Female Doctors on TV: Professionally Competent, Socially Inept

A look at a somewhat irritating pop-culture cliche

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.

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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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