– Last week, Sandra Oh, who plays super-surgeon Cristina Yang on Shonda Rhimes’ long-running medical dramedy “Grey’s Anatomy,” announced that she will leave the series after the coming season.
“Grey’s” has been on the air for a decade and has long since become the TV equivalent of old, comfy furniture – as much as you use it, you’d probably only notice it if it up and disappeared – but I want to take this occasion to celebrate Yang, one of TV’s most original and influential characters. “Grey’s” may be years removed from its buzzy, Emmy-winning start, but in Yang, the loveable, persnickety careerist, Rhimes and Oh have created a complex workaholic who begat a whole generation of female protagonists, none quite as impressive as she is.
From the first episode, Yang, an M.D./Ph.D. from Stanford, had a bloodthirsty desire to operate, operate, operate, and a disinterest in the dramatic personal lives of her peers. (This, of course, did not keep her from having a dramatic personal life of her own.) She is hyper-competitive, unboundedly ambitious and brutally honest, single-mindedly focused on doing just about anything to improve her scalpel skills.
In the show’s early seasons she began an illicit romantic relationship with her boss and mentor, a cardio-thoracic surgeon whom she loved at least partly because of how much he could teach her. At the time, her apartment was a fetid pigsty; cleanliness didn’t matter for work, so she didn’t care about it. More recently, a married Yang, the female TV character most vocally disinterested in having children, had an abortion; she wants to devote her life to her work.
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On another TV show, Yang’s combination of qualities – mercenary, scary and extremely skilled – would have made her the lead character’s enemy, if not a whole litany of other clichés: the type-A Asian, the frigid ball-buster, the unlikeable shrew. Instead, “Grey’s” respected Yang’s ambition and wit, laurelled her with humor, swag and a sex drive, and made her the lead character’s best friend. Cristina Yang and Meredith Grey are devoted to each other and united against frivolity and false-cheerfulness.
Ancestors and descendants
Yang has ancestors, from career-focused women like Murphy Brown to the scathing know-it-alls Bea Arthur played, but she has even more descendants.
Yang is the yang to Ally McBeal’s flighty, wacky yin. From the marriage of these two archetypes were born, among others, “Homeland’s” Carrie Mathison, “The Americans’” Elizabeth Jennings, “Nurse Jackie’s” Jackie Peyton, “The Killing’s” Sarah Linden and (another Shonda Rhimes creation) “Scandal’s” Olivia Pope – a cadre of women who are, like Yang, wholly devoted to their calling, but, unlike Yang, so much more messed up in the head.
Heather Havrilesky noted in an essay for The New York Times Magazine that we are in the midst of a bonanza for TV women who are “smart, strong, borderline insane.” The aforementioned female characters all seem to have made a trade-off: They can be hyper-competent and/or dedicated to their jobs, but only at great personal expense, as if mental health and professional satisfaction were a zero-sum game.
Yang hasn’t had to pick. She has her issues – over the course of “Grey’s” she has almost died in a plane crash and at the hands of a gunman, suffered debilitating PTSD, been stabbed by an icicle and left at the altar -- not to mention a litany of other outrageous things that are inevitable for a character who has been on a soap opera for 10 years. But she is not fundamentally damaged. Yang’s got it together. Her professional drive inflames her, without making her combustible.
There are more ways to make a female character interesting than to make her an emotional basket case. When Sandra Oh leaves “Grey’s Anatomy,” she’ll be taking the best example of that with her.