Exercising Our Right to Choose: Cristina Yang and Feminism

Let’s just put it out there. Shondaland shows, namely Grey’s Anatomy, no longer critically acclaimed, are now basically social justice vehicles. But don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Have you ever seen such a fight for women’s rights, where characters aren’t “shown the way” by their male counterparts and allow themselves to be wifed and baby’d up like nobody’s business? Where last season on Grey’s was about the fight to legalize marriage equality, one of the strongest fights this season has been about feminism and reproductive rights, put in the capable hands of Sandra Oh’s Cristina Yang.

Cristina has been through a lot in the past seven and a half years. She’s a strong, aggressive woman who isn’t afraid to go after what she wants, even if she pushes other people out of the way to get there. Cristina is consistently one of the strongest characters on television, internalizing everything that happens to everyone else while struggling to maintain her own autonomy. We’ve seen Cristina go through a lot in the last few years, but this season really takes the cake. Exercising her rights as a human being, she suddenly finds her life completely in shambles. And the thing is – Cristina isn’t trying to be a martyr for women’s rights. She is a woman trying to live her own life in a way that makes her happy, and that doesn’t make her a selfish, man-hating feminazi (which I have seen her called on the Internet since the episode aired). It makes her a person, struggling with real, normal problems, and having to do so while her husband won’t speak to her because of it.

And, you know, I really liked Owen for a really long time, but he has been really awful this season. I’m worried that this is his last season (which I guess depends on whether Oh signs back on for another season, as her contract expires after this one), but because I like Kevin McKidd, not because I think Owen is making good choices. I suspect this is the end, though, because he’s quickly burning all of his bridges, especially with Cristina and Teddy, his two closest relationships.

As Owen continues his apparent reign of control over Cristina, they come to the most compelling fight so far – about being each other’s “person.” This brings to mind season two, when Cristina had a secret ectopic pregnancy. When Cristina was going to get an abortion (see, this isn’t out of left field), she had to put someone down as her person. She chose Meredith, her best friend, which Owen clearly has no knowledge of and does not understand. When Cristina describes the definition of being someone’s person, she says that a person is someone who, when you murder someone, helps you drag the body across the living room floor. Although I don’t think Owen could ever be Cristina’s person, because he’s too intent on controlling her to be able to support her, he demanded it of her and she ceded, saying that if he wants to be her person, he should “be her freaking person.” I don’t think that’s what she wants, really, though, but having decided to open up and fight for the man she loves, Cristina has even tried to give him that (which he promptly rejected). She wants him to be her husband, but if she won’t conform to what he wants, he isn’t willing to give her even that.

In therapy, Cristina tells Owen that nothing has happened to her that made her not want children. She just doesn’t want them – she wasn’t “mugged by a baby,” a line deliverable only by Oh. And she’s right – she’s never had any childhood trauma that made her not want children. Because not everyone wants children, and that’s normal. Not everyone wants to have kids, even in a happy and fulfilling marriage, and that knowledge speaks more about knowing yourself than do a lot of things.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that something did happen to Cristina. The Burke family happened to Cristina, years earlier, something that we have little to no indication that she’s ever mentioned to Owen in detail. When we met Owen in season four (was it really that long ago?), she was hardening into early Cristina again, with little trace of the Burke family’s impact on her life.

But last night it all came out in full force. Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington) and his mother tried to push Cristina into a Wife Box. For as much as Burke said he wanted Cristina to stay a surgeon, he let her be pushed into the Wife Box, not the Surgeon and Wife Box. He let his mother take Cristina’s eyebrows. He and his mother stripped Cristina of her identity, and she did the only thing she knew how – she fought back. She had given so much to Burke, and when he tried to take the rest, she couldn’t do it anymore. Yes, it was a messy end, but Burke realized that he was destroying Cristina rather than helping her grow, and he left, too.

I can’t imagine this is something Cristina would have wanted to share with Owen (I mean, Cristina sharing? Come on.), but I can definitely imagine this being the subconscious impetus for losing her patience with him when he dared suggest that she was selfish, that she killed their child, that she didn’t care about him. When he told her that she would change her mind, he told her that she didn’t know her own mind and that she clearly couldn’t make decisions for herself. Owen even used her friendship with Meredith against her, saying that since they do everything else together, they should both have children together. This isn’t the first time the Twisted Sisters have had their friendship used to manipulate one of them, and I hate it because it is so horrible. I used to love Owen, but this whole episode had all of the hallmarks of a growing emotionally abusive relationship. Owen is undergoing a lot of emotional problems in his life right now, too, but I suspect that Alternate Owen, the one who punches hospital windows, isn’t lurking too far below the surface, and I’m really scared for Cristina.

And while we’re talking about manipulative relationships, Cristina has been there. As strong as she is, Cristina finds herself in relationships with men who would try to control her and deny her autonomy. She isn’t the first feminist to find herself in a world that supports her strength and commitment to herself and then turns on her when she dares say she wasn’t just waiting for a man to give her children. Above all, Cristina sticks to her guns, and I absolutely commend the strength of the writing for her character and for Sandra Oh’s acting ability.

I hope they can find a way to resolve this, but for me, this episode marked the beginning of the end for Cristina and Owen’s marriage. Having come to this divide over having children, I really don’t think this is something they can work through, as so often happens in real life. Yes, it makes me very sad, since they used to be my favorite couple on the show, but right now, I can’t stand it and my heart hurts for Cristina. No one, fictional or real, should be treated like that, especially when it comes to exercising human rights. I only hope the Shondaland crew have made the right decision when it comes to her character’s treatment for the rest of the season.

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About Bailey

I'm a writer and a feminist. I read a lot of books and I watch a lot of television.

4 Responses to “Exercising Our Right to Choose: Cristina Yang and Feminism”

  1. This is an excellent article and I agree with pretty much everything you discussed. Cristina Yang is such an inspiring and empowering character.

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