Female Doctors on TV: Professionally Competent, Socially Inept

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A look at a somewhat irritating pop-culture cliche

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Fox, CW

If you're a single woman on TV who's struggling to make sense of her chaotic personal life, there's a pretty good chance that you're also a doctor. Physician seems to be the career of choice this season for professionally-successful-yet-still-floundering women in their late 20s and early 30s.

On The Mindy Project, Mindy Kaling is a competent OB/GYN who, in the first minutes of the show, gets inappropriately drunk at her ex-boyfriend's wedding and ends up riding her bike into a swimming pool. On Emily Owens M.D. the eponymous doc (Mamie Gummer) juggles patients, mean girls and cute doctor crushes. Erstwhile city girl Dr. Zoe Hart (Rachel Bilson) continues to be torn between two southern gents on Hart of Dixie's second season.On The Mob Doctor, Grace Devlin's (Jordana Spiro) personal problems stem less from romantic intrigue and more from the fact that she—as the title suggests—is a doctor for the mob. (And of course there's always the perennial dramas of the docs on Grey's Anatomy.)

The single, professionally competent/personally messy woman is a long-running television archetype, from Ally McBeal (lawyer), to Carrie Bradshaw (writer), Liz Lemon (also writer) and Carrie Mathison (CIA operative). As cool, collected and effective as these women may be in the courtroom or while leading an interrogation, outside of the workplace they tend lose their chutzpah—spending much of their time falling for/obsessing over the wrong men and, in extreme cases, cavorting with imaginary infants.

I'm not arguing that this dichotomy is always negative; in some cases it actually enhances the character. On Homeland, Claire Danes is brilliant as the bipolar CIA agent. The combination of perceptiveness and unhealthy obsession makes Carrie compelling and wholly human. Some critics have criticized Liz Lemon on 30 Rock for becoming increasing infantile and over-reliant on friend and mentor Jack Donaghy to steer her disastrous personal life. But I've always found Tina Fey's exaggerated take on the frazzled career woman funny and charming, even when she's using plastic shopping bags as underwear.

However, the gulf between the characters' competence in the workplace and ineptness in managing their personal lives can be jarring, particularly when the job in question involves life-and-death judgments. I realize doctors are people too, just as prone to off-days and human folly as the rest of us (especially on TV), but when you walk into the gyno's office you'd like to think that she isn't just coming off a bender. Even so, Mindy Kaling is probably my favorite among the current TV lady docs because her character is unapologetically self-involved and refreshingly lacking in nobility. In a funny and frank scene in the pilot, she encourages her office assistant to book more patients with health insurance. So, more white patients, the assistant infers.

"Well, don't write that!" Mindy exclaims. And then under her breath, "but yes."

Adorable as Bilson is on Hart of Dixie, she is TV's least convincing physician—I just don't think that I could trust a doctor who wears formal shorts to work. Surgical intern Emily Owens takes the prize for the most neurotic member of the group. The premise of the show is that working in a hospital is just like high school. While balancing the demands of her job, brainy former social outcast Emily obsesses over her unattainable crush, fellow intern Will. (There's also a nice-guy doctor who will inevitably provide the third side of the love triangle. Entertainment Weekly quite rightly pointed out that the show is basically Felicity with doctors.) Because we are privy to Emily's internal narration, we know that she is actually thinking about Will's chin dimple while diagnosing a young patient—which is an impressive feat of multi-tasking, but somewhat alarming from a professional standpoint. It's particularly disheartening when Emily, who in spite of her insecurities is charming and capable, spends part of her first day of work hiding out in a stairwell with a cache of junk food because her crush rejected her and her boss yelled at her.

I'm not sure why doctor is such a hot career choice because, with the exception of The Mob Doctor, the profession doesn't really matter. The workplaces on these shows simply provide a backdrop for further quirkiness and romantic entanglements. Perhaps the fact that the female protagonists are capable of providing care and saving lives in spite of their emotional messiness is meant to provide additional depth. If that's the case, it's a dubious and tired message.

Of all the single professional female characters on television, Parks and Recreation's Leslie Knope (government official) is the only one who really rises to the level of role model. Leslie's career isn't just window dressing for the character; her love for her job and commitment to her community is integral to who she is. Much of the show's sunny humor is derived from the character's unwavering optimism and her inability to do anything in small measures—both in her personal and professional life (like when she sends her boyfriend on a Valentine's Day scavenger hunt with more than 20 increasingly complex clues). While Parks and Rec has provided the character with a fantastic romantic storyline over the past couple of seasons, it's a relationship built on mutual respect and admiration.

Leslie represents an upgrade the classic archetype—proving that women on television can be funny, relatable, and quirky without falling to pieces the minute they leave the office (or the surgical table). Just like women in real life.

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Meghan Lewit is a writer and editor based in New York. She has contributed arts and entertainment coverage to the L.A. Weekly, The Awl, and PopMatters.

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