Women Doctors: Professionally Competent, Messy Personal Lives

Mindy Kaling as Dr. Mindy Lahiri in The Mindy Project
Originally published at The Funny Feminist.
You know what I’d like to see more of on television? Stories about women who are successful in their professional lives, but whose personal lives are a complete mess. I especially want to see more of these stories about female doctors.
Take Emily Owens, M.D., for example. Starring Mamie Gummer, Emily Owens, M.D. tells the story of a medical intern who discovers that life in a hospital is just like high school. In the first episode, she confesses to her old high school crush that she likes him only to be shot down, and realizes that her high school nemesis is interested in her high school crush, but she also diagnoses a condition and performs a life-saving procedure during her first day on the job.
Or let’s look at Mindy Kaling’s new sitcom. The Mindy Project, recently picked up for a full season, tells the story of Mindy Lahiri, a gynecologist whose dating life is a mess. In the first episode of the show, she rudely interrupts an ex-boyfriend’s wedding and drives a bicycle into a pool, but by the end of the pilot, she’s heroically delivering a baby to a patient who doesn’t have health insurance – even interrupting a date to do it.
Or let’s go back in time a few years to a show called Grey’s Anatomy, the drama that won’t die (even when most of its characters do). Ellen Pompeo plays Meredith Grey, an intern who accidentally sleeps with her boss the night before her first day. (By “accidentally sleep with,” I mean that the sex was intentional, but she did not know the man was her boss.) She struggles with a patient, but gets a sexy love interest and a guy crushing on her forlornly from the minute he meets her. She’s also the intern who makes the miraculous discovery of what’s wrong with her patient, and figures out how to help a fellow intern’s patient.
Am I mess or a rock star intern? I can’t remember! | Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) in Grey’s Anatomy
Now, pretend you’ve been living under a pop culture rock for the last few years and know nothing about these three shows or the actresses who play these characters. Based just on the descriptions, would you be able to tell which program was the satire/comedy and which two programs took the “professionally skilled, personal mess” trope seriously?
…Okay, so maybe the bicycle in the pool was the giveaway. Fair enough. The point remains that television continues to have a problem with professional women. Showrunners don’t seem to know how to write professional women characters without turning them into neurotic messes who can control nothing about their personal lives, and lately, female doctors are getting the brunt of that particular cliche.
I like comparing these female doctor characters to a character like House on House, M.D. or Dr. Perry Cox on Scrubs (who has been compared to House by other characters on Scrubs, amusingly enough). These men are professional geniuses whose personal lives are also fraught with drama, but we’d never call them neurotic. They’re curmudgeonly assholes who bark perfectly crafted sarcasm at their professional inferiors, colleagues, and bosses. Their personal lives are messes because they’re misanthropic, or because they’re masking years of built-up pain. Women doctors have messy personal lives because they overanalyze and are neurotic and always pick the wrong men.
I don’t know if showrunners write women doctors this way because they lack imagination, or because they’ve internalized sexist stereotypes, or because they don’t know how else to make a professionally competent women sympathetic to an audience. “We’ve got a woman doctor here, because women can be doctors now, but women who are TOO put-together will be a turnoff, so we’ll make her a mess outside of work! INSTANT EMPATHY!”
Fortunately, Mindy Kaling is aware of this cliche, and the episodes of The Mindy Project following the pilot have veered away from “professionally competent, personally messy” plots.Show-Mindy is often portrayed as less neurotic and more of a jerk, and Kaling is more interested in making the character funny than making her likable. Show-Mindy is several steps in the right direction, and I hope we start seeing more characters like her, soon.
But not too soon, because I want there to still be a market for my own pilot about a professionally competent, neurotic female doctor. Doctor Love tells the story of Hilarie Love, a young physician who can’t seem to get her personal life together. In the pilot episode, Hilarie goes on her first date since high school, where her prom date stood her up to go have sex with the cheerleader. Unfortunately, she winds up wearing an outfit where none of the clothes match, and gets so nervous that she throws up on her date in the middle of a restaurant, and almost accidentally kills him when she stands up and knocks the table on him. Then she gets called into work, and performs a miraculous, life-saving surgery (even though she’s not a surgeon) on a young blind boy who’s been shot, removing the bullet with her bare hands and donating her own blood to rejuvenate the child. This catches the attention of a handsome attending physician who finds her competent and pretty, and is still intrigued by Hilarie even after she throws up on him, too.
What do you think? Do we have a hit?
Oh, I get it. It’s butterflies in the…er, ribcage. | Mamie Gummer in Emily Owens, M.D.
Lady T is an aspiring writer and comedian with two novels, a play, and a collection of comedy sketches in progress. She hopes to one day be published and finish one of her projects (not in that order). You can find more of her writing at The Funny Feminist, where she picks apart entertainment and reviews movies she hasn’t seen.