Brow Beat

How Cristina Yang Changed Television

Sandra Oh will retire from Grey’s Anatomy at the end of this coming season

Photo by Ron Tom © 2013 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc

Earlier this week, Sandra Oh, who plays super-surgeon Cristina Yang on Shonda Rhimes’ long-running medical dramedy Grey’s Anatomy, announced that she will be leaving the series at the end of this coming season. Grey’s has been on the air for a decade and has long since become the TV equivalent of old, comfy furniture—as much as you use it, you’d probably only notice it if it up and disappeared—but I want to take this occasion to celebrate Yang, one of TV’s most original and influential characters. Grey’s may be years removed from its buzzy, Emmy-winning start, but in Yang, the loveable, persnickety careerist, Rhimes and Oh have created a complex workaholic who has begat a whole generation of female protagonists, none quite as impressive as she is.

From the first episode, Yang, an M.D./Ph.D. from Stanford and Berkeley, respectively, had a bloodthirsty desire to operate, operate, operate, and a lack of interest in the dramatic personal lives of her peers.* (This, of course, did not keep her from having a dramatic personal life of her own.) She is hyper-competitive, unboundedly ambitious, and brutally honest, single-mindedly focused on doing just about anything to improve her scalpel skills. In the show’s early seasons, she began an illicit romantic relationship with her boss and mentor, a cardio-thoracic surgeon whom she loved at least partly because of how much he had to teach her. At the time, her apartment was a fetid pig-sty; cleanliness didn’t matter for work, and so she didn’t care about it. More recently, a married Yang, the female TV character most vocally uninterested in having children, had an abortion: Her work is what she wants to devote her life to.

On another TV show, Yang’s combination of qualities—mercenary, scary, and extremely skilled—would have made her the lead character’s enemy, if not a whole litany of other clichés: the type-A Asian, the frigid ballbuster, the unlikeable shrew. Instead, Grey’s respected Cristina’s ambition and wit, laurelled her with humor, swag, and a sex drive, and made her the lead character’s best friend. Cristina Yang and Meredith Grey are devoted to each other and united against frivolity and false-cheerfulness.

Cristina has ancestors, from career-focused women like Murphy Brown to the scathing know-it-alls Bea Arthur played, but she has even more descendants. Yang is the Yang to Ally McBeal’s flighty, wacky Yin. From the marriage of these two archetypes were born, among others, Homeland’s Carrie Mathison, The Americans’ Elizabeth Jennings, Nurse Jackie, The Killing’s Sarah Linden and (another Shonda Rhimes creation) Scandal’s Olivia Pope—a cadre of women who are, like Cristina, wholly devoted to their calling, but, unlike Cristina, so much more messed up in the head.

Heather Havrilesky noted in an essay for the New York Times Magazine that we are in the midst of a bonanza for TV women who are “smart, strong, borderline insane.” The aforementioned female characters all seem to have made a trade-off: They can be hyper-competent and/or dedicated to their jobs, but only at great personal expense, as if mental health and professional satisfaction were a zero-sum game. Yang hasn’t had to pick. She has her issues—over the course of Grey’s she has almost died in a plane crash and at the hands of a gun man, suffered debilitating PTSD, been stabbed by an icicle, left at the altar, not to mention a litany of other outrageous things that are inevitable for a character who has been on a soap opera for 10 years. But she is not fundamentally damaged. Yang has her shit together. Her professional drive inflames her, without making her combustible. There are more ways to make a female character interesting than to make her an emotional basket case. When Sandra Oh leaves Grey’s Anatomy, she’ll be taking the best example of that with her.

Correction, Aug. 15, 2013: This post originally misspelled Stanford, the name of the university where Sandra Oh’s character Cristina received her M.D., and omitted the University of California, Berkeley, where she received her Ph.D.