzie fall in love with Denny, a patient in need of a heart transplant in season 2. While the show may stray from the facts about how real surgeon life may be, let's just remember the whole purpose of a television program of this sort; to entertain.

    The show never claims to correctly portray the life of a surgeon, it does promise to keep us entertained. And I think despite what you may think or feel about the show, it is hard to make an argument that the show does not entertain.

    It seems in our current society where people sue overy anything and everything, people seem to take anything considering race too seriously. How do we expect our society and our future generations to drift away from these stereotypes that have been set apon the races for so long, if we won't even let a television show depict 3/4 of the head surgeons be African-American? I think everyone needs to accept a television show for what it really is and stop looking into every single detail. Remember, the show is meant to entertain and all we can do is take it for what its worth and stop taking everything so critically and being so offended about the most ridiculous things.