I Want to Live in Shondaland
Sure, death and drama there run high, but the real-world diversity is so ideal
I want to live in Shondaland. Ideally, the universe of Grey’s Anatomy (and Station 19 and Private Practice). And not just because the god of Shondaland is a benevolent black woman. Or because Grey’s did a Dia de Los Muertos episode recently (and a voting episode just before that). I want to live Shondaland because I love its vision of humankind.
In Grey’s Anatomy (and to a lesser degree Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder), we see people at the top of their profession doing life-changing work. And what do those people look like? They are, of course, that TV-level of beautiful, but much more than that, the doctors, lawyers, firefighters, and heroes of Shondaland are black and white and brown. Skinny and thick. Women and men, cis and trans. Christian and atheist and Jewish and Muslim. Some are addicts. Some are differently abled. Some are rich, and some grew up as foster kids. There are no boards solely composed of old white men deciding the fate of the world. Instead, you have the beauty of all humankind represented.
In Shondaland, a person of color like Olivia Pope may “have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have,” but they rise to the challenge. The doctors of Grey-Sloan Memorial exist in a true meritocracy, where previous generations (thanks, Dr. Richard Webber and Meredith’s mom) fought the good fight and paved the way for the hard-earned present.
Shonda Rhimes writes about teams of diverse people who achieve great things.
This isn’t to say Shondaland’s fictional world of today is post-racial. It’s not. There’s still discrimination of all kinds. In Grey’s Anatomy, we see it in the way patients try to navigate a dysfunctional insurance system that leaves them picking between bankruptcy and life-saving medical treatment. We see it in Dr. Jo Wilson’s powerlessness in the face of domestic violence. We see it when patients and colleagues underestimate Dr. Miranda Bailey. (Remember when she messed up that white supremacist’s tattoo? Or had a visiting doctor running around the hospital trying to find the “Nazi”?)
I was particularly impressed when the show delved into the reason a (good) white doctor, Amelia Shepherd, believed white intern Dr. Jo Wilson over black intern Dr. Stephanie Edwards, who she works with more closely. It may be implicit bias, but Amelia doesn’t get off the hook easily because another black doctor, Dr. Maggie Pierce, holds her accountable and asks her not to make Edwards pay for the mistake twice by forcing the issue of forgiveness.
That’s what happens when you have several black characters and not just one; you can delve into those types of issues when you’ve been passing the Bechdel test for 15 seasons. This nuance is so rare on TV, where race and discrimination issues are usually either (1) ignored or (2) treated like a completely black-or-white issue with racist villains against justice-seeking (often white) freedom fighters. The stories we tell need to get deeper about what it means to be a person of color, and Grey’s and the others do that week in and week out.
Now, I’m not saying Shondaland is perfect. It certainly mirrors some of the problems of today. It erases nursing for one, having the doctors do the work that, in real life, nurses and other medical professionals do. And since nursing is so tied to womanhood and femininity, this privileging of “doctor” over “nurse” reinforces our broader privileging of “masculine” over “feminine.”
Shondaland in general and Grey’s in particular also romanticize relationships between unequals, relying too much on the trope of “young woman falls in love with male superior” (see also Scandal). If there’s anything we learned from #MeToo and Bill Clinton, it’s that it’s actually pretty unsexy to sleep with a subordinate.
Heroes of Shondaland are black and white and brown. Skinny and thick. Women and men, cis and trans. Christian and atheist and Jewish and Muslim. Some are addicts. Some are differently abled. You have the beauty of all humankind represented.
And, of course, to live in Shondaland is to live in a world full of terrible tragedies and deadly violence, whether plane crashes, shootings, or bomb explosions. Lots of bad stuff happens at an alarming frequency. I’d have to worry about what tragedy would happen to me not once in a lifetime but every year.
Yet despite the increased risk of death and general drama, I’d live there if I could. It’s the leadership porn I so desperately need in the Donald Trump era. Shonda Rhimes writes about teams of diverse people who achieve great things. These are the people you want to run your hospital, to be your teacher or boss, or—dare I say it—to lead the country. They tell you the hard truths, keep the bigger vision in mind, and act with integrity. They make you laugh and they falter as humans with their own quirks, regrets, and weaknesses. But, fundamentally, they are good people who are rewarded for their hard work and strong character.
Doesn’t that sound like the universe you want to live in too?