This guest post by Scarlett Harris is an updated version of a post that originally appeared on The Scarlett Woman and appears now as part of our theme week on Unlikable Women. Cross-posted with permission.
When it comes to “likable” female characters on TV, up until she departed Grey’s Anatomy last season, Cristina Yang probably wasn’t one of them.
She was abrasive, unfeeling, career-driven, ruthless and selfish. Everything a woman shouldn’t be, according to patriarchal norms.
Perhaps she could’ve been more like the ousted Izzie Stevens, who was bubbly and sexy and baked cookies. Or the virginal and highly strung April Kempner, whom Cristina praises for having “virgin super powers,” enabling her to be super-organized.
But I, like many Bitch Flicks readers, loved Cristina just the way she is. She had her eye on the prize, wouldn’t compromise her personal beliefs or goals to be liked by her peers or loved by a man, and she had “tiny little genius” hands that enable her to roll with the big guns.
This is why Cristina Yang is one of an increasing cohort of “feminist”—or “strong female”—characters on television.
For one thing, she refuses to rely on her looks or her feminine wiles to get ahead. In “This is How We Do It” in season seven, she rejects Owen’s compliment about her beauty, saying, “If you want to appease me, compliment my brain.”
And in season seven’s final, we saw Cristina exercise her right to choose and schedule her second abortion on the show, after much (mostly solo) deliberation. While excluding the opinion of her significant other and biological contributor to the fetus wasn’t the most respectful thing to do, ultimately it came down to her choice, and she chose to terminate the pregnancy.
In season two, Cristina divulged that she was pregnant to Dr. Burke and, again, made the decision to get an abortion on her own. Whereas a character like Izzie seemed to serve the anti-abortion agenda (she gave up her own baby for adoption when she was a teenager growing up in a trailer park, and convinced a HIV-positive woman to carry her pregnancy to term), Cristina resisted the societal pressures to tap into her maternal instincts and give birth to a child she does not want. Shonda Rhimes has since proved that she’s one of the only truly pro-choice producers in television, and I have written further about her stance here.
Regardless of whose agenda could be seen as being served by Cristina’s character, she acted without fear of what other people will think of her.
As people, no matter what gender, it is seemingly second nature to want others to like us and to portray our best selves to them. Just look at the ritual of the date or the job interview. That Cristina defied this action (though we have seen her star-struck when meeting surgeons like Tom Evans and Preston Burke) made her not just a feminist character, but a truly human(ist) one.
When Grey’s Anatomy first debuted, it seemed that Cristina Yang was positioned to challenge and grate on the audience, with Meredith or Izzie being more palatable to viewers. As the seasons continued (some would say dragged on), the women of Grey’s Anatomy were proven to be anything but likable, cheating on their spouses, meddling in medical cases that would see them lose their licenses and be sued for malpractice, grieving, quitting, and just dealing with the challenges that being a surgeon and a person throws at you. Though Seattle Grace/Seattle Grace Mercy West/Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital/what the hell is that hospital called now?! is a fictional medical institution, it’s one of the realest portrayals of not just women but people on TV today. Like Cristina’s departure last season, it will truly be a sad day when those doctors leave our living rooms for good.