Grey's AnatomyIssues on Postracism, Intersectionality and the Crossover Genre
Throughout the decades, representations of African Americans in Hollywood have progressed from wane popularity in the 1970s, to attracting audiences beyond black viewers in the 1980s. Within the 1990s, a small number of black directors helmed in spearheading commercial movies with white characters who lived and interacted in predominantly white-oriented environments (Donaldson, 2003). In this regard, although it shouldn’t be deemed as a celebratory cause of ‘equality’ development in the movement for black people, it has become an unusual occurrence for black filmmakers to direct the stories of Whites, despite the history and limitations of blacks in the film industry. From this time up to present day, the notions of the ‘crossover phenomenon’ for black people on television has constantly been redefined by the growing visibility of black people on screen. However, despite improving reforms in African American representations on television, it is also most notable to question if black people behind-the-scenes – such as creators, filmmakers, and screenwriters, conform to the crossover label that transcends predominantly White storylines to market their craft to larger audiences. In this regard, we will embark on a multi-faceted, comprehensive discourse on one of Shonda Rhimes’ long time running medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy, with its interwoven themes of race, class, and intersectionality.
Pioneered by a black, female writer and executive producer, the modern medical drama Grey’s Anatomy that first aired on ABC in 2005, is now currently in its thirteenth season as of 2017. Throughout the years, the show has earned significant popularity as exemplified by receiving the 2007 Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series – Drama, twenty-five Emmy nominations since its first pilot, including multiple Outstanding Actor (or Actress) in a Drama Series awards given to its fluidly, ensemble cast (Cramer, pg. 476; Wikipedia, 2017). The doctors of Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital (also known as Seattle Grace Hospital from Seasons 1-9) deal with life-or-death situations and consequences on a day-to-day basis as surgical interns, residents, and attending physicians. In ways of coping with their work, they find comfort, friendships, and romance amongst each other along with their sharing of medical skills, training, and technology (CBS, 2015). At its core, Grey’s Anatomy is a modern drama portraying interracial friendships and romantic relationships within a metropolitan hospital setting, that problematically illustrate a colorblind ideology in a show that has clearly brought a diversified cast filled with racialized populations.
In the efforts of appearing racially diverse, accepting, and non-threatening, the show used a color-blind casting technique (the practice of casting without considering the actor’s ethnicity) that resulted in a racially diverse ensemble of physician characters as an attempt to attract multiethnic audiences. Shonda Rhimes, the series’ creator, writer, and executive producer, initially conceived Grey’s Anatomy as a “statement against racism,” featuring a racially diverse cast that’ll allow viewers to relate to regardless of race (Wikipedia, 2017). However, in its good intentions of creating a ‘colorblind’ world where the characters are of equal status without considering race, it comes into question on how this plays into the structural inequality of race in the media. In the pedestal of post-racial depictions of blackness in America and Hollywood media, Grey’s Anatomy exemplifies a strategic absence of discourse on race within the portrayed interracial friendships and romantic relationships throughout the seasons. In this regard, although Shonda has good intent in the show’s colorblind ideology and post-racial society, I assert that (1) it problematically perpetuates a need to hide systemic racism in the face of White pervasiveness, and (2) it limits actual progress for racial and interracial relations since race and ethnicity bring importance in defining the experiences of individuals, whether they are White or non-White. In situating the characters as “race neutral or culturally white,” it “enables the dismissal and forgetting” of racism’s long history along with its “impact on the current structures that produce and reproduce social inequality” (Ono, 2011). And while the show creates a race-less utopia of doctors comprising of African Americas, Asian, Latino, and European descent, the series has conformed to playing within a White-oriented environment and storyline. Therefore, despite its (successful) efforts in drawing appeal beyond the non-white audiences, it simultaneously obscures the presence of race or the persistence of racial inequality – until subsequent themes and scenes of racism appear in the plots and storyline of Season 12. So, despite my claims of the show’s racial ignorance and its problematic perpetuation, its twelfth season brings new light to themes and issues of racism, specifically for black people. In commending Grey’s Anatomy for its explicit scenes of race and blackness in America, we will also unpack how it ties into the series’ colorblind ideology and how it took the show eleven full seasons to pass before bringing them up in a comprehensive manner. Hence, I would like to assert another point where (3) Grey’s Anatomy falls under the scope of the public sphere’s political dissent, and predominantly white preconditions of black people on American television despite its successful efforts of black ‘crossover’ exposure on screen.
Racism and Intersectionality: How and why did it take this long?
With the departure of Grey-Sloan’s Head of Cardiothoracic Surgery, doctor Maggie Pierce makes her first appearance on Grey’s Anatomy in the final episode of Season 10 during an interview for that position that was eventually offered to her. Throughout the eleventh season, we come to find out that she is the half-sister to lead star, Meredith Grey, and daughter to Richard Webber, former chief of surgery. She is known to be quintessentially smart and driven – having finished her medical school faster than normal, quirky in personality and in conversation, and predominantly appears to be black in color despite her mixed race (Webber being African American, and her biological mother being White). I bring this up with importance in noting that because of her physical appearance in race, Maggie Pierce is an example of an explicitly racialized character on the show, specifically within subsequent episodes of Season 12, as we will discuss later in this paper.
Unlike past seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, Season 12 inserts explicit dialogue on issues of racism between the characters within subsequent episodes of the season. In several episodes, Maggie Pierce consistently views or treats herself as intrinsically different from the doctors in Grey-Sloan, in what can be referred to as ‘Othering’ herself – that started with a racist mother’s assumptions of Maggie’s character in the very first episode of the season (Miles & Brown, pg. 20). Her presence in the show is symbolic for African American representation, because although there are several other black characters throughout the seasons, she brings up important discourse on racial consciousness and issues of the ‘crossover phenomenon’ for black people on television and behind-the-scenes. Furthermore, this extends to a connected discourse between white privilege and the pervasiveness of Whiteness in America, while tying it back to the problem perpetuated by Shonda Rhimes’ colorblind ideology of the show. Moving forward, this paper will take on a Critical Discourse Analysis that “primarily studies the way social power abuse, dominance, and inequality are enacted, reproduced, and resisted by text and talk in the social and political context,” in the hopes of “understanding, exposing, and ultimately resisting social inequality” (Teun A. Van Dilk, 2001, pg. 352). In this regard, we will be deciphering several different episodes of the season where Maggie is displaced (or displaces herself) as a racialized, black, female doctor in the internal resistance against her peers and the patients. Furthermore, it is also imperative not to include a Semiotic analysis of several scenes of dialogue and action that portray the layers of social inequality provided by racial difference. As the study of signs, Semiotic analysis will not only denote the “primary, initial meaning[s] of signs,” but it will also connote the “extra meanings that have become further associated with [the] given signs” (Decon et. al, 2007, pg. 382). One last thing to note is that, while scholarly attention given to popular texts that “overtly perform and speak about race and interracial relationships is valuable,” more analysis of texts that “covertly frame” conceptions of race and interracial relations within the series is also necessary and important in this analysis (Chidester, pg. 157; Lacy & Ono, 2011).
Black Actors on the Show: Notions of Othering and Racial Consciousness
In the twelve seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, viewers have seen and heard many ground-breaking things. Throughout the series, the main characters discuss serious and controversial issues including “homosexuality, religion, socioeconomic status, sexually transmitted diseases, privilege, medical research ethics, medical practice ethics, war, motherhood, divorce, infidelity, abortion, and various controversial lifestyle choices” that involved their work, marriage, and parenthood (Cramer, pg. 481). And despite all of this, the discussion of race, racism, race relations, white privilege, and blackness in America have not been explicitly discussed in subsequent dialogue until Season 12. In starting off with the episode “Something Against You,” Maggie is left seething after finding out that Bailey (the chief of surgery), hired Nathan Riggs (a white, male doctor) under her own department without her knowledge. The scene implies Maggie’s frustration in being overridden by the chief, but it also contends a self-insecurity between her racial status and her position as head of Cardiothoracic Surgery. As foreshadowed by this scene, both Maggie and Riggs follow up on a patient they previously tended to earlier in the episode, and despite her efforts in spearheading the discussion on the patient’s course of treatment, the patient consistently revert to Riggs for confirmation, in the intent of having Maggie’s recommendations validated. For the entirety of this episode, Maggie begins to treat Riggs with hostility and revulsion (as a defense mechanism), not only because she wants to make it clear that she is the head of Cardiothoracic surgery, but it also reinforces the fact that she is trying to exert the extra work in feeling superior over Riggs, or at the very least, trying to be seen with equal status beside Riggs despite her gender and racial identity. In these subsequent events, Maggie is portrayed as the Other character in contemporary representation, rooted from the “product of historical legacy,” and continued pattern of racial relations (Miles & Brown, pg. 51; Cohen, 1988). With this scene in relation to Maggie with Riggs, there are two layers of Othering that is happening – an Othering of being a female, and an Othering of being a black person.
Not long after the encounters between Maggie and Riggs, Maggie comes home with a cranky attitude just as she starts having dinner with fellow doctors Meredith (her white, half-sister), Amelia (her other white, half-sister-in-law through Meredith), and Alex (their white, male co-worker and friend). She begins venting out her frustration to the three of them on how Bailey bypassed her in hiring Riggs, with the conversation starting under the broader umbrella of sexism. “It’s the patients,” Maggie says. “It’s the way they look to the man in the room first, no matter who is talking to them,” she continues. And with this, an oblivious Alex goes on to asks if “that’s a thing?” in which Amelia quickly replies in saying “not for you.” Maggie goes on to complain on how she now has to “train another alpha guy not to pee all over the place,” while Alex chimes in to argue in saying “C’mon, we’re not like that” (Grey’s Anatomy, S12E7, 2015). Denotatively, it would be terribly disgusting to have someone “pee all over the place,” but in the connotative sense, Maggie means to say that she now has to give herself the responsibility of orienting Nathan Riggs not to transcend an egotistical male dominant presence in the hospital, which is something that Alex was seemingly unaware of.
As a continuation of their conversation, Amelia goes on to say that “there is the whole Other thing…I thought I was done with that here,” now implying the racial difference between being a black doctor versus a white doctor in the room. This was Amelia’s turn to be oblivious in saying “what whole Other thing?” until she realizes that Maggie was talking about racism, and then questions, “C’mon, is that a thing?” just like Alex (Grey’s Anatomy, S12E7, 2015). In this scenario, Amelia plays the part that many people have played at some point: “a well-intentioned white person who simply doesn’t understand because she can’t” (Sprankles, 2015). Doubtful and surprised, she claims, “I can’t believe that,” which has Maggie saying, “it’s because it’s not your thing,” touching on the concept of intersectionality. As a term coined by American professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality describes a multi-layered facet of struggle that women have to deal with, and as a concept often used in critical theory (much like this one) that refers to the “overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination” (Vidal, 2014; Wikipedia, 2017). In this case, Maggie is again discriminated as the Other here in two layers: one, due to her gender as a female in the power struggle against stereotypical, male dominance, and the second, because of race and her black physical appearance. Furthermore, it is important to note that Maggie’s representation of the Other is one of the Western representation (Miles & Brown, pg. 21). Since representations of the Other are “holistically neither static nor unitary,” such representations have undergone transformation over time (pg. 51). So although black, female doctors have been accepted in the mix of the fictional metropolitan hospital in Grey’s Anatomy, the absence of racial discourse in past seasons make this part of the episode almost seemed too forced or awkwardly exerted. However, from this single dialogue alone, it brings up so many other issues that has to do with racial consciousness, white privilege, and blackness in America.
In the context of the dialogue between Maggie, Meredith, Amelia, and Alex, notions of racial consciousness are also an imperative section of discussion. A concept that can roughly be defined as the “awareness of membership in a racial or ethnic group by both group members and the larger society in which they reside,” a note of interest would be of Amelia’s cognitive dissonance on racial response as a doctor in Grey-Sloan (Gold, 2007, pg. 00). Amelia, like many of us would do or have done, begins to look at her behaviour at some point, and more specifically, when she took Jo Wilson’s word over Stephanie Edward’s (a few episodes prior to this scene in “Old Time Rock and Roll”). The backstory to this is when Amelia, despite knowing Edwards, and spending more time with Edwards (black, female, surgical resident) compared to Wilson (white, female, surgical resident), easily believes Wilson when she claims that Edwards was lying about her clinical trial during her childhood years. The argument here is that in the heat of the moment, Amelia easily believed Wilson because either on one hand, she could have found it difficult to believe the clinical trial story, or on the other hand, it could also be easily interpreted as a racist approach – where Amelia credited more truth out of Wilson than Edwards, simply because of their affinity in being white and Edwards being black. In fast forwarding to the “Something Against You” episode, Amelia takes an opportunity to bring this up with Maggie in saying “I’m afraid I might have been racist…oh good I can talk to you about this.” Maggie questions Amelia’s motive for choosing her to talk to by responding with “why me? Because I’m your sister? Or because I’m yo sistah?” With this Amelia says the thing we can suspect black people often hear a lot – “this is exactly what I was worried about,” followed by “God, I hate that this is even an issue all of a sudden,” a probable, common utterance on a day-to-day basis. But as Maggie blatantly points out:
“Well it’s not an issue for you, and it’s not all of a sudden. Ok it’s not Mississippi Burning or anything, but it is all over. It’s when people assume I’m a nurse. Or when I go to get on an airplane with my first class ticket and they tell me that they’re not boarding coach yet. It’s like a low buzz in the background, and sometimes you don’t even notice it, and sometimes it’s loud and annoying, and sometimes it can get dangerous, and sometimes it is ridiculous — like right now” (Grey’s Anatomy, Season 12, Episode 7).
In relation to this, it is interesting to note that Maggie compares the extent of the situation with the movie Mississippi Burning – a 1988 American crime thriller that investigates the murders of three civil rights workers, along with backlash from the town’s residents, local police, and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Another example comes into mind is of a viral news that came out a few months ago, of a flight attendant not believing a black female passenger who is a doctor who could check out a distressed patient on board. In this dialogue, Amelia further elaborates the internal hierarchy of race, and further notions of racial consciousness towards Amelia. With courage and brilliance it took to bring this up, Maggie continues to say: “Look, did Edwards tell you that she’s ok?” “Yes” “Then don’t give her the extra work of having to make you feel good about it,” bringing up a string of issues on whiteness and white privilege, an extended discourse of intersectionality. Maggie closes the conversation with genuine, honest and supposedly ‘truly helpful’ insight by saying: “This is not a small thing. I’m glad that you feel like you can talk to me about it, but I don’t speak for all black people. I am not the spokeswoman. No one is. And it is kind of annoying to be asked questions like I am. But one piece of advice that I can give you, that I think we can all agree with, is that if you feel uncomfortable having done it, check your white privilege and don’t do it again.”
Now, although it is commendable for Grey’s Anatomy to address issues of racism and layers of discrimination and I ntersectionality, the whole conversation between the two almost seemed too forced, as if Maggie’s monologue was inserted as a public service announcement (which can be a good one at that), rather than a powerful moment in popular television. Amelia almost seemed too “stilted to come off naturally,” or to be “effective as it wanted to be,” rather than an episode coming out of its colorblind, post-racial world (Bacle, 2015). However, what we can find very rich in deciphering here is that the whole umbrella of white supremacy that is now brought up in conversation. As understood by scholars, white supremacy implies a discreet form of racial imbalance and superiority that shouts ‘whiteness does not have to speak its name’ (Simon Fraser University CMNS 452 Week 4 Lecture, January 27 2017). It can be argued that Amelia’s siding with Wilson over Edwards is based on a “racist premise and proposition inscribed as a set of unquestioned assumptions,” that’s referred to as inferential racism, but in consulting with Maggie on whether she might have been racist or not, she is implied with possessing white guilt – a concept of collective guilt from white people who fear of doing harm in thought and action to society’s social construction of inferior, ethnic and/or racialized minorities (Hall, pg. 20). And contrary to Jensen’s statement, the resiliency of white supremacy will not necessarily continue since discourse of white American guilt does indeed continue to be examined in academic literature and the real world (Jensen, pg. 46). Despite criticism of the scene between Maggie and Amelia, guilt was a productive response to the situation. It got Amelia to be engaged in self-awareness and taking responsibility for her actions. Much like the literature implied, the type of guilt she felt at that moment came from the recognition that she had done something wrong, and possibly hurt someone else, that is Edwards (pg. 49). Maggie’s monologue perfectly exemplifies the layers of the possessive investment in Whiteness in America and modern television – from describing the discreetness of racism as a ‘low buzz in the background’ to the forefront screams of ‘loud and annoying’ to the way she questioned Amelia by deliberately changing her accent to “yo sistah” (Grey’s Anatomy, S12E7, 2015). Because as Richard Dyer says, “Whiteness is everywhere in U.S. culture, but it is very hard to see,” and secures its dominance by “not doing anything in particular” (Lipsitz, pg. 1).
Grey’s Crossover Phenomenon and Colorblind Ideology
While we have peeled the layers of discourse on representations of black people on television, the ‘crossover phenomenon’ applies to both actors and filmmakers on television. According to Melvin Donaldson, the concept of “crossover” has been an “operative idea in the marketing of Hollywood films for decades,” particularly for black people in the context of Grey’s Anatomy (Donaldson, 2003). It was a term initially coined in the context of black and white audience appeal, and has “shaped the decision making to green-light future projects” (pg. 278). During the latter part of the decade, the notions of crossover expanded in meaning to illustrate how black issues, themes, images, debates, and personalities appeal to both black and white audiences, along with identifying black actors who could indeed attract audiences beyond black viewers (Donaldson, 2003 Erigha, pg. 10). Grey’s colorblind casting technique has brought in a number of black actors in its ensemble cast throughout the series, with Richard Webber (James Pickens) and Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson) as the two, black lead stars on set since Season 1; along with Jackson Avery (Jesse Williams), Ben Warren (Jason George), and Stephanie Edwards (Jerrika Hinton) making their way from recurring role statuses to main cast members over time.
Crossover television is said to “simultaneously embrace and transcend blackness,” but even though blacks are visible in above-the-line positions like in Grey’s Anatomy, crossover works “distances themselves from blackness” (pg. 11). Despite its efforts in appealing to multiethnic audiences with its racially diverse casts, the success of Shonda Rhimes’ medical drama is argued to be from the “preconditions of success for black creative workers at major media organizations,” and that is: to ‘be black, but not too black’ (pg. 10). So yes, despite the progression for black representation on the media and television, the characters on Grey’s Anatomy are still located “outside of the black community” and instead “completely immersed in a white environment,” tiptoeing around the peripheries of blackness (pg. 10). It almost suggests that despite Shonda Rhimes’ intentions of equality and race neutrality with the colorblind casting, the white-oriented storyline seems to adhere to a mainstream acceptance of the show and its anticipated success. For most of the seasons, the storyline revolved around the main lead star, Meredith Grey (a white, female doctor) along with her long-time love interest Derek Shepherd (a white, male dominant actor) until his unexpected death in Season 11. In all fairness, the black actors are being given their own storyline exposure on the show, but still fits within the preconditions of white-immersed environments. Moreover, it is important to note that the black characters on the show lacked a display of cultural markers (with an exception of the curly hair) that makes them significantly distinct as a race. Bailey, Edwards, and Maggie for example, all fall under the reconstruction of whiteness with representations of westernized characteristics they embody on the show.
On another note, the creative workers behind-the-scenes (writers, creators, filmmakers, etc.) also play a part in the crossover label by being criticized of racial masking in order to market their shows to a larger audience. As poignantly pointed out by Erigha, Shonda Rhimes “exemplifies the role of the crossover magnet behind the camera as the creator, executive producer, and writer” of Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, The Catch, and it’s longest running, highest rating show – Grey’s Anatomy (pg. 11). Prior to Season 12’s subsequent episodes that touched on racism and intersectionality, the show has conformed to storylines of white prevalence and barely brushed upon thematic issues of blackness in the series. Several examples include Miranda Bailey (surgical resident training Meredith and other interns at this point in the series) being nicknamed as “the Nazi” – an irony for one of the highest ranking Black female doctor on the show that has been “associated with a racist regime that perpetuated the Holocaust” (Cramer, pg. 482). Later on in Season 9, we are introduced to a patient who refused to be seen by both Bailey and Webber, because of the tattoo of a swastika etched in his body that needed an infection consult.
There are several other themes of racism pertaining to Asians and Latinos, but again, has barely been touched on in the show. It can be asserted that despite Shonda Rhimes’ green light success projects, she is stuck in the pedestal of both the public sphere’s political dissent. As an extension to this, Erigha’s assertion supports her cautionary presumption wherein white audiences “yet again influence what direction studio take with black cultural productions” – with networks giving a green light to crossover genres like Grey’s Anatomy, but not necessarily to a black cast majority program (pg. 14). In reference to this play of manipulation in crossover television, Bonilla Silva’s colorblind ideology speaks of how it is “socially unacceptable to communicate racist sentiments in any way” (Cramer, pg. 483). Within this ideology, it is “commonly understood that racism has been eradicated since the Civil Rights Movement, and as a result, to express any views that are deemed racist is considered the social evil of evils” (pg. 483). This is highly problematic, because (1) racism is something that can never be removed in the interplay of society’s social construction, and (2) the application of this ideology in Grey’s Anatomy is undermining the complete experiences of the characters on the show by disregarding their identities of race and ethnicity.
Grey’s Anatomy is a show that can easily be deemed as a progress and a success in the interplay between the crossover genre and the representation of African Americans in the media and on television. The modern medical drama features black characters as the “twenty-first century iterations of super African Americans,” but the production of this show also “helps to manufacture the consent that makes new racism appear to be natural, normal, and inevitable” (Cramer, pg. 485). As Ono points out, the subtlety in its participation with the colorblind and post-racial ideology are what makes post-racism “operate strategically” (2011). The long absence of racial discourse in this show perpetuates a problematic position for its characters where the prevalence of Whiteness is what makes the White race the default, standard throughout the series. Havens assert that the integrationist approaches to the black-centered stories “enhance the marketability of the series to varying degrees,” which to a certain extent is undeniably true (Haggins, pg. 172). Sorry Shonda Rhimes. On the other hand, as a show that has finally brought up an array of issues with racism throughout Season 12, the acknowledgment of racism itself is a stepping stone in seeping through the ignorantly, colorblind façade. Furthermore, it has not only brought up the distinctions between productive and unproductive white guilt (referring back to Amelia’s questioning and self-awareness), but it also acknowledges Jensen’s concept of “righteous anger” (pg. 58); the kind of anger that will alleviate our fears of responding to racism, the kind of anger that is rooted in a commitment to both justice and equity, that will allow to let go of unproductive guilt. And so in going back to the question of whether we can consider Grey’s Anatomy and Shonda Rhimes as a progress for blacks in Hollywood television, the answer is both yes and no. As a black, female key player continuing a long time running, high star rating, racially diverse ensemble cast, she has done way more than getting her feet wet in the political dissent and resistance of race in the media, but it is also safe to say that the post-racism rhetoric of Grey’s Anatomy needs a lot more de-layering of its issues on racism. And in the words of Jensen through a discussion in a university seminar of race and the media: “we have to get angry, stay angry, but not let that anger swallow us. We have to let our passion for justice fuel our work, but also make sure that it doesn’t lead us to overlook our own flaws and failures” (pg. 65).
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