LGBQT Representations on Television: Doctor Callie Torres

Note; I watch Grey’s the day after it airs, so this doesn’t take anything that may (or may not) have happened in last night’s episode into account!

As promised nearly a month ago, it’s time to talk about the lovely Doctor Callie Torres, played by Sara Ramirez. Full disclosure: She is one of my favourite characters on Grey’s Anatomy and she always has been, which is part of the reason I have been saving her. The other reason is that she’s a complex character to talk about.

When we are introduced to Dr. Torres, she’s straight. Straightalicious. Straightorama. She even gets hetmarried in Vegas, the pinnacle of hetdom (in the eyes of some, at any rate). In the fourth season, she met Doctor Erica Hahn and started to identify as bisexual. Yet, now, as Chally points out, she is starting to be labeled as lesbian by the show and by the other characters, perpetuating the myth that bisexuality is only a transitory state between sexual orientations, not a sexual orientation in and of itself.

Callie Torres is a fascinating and complex character. One of the reasons she really intrigues me is that she comes from a wealthy family and this comes up periodically over the course of the show. Her father tries to hold the family wealth over her and to push her around by cutting her off financially and pressuring her with financial threats, and Callie really resists that and pushes back against it. At times.

I don’t come from wealth, so I don’t know, but I imagine that it is probably hard and frightening and scary to cut the straps on your safety net. Even when you are doing so in order to claim your identity and to live as a free woman. That has to be a panicky moment, when you realize that you’ve cut yourself off, possibly forever, from a security blanket which you have had your whole life.

My response to Callie’s depiction is mixed. I feel like one of the most common myths perpetuated about sexuality is that it’s fixed for life and people never change. So I was actually really excited to see Erica and Callie in a relationship together, exploring their sexuality. The glasses scene, as I like to call it, was, I think, a great lightbulb moment not just for the characters but for the viewers. Because sexuality is malleable, and it does change. It was really frustrating to see both characters suddenly referred to as lesbian when they appeared more properly bisexual, of course, but honestly just seeing positively depicted non-het relationships at all on television is so nice that I didn’t want to complain too loudly.

And when it comes to marginalized sexuality, there is a very real motivation for trying to scrunch it down and pretend it isn’t happening. Callie’s struggles in the beginning felt very real to me as she wrestled with this thing and was afraid that she was doing it wrong and she wasn’t sure what was right. Her whole world was turning upside down because she was finding this entirely new part of herself and she wasn’t sure where it was going.

And then the gaywashing happened. Here we had these two fabulous characters, in a relationship which wasn’t totally groundbreaking for television, but was a bit unusual, and ABC gave Brooke Smith the axe. Did ABC get spooked? It seems pretty probable, given that Smith was fired before the most controversial episodes even had a chance to air, so it’s not like they can claim that they were responding to the delicate and offended sensibilities of viewers or something.

Props to Shonda for pushing forward and giving Callie another chance, this time with Arizona Robbins. One thing I like about the dynamic between the two is that Arizona was initially hesitant about getting involved with Callie, because she felt more like she was in a settling down mode, and less like she wanted to be with someone whom she thought was experimenting. The fact that she overcame that speaks well of her character, I think, and it added another dimension to their relationship.

Unfortunately, Callie seems to have moved straight from “bi” to “lesbian.” And maybe she really is a lesbian; that’s who she is, and that’s how she identifies. But maybe she’s really bi, and the show is quietly letting her be treated as a lesbian because bisexuality, even in women, is threatening. And it’s accompanied with a lot of negative stereotypes. (Like, bizarrely, that being bisexual somehow makes you automatically promiscuous.) Given the fact that society in general seems to believe that bisexuality does not exist, I think that it would be really rather nice to see a truly bisexual person depicted on television, and honestly I feel like it’s a good fit with her character, not like I am trying to force her into a box to satisfy my own agenda. So, I hope that the bi side of her is allowed to flourish again as the show moves forward.

It was fun watching Callie and Arizona get to know each other, and being treated like other couples on Grey’s (although with less on call room sex, I note). The model the show set was “hey, there’s nothing weird or unusual about this and everyone’s cool with it,” and I think that’s a good thing for some viewers to be seeing. As was the scene in which Callie’s father is lectured by Arizona and Arizona reminds him that Callie is still the same person; sexual orientation isn’t an all consuming identity, it doesn’t erase the fundamental things about a person which make the person who ou is.

But, inevitably, I started thinking to myself: When is the axe going to fall. Because Grey’s is very soapy and it’s very dramatastic, and that meant that there was no way a happy couple was going to continue to exist. I thought about all kinds of directions their relationship could be taken in. Cheating, an established oldie but goody, was certainly an option.

But no.

The show decided to make having children the crux of the controversy. And I have to say, so far, I am not liking the way it has been handled. Well, scratch that. I liked that Arizona identified plainly and simply as someone who didn’t want children. I didn’t quite like the way that she went about it, but I think that she brought up a really good point: You can love children, you can be really into them, you can be a pediatric surgeon for Pete’s sake, but you can still know that they are not right for you.

The thing is that I feel like conflicts over wanting to¬† have/not have children do indeed happen in the real world. But I also feel like it’s kind of a cheap copout for Grey’s to avoid the gay parenting storyline altogether by creating a big conflict about it. They will probably break up, or they will not have kids, and thus audiences are spared the horror of seeing gay parents on television, gay parenting. And that kind of sours the depiction of their relationship, for me, because I feel like Grey’s keeps teetering on the edge of something, a breakthrough, and then tipping back into the safe zone.

3 Comments on LGBQT Representations on Television: Doctor Callie Torres

  1. I would LOVE for there to be a positive depiction of gay parents on a network TV show.

    This is a really great post, even for an ex-fan of Grey’s. I stopped watching after Christina and Burke broke up, because I thought it was so awesome to see a strong, no nonsense Asian woman hold her own in a relationship with a successful black man. I know why they had to end it (Washington’s bigotry) but I don’t know, it just wasn’t the same for me after that.

  2. s.e. smith // 7 May, 2010 at 3:03 pm //

    I, too, was really sad about how that relationship ended because I thought it was a really interesting dynamic and there were layers of all kinds of interesting stuff going on. The show kind of lost its spark for me at that point as well; it feels much soapier these days.

  3. Wow, have you had two awesome pop-culture posts in a row (possibly more, but this is the furthest into my reader I have gotten in days, and you are the second blog on it)!

    I have not seen this season, but what you say about Grey’s dipping into the breakout zone and then veering right back into the safe zone is so right on target. I have for a long time now felt that they could really just “go there” with becoming that show that makes things “business as usual”, ya know? The show that shows life as it happens and not make “the gay couple” the big deal, but just another couple (not like they were on Despereate Housewives).

    I had hopes that when Dr. “13” on House we presented as bi we would see that continue, but then she went wild with wimmin! and then settled into a “safe” relationship with Foreman. TV is afraid to have a real bi representation that is “business as usual”, or isn’t presented for the male gaze specifically. But I also haven’t seen this season’s House either…

Comments are closed.