Gaywashing

I’d like to talk about Grey’s Anatomy for a moment. If you don’t watch, that’s ok, because what I really want to talk about is the astonishing act of gaywashing ABC just perpetrated, and Grey’s Anatomy happens to be the show which was involved.

Basically, Grey’s Anatomy is a soap opera which airs at night, giving it a veneer of legitimacy and a huge fan base. It takes place in a hospital, as we follow the nascent careers of a group of surgical residents. Apparently, in between learning how to become surgeons, they have time to have sex with each other constantly, and to get involved in prolonged and improbable dramas. I watch it in the same way that I peer at a train wreck: because I can’t tear my eyes away.

At any rate, the show is heavily heterosexual. This season, they went out on a limb, and created a relationship between Doctor Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) and Doctor Erica Hahn (Brooke Smith). Now, the relationship was pretty problematic. Two characters who were avowedly het “suddenly discovered” their deep passion for each other, and people started calling the relationship “lesbian,” when it was more properly bisexual. But it was a touching relationship, and I thought it was great to see it portrayed so positively on television, especially with Smith’s awesome “you are the glasses” monologue, even though it had parts which were suspiciously similar to my own essay on getting glasses for the first time. But whatever. “The trees have leaves” is a pretty common experience for people getting glasses for the first time, I’m sure.

So, everything seemed to be going along swimmingly, until a bombshell got dropped: Thursday’s episode was Smith’s last. The last we see of her is a shot of her walking to her car. That’s it. Boom. Gone. Among other things, that is totally out of character for Dr. Hahn, who is a tough-talking, dedicated surgeon, not a weenie who backs down from a fight.

Needless to say, everyone is going “what the fuck,” and the most commonly-cited reason is gaywashing. Which, I have to say, it totally was. The network clearly felt uncomfortable with the relationship, and they asked Shonda Rhimes to can the character. It’s that simple. They didn’t even leave it open by keeping her on the show (because she was great as an egotistical cardiothoracic surgeon). They just dumped her.

Now, people say “oh, well, the public didn’t respond to the relationship.” Well, guess what. Smith was dropped before this season even started airing. They shoot television shows in advance, people. She was told that they were “no longer writing for her character” in mid-September, and this season started on 25 September. So don’t tell me that the public wasn’t ready for the relationship, or wasn’t responding well. It was all the network. The huge bummer? Smith had just relocated to Los Angeles for the show, uprooting her family for what she thought was going to be a consistent role.

It sounds like the actors (and Rhimes) have pretty much had their hands tied by the network when it comes to commenting, although Patrick Dempsey (one of the leads) did make some pointed comments in an interview on Ellen about the topic, stopping short of saying that it was gaywashing, but expressing some surprise that Smith was so abruptly removed from the show.

And now, it seems like the other gay-friendly storylines on the show are being toned down. A new character who is supposedly bisexual is being brought on the show, but she’s going to be limited to the straight sex which has characterized the show thus far.

I don’t know why ABC made the decision to yank the gay storyline and to whisk the character out of sight so that people never have to think about her again. I think we’re going to see Callie turning back to the straight life, reinforcing the pathetic idea that being gay or lesbian is a choice. And I think that’s a shame. The network really had a chance to tell a compelling and interesting story, and they dumped it, for fear of riling people up or causing offense.

I can think of only a handful of positively-portrayed LGBQT characters on network television, and I think that’s a crying shame. Especially from a show like Grey’s Anatomy, which prides itself on its color-blind casting, a pretty progressive move in a color-obsessed industry. We live in a society where people are obsessed with sexuality, so of course television has to include sex, but apparently only conventional straight sex. No lesbians, gays, queers, kinksters, transpeople, or asexuals allowed.

The notable exception to this rule appears to be Bones, which continually introduces new ideas about sexuality and interpersonal relationships. Bones doesn’t always nail it, and I am not always totally delighted with the way they handle issues ranging from polyamory to pony play, but at least they aren’t afraid of topics which other networks seem to shy away from like the plague.

2 Comments on Gaywashing

  1. What, you don’t think surgical residents have time to have sex incessantly? My personal experience, while far in the past (when they took way more call), suggests otherwise. Avoiding groping hands, putting chairs under the door handles on the call room, knocking on the linen closet door before opening it, listening at the door of the shower in the doctor’s changing room before opening it. Surgeons think they are studs and have to prove it. And it doesn’t change much after residency as far as I can tell. Two weeks ago, I sat in the doctor’s lounge and listened to all these forty and fifty year old men talk about the “sports groupies” who came to watch the amateur hockey league they all play in. I tend to think of surgeons in general (and yes I know many wonderful women surgeons) as heavily testosterone toxic.

    Oh, and I do agree with you on the networks attempt to portray the world as white middle class heteros. Clearly the rest of us don’t exist.

  2. I haven’t watched Grey’s Anatomy really, but I was intrigued by this story line and watched clips online from their episode last season. It’s too bad they decided to drop it. The first time I saw the Callie character, I thought she’d make a good lesbian, strangely enough. Maybe she still will.

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