Image:
Anusha Kav; Unsplash; ABC

Grey’s Anatomy is trying to get South Asian representation right -- but they keep missing the mark

By:
Anusha Kav (@perhapsanusha)

After 17 seasons, Grey’s Anatomy still hasn’t fixed its problem with representing South Asians,  despite repeated attempts to do so. 

Late last year, the series introduced Dr. Reza Khan, a vascular surgeon from Pakistan who must repeat his training in the United States. In episode five of the season, Dr. Levi Schmitt emphasizes Khan’s skill, and the frustration he would feel if he were in Khan’s shoes.

But Khan ticks off all the boxes of being a hardworking, diligent, and grateful immigrant. He finds that repeating his residency is a small price to pay for having escaped “bombing and religious persecution” in his home country of Pakistan. 

While the show’s intentions seem benevolent, the continued pigeonholing of South Asian characters, even while pushing positive stereotypes, is frustrating as a viewer. 

Why does Khan have to be the “good immigrant?” Why not allow him to criticize the system that looks down on internationally trained doctors, and forces him to redo all of his prior work? 

It’s encouraging to see Grey’s Anatomy finally tackling this important storyline, but it feels inauthentic to no longer introduce characters based on clever or nuanced plots, and instead tokenize them on the basis of race. And it certainly seems out of the ordinary for the series.

Grey’s Anatomy once-revolutionized what representation looked like

When the show first aired in 2005, the production company was applauded for enforcing a practice called colourblind casting. Essentially, each of the characters was written without race in mind, and the actors who best fit the roles and stuck out to the producers were cast as the characters. 

Shonda Rhimes, the creator and then-primary showrunner, actually said there were changes made to characters once these actors were selected, in order to better fit who best embodied the role. 

Rhimes’ commitment to colourblind casting was praised, and for the time period in which it was launched, it deserved such praise. The series altered what characters of colour could do, giving them a range of nuanced experiences and flawed characterizations, that brought out the tensions of race, gender, sexuality and class in an organic way on screen. 

Grey’s Anatomy also set the stage for countless shows that followed, both within Shondaland, and outside, that used this tool of casting. For the first time, actors of colour were getting opportunities that didn’t confine them to stereotypical, often racist roles.

The appeal of representation on Grey’s Anatomy came from the authentic way these characters were written -- not just for tokenization. 

I think back to earlier seasons, when Callie Torres’ background as a Latina, and identity as a bisexual woman were introduced organically, and explored genuinely. When Izzie Stevens’ childhood growing up in a trailer park and having a daughter at fifteen was introduced a whole season after her personality and likeability were established. 

But South Asian characters haven’t seemed to receive the same treatment. Critics have long pointed out that, despite these leaps in representation, the show has struggled to represent South Asian doctors adequately. Most South-Asian characters have either had short one-episode storylines, or didn’t make it past a couple seasons as a recurring character. 

Grey’s Anatomy’s lack of South Asian representation is all the more concerning when compared to the real-life demographics of the American medical field. Seriously, brown kids grew up joking about how many of us were doctors, so how does a show about doctors have such a problem representing us? 

How have they represented us so far?

Earlier seasons saw Dr. Raj Sen, a doctor working in the psychiatric ward of the hospital, with very few lines. He isn’t even fully recognizable until the series brought him back in season thirteen. 

Rather than give him a fleshed out storyline, Sen was tossed in as a token character who die-hard fans would remember as a minor part of earlier seasons. In my opinion, South Asian characters are far too underrepresented already, to have our time on screen reduced to a mere “easter egg.”

In season eight, we saw Dr. Mara Keaton, a urology fellow played by British Actress Rebecca Hazlewood. Dr. Keaton’s character was so likeable, and had such strong chemistry with Jackson Avery, that everytime I rewatch the episode I feel disappointed that the writers failed to see her potential. 

Naturally, as years went by, Grey’s Anatomy’s representation also sought to continue adapting to accurately reflect changes in society. There was clearly an effort made during season 14 of the series, when two of the most significant South Asian characters were introduced as recurring characters on the series. As part of the new crop of interns, Dr. Dahlia Qadri and Dr. Vikram Roy entered the fold in 2017. 

For the first time, Grey’s Anatomy had made an intentional effort to represent not one, but two South Asian characters. Additionally, with Dr. Qadri written as a Muslim woman who proudly wore a hijab, many fans hoped for nuanced representations of not just South Asians, but specifically Muslim women, too. 

But these celebrations were cut short. As a viewer, it felt as though the series afforded more substantive narrative arcs to the white interns in the following seasons than was granted to either Qadri or Roy. 

Qadri and the hijab episode

Qadri’s most significant episode also raised questions about how best to represent Muslim women on screen. During a crisis, Qadri rips off her hijab to tourniquet a patient and prevent him from rapidly bleeding to death. 

On the face of it, the scene seems empowering. But some have also questioned the emerging trend on television for Muslim characters who wear hijabs to be put into a position which requires them to take it off, in a very narrow understanding of freedom and autonomy. 

While I don’t think Grey’s Anatomy intended to undermine Qadri’s faith, the storyline came off as contrived and stereotypical, especially when the audience had little time to further understand Qadri’s character outside her markings of “otherness” like her race and religion. 

Dr. Vikram Roy’s incompetence

Unlike Qadri, Dr. Vikram Roy had much more screen time. Written as an immature, playboy-esque character, who seems to be inspired by earlier iterations of Alex Karev and Mark Sloan, Roy is introduced to the audience as, well, the not-so-kind version of a himbo. 

He sleeps with April during her crisis with her faith, makes masturbation jokes at the expense of a patient, and, ultimately, his overconfidence, egocentrism and selfish malpractice causes the death of not one, but two patients, and endangers another. 

They really didn’t try to make this guy likeable. 

Now, while white characters are offered the ability to redeem themselves throughout the series, Roy nor Qadri are offered the same story arc. Both characters are fired, effectively ending their time at Grey Sloan. While Qadri’s exit was done so that actress Sophia Ali could move to New Zealand, Roy’s exit was abrupt and seemed counterintuitive, considering he had just been hired back at the hospital a few episodes prior. 

And just like that, within two seasons the only South Asian characters of any notable significance were written out and never referenced again, leaving two white characters from the crop of interns to continue on in the series, with one even being promoted to a series regular.

For a long time, fans like myself have been holding out hope that Grey’s Anatomy will finally represent South Asians in the authentic way they’ve done for so many folks over the years. 

But 17 seasons in, and seeing characters like Reza Khan narrowed into a stereotypical box, it feels as though Grey’s Anatomy just isn’t listening. 

Who knows? Maybe the show will give Khan the chance to break away from the position they’ve placed him in so far. He was given the chance to call [SPOILER]’s death in the midseason premiere, giving him a crucial role in the episode. So, maybe I’ll be proven wrong and Grey’s Anatomy will surprise us. 

For the sake of all the young, South-Asian-American aspiring doctors watching the show, I sure hope I am.

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About the author: Anusha Kav (she/her) is a writer and journalist from Edmonton, Alberta, currently completing a Master of Journalism at UBC. She holds a B.A. (Hons) in Political Science from the University of Alberta. She loves writing about the politics of popular culture, particularly on issues of identity, gender and representation.

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