In Maureen Dowd's (Times Select-protected) column today, she writes about the feminization of prime time. Take ABC, for instance, the leader among female viewers from ages 18 to 34. The network's ratings were recently reinvigorated by "gooey girls' fare" like hospital melodrama "Grey's Anatomy," and producers have taken note; now coming down the production line as fast as they can make 'em are a number of like-minded shows. Dowd writes that while the Bush administration "has gotten more hypermasculine and martial prime time is getting more feminine and seductive." Never mind this irksome polarization (male equals force, female equals seduction). What exactly is new about these feminized prime-time shows?
Of "Grey's Anatomy" producer Shonda Rhimes, Dowd writes: "She resisted pressure to make the women nicer, she told Nikki Finke for Elle Magazine. And she told Time that she wanted to write about real women who are 'a little snarky' and don't 'exist purely in relation to the men in their lives.'" The women are snarky, sure, but it would seem difficult to portray needier, less independent women if she'd tried. In the season finale, which aired Monday evening, Izzie Stevens, the beautiful hospital intern who modeled her way through med school, jeopardizes her entire medical career (and those of her fellow interns) to save the life of Denny Duquette, a patient she's fallen in love with. When Denny dies -- despite her idiotic attempts at saving him -- she laments that she missed his final moments because she changed her outfit three times before coming to see him; she wanted to look beautiful. Then, when her fellow interns cannot persuade her to abandon his pale corpse, Alex Karev, her past fling, picks her up like a knight carrying a damsel across a distressing puddle.
This is not to say that "Grey's Anatomy," and others of its ilk, do not offer up unique and independent female characters. The sharp-witted and cynical Cristina Yang, for instance, is too independent for her own good; she shuts down her more emotionally available boyfriend. But for the most part, these "chick-coms" keep offering up female characters with the emotional constitution of a wet tissue, which is, inevitably, draped on the more capable shoulders of the male lead.
For the most part, "Grey's Anatomy" is an absorbing, smartly written show with a tendency (as with the episode following the Super Bowl and the drawn-out two-hour season finale) to wade into fizzy, soap opera-esque waters. But its female leads are anything but independent of their romantic interests. "Grey's Anatomy's" female leads are intelligent med students with incredible drive and aspirations, but should not be heralded as figures of independence. Just as "Sex and the City's" Carrie Bradshaw may have been a successful journalist (albeit sex columnist), she wasn't a shining example of female independence or emotional health. Both shows revolve around an irksome female lead (much less appealing or likable than her counterparts) whose entire career centers around her object of obsession and who has a tendency toward public breakdowns and redirecting all conversations to her current emotional crisis. Not that there's anything wrong with emotionally damaged female leads (most compelling characters are damaged goods), but it's another thing when their weaknesses are propped up and then fed by the neuroses of their male counterparts. (Full disclosure: The box set of Season 1 currently sits atop my DVD player, as will Season 2.)
Interestingly, Rhimes developed and wrote "Grey's Anatomy" with her infant daughter on her lap. If these feminized prime-time shows have anything to say about our culture, it may be to underscore what has become a tiresomely common theme. Social historians looking back on the television that has caught female viewers' attention will likely find this all-too-familiar theme: Women struggling to balance their professional pursuits with romance and family.