The obvious resentment, of the screenwriters, towards male bonding annoyed me for two reasons. Spending-night-and-day-lying-on-the-bathroom-floor-in-a-prom-dress-then-manically-baking was behaviour coded as Understandable Under The Circumstances and therefore to be pandered to, whereas the wilderness-fishing-trip-with-token-gays-and-surgicalhandsfriendly-slapfight was captioned as “This is stoopid”. And it was. And this was even before The Writer’s Strike, when all American soap plots got lost.
Albert Borgmann, in his magnificent misunderstanding of the work of Robert M. Pirsig, in Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (University of Chicago, 1987, p.201), speaks of a great American tradition of “speakers of deitic discourse” but the writers of Grey’s Anatomy were clearly not referencing either Melville or Thoreau. At least not directly. The episode entitled “Where The Boys Are” (S3, E7) appears to parody the insane, urbane and bucolic antics of the archsexist Denny Crane from Boston Legal, especially in “Finding Nimmo” (S2, E3) aired earlier. This parody is not, I feel, simply a missed opportunity but masks a feminist resistance to any positive reference whatsoever to the diverse cultural phenomena in the late 80s/ early 90s which collectively became known as The Men’s Movement.
The other reason why missing the mark (no pun intended for that show!) in this portrayal of male bonding annoyed me is that this feminist gloss distracts the gaze of the viewer from the patriarchal set-up of the show. On assuming their positions of hegemonic power, Baroness Thatcher, Pope Francis and President Obama have a characteristic in common: the identity, kinship or allegiance of a minority or oppressed demographic – of gender, class or ethnicity. This enabling characteristic also functions in the portrayal of the kind and wise king of the castle called Seattle Grace Hospital. So while the women in this hospital milieu are (mostly) compassionate and the men are (mostly) stoopid, it is the former who are (mostly) consistently written as prioritising the latter.
So why was this patriarchal power play so popular? Viewers are not stoopid even if the writers are. My excuse for watching the first couple of seasons was that I could change the DVD language to French. My excuse for season 3 (for which my DVDs did not have this option) was that I needed a break from self-publishing gay fiction and ethical controversy. I tried other languages but whereas the French voice actors were philosophical, the Italians were emotional and the Spanish had all the histrionics of a Mexican telenovella. There’s an unconfirmed rumour that the show is actually a knock-off of a Turkish soap opera called Doctorla, or vice-versa. Listening in other languages made me realise that this show is not philosophical at all. At least not in our post-Socratic sense of measured ethical duty. It has all the characteristics of Greek tragedy, albeit with some New Comedy and the occasional licentious Satyr Play thrown in.
Forget the flash of flesh or the lure of learning anything useful about medicine. The real hook in this show, the weight that gives it some gravitas, is the portrayal of the human condition: tragically caught between a rock and a hard place, damned if we do and damned if we don’t. The soap opera that we all daily perform is all about making choices, many of them hard and most of them without the comfort of faith that we may not, in time, bitterly regret our actions. Or, what may be harder, that we may never have absolute ethical clarity and perhaps never feel able to confess to our nearest and dearest that the furies of conscience continue to persecute us.
At these times, under the circumstances, even in a social set-up that continues to be unfair, it may be understandable to refuse to take any action other than lying on the bathroom floor or heading into the wilderness – accompanied – even if it is stoopid.
(Death Mask of Agamemnon, sculpture Alfred Gilbert, Creative Commons Licensed photo Martin Beek)