How 'Grey's Anatomy' Is Embracing Female Empowerment Like Never Before

Chandra Wilson's Bailey has finally become the chief of surgery — a story 12 seasons in the making — as many of the hospital's major departments are run by women.
Richard Cartwright/ABC

ABC's Grey's Anatomy has always put its spotlight on strong and driven women but in its 12th season, the Shonda Rhimes medical drama has subtly embraced female empowerment like never before.

During last week's season premiere, Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson) finally achieved a career goal that's been 12 years in the making: becoming the hospital's first-ever female chief of surgery. What's more is the way she did it. After being intimidated by her competition — also a woman (played by Joey Lauren Adams) — Bailey went forward with her presentation to the board and did it from the operating room during a surgery.

"Bailey was always senior this and chief of the residents and her ascension was a long time coming," Wilson, who has been with the series since its inception, tells The Hollywood Reporter. "People have been watching Bailey since the beginning to try to hit that goal — she's talked about it a few times — and it's cool to see somebody hit the mark that they've been pursuing for a long time. That means a lot, especially to young girls."

Bailey's promotion caps a run on Grey's that has seen several women quietly become heads of their departments at the show's Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital. She joins Callie (Sara Ramirez) as head of orthopedics; Arizona (Jessica Capshaw) as head of pediatrics; Maggie (Kelly McCreary) as head of cardiology; and Amelia (Caterina Scorsone), who heads neurology.  

"What we try to emphasize on our show is that people get to where they need to be because they deserve to be there," Wilson says. "Shonda talks a lot about people saying, 'How are you balancing home and being a busy woman in Shondaland'; they don't ask that question of men. I don't think that people should ask what's going to be different about a hospital run by women — it's going to get run, that's what's going to happen."

To hear Grey's Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder exec producer Betsy Beers tell it, the best part of the women-run hospital is the fact that it happened seemingly without any fanfare. "It seems so normal to me — and it should be — that I didn't actually notice it. You look at Thursday night and that's about a lot of women who are in charge," Beers says with a nod to Scandal's Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and Murder's Annalise Keating (Viola Davis), among others.

"There was no discussion about it; no hours of people sitting around pondering, 'Can I really have it all?!' " Jerrika Hinton (Stephanie) says. "No, this is just part of your life. You run shit, this is what you do."

Adds new Grey's recurring actor Joe Adler (Isaac): "Shonda incorporates all these different relationships — whether there are age gaps, sexual orientations, etc. — and she allows it to be so fluid that it doesn't feel forced; it feels real — because that's what life is. I'm glad she's making that part of everyday life and not making a thing of it." 

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That Grey Sloan is overseen by so many women will come up during Thursday's episode when Bailey takes on her first day as chief. "Callie points it out and names it Lady Place," Ramirez tells THR. "There's some really humorous commentary made on that suggestion but the point is celebrating that most of the heads of departments are female and that's very exciting. It's a very empowering moment for a lot of women. We're normalizing it, which is what Shonda and her writers do best. They normalize issues that for a lot of people are sort of unheard of, taboo or considered outside of the norm."

With nearly 250 episodes under their belt, Grey's has taken on several topics — most recently LGBT conversion therapy in its season 12 premiere — and has inspired countless young women who grew up watching the series to go to medical school.

"The number of female surgeons has surged since the beginning of this show — and that's insane," Sarah Drew (April) says. "The fact that we get to go to work and change the world a little bit? It's pretty nuts."

Drew, who had a baby last season, also praised Shondaland for its approach to celebrating women off-screen as well. "You tell them you're pregnant, they throw you a party. They don't say, 'Oh shit, what are we going to do? How are we going to work around this?' It's just, 'Yay! Another baby!' " she says.

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Heading into season 12, Grey's also bumped up frequent director Debbie Allen — who also recurs as Catherine Avery, the head of the influential Harper Avery Foundation — to executive producer as the series bolsters its creative team behind the scenes. Co-star Camilla Luddington (Jo) says Allen's addition has helped energize the veteran series. "We all had a dinner together and she really rallied us this season to make it fresh," she says. "She's inspiring when she's with us — and we need someone like that."  

As for what's ahead for the hospital's new leadership, Capshaw tells THR that it will continue to be addressed — and "celebrated."

"There's always a balance," Capshaw says. "It's like I teach my son when he's playing a game and wins: You celebrate it; you feel it; you let it have its full effect on you — and then you move on."

Adds Scorsone: "We're having more and more surgeons who are women now and more and more CEOs who are women. We've finally reached a generation where this is looking less like fiction and more like the world."

Grey's Anatomy airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on ABC. 

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