A few days ago, I saw my very first episode of Grey’s Anatomy, from early in the second season. And I was struck by the difference between how I found Meredith Grey’s story, and the patient of the week’s.
The patient is Bonnie and she’s in a train crash, in which she and another passenger (Tom) have a metal pole rammed through them, so they’re pushed together face to face. The doctors can’t treat either one without sliding one of them off the pole, and whoever it is is essentially a goner. Bonnie’s injuries are worse, and she has little chance of survival regardless – but if they slide her off, Tom has a better one. Tom protests, saying it should be him that’s sacrificed. We never find out if that’s because he’s the man or because he’s older – because *Bonnie* tells him that it wouldn’t be fair either way. She’s clearly afraid, and glad enough that she’ll be anaesthetised and not hurting when it
happens – but she still tries to comfort Tom through his guilt. She is quite the hero through the whole thing. And as a bonus, her S.O. is delayed getting in, so he gets no chance to make it about him.
Meredith by contrast starts the episode drunk (in her defence, she didn’t deliberately start the shift that way; she was called in because of the aforementioned train crash). But she spends most of the episode doing no medicine, wandering around with an IV in her arm, sobering up. And angsting about the ultimatum she’d just given her crush-boy about choosing her or his wife. Which she brings up as they’re prepping for surgery on Bonnie. Once they’ve slid Bonnie off the pole, Meredith gets into a tizzy saying they shouldn’t let her die, they have an obligation. To which I thought, “How about an obligation to respect her choice, and save the person she gave up her life for?” At the end of the episode, the crush-boy has chosen his wife, and she’s wandered off to cry somewhere. He cries too, but it seems to be over Bonnie and Tom.
As you might expect, I preferred Bonnie’s story to Meredith’s. And – finally getting to the point – it made me think of an essay by Ide Cyan on “exceptionalism” (http://blogs.feministsf.net/?p=128; mentioned in one of Revena’s Internet round-ups), and wonder if this is a manifestation of something similar. That one-off female characters get to be braver, stronger, and more heroic than regulars because they’re one-offs – exceptions that can be forgotten about when their episode is done.
But we don’t forget this stuff. We see good characters and remember them, and wonder why they are exceptions. Why all the stories aren’t about good characters. I know I’ll remember Bonnie and Tom long after I’ve forgotten Meredith and crush-boy.