What if I told you that one of the most progressive shows in American television history was a serialized medical drama that started in 1994?
You probably wouldn’t believe me. You probably wouldn’t trust me to say that the 90s could be progressive when it comes to matters of representation. You are wrong.
E.R. was a medical procedural that aired in the fall of 1994. I have vivid memories of watching the show with my parents and I dropped off when the show started to show the strain of a series that had been going on for over a decade. But due to its recent run on Hulu, I’ve been binge-watching the show that was so important to my family. I had forgotten how revolutionary this show was. So now, as a special treat for all of you, we’re going to talk about E.R. and representation.
The show’s plot is pretty thin and flexible: a somewhat revolving cast of doctors, med students and other members of staff and faculty manage a county emergency room in Chicago. We follow a large ensemble cast and their personal and professional dramas and traumas. It’s at times equally melodramatic, utterly heartbreaking, politically salient and utterly ridiculous all at the same time.
But we’re here to discuss diversity.
The first season’s main cast features Dr. Mark Greene, Dr. Susan Lewis, Nurse Carol Hathaway, Dr. John Carter and the first subject of a deeper dive: Dr. Peter Benton.
Dr. Benton is an African-American man in Chicago who finished medical school top of his class and is a ruthlessly efficient surgeon. He struggles between the burden of making more money than his brothers and sisters, both metaphorical and literal, while also still feeling intense pressure of being a person of color in a mostly white-dominated field of medicine in the early 90s. His storyline takes him from reluctant caregiver to his ailing mother, to being in a heated custody battle over his disabled son which leads him down a road of devoted single fatherhood. During his run on the show, he was shown openly managing multiple relationships including a brief interracial one with Dr. Corday (Alex Kingston) and another with an HIV-positive fellow E.R. nurse. It was fantastic seeing a person of color on screen who was excellent at what he did, was eloquent and on top of things, but also fretfully mortal. He had flaws. He was at times an unrepentant jerk, single-minded in his drive to succeed and a bit of a hot head. All of those things were wonderful in the 90s and vitally important now. And fortunately, Dr. Benton was not the first or last male doctor of color on screen. He was followed by Dr. Pratt, Dr. Gallant, and many more male nurses of color (another diversity bingo point) and countless females of color in the nursing staff and only one of them is large and sassy (a big selling point for the 90s).
In the first season, we see newly dubbed Dr. John Carter have a very touching episode with a transgender woman (yes in 1994) where he advocates for her rights, pronouns and more. While other doctors berate her and hurl slurs at her, he sits patiently with her and is willing to listen. And when she tries to commit suicide by jumping off the roof of the hospital, it’s Dr. Carter who comes to try and talk her down. Unfortunately, he does not succeed and the woman dies but how amazing is it that in 1994 we had a show willing to handle a transgender character when shows today continue to struggle with such a nuanced topic?
Season 2 featured one of the most compelling characters on television: Dr. Kerry Weaver. Now, we’re going to go on a deep-dive with Kerry Weaver because dammit, this woman couldn’t merit a post all on her own. Dr. Kerry Weaver first walks in during season 2 and immediately commands the scene. She takes over the hectic county E.R. and with her calm attitude, confidence, and lack of willingness to take nonsense from anyone. She’s quickly a divisive character on the show. Other staff members of the fictional E.R. either love her for her command of authority or hate her because they feel threatened by such a small woman in charge. Did I mention she is disabled, wears a crutch but can keep up with everyone just fine? Did I also mention that she was confirmed canonically a lesbian in later seasons and she was allowed and able to date women and be shown in love with women freely and openly on television in the 90s and early 2000s? Did I mention she was a parent with her then wife and fought a custody battle for her son? Did I mention that she was also one of the most progressive characters in the show’s entire run speaking up not just for LGBTQ patients but also for children, women and other often times overlooked patients in the inner city emergency room? But she wasn’t all perfect. She was at times a controlling partner, manipulative in her desire to control the emergency room and was quick to push her methodical ways onto others. But none of those things cloud how rich of a character she is. Her arc is inspiring and she deserves a place on every queer woman’s altar to the Mother Goddess and Sacred Feminine.
The last main character I’d love to cover is Dr. Deb Chen. Dr. Chen is a Chinese-American emergency room doctor and though she insists to go by “Deb” during her first run on the show, she returns and demands that others use her actual name “Jing-Mei”. She is seen dating many men outside of her Chinese roots and much to the chagrin of her parents, she also refuses to marry or settle down. She doesn’t even let a pregnancy stop her. She’s not willing to settle down and be a mom yet and offers her son up for adoption. During her time on the show, she’s an excellent deconstruction of the “perfectionist Asian-American” trope by being so flawlessly flawed.
This doesn’t even cover the countless nurses and medical students of color and the various orientations and lifestyles that flood the emergency room and then staff it. And if we’re going to just focus on the writing for a moment, let’s praise the series for taking a humane and emotional stance on death with dignity in the arc that finishes with Dr. Greene leaving this mortal world. He goes to Hawaii with his daughter and spends out the rest of his days after a cancer diagnosis as he wishes and all the while his wife, Dr. Corday, is an emotional rock and it’s an episode that continues to bring tears to my eyes and also ruins a song for me. E.R. is a fascinating character study in how to show a person as being more than just a racial stereotype. With its urban setting it is constantly confronting race, gender identity and sexual orientation. It’s nice to see this show get some much deserved attention.