This took longer than expected but here it is! This is the first in a series of a few that I’m doing in attempting to analyze dialogue from shows through a voice/ linguistic lens.
I was obsessed with Grey’s Anatomy in my teens. It was a new show (at the time) that came on just after Desperate Housewives and it made me want to be a surgeon. Not an actual surgeon but a surgeon on Grey’s Anatomy.
There are a plethora of things to talk about with this show but what I would like to focus on in this article is language and voice, specifically, how Grey’s Anatomy made the way women speak culturally significant. It’s long I went a bit overboard but hopefully, it’s enjoyable!
Shonda Rhimes has talked about how much she liked the show The West Wing. Now, I have to admit, I’ve never seen the show (I’ve just finished Orange is the New Black and Stranger Things so I’ve had a productive summer) but I have seen some of Aaron Sorkin’s other work (namely The Newsroom which I was obsessed with for a good part of 2013 and no I’m not going to base all of his work off of this one show I’ve seen a lot of his other stuff as well). He also pops up anytime I want to watch a video on youtube with that Masterclass commercial in which he says the following, “no one, ever in life, starts a sentence with dammit.”
This might seem like a throwaway joke but it’s crucial to understanding Shonda Rhimes and her writing on Grey’s Anatomy. A lot of writing (like acting) treads on that fine line between reality and fiction. You want to capture reality but in a stylistic way. If it’s too real it ends up more like reality T.V. and if it’s too stylized then you end up with characters speaking like David Harbour in Frankenstein Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein. (Yes, you should watch it and yes I watch a lot of T.V.) The balance of real and style is very important and also makes for really good comedy (when done right but that’s a subject for another post).
The speed or pace at which people speak is often a good way to employ this. The number one thing I often say to people in presentations or on stage is to slow down. This is because reality, unlike television, doesn’t have a rewind or a pause button. It also doesn’t come with subtitles (which is why I still have a job) but film and television are different. We can watch something over and over again, analyze them, and manipulate them so that we get things that we might not have seen the first time. It means characters can talk faster, mumble (which happens way too much), or speak at lower volumes and not worry so much about being understood. If the audience doesn’t get it they can always go back and try again.
There’s also this stereotype, within American society at least, that the more intellectual you are the faster you speak. (Yes, I know there is a big difference between being smart and being intellectual but for the sake of this let’s just use them interchangeably.) The underlying assumption being that smart people think faster and therefore speak faster, something we know in reality isn’t the case. (There’s also another really good point about East Coast bias and more specifically North East Coast which has more of a “posh” intellectualism attached to their accents, barring a few regionally specific accents. This is most likely fostered by and perpetuated by the sheer number of iconic writers that come from there but also the number of schools. Massachusetts has educated a lot of Americans.)
It’s become more increasingly prevalent in a lot of writing today. Take any scene from say The Newsroom and you’ll see this. People throw insults back and forth and complete other people’s sentences (sometimes even people they barely even know) with only half the information they need, all at lightning speed. It’s a great way to show that not only are these people smart they’re super smart. If you want a better example just watch Sherlock, who demonstrates his intelligence through both speed, wit, and a general sense of contempt for most of humanity (another common trope with genius). Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory also shares these qualities. Now, we all know that the rate at which you speak doesn’t necessarily dictate how smart you are. But this is television not reality. We work with themes and tropes which works around reality, not through it.
Intellectualism, however, isn’t the only thing conveyed by the rate at which you speak. There’s also a sense of manic behavior or loss of control that can be conveyed. When people get nervous or feel less secure they often speak faster. But there’s another large group of people who speak significantly fast. Young women.
In a fantastic article called, “The Totally ‘Destructive’ (Yet Oddly Instructive Speech Patterns of… Young Women?”, speed is claimed to be one of the more distinctive features of speech found in young women. We see this a lot in shows like Gilmore Girls which is famous for its quick wit, and sometimes, overwhelming dialogue speed. It also crops up in Greys Anatomy. Take for instance this scene between Meredith and George. They’re talking about their interns and whether or not they should address whatever issues they’re having. (The scene starts at 1.09-1.28)
Meredith: Can we shove them in a locker?
George: Guess we should just talk to them?
Meredith: No. We’re professionals and that’s clearly personal. Besides we’ll just waste time we’ll never get to see the solo surgery or the face transplant.
George: Oh, that’s a good point. I guess… well… we should just ignore it then.
Meredith: Yes, we just ignore it. That’s the professional thing to do.
George: Professionally ignoring them.
Now, there are two things that I love about this short scene. The first is that it’s between George and Meredith, not Meredith and say Christina her best friend. The reason this is important is that the scene reads as though it could be between two young women. They overlap each other in a way that almost seems like they’re the same person as if they’re sharing the same thoughts. You could easily take this scene and make it just Meredith talking to herself. This happens everywhere in Grey’s Anatomy but it’s not just limited to female characters, Meredith and Derek often talk in quick exchanges (it could be because he had a lot of sisters growing up and was used to it or it could be the East Coast bias again since his character is supposed to be from New York), as do Burke and Christina. These quick exchanges are similar to the ones seen in say The Newsroom or Sherlock and while they’re entertaining to watch (very Shakespearean in spirit, not in actuality like watching a Tennis match) they serve a bigger purpose. It shows the closeness and the intimacy of their relationships.
The second thing that I love about this scene is George’s use of the phrase “professionally ignoring them.” Now, this is important because Grey’s Anatomy has created quite a few phrases and words throughout it’s run. Some notable ones being, “my person,” “vajayjay,” and “McDreamy/ McSteamy.” While I don’t think “professionally ignoring them” tops the list (although I might incorporate that into my work now) it’s a great demonstration of how women create language and in doing so change it. Women are at the forefront of language change, in many ways that’s how we bond through creation. Men tend to name things in bonding they give each other nicknames or name a particular event that they’re going to. Watch any male bonding movie (there are a plethora of them to choose from) and one of the first things that tend to happen in the group (or in the narration of the film) is the naming of all the members of that group and the explanation of their names. (Women can give each other nicknames as well but for some reason, I’ve seen it happen quicker with men). Women (possibly because we are better at expressing ourselves verbally) bond through conversation but not just any kind of conversation, it’s creative. It’s learning about things that you have in common, shared experiences, and naming them or re-inventing them with language. It marks the moment that an event went from a man randomly stopping all contact with you after having been all up in your business for a significant amount of time to a word, ghosting, and that’s power.
There are lots of other features to talk about such as the use of filler words and paralinguistic utterances. The words: like, umm, uh which have been historically linked to women and historically deemed as “bad speech patterns” are sprinkled throughout Grey’s Anatomy’s dialogue. There’s pitch difference. Just have a listen to Sex in the City’s Carrie doing her “seriously all bad habits gone…” speech and then to Meredith’s “choose me, pick me, love me.” There’s a lot more creak happening with Meredith but her voice isn’t as high as Carrie’s. Sure they’re conveying slightly different circumstances but the message is the same. I could go on for a while about the infantilization of women in romantic narratives and how Grey’s Anatomy spins that as well but that’s a topic for another day. For now, I leave you with this, Grey’s Anatomy was the first time that I heard women on-screen speak the same way I did with my sister. It was the first time that I saw men mimicking women’s speech patterns and not get bullied or called out for it. It made me believe that I could write and more importantly that what I wrote could sound like the way I spoke and that it was good. Well, not just good, successful.