The Social Cut | Grey’s Anatomy, and the Cultural Importance of ‘Just Another Soap Opera’


The Social Cut is a monthly column by Rishika Aggarwal that critically analyses various media shows, movies and documentaries, from an intersectional, feminist standpoint.Through the good part of the 21st century, three U.S. Presidents, four Indian governments, and a variety of cultural phenomenon, it has persisted. One of the most ubiquitous shows in the world, and a guilty pleasure watch for millions of people, Grey’s Anatomy remains a cultural force to be reckoned with, more than 15 years after the first episode aired on 27th March, 2005.

Often dismissed as just another medical soap opera, perhaps one of the most underrated things about Grey’s Anatomy is the makeup of its cast and characters. It is rarely that you can truly use the word race-blind when it comes to a cast of television series or movie, but this cast may be one of the closest you will ever find.

A 2005 New York Times article notes that in some ways, the casting of Grey’s Anatomy was as multicultural as it could be, while keeping in mind the nuances of the way people of colour are portrayed on screen. The black Dr. Burke was supposed to white, while the actor who portrayed him, Isaiah Washington, was nearly cast as the famous McDreamy – Derek Shepherd, who was played by the white Patrick Dempsey. Chandra Wilson’s Dr. Bailey was supposed to be blonde and white, giving a different meaning to the character’s initial nickname of ‘The Nazi.’ But is becoming a black character, Bailey has one of the show’s most poignant moments, when she points out how uncomfortable nicknaming a black character ‘The Nazi’ is. Even the breakout character of Christina Yang has a ‘colour blind’ casting – while network executives thought the character would be white, showrunner Shonda Rhimes says the character initially had no last name – allowing her to keep an open mind and cast Sandra Oh, a Korean-Canadian actress.

Rhimes’ only rule, was that drug dealers and pimps could not be black, thus making an important point about how black characters are all too often portrayed on television scenes.

Its cast also featured – and features – a host of actors of varying sexualities, and makes it a point to try and be as sensitive in its treatment of diverse actors as it is in their characters. Washington was famously fired for directing a homophobic slur at co-star T. R. Knight, who was not out yet at that time.  His cameo in later seasons only came after Washington was able to display growth in his perspectives. Through the shows run, stars T.R. Knight, Sara Ramirez, and Jake Borelli have all come out about their sexualities, Knight and Borelli as gay and Ramirez as bisexual, crediting Rhimes for creating an accepting atmosphere on set.

The show makes it a point of having a multicultural cast – not only in terms of race, but gender and sexuality as well. Callie Torres is Latina and proudly bisexual, and was for a majority of the character’s run on the show, in a relationship and marriage with Arizona Robbins. Torres has one of the most poignant storylines on the show in Season 2 and 3, as she struggles to come to terms with her sexuality and come out to her conservative father and the rest of the hospital. It is also noteworthy that the show’s most prominent LGBTQ+ representation was via bi- and lesbian women. GLAAD’s 2017-2018 media report noted that lesbian representation of only 24% of all recurring LLGBTQ representation on television, and bisexual representation consisted of 28% of all LGBTQ representation (though bi representation skewed heavily towards bi- women, 75% of all bi representation). These characters’ storylines overwhelmingly end in their deaths, making Torres and Robbins important in that their stories on the show ended as happily as any character’s does on Grey’s Anatomy – with the possibility of reconciliation, following a few seasons of following them as a divorced coupe grappling with dating new people. This, all without considering the impact of Callie Torres as an LGBTQ – and particularly bisexual – character of colour.

In later seasons, the show starts to focus on the broader LGBTQ+ community. One of the most interesting storylines comes in the form of Dr. Casey Parker, a trans military veteran whose gender identity is never made central to his character arc – in fact; it only comes up late into his arc. Another recurring trans character comes in the form of Dr. Michelle Velez, who appears as a plastic surgeon working on creating a new form of vaginoplasty that would be groundbreaking in the field of gender confirmation surgery, which was a storyline inspired by a true story. Though it only happens later in the show’s run, Grey’s portrayal of trans characters is nuanced and considered – writers worked with GLAAD to create Parker’s storyline, and the direct reference to gender confirmation surgery and concerns that exist before and after such surgery for trans people is perhaps a revolutionary moment on popular television.

Grey’s also brings its first recurring gay male characters in Dr. Nico Kim and Dr. Levi Schmitt. In delaying its introduction of gay characters to after it has addressed less portrayed sexualities, Grey’s makes an interesting statement on the types of LGBTQ+ representation that part of popular television and film. However, in typical Grey’s fashion, the choice of characters is interesting in itself – Kim as a Korean-American character, and Schmitt a Jewish one. Though not as central of characters as Torres and Robbins were, both characters have their own distinct storylines, both around and aside from their sexuality.

Beyond its diverse cast of characters, Grey’s does not shy away from addressing the politics of diversity. Meredith Grey and Derek Shepherd’s adopted daughter Zola – who is black – has scenes revolving around the importance of her hair and Grey and Shepherd being taught how to take care of textured hair by Bailey. Bailey and her husband Ben address the politics of being a black male with her son, Tucker, when they sit him down to talk about reacting to the police as a black boy. The show also addresses the #MeToo movement, the complicity of women, and the complications of being a woman of colour who considered speaking out – and that of the women who did speak out. Yang has an adopted Jewish father and is Jewish herself due to her upbringing, and early in the show they address the problems of treating those hostile to their existence when they treat a white nationalist with a prominent swastika tattoo. Adoption and a-typical families are a common thread through the series, and how both chosen and birth families can be complicated within themselves.

Perhaps the most revolutionary part of Grey’s Anatomy, however, is its focus of friendships – and female friendships in particular. The show passes the Bechdel Test easily, and relationships such as those between Grey and Yang have become powerful pats of popular culture. It is a story filled with women everywhere, from the highest positions down to the interns. It is not a perfect show – it took time for LGBTQ+ representation to become nuanced, as the first lesbian kisses were played out in font of and for the benefit of male characters and the male gaze. However, it makes a far better claim for striving for diversity than many other popular media shows that are far more public about their claims – and it does it in a way that is easy to overlook and move on from, which is perhaps its greatest achievement.


Rishika Aggarwal is a Blogger at One Future Collective.

Featured image source: Elle

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