Scrubs: Thank heaven for men!

Scrubs is a wacky silly show that dares not to have a laugh track. Sometimes it’s hilarious:

“Hey, how come Frankfurt and Hamburg have nothing to do with frankfurters and hamburgers?”

“How come your Lake Titicaca is not filled with boobs and poop?”

And sometimes it’s brilliant on gender, like when Elliot and Turk are arguing over which it’s harder to be in medicine: a woman or black. A black woman doctor walks by, and they both give uncomfortable gestures or verbalizations of solidarity. She is unimpressed. That’s a great point to make.

But there’s something about gender on this show that just doesn’t work. I had almost decided to let that go – maybe I was being too petty – and not write this article when I caught an episode which concluded with a voiceover that said (paraphrasing): “There will always be a battle for power between the sexes. Sometimes the man just has to give in. And even thought it’s a cliche, sometimes he just has to be there for him.”

Ah… that’s the kernel of essentialism that’s getting in the way of this show being great when it comes to gender. It may feature Jordan – a nasty woman with a voracious appetite for sex who is actually right when she tells nice people what they’re really all about under their little kindly facades (yes!). It may show Elliot struggling realistically with being a doctor, being a female doctor, being a woman, and being the child of the crazy parents who had her (she’s very interesting to me). But it misses greatness because the writers believe the battle of the sexes is unavoidable and therefore there is no point struggling for equality. All women can hope for is that men will be a little bit nicer to them.

For example:

All pregnant women are CRAZY, but fortunately men are willing to endure. Whew, thanks, men! We’ll be sure to have your babies more often! On Scrubs, all pregnant women become erratic, neurotic and demanding. While this is an obnoxious stereotype about pregnant women, that’s not even my main beef. The real point of this trope is to show how selfless and enduring the fathers of the babies are by pitting them again these insane harpies whom they must not kill. Like the pregnancy isn’t as much their responsibility as it is the woman’s.

The writers probably think they’re showing young men how to suck it up and take responsibility when they conceive a child, which I’d be all for. But then comes an episode in which J.D. and a woman he’s dated once conceive. She doesn’t get crazed and hormonal. She just lies and tells J.D. she had a miscarriage. Then he meets her again and finds she’s still very pregnant. He’s hurt, but of course he forgives her because, according to another character, that’s what a man has to do in this situation – forge a relationship with a woman who told him a hurtful lie. It’s framed in patronizing talk about how she probably told this lie because pregnancy is scary, as if one shouldn’t hold a pregnant woman accountable for her actions.

Speaking as someone who once was a child, can I say two wrongs don’t make a right and I have profound concerns about these two as parents? This is a complex situation in which I personally felt it was okay for J.D. not to forgive her, and also okay for these two people who barely know one another not to compound one “whoops” with a big deliberate disaster. But Scrubs pushed me – via other characters – to see this as a noble and heroic sacrifice on J.D.’s part. And to see the woman as dependent on J.D.’s good will.

There’s nothing noble about taking responsibility for your own baby. It’s the bare minimum a human being should do. But taking responsibility doesn’t have to mean forging a relationship with the mother. Sometimes that’s the worst possible solution, and I resent Scrubs for perpetuating the idea that kids are better off with parents who hate and hurt each other than they’d be with one parent alone.

When Elliot finally found her spine, she expressed it by joining the Spice Girls. One day, Elliot suddenly learned that the trick to confidence is having some. To show the world the new Elliot, she… got herself new sexy hair, new skanky clothes and learned to do heroin-chic makeup. Because the screenwriters clearly got the 90’s memo about feminism now taking the form of cute white girls trying to look like prostitutes. Or else they have a series bible which says, “Any chance we get to put Sarah Chalke in a sex costume must be taken.”

There are a million new looks she could have gone for. This smacks too much of men thinking, “You know when women are really powerful? When they look all sexy and I want to screw them, but I can’t unless they let me. Wow, that’s power!” You know what I think is powerful? Just seeing Elliot walk in and tell the specialist what everyone else was afraid to tell him.

J.D.’s uber-hot girlfriends. Oh, my god, J.D. is semi-cute at best but he’s dated a string of women who completely conform to the criteria in this post. In fact, the only particularly good-looking man on the whole show is Donald Faison, yet every single female member of the cast except for Nurse Roberts conforms to that same criteria. I actually find it distracting that the men look like a bunch of co-workers you could find almost anywhere, but the women look like starlets. And the idea that all these modelesque women would go for J.D. is a tired ol’ sitcom trope. Honestly, guys, that trope must be in tears, begging you to put it to bed with an incontinence diaper and leave it to die in peace already. Have some mercy.

Women have the most insane ideas about relationships, and expect men to read their minds! Oh, those crazy women! Carla – whom I want to like and often do because she’s a great nurse and does a lot of saying what needs to be said – is the show’s main embodiment of that famous alleged female tendency to want unpredictable stuff and expect their male partners to figure it out and deliver it without prompting.

This is another tired sitcom trope which puts an ugly PR spin on an ugly reality, which is: some men just don’t listen to their female partners. Those partners could write their men a 130-page report called “Exactly What I Want From You In 25 Clear, Concise Steps a Monkey Could Follow” and it wouldn’t help because the men aren’t paying attention. Then at some point, one of these women finally gets her point across to her male partner – probably by use of a SCUD missile or something similarly unsubtle – and the man is astounded. Not only is she wielding obsolete Cold War weapons, she’s claiming he should have magically known this thing she’s never, ever even hinted about before. Gasp! He goes off to his job writing TV or editing a newspaper or writing laws for his entire nation and tells his buddies about it. Naturally, because like attracts like, all his buddies relay similar stories and the recorded cultural reality becomes: women are minefields of unexpressed desires and ideas through which you’re expected to somehow navigate successfully, you poor, poor man.

Because women don’t have similar access to sculpt culture, out view (that he was fantasizing about the neighbor’s teenage daughter again when we told him clearly it was our birthday next week and just this once we’d like, you know, a card or some freakin’ thing) is lost in the wind. We all know it and talk amongst ourselves about it, but it doesn’t make it into sitcoms and it sure isn’t in anybody’s head when they’re reading pseudo-science that assures us women and men are naturally, irreparably different, so don’t worry about inequality – it’s built into the system.

These issues don’t stop me from enjoying Scrubs. Shows that are almost great at women characters – like Stargate and the collective works of Joss Whedon – reveal more about the stumbling blocks than shows that just plain suck.


  1. SunlessNick says

    Shows that are almost great at women characters reveal more about the stumbling blocks than shows that just plain suck – like Stargate and the collective works of Joss Whedon.

    I’m a little crosswired here I think. Are you saying that the collective works of Joss Whedon suck at female characters? Since it doesn’t seem likely that you’re advancing Stargate as a case of “almost great.” Or are they meant to be a contrasting pair? It’s late, I’m tired, and confused.

  2. thisisendless says

    Yeah, that last line threw me a little too. I thought perhaps you were saying that both stargate and Joss Whedon sucks.

    I love both. lol. Although I much prefer Joss Whedon’s collective work. :)

  3. scarlett says

    I really like Scrubs, but when JD got back with his pregnant girlfriend, that shitted me something chronic. I thought he was perfectly reasonable for not wanting to get back with her after she’d lied to him about miscarrying, but Carla and Elliot guilted him into it like HE had been the irresponsible one. What, did he talk himself into thinking being with her would be best for the baby? It made me really uncomfortable because I could just see them miserable together in ten years because they shouldn’t have reconciled in the first place. Wouldn’t it have been a hell of a lot more responsible for them both to acknowledge JD going back to her was not ‘best for the kid’???

  4. Laura F says

    To be fair, they did fix the pregnant ex situation. JD broke up with Kim, after realizing that he didn’t truly love her and this was going to be bad down the road. The baby is born now, and JD is involved in the kid’s life, but you never see Kim on the show. I thought it was a good solution.

    I agree that it seems bizarre that all the men are average-looking, or at least averagely attractive, while the women are all gorgeous. But this is such an all-pervasive tv problem that I can’t really blame Scrubs. It would be nice if the show chose to be innovative in that arena, though–it would be nice if ANY show did. The more I think about it, the more it annoys me: the fact that average and chubby and even downright ugly men are allowed to have Hollywood careers while women with the same looks and talent are not.

  5. says

    @Nick, I was pretty tired when I wrote that, too, LOL. I’ve rearranged it – no, I think Stargate was almost great, at least for a few seasons. Where it went wrong is very revealing (compared to a show that sucks from the start). Whedon consistently gets things almost great, and arguably does get some things perfectly great, but there’s always something missing because he overreaches a little.

    @Laura, I’m glad they solved it that way. But I’m still annoyed at the framing in the prior season: that Kim’s lying should be overlooked because she was pregnant (patronizing), that J.D. owed it to her to forgive her (again, patronizing), and that once again they present a man not ignoring the pregnancy of his own child as heroic and selfless, when it’s the very least we expect from mothers. So I’m glad if they fixed it, but I think the initial “WTF” moments still give us great insight into where writers are coming from when they miss the boat on good gender representation.

  6. Scarlett says

    We’ve so far only got the season which ends with Elliot having her hens night, JD reconciling with Kim and Eliot and JD almost kissing so I haven’t seen what happens after that. The way Laura describes it sounds like a good conclusion and in thet context, I can almost understand JDs desire to be with Kim for the sake of his child… so long as they both come to their senses. Was their breakup a mutual thing, or only JDs idea?

    I thought it was perfectly reasonable for JD to say he could never see them getting back together, even if he wouldn’t be the first person to say ‘never’ then retract it. She lied to him about something pretty major and I don’t blame him for not being able to trust her. Why did Carla and Elliot have such a go at him? Not only is this the opposite of what I’ve seen in RL (women taking men’s side regardless of how fair or unfair the actions were) I didn’t see what woudl possess JD’s friends to have a go at him over not wanting to get back together with someone who lied to him.

  7. says

    “Shows that are almost great at women characters – like Stargate and the collective works of Joss Whedon – reveal more about the stumbling blocks than shows that just plain suck.”


    Plus, they are much more interesting to talk about. While I could probably write post after post about why L&O:SVU is a scary, scary show, it’s problems highlight the obvious. Talking about the absurdity of Inara’s job pinpoints more exactly how normally sane people get confused. Which makes the latter not only often a more interesting, but also sometimes a more useful conversation to have.

  8. Scarlett says

    Inana/Companionsim had so many irregularities. Companions are meant to be held in such high esteem that they joke about Inara being their ‘ambassador’ and those refugee people (the ones Mal and co were attempting to steal medication from) look at her like she’s a queen… but Mal and at least one of her clients (the one who challenges Mal to a duel) refer to her as a whore. She takes her job and her professionalism seriously, but she stays with a ship that is constantly screwing with her schedule and a captain who routinely refers to her as a whore.

    Shows like Firefly, Stargate and Scrubs make such good targets because you can see what might have been. You can see TPTB get it some of the time. And the fact they can’t get it most or all of the time can be more depressing than watching misogynistic crap where it’s obvious no-one has a clue, because it’s a case of ‘is the the best you can do?’

  9. sylpher says

    Did anyone else find the “rescucitate the white blond girl as a powerful person” trope that Buffy is based on just a little bit patronizing?

  10. Isabel says

    No. Huh?

    I *did* get a little tired of Buffy’s “good girls don’t, or at least feel really bad about it if they do” attitude re: sex (and especially re: BDSM in S6 or so), the virgin/whore contrast between Willow/Buffy/Cordelia and Faith in S3, and the degree to which Joss seemed to stick his fingers in his ears and whistle while hurrying past the concept of bisexuality. But the core concept? Nah.

    Re: Firefly and Inara, I get the feeling that there are the outer worlds, where Mal comes from and Evil Client Dude hangs out, which have more “traditional” attitudes toward things like sex, prostitution, etc, and the inner worlds, where Companions are more respected. Which would be why Simon, for instance, seems pretty respectful of the whole concept.

    Which becomes problematic when considering the rest of the show’s Outer Worlds = Free Spirited Awesome, Inner Worlds = Corrupt Corporate Evil stance. But maybe they were intending to make that grayer if the show had gone on. (Much like they may have been intending to explain *why* Inara stays with the ship. One can only hope.)

  11. Ifritah says

    Jordan was my favorite character on Scrubs… until they decided to get her pregnant.

    I have a real big issue with shows trying to soften up “tough” women characters by giving them a baby. It happens far too frequently, in my opinion.

    As for Buffy… I can’t think of one female character more terribly suited to represent the positive power of women than her. Don’t get me wrong, I love BtVS and AtS, but by season six, I wanted to find a picture of Ms. Summers and a dartboard.

  12. Isabel says

    I have a real big issue with shows trying to soften up “tough” women characters by giving them a baby. It happens far too frequently, in my opinion.

    So true.

    Enh, S6 Buffy managed to make every major character but Tara unlikeable. Except maybe Giles, by virtue of not being there to be obnoxious for most of the season. It’s on my official This Season Didn’t Happen list.

  13. MaggieCat says

    I have a real big issue with shows trying to soften up “tough” women characters by giving them a baby. It happens far too frequently, in my opinion.

    I’m not fond of it myself, but I made an exception in this case because

    A) they didn’t just throw it in because they couldn’t think of anything else to do with the character that didn’t revolve around being female (both of Jordan’s kids coincide with Christa Miller’s real life 2nd and 3rd pregnancies) and

    B) I didn’t really feel like they softened her much. Sure she didn’t have as much time to be randomly evil for her own amusement once there were diapers involved, but she was still more than happy to ruin someone else’s day for funsies when she was in the right place at the right time.

    In fact one of the reasons that this is one of the few unlikely TV moms that I like is because the show didn’t bow to cultural pressure to preserve the sanctity of motherhood and turn her into some sort of earth mother walking stereotype but still managed to convey that she loved her little hell spawn. I actually wondered the first time around if Jordan was just playing up the psycho pregnant lady stereotype so should could get away with murder and guilt trip anyone who got mad, but then Carla shot that theory all to hell.

    However I only watched intermittently after Carla and Turk got pregnant and have only seen about 2 episodes post-Kim, so I could have missed some stuff.

  14. says

    You know, I first saw episodes that took place AFTER Jordan had a baby, and she struck me as tough, nasty, honest and right to everyone but her baby, so when I later saw her pre-baby it didn’t seem to me like she’d softened up any.

    Her relationship with Perry matured a little, too, but I didn’t see that as really softening either of them (I also love Perry, who is clearly the antecedent of House, but so much better – sorry, Hugh Laurie, the fault is not with you). In fact, I rather liked seeing that two hardasses could be good parents and still be hardasses. As a fellow hardass, I appreciate it when writers understand you don’t have to be soft and endlessly empathetic to be there for the people who need you.

  15. says

    You know, I really love the first four seasons of Scrubs, but as it’s gotten so much more cartoony I’ve had a lot more problems with it. But my biggest problem is that as the series goes on, JD has totally stopped being the basically nice guy who you can empathize with in the first season, to a full blown Nice Guy. Where every other character has been able to mature to some extent, JD has gotten more selfish and immature. I think what really made me want to wash my hands of him was the arch where he dates Kylie…since it starts with him being so engaged in watching his reflection in her eyes that he doesn’t listen to a word she says (and it happens again when she repeats herself) so he has no idea what she’s asking him; and it ends with him spending a few episodes DESPERATE to have sex with her, but never talking to her about it, just assuming that he’s entitled to it and having no problem trying to manipulate her into it. (Also lying to his friends and saying he had.) When they break up, it’s because he’s proudly explaining to her what an awesome boyfriend he is because, while he lied to her and ditched her to hang out with a woman he also wanted to sleep with, who probably would have slept with him, he decided to go back to Kylie instead. He thought he deserved a cookie and was quite shocked when she dumped him for it.

    To me, that’s very much what his character became — manipulative and scheming when it comes to wanting a girlfriend, and unable to consider other people’s feeling. I was glad when Kim dumped him–during her delivery, she asks if he loves her, and he says something along the lines of, “No, but…someday…I maybe could…possibly…” to which her answer is, “Good, because as a little girl, I always dreamed of sharing my life with someone who, someday, maybe could, possibly, love me. GET OUT.” And I hated that arch generally, both for the reasons Beta discussed in the post, but also because it was so clearly just using the drama of a pregnancy arch with no consequences — JD almost never actually mentions or thinks about his son after his birth, even though he’s allegedly an involved parent. (Not that the show is much better when it comes to Turk and Carla’s baby.)

    Basically…I love all the characters but JD, and detest him so very, very much as a character that it makes it hard for me to watch the show sometimes.

  16. SunlessNick says

    Basically…I love all the characters but JD, and detest him so very, very much as a character that it makes it hard for me to watch the show sometimes. – Reb

    Like Meredith Grey and her crush-boy. Or Michael Vaughn (and Sydney when she was around Michael Vaughn).

  17. Becky says

    About Elliot’s makeover – the show was under pressure from the network to “sex up” Elliot’s character in order to draw in male viewers. I saw an interview with Bill Lawrence where he said they were basically extremely embarassed by the whole makeover thing, but that being forced to give her a physical makeover is what inspired them to give her a personality makeover as well, so something good came of it.

    But yeah in general… Scrubs sometimes gets gender stuff so right, but sometimes gets it so wrong.

  18. says

    Becky, good point. I didn’t mean to hold the writers exclusively accountable. Network suits are behind probably 90% of the really bad choices we see on TV.

    It’s unfortunate that the collaborative process makes it hard to figure out who’s accountable.


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