What Does 'Married to Medicine' Say About Black Female Doctors?

Bravo's newest reality series uniquely focuses on African American women in medicine, but many see it as the opposite of "empowerment."
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In the United States, less than four percent of practicing physicians are African American. As of 2010, only 18,533 (less than 2 percent) were both black and female. And as of this week, two star alongside doctors' wives on Bravo's new reality series, Married to Medicine.

A month before the show was even set to premiere, students at Howard University College of Medicine, a historically black school, launched a petition on Change.org calling for it to be taken off the air. Just through its advertisements, they wrote, the show "heavily associates black females in medicine with materialism, 'cat fights,' and unprofessionalism.'" Even more pertinent to their own interests, they wrote, "as residency positions are becoming increasingly competitive (particularly for black women) and contingent upon social behavior of graduating medical students, this depiction will only hinder black female physicians from attaining competitive residencies." The petition so far has garnered over 2,000 signatures. The show's premiere, on March 24, drew 1.9 million viewers.

"This is affecting our field, and this is affecting our future," Olabola Awosika, the petition's author, told me. Like the women on the show, Awosika is originally from Atlanta. Having earned her B.S. from the University of Virginia and a master's in complementary and alternative medicine from Georgetown, she is currently in her second year of medical training. When I met with her and a group of her classmates at Howard, they were surrounded by notes and study guides for Step 1, the first major test toward board certification.

"This is affecting our field, and this is affecting our future."

On first hearing that the show had "medicine" in the title, the Howard students told me they hoped they might see real-life documentaries in the vein of Hopkins and Boston Med, well-received reality series that aired on ABC and billed themselves as the anti-Grey's Anatomy. Significantly, black female faces were largely absent from both programs. To see black women on shows like that would have been "life-changing," said Brittney Bellamy, who coauthored the petition.

Only two of the six, mostly black cast members are "married to medicine" in the sense of it being their career. Both Jacquline Walters ("Dr. Diva") and Simone Whitmore are OBGYNs with their own practices. Walters, particularly, emphasizes her commitment to taking her professional life extremely seriously, and on not letting her personal life reflect poorly on her as a doctor (a tall order for a show that relies on the usual Real Housewives tropes). But glamour shots of the lavish lifestyle afforded by her career aren't quite what Bellamy and the others had in mind when they imagined their ideal role model. 

"There are other aspects of being married to medicine other than living in a big house, throwing dinner parties, and hanging out with your friends," said Ciera Sears, who's originally from Cleveland and who hopes to pursue a career in either cardiology or pediatric oncology. Howard in particular prides itself on it focus on training its students to engage with under-served populations, starting before they've earned their MDs. Andrea Alexander, who's interested in anesthesiology, oncology, and reconstructive surgery ("I just want to do it all"), said, "I have more dreams than just being a doctor. I do want to be an active voice for my country as well."

"I'm not interested in materialism being shown as something that is prominent in my life."

Dr. Deonza Thymes, an emergency medicine physician in Los Angeles, also takes issue with the show's particular version of the medical lifestyle. Although she decided not to tune in to the show, Thymes, a cofounder of the Artemis Medical Society, which started last year as a community of women physicians of color, wants the focus to be on the incredible amount of hard work and sacrifice that goes into a medical career. And the show does delve into the eternal quesitons of work/life balance -- the second episode shows Whitmore's children confronting her about how she's missed most of their sports games. But, Thymes said, "I'm not interested in materialism being shown as something that is prominent in my life. I'm interested in the things that I focus on, which are caring for others ... and being someone that other people and young girls can look up to."

In other words, the purely positive image put forward last year by Disney channel with the preschool cartoon Doc McStuffins, which stars a young African American girl who heals sick toys, and who hopes to grow up to become a doctor just like her mother. The show was embraced by black female physicians, 131 of whom joined together to thank and support its producers.

"We are one of a few," said Thymes. "So it's very important to me to have a positive image, and to have what is out there in the universe on television to be a positive representation of me and what I do. And I just don't see how a show like this could do that."

Bravo declined to comment on the petition. But in a video posted to MadameNoire, a lifestyle site aimed at black women, three cast members, including Whitmore, were largely dismissive, telling the students their time would be better spent studying. There's no question that studying is what all medical students spend most of their time doing. And while Bravo isn't likely to cancel the show, it might do well to deemphasize its loose association with medicine (throughout the pilot episode, they repeatedly drove home this gimmick -- the talking head segments took place against a backdrop of X-ray images of purses and shoes), because it's sending the wrong message about the field. In medical school, students receive frequent lectures reminding of the importance of professionalism, which carries over into their personal lives. "These are the very same things that they're telling us should not be affiliated with medicine," said Awosika.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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