Updated: Dec 1, 2020
By Alyana Santillana
Image via “TV Guide”
ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy’s has been a beacon for representation and female empowerment. While the show’s titular Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) has garnered widespread attention, her character’s development was greatly influenced by counterpart Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh). Yang’s character represents Asian women in a positive light and empowered women to break traditional gender roles in favor of personal ambition.
Yang’s friendship with Grey was one of the series’ central plot points. In the show’s pilot, the characters work together to diagnose a patient with an unusual condition. The first episode gave the impression that the women were to become rivals and that particular case ended in Yang carrying the assumption that Grey had received special treatment from her famous mother and sexual relationship with a superior. However, as the first season progressed, the pair formed a bond that was based on their initial indifference towards their fellow interns and passion for surgery. They coined the term “my person” to symbolize their standing role in each other’s lives. The pair maintained their friendship throughout Yang’s ten season run on the series, despite conflict. While the pilot presented an opportunity for the pair to be portrayed as rivals, their friendship represented the essential feminist ideal that other women were not to be seen as competition, bur rather allies. The friendship between these strong, intelligent figures exemplified the idea of women supporting women.
From her initial introduction, Yang was portrayed as ambitious and driven. Her characterization revolved around her passion for her craft. One of her first storylines involved her relationship with Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington) and their relationship’s hand in her development. The pair get engaged halfway through the show’s third season. However, their engagement meets a bitter end in the season three finale after Burke leaves Cristina at the Chapel on their wedding day. Throughout season four, Cristina is at odds with herself, finally realizing how much she had changed for her ex fiancé. The season shows Cristina working through her denial, attempting to rebuild her foundation, and reigniting her passion for surgery. Her development is best exemplified through monologues delivered near the end of the season. In season 4, episode 14 “The Becoming,” Preston Burke is revealed to have won a prestigious award. In the same episode, she is forced to officially disclose their relationship, despite its bitter end. She delivers a moving monologue expressing her frustrations in remaining stagnant, all the while her ex is receiving prestige for her contributions. In the next episode, she is shown to be crestfallen over the prior events. She reveals her true feelings by projecting hostility onto Lexie Grey (Chyler Leigh). She delivers her iconic “Be unstoppable, be a force of nature” speech, in which her words to Lexie inherently reflected the fire and ambition she had felt she lost in the midst of her relationship.
Image via “The Bustle”
Burke’s impact on Cristina is seen in her next relationship with Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd). This was best seen with the introduction of Cristina’s new cardio mentor, Teddy Altman (Kim Raver), who happened to be Hunt’s old flame from the Army. Since Burke’s departure, Cristina found herself without a mentor within the hospital. After seeing Cristina and Owen’s budding relationship, Teddy finds herself unable to stand working with Cristina. Desperate to keep her teacher, Cristina ends her relationship with Owen. Upon this revelation, Cristina was faced with criticism from her peers for choosing surgery over love. However, given Cristina’s previous experience with Burke, she decided that she could not afford to sacrifice her career for yet another relationship. In essence, she was not choosing her job over her relationship. She was choosing herself over a man.
The pair eventually marry due to Cristina’s PTSD after the shooting. However, their marriage is threatened after Cristina gets an abortion in the beginning of season 8. After months of conflict, they divorce, as they find their differences to be irreconcilable. Owen’s possessive tendencies and infidelity pushed Cristina over the edge. Towards the end of season 10, Cristina finds her friend Meredith in a similar position in her marriage. Symbolically, Cristina’s final remarks to Meredith reflect her experiences and come from a place of pensivity. During the low point of their marriage, Owen tells Cristina to “stop believing that she is the Sun and that he revolved around her.” Upon her departure, Cristina leaves Meredith with the words, “He is not the Sun, you are.”
Throughout her character’s run, Cristina Yang redefined racial stereotypes and gender roles alike. Her intellect and abrasive nature seemingly fit the “smart Asian” stereotype. As her character was further explored in the early seasons, she is shown to be attractive, sociable, and unapologetic about her sexuality.
While her character’s career ambition seemed to represent the stereotype that classifies Asians (anti-social), she debunked the notion that to Asians, poise and purity were essential for success. Furthermore, she was adamant in her position to not have children. She believed that a family would only deter her from her career. Her dismissal of the traditional gender role showed women that pursuing your own passions was as valid as what society for so long pressured women to be.
The first time I watched Grey’s Anatomy, I was immediately drawn to Cristina’s character because of her depth and development. While coming off as cold and callous, her experiences made her into a more “human” version of herself. As a young Asian woman, I had always been under the impression that my value was determined by intelligence or tangible accomplishments. I was ingrained with traditional values, and had always felt the need to be proper and mild mannered. I feared that asserting myself would further place me into the “model minority” stereotype that so negatively affected my Asian peers. Because of this, I found myself downplaying my own abilities in hopes of appearing favorable to those around me. Cristina’s characterization inspired me, and many other young girls, to be unapologetically driven, to be self possessed, and to be unstoppable. In being impenitent, she liberated others to do the same. Her experiences shaped her person and as an audience, we were able to witness her growth. She had realized that she did not need a man to complete her. Time and time again, Cristina Yang prioritized herself, exemplifying the freedom many women still so forcefully seek.
A champion for self advocacy, Cristina Yang set an example for a generation of young women. She has liberated us from the pressure to build families whilst in pursuit for our own desires. She has shown that it is our prerogative to prioritize ourself over outside pressures. At her core, Cristina Yang was the epitome of empowerment.
Written by writer Alyana Santillana