Christina Yang. Fierce, independent, strong, and long one of my favourite characters on Shonda Rhimes’ ongoing hit Grey’s Anatomy. Played by the fantastic Sandra Oh, Yang is the epitome of the gifted, talented surgeon who’s set her heart on a goal and is working towards achieving it. She works in cardiothoracics, traditionally one of the most demanding surgical specialties, and one heavily dominated by men; a study in 2009 noted that 97% of surgeons working in this field were men. This was actually a worse statistic than in 1996, when 5% of cardiothoracic surgeons were women.
Rhimes is famous for the diversity of her casts and storylines, and Yang does not fit easily into a model minority stereotype although some might be tempted to stick her there. While on the surface she might seem to be a stereotypical high achieving Chinese-American, there’s more to Yang than that. Her Judaism is an important part of her character, as are her interpersonal relationships with the people around her, and while she is absolutely driven, academically and surgically talented, and an alpha woman, these traits are carefully depicted as being innate to Christina, not innate to Asian-American women—no Dragon Ladies here, thank you.
Yang’s career has risen and fallen over the course of the numerous seasons of Grey’s Anatomy as we’ve seen her achieve great feats, but sometimes be brought down by hubris. Thinking of herself as the best, she sometimes makes dangerous mistakes, or doesn’t think through situations clearly; it’s this, in part, that makes Yang such a compelling character. Her determination to be herself and stand up to authority gives her a spine of steel, and sometimes that gets her into trouble.
She’s also, par for the course with Rhimes’ tendencies toward soap opera, experienced some tumultuous personal relationships. Not just her complex, sometimes dark relationship with Meredith Grey, but also a series of relationships with surgeons who occupy strange roles as simultaneous mentors and lovers in storylines that raise uncomfortable questions about power dynamics. The latest incarnation has been the relationship between Yang and Doctor Owen Hunt, a trauma specialist with military experience who’s become the Chief of Surgery.
The relationship between Hunt and Yang has inevitably changed both characters. Yang learns a great deal about give and take in relationships, interrelating with people she loves, and finding out how people work. Her sometimes impetuous, devil-may-care approach doesn’t always work well with Hunt’s communication style, and she’s learned to adapt herself, to find new footing. Hunt, meanwhile, has learned that trying to muscle women around doesn’t necessarily work out.
Their relationship and later marriage has been strained by the usual Rhimes-induced tensions, like plane crashes, fights over patient care, and Yang’s brief determination to train elsewhere, but one of the biggest and most notable tests has cut to the core of Christina’s character, and to larger conversations about reproductive rights and autonomy, not just on Grey’s Anatomy but in the world in general: Hunt wants a child. Yang does not.
From almost the very beginning of the series, it’s been made clear to viewers that Yang has no interest in being a parent; she sees herself as a surgeon first, and rightly feels that she can’t give a child the attention and love she would deserve. As Yang puts it in a conversation with Hunt, “I don’t hate children. I think they should have parents who want them.”
This has been one of the parts of Yang’s characterisation that I love the most, as someone else who has also chosen not to have children, and who experiences social pressure as a result. In pop culture, childfree people are extremely unusual, and when we do appear, we’re usually converted by a pregnancy, a baby suddenly appearing in our lives, or some other outside factor. The message sent by pop culture is that childfree people don’t really exist; we just need some persuading to come over to the right side of things.
To see her maintaining firmly that she doesn’t want children over the course of multiple seasons (and in the face of pregnancy) has been a huge landmark for childfree people. Yang is committed. She doesn’t want children. She becomes a role model and a positive depiction to point to, which is a lot to load a character with, but she’s one of the few examples of a childfree character who remains consistently childfree, right down to telling Meredith that she doesn’t think she would make a good secondary guardian for her best friend’s children because she knows she can’t give them the lives they deserve; Yang says she’ll make a great aunt, but that Meredith’s children need a real mother in the event of Meredith’s death.
One of Yang’s more recent struggles involved a conflict between her and Hunt when she became pregnant and knew she wanted an abortion, triggering a massive falling-out between the characters. Hunt attempted to manipulate her into keeping the baby, using a variety of emotional tactics to compel her, but ultimately, Yang pointed out, “This isn’t pizza vs. Thai. You don’t give a little on a baby.”
She chose abortion. And with support from Meredith, she was able to convince Hunt it was the right choice—at least, so she thought, until he screamed loudly at her in a public place that she’d ‘killed his baby,’ highlighting a serious social issue. There are some who truly believe that abortion is murder, and Yang and Hunt’s relationship represents a collision of a terrible divide: a pro-choice independent woman making choices that are right for her and her body, and the man she loves, who believes that she killed a human being in a selfish act, depriving him of the opportunity of fatherhood.
In Rhimes’ portrayal, Hunt did not come out well. Viewers were clearly supposed to consider his behaviour over the line and inappropriate, to sympathise with Yang, to feel that she made the right choice, which she did. She doesn’t want children, we know she doesn’t want children, and thus, we cannot be surprised when, in the event of accidental pregnancy, she chooses abortion.
I’m worried, however, about the direction Yang has started to become over the most recent episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. While I expect characterisations to change over time, it seems that Rhimes and the writers are weakening Yang and diluting her essence in a way that’s toxic, damaging, and not true to her as a character. This isn’t Yang in the depths of depression, as we’ve seen in the past, or Yang making radical life changes.
This is Yang subverting who she is to please her partner, this is Yang considering a total flip of her beliefs and attitudes in order to keep Hunt satisfied, and it chills me to the bone. Not just on its face as a horrible thing to see in pop culture when we already see so much of it; how many strong, fantastic, independent women have we seen creators tear down, like River Song on Doctor Who?
But also because this is Christina Yang we are talking about, a woman who will go toe-to-toe with anyone or anything to fight for herself, her patients, and her friends. A woman with a strong core of self-integrity and very secure self-knowledge. A woman who knows herself, knows what she wants, and isn’t afraid to express herself. This is a woman who has remained emphatically Christina Yang through all Rhimes’ slings and arrows, and now we’re to believe that a man could casually undo all of that?
Grey’s Anatomy’s most recent multi-episode story arc revolves around Ethan, a young boy who’s been effectively temporarily orphaned; his parents were brought in to the hospital after a car accident, and his mother died of complications while his father remains unconscious after a cardiac event. His grandmother, meanwhile, thinks she can’t take care of him, and Ethan has bonded to Hunt like a limpet. Hunt looks after Ethan with puppy-dog eyes at every opportunity, and Yang’s stance on children seems to be undergoing a strange shift.
Lying in the on-call room at the end of the most recent episode, she calls Hunt on his baby fever, saying he seems to have changed his mind about children after she’d made it explicitly clear that a relationship with Christina Yang would come childfree. Hunt claims he wants her, but does he? He seems on a direct path to take Ethan in, and troublingly, it seems like Yang might be willing to give after all, staying with Hunt and becoming a foster parent.
Which would be an utter betrayal of everything she’s been over many, many seasons, and of her role as a childfree icon. This is the problem with having so few representations on television; if there were two dozen childfree characters on television, having one change her mind wouldn’t be remarkable. In fact, it would be a perfectly reasonable and accurate depiction, because some childfree people absolutely do change their minds and take children into their lives.
But when you have so few, and they all end up having kids, it starts to chafe. Especially in a case like this, where Yang has been so emphatic for so long, and has gracefully and beautifully explained why parenting is not for her. To have her go back on that now in order to please Hunt, thereby going against her earlier statement that a kid is not something you ‘give a little’ on, would be a terrible move, and it looks like Grey’s Anatomy might just be headed that way unless Ethan’s father wakes up, or Hunt makes a drastic decision and chooses Ethan over Christina.
And if he does, I doubt very much that the story will end there.