By Shehrbano Naqvi
Recently social media has been buzzing with one of the most exciting television news stories to emerge from this otherwise rather difficult year. Fans all over the world are rejoicing as a teaser for the new season of Grey’s Anatomy has disclosed that an all-time favourite character, Derek Shepherd, will be returning on their screens. As expected, every pop-culture-media platform is enthusiastically spreading this news, each of them trying to find their own unique angle to ultimately the same story. On Thursday November 12th, Jimmy Kimmel took his own shot during his interview with Ellen Pompeo and ‘comically’ asked if she thinks they would have brought Derek back had he gained weight in his time away. Pompeo responded to the problematic question by laughing it off and saying, “Nope, probably not! It wouldn’t have the same impact with the fans. You know, the girls want to see McDreamy being McDreamy.”
Ellen Pompeo is the star of Grey’s Anatomy – one of the most popular television series to come out of Shondaland. Shonda Rhimes is often praised not only for her dramatic television series, but also for constructing diverse storylines around diverse characters. Grey’s Anatomy in particular has gained a massive cult following amongst people from all walks of life because it aims to represent all walks of life on the screen as well. And while it may be checking certain boxes, it is in fact doing only that. Grey’s Anatomy is only one example in, unfortunately, a plethora of media platforms and voices, that highlights mainstream media’s superficial and exclusive attempt to be diverse and representative.
With the conversation around body positivity continuing to evolve, it is becoming easier to distinguish what parts of the conversation are being left out. On purpose. Mainstream media that revolves around pop culture has come under fire over the past few years for not being representative enough of all kinds of bodies. This conversation started with women reclaiming and redefining their beauty by shaming the unhealthy standards that media and patriarchal societies were imposing on us. The gradual snowball effect led to body positivity on fashion runways, seeing all kinds of bodies represented in movies and shows, seeing all kinds of bodies celebrated on magazine covers. In fact, once this movement gained momentum, it became hard for even the most powerful of institutions to stick to their one-size ideal. Victoria’s Secret, for example, brands itself upon the idea of an ideal, angelic woman who, in their view, can only be a certain waist-size and height. However, in the midst of a revolution, this invincible force was also called into question for prioritizing superficial aesthetic over inclusion and reality. In the last year, enough external pressure finally made them succumb and submit to the progress.
While there is significant growth from the time I was a child, I cannot help but notice how the scope of this conversation has narrowed further and further until a movement about inclusion is now flirting with the idea of becoming exclusive. In other words, somehow a conversation about body representation zeroed in so much, it became only about representing women. Today in a world where models like Ashley Graham are celebrated, it becomes easy to see the regressive disparity when it comes to a runway like Victoria’s Secret. However, for some reason that defining difference is only limited to a conversation about women, while any other gender identity is mostly still either typecast, or cast for political purposes to tick boxes, as long as they match the ‘aesthetic’ of the platform in question.
The examples spread way beyond stomping down a glamorous runway. Ellen Pompeo and Jimmy Kimmel’s ‘fat joke’ is a prime example of how even the most ‘woke’ platforms are still blissfully swimming in their ignorance. Had the same question been asked about, let’s say Lexi Grey, Pompeo would have been more careful in her choice of words and the audience would have reprimanded Kimmel for his insensitive question in the first place. Pompeo’s reply about how the fans needed McDreamy to be McDreamy is in fact a loaded answer for that very reason – it boils the conversation down to aestheticism. McDreamy, along with so many other characters we have seen, are there to be fetishized more than to bring substance.
Earlier this year, Queer Eye’s lovable Tan France hosted a Netflix show called Next in Fashion which featured aspiring designers, captivating fashion, and glamorous runways (read: glamorously exclusive). A number of episodes featured runways that were walked by female and male models together as they showcased the contestants’ design – and consequently highlighted the massive disparity between female and male body representation. The showrunners seemed to make a conscious choice to represent all kinds of female bodies – race, height, body type, hair colour, personality – while their counterpart male models were all cut and chiseled from the same stencil, featuring a clear ‘standard’ for male bodies rather than a representation.
Shows like Next in Fashion and Grey’s Anatomy have helped bring this disparity to light immensely, especially because such shows are branded on diversity and inclusivity and progressive values. Grey’s has made it a point to continue expanding its representation over the years, while Next in Fashion not only had diverse female models, but is also hosted by Tan France – a member of the Fab Five whose job is to help regular men regain their confidence and self-esteem and ultimately feel good about themselves. When shows like these are caught excluding certain people from a progressive conversation that should include all, it shows how lazy and superficial mainstream media is when it comes to showing their support for a movement. You cannot brand yourself as a progressive, inclusive, representative cast if a simple fat-joke is still funny and not problematic. You cannot overshadow your desire to fetishize men’s bodies, by trying to balance them out with a range of diverse women walking next to them.
What is more unfortunate is that this cannot be chalked up to an oversight anymore. When the crew of a certain production is making the conscious decision to make inclusive choices for their cis-female actors/models, why does that decision-making process not extend to the male, trans, and non-binary actors/models as well? This deliberate typecasting shows that underneath it all, even the most progressive of platforms are still prioritizing aesthetics and fetishes over representation, growth, and inclusivity. They want to be a part of the progressive conversation that panders to their liberal audience, but not without losing their aesthetic appeal of idealizing the people on their screens. In fact, the only main difference that remains between such shows and something like the Victoria’s Secret runway is that the latter didn’t hide their true intentions. They owned up to their motivation of showcasing an ideal of a person rather than representation, while the others are still trying to toe the line as they continue to make the right PR statements.
Although progressing the conversation about inclusivity and representation is not the media’s responsibility alone, we cannot undermine the power it holds. In the past few years alone, we have seen actresses like Rebel Wilson progress from the typecast, funny best friend to starring as the main heroine in a romantic comedy. We have seen toxic shows like America’s Next Top Model called out while models like Ashley Graham are celebrated. Simply because the revolution to overthrow the patriarchy meant demanding more from everyone – including mainstream media. However our misconception is that those patriarchal standards only affected cis-gendered women. The considerable progress that women have made thus far now stands out too starkly against the parts of the conversation that have been left stagnant. Other gender identities have been left behind in this conversation and are therefore still typecast to fit a certain regressive mold. Representative cis-gendered men and members of the LGBTQIA+ community have been the butt of stereotypical, insensitive jokes and characters for eons, and although the plotlines are expanding to become more inclusive and representative to keep up with the politically-correct times, it is becoming glaringly obvious that the casting directors do not always receive the same memo.
Mainstream media likes to dress in progressive garb while maintaining its regressive, money-making, pandering-to-straight-folk mindset. You cannot brand yourself as inclusive if your inclusivity is limited to the socially acceptable part of the conversation. Just because body positivity is becoming normalized for women does not mean that the responsibility or the conversation ends there. And mainstream media alone holds immense power in these conversations. With the influence of a platform like Grey’s Anatomy or even that of Tan France, this conversation can snowball overnight and help in demystifying our need to fetishize everything on our screens. Unfortunately, the deliberate decision that mainstream media and celebrities make to steer clear from the rest of the conversation only goes to show that even the most woke and diverse of stages are nothing more than a superficial front at being progressive, and a lazy, manipulative way of checking politically correct boxes without losing their ‘aesthetic’ appeal.