Friday morning, there was grumbling on my twitter timeline about the storyline of last night’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy. A hashtag, #ShameOnShonda, had been started in protest of what was perceived as a stigmatization of mothers with post-partum depression, or PPD.
In the story, a black woman had driven her two children into a lake, almost killing them, and causing a major traffic accident in which other people were also injured. Many of the doctors of the show speculated about what kind of mother she must be to have tried to harm her kids. One doctor in particular, April Kepner (pictured above), who is heavily pregnant, deeply religious and had just found out her fetus suffers from Osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease) was especially severe in her condemnation of the mother’s actions. In the end, it was revealed that the mother had a tumor of sorts on her pancreas that explained her behaviour and her escalating symptoms before the accident. The mother was neither “crazy” nor evil; she was ill.
To me, the episode was very clearly commentary on the differences between the relationship of black women and white women to mental health and motherhood. (Expertly complemented by the relationships of black and white women to each other on How To Get Away With Murder later that night.) I tweeted about the misinterpretation of the episode earlier today but I wanted to expound on some of those thoughts in a longer post.
To me, this episode is about the different ways we treat black and white mothers. In the story, the black mom had been displaying symptoms for some time. Her husband even mentions that he had noticed changes in her behaviour, but didn’t think that it might be indicative of anything larger. This sets the stage for the idea that for a BW, erratic behaviour is nothing out of the ordinary. It is innate to us, and not an indication of health issues.
Meanwhile, April is ordered out of her operating room against her wishes at the request of her husband Jackson, who believes that she shouldn’t be in surgery after receiving such difficult news. Without consulting her, Jackson makes the decision that she is no longer emotionally equipped to work, and must be coddled and cared for. To add insult to injury, Chief Owen Hunt, their boss, agrees with Jackson’s assessment without actually knowing what April is going through. By my count, that’s two men (and one woman, if we count Dr. Stephanie Edwards, who initially diagnosed the baby) who are so concerned for her well-being that they take (highly misguided!) steps to ensure that April’s mental health is tended to and addressed.
As an aside, there is another conversation to be had about Stephanie’s role in all this re: black women versus white women, and Stephanie tending to April’s emotional health over her own, considering their personal history, but we’ll save that for another time. If you keep up with the show, you know what I’m talking about.
In this episode, Shonda presents these two women, these two mothers and contrasts the way their mental well-being and mental health is approached. The black mother, who had been exhibiting signs that something might be medically wrong for some time, was treated to scorn, disdain and judgment, even by the doctors who were supposed to be treating her. The white mother, who had just received devastating news about her unborn child, was immediately coddled to the point of condescension in the rush to ensure that she was okay.
That… is brilliant. It is an incredibly nuanced approach to a very sensitive and important topic and Shonda handled it well. Because this situation reflects the real life experiences of black women who are punished for not being in peak mental health rather than offered care. Meanwhile, white women are more often given the benefit of the doubt, and their mental health is not only paramount, but often used to excuse truly atrocious behaviour. It is telling that the backlash to this episode centered on “shaming” women with PPD, (which the mother did not have) while nothing was said of Homeland‘s depiction of PPD. Protagonist Carrie Matheson literally tries to drown her baby before changing her mind. Where was the outrage about the depiction of PPD then?
In the end, #ShameOnShonda is bullshit, and it only further illustrates the growing gulf between black and white women within the feminist movement. That so many black women could understand the nuances of that storyline while many white women missed it, shows that there is a lack of intersectionality that is creating a massive blind spot in how we treat with these issues