Television, Gender and Sexuality March 12, 2008 Topic # 4 – TV and familial reproduction
We Don’t Do Well with Mothers Here: Pregnancy Plots and (the Lack of) Reproduction on Grey’s Anatomy Reproductive plotlines abound on Grey’s Anatomy, with almost every major female character having at least one1, not to mention a multitude of subplots focused on random patients’ interesting pregnancies. Yet the only child born on the show threatens not only the state of the diegetic family it is born to, but the structure of the show itself. The ending of the pregnancy plotline with the beginning of a child’s life threatens the ability of the show to sustain its narrative structure by putting the symbolic family of doctors in danger. Grey’s Anatomy suggests that for television to reproduce, the biological family cannot. Because the form relies on women and men’s apparent equality in order to continue their premise of the egalitarian family, children are dangerous because they bring with them real unsolved issues of patriarchal society. Grey’s insistence on refusing reproduction for the majority of the show’s main characters thematizes the restraints of television form as a fantasy space that must simultaneously “offer viewers an opportunity for the vicarious experience of power, permitting women simultaneously to acknowledge and to manage feelings of powerlessness and emotional deprivation” while also “reproducing ‘the patterns of domination and exploitation existing in a given society’” (Mumford, 108). The show thematizes these problems through the one biological reproduction that actually take place, showing how it causes the disintegration of the biological family in order to explain the dangers to the televisual family. Grey’s Anatomy depicts a world where discrimination, whether based on gender, sexual orientation, race, or even disability, is almost always individual, never institutional or systemic.
See Appendix for brief summary of plots and characters.
As part of this vision, people’s experiences are, for the most part, dissociated from their gender identities. As Tania Modleski notes of daytime soap operas, “Women as well as men frequently work outside the home…and women are generally on professional par with men. But most of everyone’s times is spent experiencing and discussing personal and domestic crises” (38). Despite the surgeries performed and the patients interviewed, Grey’s very much revolves around these personal crises, and the medical issues are quite often used merely as tropes to discuss the main characters’ problems. This focus on the personal as non-gendered is emphasized by the way Grey’s sometimes attempts to reverse gender stereotypes without comment, for example by having two major male characters (Shepard and Burke) positioned as the more emotionally open partner in their (heterosexual) relationships, and through their desire for marriage and children, while their female partners resist both emotional intimacy and such normative visions of domestic bliss. Unlike daytime soap operas, Grey’s offers a more traditional structure of identification to support its egalitarian premise. Modleski notes that in “most formula stories,” “the spectator constantly returns to the same story in order to identify with the main character and achieve, temporarily, the illusion of mastery denied him in real life” (42). While soaps may “help reconcile [women viewers] to the meaningless, repetitive nature of much of her life” (42), Grey’s goes for feelings of power by encouraging viewers to identify with the show’s main character, Meredith. Not only is the show named for her, even if Meredith has scant screen time in any given episode, she is still the narrator of it, offering a voice over monologue that discusses the theme of each show. This structural mastery over the show belies Meredith’s diegetic life, where she is shown as somewhat out of control, with her life constantly pushed in undesirable directions from forces outside of her power. Because of Meredith’s prominence and the ways
viewers are encouraged to see her as their stand in (her monologues are often accompanied by sweeping shots of the greater Seattle area or aerial visions of the hospital, linking her to the all seeing and all knowing, like the viewer), it is particularly important that in the first three seasons, Meredith was the only major female character not to have experienced some sort of pregnancy plot2. This allows her to remain in a sense unmarked by what Grey’s figures as the essential difference between women and men, allowing the show to continue the structuring premise of gender equality while also naturalizing gender difference. Pregnancy in Grey’s is a specifically female problem, not only biologically, but socially. Male characters are only peripherally involved in plots of pregnancy and reproduction, and what involvement they do have is almost always after the fact – Burke and the Chief learn of their partners’ pregnancies only upon their miscarriages, Addison tells Mark of her pregnancy after her abortion and later seeks to get pregnant without male involvement, George has no desire for a pregnancy Callie is desperately trying to cultivate, the biological father of Izzie’s birth-child is absent, Meredith’s half-sister’s husband is in Iraq when she gives birth, and Bailey’s husband is only revealed when she is in labor – only to be absent from the event due to a car crash3. In this way, the women on Grey’s are very different than their counterparts described in Mumford’s “Plotting Paternity” where “the woman sees herself as a passive receptacle for the more active male progenitor” and “the presentation of pregnancy…highlights women’s passivity” (104). Although these pregnancies differ in this way from those of soaps, Grey’s still uses pregnancy as a moment where “women exert a form of power denied to their male counterparts and thus offer
This is not completely accurate – in a Season 3 episode entitled “What I Am” Meredith wonders if she is pregnant for about half the show, until she learns she has appendicitis.
This is not to say that the men, once notified of their partner’s pregnancy issues, do not react – both Burke and Mark, specifically, claim that they have been wronged by not being included. However, this reaction is still fundamentally different from that of the traditional soap, where women are figured as passive in pregnancy and men as active.
the traditional soap opera viewer an opportunity to imagine a world in which women like themselves (i.e., centered on the family) are in control of the central fact of family life” (Mumford, 111). This allows Grey’s to celebrate female autonomy and encourage viewers to feel power without actually having to confront societal sexism. However, the men’s un-involvement in pregnancy plots comes to stand in for the unshowable problems reproduction presents to television without letting these problems collapse the show’s narrative structure. Anxieties over gender inequalities in reproduction, childbearing, and child raising, then, are displaced onto pregnancy plots, which are then brushed off as always only about biology, not society. Pregnancies are not without their consequences in Grey’s, but the show maintains a veneer of feminism by placing limits on women’s reproductive choices in natural, instead of systemic, obstacles. Miscarriage is used both in cases where women desperately want children (Adele) and in situations where they do not plan on bringing the child to term (Cristina) in order to elide questions of women’s reproductive rights and the structural limits placed on them in a sexist society. In the one case where a woman is shown having chosen to end her pregnancy, when Addison relates that she had an abortion some eight months ago, this choice is later undermined by “natural” forces when Addison soon after learns she is no longer fertile4. Structural issues of single motherhood and the emotional difficulties of having a child are deferred in both cases in favor of a focus on interpersonal relationships and personal choices, only to have these reasons also undermined through “natural” ends to pregnancy. Instead of “containing and managing the disruptive aspects of that fantasy [of female control] through the inevitable reestablishment of patriarchal order” (Mumford, 95), Grey’s displaces struggles with a sexist society onto bodily problems, thus avoiding the thorny issues of institutionalized sexism.
Tellingly, Addison’s abortion is never mentioned after the initial episode in which it is introduced, “Six Days, Part Two” even and especially when she is told that she is unable to get pregnant.
However, the show also hints at the structural reasons behind main characters’ almost universal inability to reproduce. After Cristina miscarries a fetus she was planning to abort, her mother arrives presumably to take care of and comfort her, but only upsets Cristina with her focus on emotions and marriage. In an attempt to get Cristina’s mother to leave, Meredith, Cristina’s closest friend, tells her “We don’t do well with mothers here,” presumably referring to her strained relationship with her own overbearing mother. Yet in the context of Cristina’s miscarriage, Meredith’s comment takes on new meanings. Grey’s is unable to handle reproduction, and precisely does not “do well with mothers” because it cannot represent their concerns in patriarchal society without undermining its own premise as gender egalitarian and threatening the “family” of doctors on the show. This is not to say that the women not having children is inherently negative, particularly when they do not want them, but to point to the structural reasons behind Grey’s reluctance to have pregnancy develop to maternity. Modleski argues that soap operas, “while constituting the spectator as a ‘good mother’ provide in the person of the villainess an outlet for feminine anger” (42). Yet in Grey’s there are only bad mothers, and any feminine anger is directed towards them, not towards patriarchal society, because such a thing cannot be addressed in a world that ignores the existence of patriarchal structures altogether. Grey’s attempts to thematize and explain these issues through the only instance of a main character becoming a mother in the show. When attendee Dr. Bailey becomes pregnant and later gives birth, her character becomes suddenly embroiled in struggles of gender inequality that are never quite articulated. Grey’s confusion over what to do with pregnant women and the possibility of them reproducing is highlighted in an exchange between interns Cristina and Meredith about their very pregnant boss. In response to one intern’s query as to what will happen
when Bailey goes on leave, Cristina cries, “Leave? She's going on leave?” To which Meredith replies, “What do you think happens when people push babies out of their vagina?” Here again the focus on pregnancy and birth as bodily conditions predominates. The idea that women might take leave after giving birth for emotional reasons or in order to provide care for a child is erased, and any discrepancy in behavior as usual is attributed to bodily recovery. In keeping with its strategy of attempting to reverse cultural norms and insist upon an egalitarian world, Grey’s has Bailey’s husband be a stay at home caretaker while she returns to work fulltime as a surgeon. For once, though, Grey’s suggests some of the impact of motherhood in a patriarchal society, having other doctors question Bailey’s ability to do her job since she has become a mother. However, sexist norms that dictate Bailey’s new found emotional attachments to patients as bad practice are rebuffed not by Bailey, but by the Chief, a figure who in other contexts might seem a symbol of patriarchal power. When the Chief tells Bailey she is a “better doctor” for being a mother in “Oh, the Guilt,” Grey’s makes a real attempt towards addressing institutionalized sexism, but does so in such a way that it can be put off on personal self doubt and never addressed again. Modleski argues that “it is crucial to recognize that soap opera allays real anxieties, satisfies real needs and desires, even while it may distort them” (46). This is Grey’s attempt at addressing anxieties and providing feminist satisfaction, but to do so it has to displace the problems into a personal realm and to contain them within a plotline that ends in disaster. After moving in and out of emphasis, Grey’s seems to finally have brought their plot of reproduction to what they make out to be its almost inevitable conclusion. The final episode of Grey’s Anatomy written before the writer’s strike not only follows the fate of Bailey’s child, injured due to implied bad mothering, but is narrated by Dr. Bailey herself. Although we cannot
know how the show will continue when it reappears, this episode seems to offer an ending of sorts to this particular reproductive plot. At the end of the show, Bailey’s baby is saved, but her marriage is doomed. In one sense this functions to, as Mumford suggests, “offer viewers an opportunity for the vicarious experience of power, permitting women simultaneously to acknowledge and to manage feelings of powerlessness and emotional deprivation” (111), as Bailey chooses to be both a mother and a surgeon, yet has difficulty balancing the two. Yet this difficulty is displaced from a structural problem (a hospital that cannot seem to function without overworking its doctors, no apparent solutions for Bailey to see her child and do her job) onto a personal one. Bailey’s demanding husband becomes the source of anxiety and difficulty, and, in his position as caretaker, he cannot be too quickly assumed to stand in for a patriarchal society, protecting Grey’s refusal to admit the existence of such systems. At the same time, the destruction of Bailey’s marriage due to her conflicting commitments to work and family gives Grey’s a chance to showcase their own inability to deal authentically with reproduction. Here, Bailey’s marriage comes to stand in for the hospital family in its vulnerability to plots of maternity. This may represent the final word of Grey’s Anatomy on reproduction, narratively indicating that in this show, at least, a living child means a failed family, because such a being brings up questions of institutionalized sexism that the show is unable to narrate without falling apart. Interestingly, the show’s televisual offspring, Private Practice, is the narrative product of one character’s inability to get pregnant. Addison Montgomery, deciding that she wants to have a child before it is too late, goes to see an old friend and fertility specialist at a Los Angeles clinic. Shortly after receiving the news that she is now unable to get pregnant, Addison decides to instead begin her own life anew by moving to Los Angeles, thus occasioning the spin-off. One
could argue that if Addison had been able to get pregnant and have a child, she would still have been able to move and develop the new relationships that make up Private Practice. Yet her inability to have a child seems especially fraught, since less than a year before she was declared barren, Addison had an abortion, and despite her professed longing for a child, adoption is never even mentioned. Having previously decided not to reproduce, Addison’s choice is now taken away, and in almost the same moment, she is removed from the show – yet she also enacts televisual reproduction with her leaving, underscoring the Grey’s message that their TV reproduction requires characters’ refusal of it. While Grey’s is in a way to be commended for resisting the idea that pregnant women (or any women) must become mothers, the show needs to be questioned for the ways it inscribes an old idea – that attention to the biological family and career are at odds – in order to meet its own structural aims.
Appendix Plot Summary: Imdb.com describes Grey’s as “A drama centered on the personal and professional lives of five surgical interns and their supervisors.” While the cast expands and contracts throughout the four seasons of the show, it generally focuses on a group of main characters, expanding most often through their personal entanglements, with the occasional
replacement of a character by someone who is taking their professional position. The main character in the show is Meredith Grey, who starts at Seattle Grace hospital as an intern and is marked as the daughter of a famous surgeon. Other main characters include her fellow interns and friends: Cristina, Izzie, George, and Alex, their residents: Callie Torres and Miranda Bailey, the attendees (friends and often lovers to the interns): Dereck Shepherd, Preston Burke, Addison Montgomery-Shepherd (also married to and later divorced from Dereck), Mark Sloan, and the Chief of Surgery. Major Pregnancy Plots Summary: Cristina: Gets pregnant by Preston Burke, her superior at work, while the two are sleeping together without defining themselves as in a relationship. She decides to have an abortion and schedules one, but then has a miscarriage due to an ectopic pregnancy. Addison: The wife of Derek Shepherd (Meredith Grey’s main romantic interest), Addison reveals midway through Season Three that she had an abortion after getting pregnant by Mark Sloan, Derek’s former best friend with whom she lived for several months while she and Derek were separated, before her appearance on the show. At the end of this season, Addison decides she wants to have a baby and goes to see a fertility doctor, only to be told she is now infertile. Although she alludes to “waiting too long,” she never mentions her abortion. Bailey: Bailey gets pregnant with her husband, Tucker, and has a baby. In the last aired episode, the child was injured and his life was endangered, but the episode ended with his recovery and Bailey’s separation from her husband. Izzie: Izzie had a child as a teenager which she gave up for adoption. The adoptive parents of this child seek her out when the child needs a bone marrow transfusion. Izzie donates, but her biological daughter refuses to meet her.
Callie: Callie repeatedly mentions her attempts to get pregnant and her desire for a baby while she is married to George. However, she is not successful before the two separate, and no longer seems to be pursuing pregnancy. Adele: Although she had thought she was too old to have children, the Chief’s estranged wife Adele becomes pregnant, with the man involved remaining a mystery until after she miscarries, when she reveals it was the Chief, her husband, who got her pregnant. Molly: Meredith’s half-sister, who arrives at the hospital to give birth with the support of her parents (Meredith’s step-mother and father), while her husband is in Iraq. So far, she has never returned to the show. Ava: Originally arrives at the hospital as a very pregnant Jane Doe with amnesia. Later gives birth, leaves the show, but returns (without her baby, who is left in her husband’s care) to have an affair with intern Alex.