Like many others before me, I recently decided to start watching Grey’s Anatomy from the beginning for a second time. Now in its 13th season, Grey’s centers on a group of doctors in Seattle, WA and all the antics (medical, or otherwise) that happen in their lives. Because I spend so much time watching this show, I thought it would be interesting to look at it from an analytical perspective to understand how class plays a role in character development and the overall themes presented.
Obviously because the characters on Grey’s are medical professionals, it’s fair to assume that they are financially stable. Honestly, I’d probably go so far as to say that these characters are disgustingly rich. Especially considering that each character somehow has the reputation of being “the best in the country” for their respective specialties (shocker). But reputation aside, their salaries are never really mentioned in the show directly. The main indicator of financial success is via their living situations and spending habits. While the show is often set in the hospital, sometimes the characters are found at the bar across the street. Here they never seem to worry about spending money on drinks or food. Plus, anytime we get to see the characters’ homes, they are finely decorated and usually large. The images below show the interior of Meredith’s family home, and the exterior of her second home with Derek, respectively.
Aside from the obvious fact that these people are doctors and therefore financially stable, some of the back stories tell us that this was not always the case. In fact, two characters in particular, Alex Karev and Jo Wilson, perfectly embody the concept of “the American Dream.” This idea claims that anyone in America has the opportunity to succeed and reach the top if they just work hard. It fails to take race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. into account and treats all Americans as if they are starting from a level playing field (as if!). While the American Dream doesn’t quite match up with reality, it is often commonly used in mainstream media, such as Grey’s Anatomy.
In the case of Alex Karev, we learn that he was born from a mentally ill mother and a violent, drug-addicted, often absent father. He and his two siblings were passed around the foster care system a lot (Alex in particular was in 17 separate homes over the course of 5 years), and yet somehow Alex still managed to make his way to the University of Iowa and then to Seattle Grace Hospital’s residency program. How he paid for school or even managed to survive his home life is not mentioned. All we understand about Alex is that he “beat the odds” to become a successful surgical intern.
Jo Wilson doesn’t come onto the scene until season 9, but her backstory is somewhat similar to Alex’s. She was left at a fire station by her mom as a baby, and was then passed around the foster care system until age 16. Then she began to live out of her car and support herself independently. Despite these struggles, Jo managed to be valedictorian of her high school, go on to graduate cum laude from Princeton University, be top of her class at Harvard Medical School, and then make her way to Seattle Grace’s residency program. We again see themes of the individual rising to the top of their own accord, using their hard-working, can-do, never-give-up attitude. Yet, this perspective ignores many of the external factors that played a role in Jo’s success.
It cannot be denied that Grey’s is a popular show, considering it has been on-air for 13 seasons and is still one of ABC’s top-rated shows with over 8 million viewers as of 2015-16. This isn’t surprising considering the formula for successful television since the early days has been to focus on a group of upper-class individuals in their day-to-day lives. Plus, any show that reinforces the American Dream ideal is usually very popular with those who see it as the “traditional” American way of life. While this analysis has not made me any less fond of the show, it has definitely shed some light on the fact that a character’s class is a very intentional decision that can be used to perpetuate typical American values.