Grand Rounds: Dissecting Grey's Anatomy: Superfreak

This week on Grey's Anatomy, spiders and virgins and condoms, oh my! Find out what the Grand Rounds bloggers think about it after the jump, and sound off with your own thoughts. Here there be spoilers!

Welcome to Grand Rounds: Dissecting Grey's Anatomy, a roundtable on Grey's Anatomy featuring Snarky's Machine, Tasha Fierce, Everett Maroon, Redlami, and s.e. smith. This week's Grand Rounds is a group effort, so, without further ado, let's begin!

For a recap of 'Superfreak,' this week's episode, check out Snarky's Machine on I Fry Mine In Butter.

Snarky's Machine: How was the treatment of female virginity problematic? refreshing? surprising?

Snarky's Machine: Absolutely loved the complex treatment of black female sexuality depicted in this episode. 99.9% of television shows would have cast our condom inhaler as a white female, so once again, Grey's gets big ups for presenting POC/non white females as virginal and possessing sexual agency. Very nice. On the other hand, did not like the high school locker room hazing April was subjected to by her fellow residents. It was fairly authentic to be sure, but incredibly problematic and indicative of some pretty sexist notions of female virginity. That said, I was extremely pleased by April's take down of each one of the hazers. I really liked her emphasizing the point, "We all have things in our lives we don't talk about!" and demanding that her privacy be respected. You better work, April!

Redlami: While the ribbing and joking were brutal I thought they were handled fairly realistically. I like that virginity was framed as a legitimate choice, though apparently only for women; there was no corresponding example of mid-twenties male virginity, and in fact the men seemed to gain status in competing over who'd had the youngest first sexual encounter. I was surprised when April successfully defended her earlier attempts to hide her virginity by showing how it compared to things everyone else was keeping quiet—which she now had effectively been given license to discuss.

s.e. smith: One thing that really intrigued me as a viewer was that, on the one hand, we had this whole plot of mocking the patient and April for being virgins, complete with sexual hazing, pressure, and teasing. And on the other, we had the presentation of a really rare complication of HPV, almost like "this is your punishment for being sexual." Maybe no one else took that read away, but I thought it was an interesting balance, since patients like that are often used as horror stories in sexual education classes with the goal of suppressing sexuality and telling people not to be sexual.

Everett Maroon: I thought it was handled fairly well with regard to the female patient who came in with respiratory problems, except for the fact that it didn't make sense to me that she wouldn't have mentioned this earlier. Do virgins have to be uptight about their bodies? Do portrayals of virgins have to include sexual prudishness? If it's a rational decision on the part of the person who is willingly holding off having intercourse, does a narrative about that person have to intertwine it with revealing anxiety about sex? I wasn't sure about the messaging even as I thought it was generally okay. The goading of April felt much more authentic and uncomfortable. And I'd have hoped that these folks would have gotten those stories out of their systems by now. I also will note that this is the same episode in which the other patient story is about a man with a horrible complication from HPV, a sexually transmitted disease. So was there some moral to the story there? But I agree with April—it really isn't anyone's business. And I wonder why there was a queer erasure in talking about virginity, since it was only framed as intercourse, and it was only discussed by the straight characters.

Meredith meet's Derek's sister Amy in the hospital. Mark, Derek, and a patient with a brain tumour stand near the edge of the frame.

Redlami: Lexie learns that Mark's earlier behavior toward her was motivated not by mistrust but by love. What do you think about her reaction to this reframing, and how is it informed by sexism and misogyny?

Snarky's Machine: I think Grey's has really backed itself into a corner here. Mark's behavior can certainly be read a couple of different ways, but for me, it reads as some very problematic stalker behavior. Granted, Mark and Lexie do have a romantic history, however, that only makes his current behavior even MORE creepy. Lexie very clearly and firmly asked Mark to leave her alone, which on some level he did, so it was a bit troubling as far as the messaging goes to then have Lexie be told Mark was only behaving like a problematic stalker because he loved her and to then have Lexie run off to have make up sex with him. I had a lot of problems with how this entire story arc has been unfolding.

Redlami: I cheered last time when Lexie told Mark in no uncertain terms to leave her alone, so I was very disappointed that she suddenly changed her whole way of looking at his behavior. I don't think his motivation was anything like a reasonable excuse for trying to put her in a box and am sorry that Lexie not only went running back to him, but then got punished for taking too long to do so.

s.e. smith: I'm hating this. Strong hating this. Are we supposed to believe that Mark's pressuring and hovering, after being told to stop, is somehow magically OK because he LURVES her? No. There is absolutely sexism and misogyny going on here; I'm trying to imagine a flip, with a female character chasing after a male character after being asked to back off, and how the show would handle that and viewers would respond, and I think the answer would be "very differently." This is a very not-terrific message for Grey's to be sending us, that if you just aggressively pursue a woman long enough, eventually you'll get what you want.

Everett Maroon: It was a little surprising to me that she would slather on the lip gloss and go hunting for her man the instant she learned that he was just still in love with her. First, it's not believable because Lexie has been pissed to the extreme by McSteamy, and second, I'd figure that she would have asked him what was going on and not just run over there for some quality suck face time. But I also haven't seen Lexie be a person who is okay with the whole "Someone to Watch over Me" concept of relationships, and Mark has definitely acted like a shepherd over a very small flock since the shooting. I'm not sure why anyone thinks Little Grey would care about his motivations, and I'm not sure why I'm supposed to be interested in this turn of events, as a viewer.

April sitting next to Alex in a bar; she's in the process of lecturing the other characters on their insensitive behaviour.

s.e. smith: Grey's Anatomy often presents the characters and the viewers with people who have conditions deemed disgusting/unsettling to spark conversations about compassion and respect in the practice of medicine and a number of ethical issues are raised as well (Karven jokes about selling the horn Bailey cuts off on eBay, for example). How well do you think the show handles issues like respect for patients and medical ethics?

Snarky's Machine: As a medical drama, I find Grey's Anatomy's most recurring -ism offenses to be classism, transphobia and ABLEISM. Sure, the show manages to hit all the -isms, but those are the three I tend to see most often. I understand there is an attempt to present residents as accurately as possible, however, I do think there is a lot of pressure on attending physicians to seriously reign in the kind of hurtful behavior displayed by the residents this week. Each time there is a "weird" medical case, the residents get the same freaking lecture about compassion, sensitivity, and professionalism and each time the residents behave exactly the same. I was horrified by the way the patient was treated—except by Sloan who was far more compassionate than usual—and even more disappointed by Bailey's outburst in the OR.

Redlami: I was troubled by the way the attending physicians were shown gawking outside the room of the guy with the HPV warts, as if watching their own private freakshow. Even though the moral (with which Meredith's closing voiceover beats us over the head) is that we're all freaks to some degree, I'd like to think that doctors would at least have learned a little more reserve. I think Miranda's freaking out over the spider, while funny and possibly good for developing her character, had the effect of blunting the lesson she was trying to teach Lexie and the others.

s.e. smith: Like Snarky, I feel like the show never shows the residents progressing, at all. One of these 'ooooh weird' cases comes up at least once a season, everyone behaves ridiculously, and no one learns from it. There's a common idea that medical residency is filled with crude people who mock their patients and make fun of the bodies they interact with, where the biggest 'shame' is often getting caught, rather than the very real abuse patients experience, and how that makes people reluctant to seek medical treatment in the future. I'd love to see an episode where this was explored more, from the patient's perspective, talking about how callous attitudes from medical providers are a real barrier to patient care.

Medical ethics-wise, I think that Grey's has a mixed record. The show sometimes depicts ethical issues, including things like informed consent, very well. At other times, doctors are flagrantly violating ethics laws and basically getting away with it. I was thinking of this with the season opener, where Derek was pushing the brain cancer patient to have a very invasive and dangerous procedure and not disclosing the risks, and Meredith had to step up and lay it out for the patient and his mother. I can think of a number of other cases like this, where the eagerness to do the surgery has overridden the need to obtain informed consent from the patient.

Everett Maroon: Well, we see the residents fall down every time when an outlier condition makes its way to the hospital. In real life, The Seattle Times would be skewering Seattle Grace for its insensitive bedside manner by now. I'm remembering when the 600-pound man came in last season—the doctors were gawking at his bedside and laughing out in the hallway. It's only ever Dr. Bailey who never raises an eyebrow and gets everyone else to at least feel like crap for their immaturity. She did it again in this episode. I suppose doctors are human but seriously, I think they handle themselves with a lot more professionalism than we see on this series. And I can't believe the residents need to learn the same ethics lesson over and over again. I hope they're doing better with their stitching techniques!

Everett Maroon: Grey's theme for the week is "freaks." Other than the ones identified in the show directly (the patient with HPV, and the ones that April identifies at the bar), how did we see "freak" defined in this episode?

Snarky's Machine: I was very uncomfortable with the degree to which the label "freak" was used to flatten the experiences of people lacking agency/privilege with people possessing a lot of agency and privilege. Quirks, perhaps, but trying to equate April's virginity with Cristina's PTSD with the patient with an aggressive HPV infection was really offensive and disappointing. It was really uninspired writing.

Redlami: I think saying we're all freaks is like saying we're all human, it denies the fact that some degrees of freakishness are punished much more than others.

s.e. smith: As a bit of a freak myself, I was uncomfortable with this episode. I'd love to get into a long conversation about the history of freaking and the carnival and how people have taken on 'freak' as a self-ID to confront social attitudes about people with nonstandard bodies, sexualities, or lifestyles, but there's not really room for that here! I will say that 'freak' carries some connotations of being not just nonstandard, but scary, frightening, creepy, and also on display as an object lesson and source of education, which was how sideshow attractions with unusual medical conditions often presented themselves.

This episode seemed to suggest that people should be labeled as freaks and consumed as such against their will, which leaves me with a bitter taste of exploitation. And I'd note that "we're all freaks in our own way" reminds me of "we're all disabled in our own way/a little bit disabled," a comment I often hear from nondisabled people that makes me want to scream and then claw my face off, because it's a rejection of identity, agency, and the very real barriers that some people encounter while others do not.

Everett Maroon: Clearly we were supposed to see the HPV victim as a freak, and Dr. Avery called everyone a "freak" in their own way. But this blurs the lines of a condition that makes people scream in public, like Lexie did when seeing the patient's hands, and feeling like a freak inside but bragging about how you bagged two women in your "How I lost my virginity" story. I think we were supposed to consider what was "freak" about each of the characters—Teddy's attraction to unavailable men: Attachment Barbie, Haaaay!, Alex's sweat-if-he-must avoidance of the elevator, Cristina's fear of sleeping alone. I don't see these behaviors as freakishness so much as anxiety and neuroses based on actual stressors in their lives. So I'm wondering why we'd hear this set-up at all. And then I wonder if there's not something else heading our direction in the way of freakishness.

See you next week for 'Can't Fight Biology,' hosted by Everett Maroon!

About your bloggers:

Snarky's Machine is the founder of the pop culture site I Fry Mine in Butter.

Everett Maroon is a Seattle-based writer, focusing on popular culture commentary, speculative fiction, and memoir. His interests include the interrelationships of characters on Grey's Anatomy, Dr. Bailey, behind-the-scenes politics, and Dr. Bailey.

Tasha Fierce blogs about politics, fashion and whatever she wants at Red Vinyl Shoes.

s.e. smith is a cantankerous, cat-wearing, pop culture-loving, pants-eschewing philistine from the wilds of Northern California with a compendium of largely useless random knowledge and a typewriter that doesn't know when to quit.

Redlami turns numbers into stories and is the resident tech geek at I Fry Mine in Butter.

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4 Comments Have Been Posted

Um.... Phobia?

I have a quick question about Snarky's Machine comment : "disappointed by Bailey's outburst in the OR."

Are you talking about her outburst because of the spider? If so, I'm disappointed that you would be disappointed over something like that. I have a severe case of Arachnaphobia, so much so that when I saw that on TV I screamed bloody murder and pushed my lap top away and was shaking for a few minutes after it. As someone who has had their phobia made fun of and trivilized over and over again (Come on, it's just a little spider! Seriously... it's not that big of deal! Grow up!... among others) I'm saddened to see it possibly trivialized again on a site where I find a lot of comfort in my shared beliefs and how open people are. I literally freeze if I see a spider. I was trapped in my apartment with none of my roommates home and there was a large spider in my room. I was so scared to even get near enough to kill it, I was shaking horribly and bawling my eyes out. I'm 20 years old. If I could help my phobia, I would, but the thing is- I can't. And it annoys me to no end that people always tell me it's not a big deal or call me a baby.

If that's not what you meant, then excuse my rant. Otherise, I think this would be a good oppertunity to raise awareness about phobias and how much they can run a person's life... and it's not something that person can control.

A quick answer

Cate, I made the same point, and I was expressing my disappointment with the writers' choice of using Miranda's fear of spiders to show that she's not perfect, which had the unfortunate effect of also blunting her message that doctors need to have their reactions under control.

I really wish you'd stopped with the quick question instead of going on with a rant attacking Snarky.

To the ranter: Wait you asked

To the ranter:

Wait you asked a question and then answered it. Wow are you some kind of mind reader?


I think Snarky was saying that she was disappointed in the <i>show's</i> approach to the incident, not Miranda herself, so I don't think she should be credited with trivializing phobias. I read both her <i>and</i> Redlami's comments not as a comment on arachnophobia but part of the bloggers' larger critique of doctor responsibility and the show itself.