LGBQT Representations On Television: Doctor Arizona Robbins

Doctor Arizona Robbins (played by Jessica Capshaw), introduced in the fifth season of Grey’s Anatomy, is one of my favourite women on a show which already has a lot of awesome ladies (like Chandra Wilson as Doctor Miranda Bailey, Sara Ramirez as Doctor Callie Torres, and Sandra Oh as Doctor Christina Yang). She was brought on board in the wake of the blowback about the gaywashing of Doctor Hahn as a love interest for Dr. Torres,  but she’s her own character, not just a love interest, and she’s extremely awesome. There’s a reason she’s referred to as a fan favourite.

One of the things I really love about Dr. Robbins is that she breaks down all kinds of stereotypes. Sure, she works as a pediatric surgeon. And she’s bouncy and happy and she wears those sneakers with the wheels in them and she plays games with her patients.

But she is hardcore and she will not let people forget it for a second. She knows that people stereotype pediatrics as an easy or soft specialty (which it isn’t) and she’s constantly pointing out that it is challenging and demanding. And that it comes with some unique challenges; when you are treating pediatric patients, she points out, you have to be both doctor and advocate for the patient. And you have to deal with situations in which patients are denied bodily autonomy by their parents and have procedures forced upon them or withheld. Pediatrics is not sunshine and teddy bears.

Doctor Robbins also supports characters in the choices they make, even if other people disagree with those choices. She encouraged Doctor Bailey to consider applying for a fellowship in pediatrics, she stood behind Doctor George O’Malley when he joined the army. She believes in the other characters and in their right to pursue their dreams. She is also, of course, not afraid to speak up when she is not ok with something another character is doing, like when Doctor Alex Karev terrorized a patient’s parents to browbeat them into consenting to a surgery. She’s a strong woman, she has beliefs, and she is not afraid to fight for them; I’ve read her described as having a “strong moral compass” and I think that’s an apt descriptor.

Another thing which I really appreciate about her character is that she’s conservative, in some ways, but she is not a stereotyped and troped conservative. Grey’s is a show which leans pretty liberal, and it would be easy to create a conservative character who is a laughingstock or joke. Instead, they created a conservative lesbian, and I love that they did that. She’s a character who feels very honest and real to me. When they introduced the story about her brother, it didn’t feel faked or forced, and it made her character feel more human.

I think there’s a common tendency to assume that LGBQTs are liberal, despite the existence of organizations like the Log Cabin Republicans and GOProud. And there’s an assumption that all conservatives are extremists. In fact, there are a lot of people out there like Doctor Robbins: Good people with beliefs which might differ from mine, but also a lot of commonly shared values and goals. Good for Grey’s for being able to strike that balance.

When Doctor Robbins talks to Callie’s very judgmental father in season six about how she got her name[1. And, as someone with a name which is widely considered ludicrous, I emphasize with her struggles over her name and her take no prisoners attitude when it comes to squelching name-related mockery.], and her family history, I thought it was a terrific scene. She told her own coming out story and pointed out that she was the same person her father had raised, and that Callie was the same person her father had raised. Sure, it was an Expository Learning Moment For Viewers Who Might Be Struggling With Accepting LGBQT Family Members, but it was well done and it played into her character very well.

Dr. Robbins is depicted as someone who has been very secure in her sexuality for a long time, and there was an interesting dynamic when she and Dr. Torres first met in which Arizona was reluctant to date Callie at first because of her inexperience. Obviously this particular obstacle was overcome, which is a darn good thing in my opinion, because I think that they are one of the more fantastic couples on television right now. This being Grey’s Anatomy, I am sure that they are in for some rough spots, but hopefully the characters can stay true to themselves in the process.

The depiction of Callie herself is a bit problematic. She’s labeled as “bi,” but in fact we saw her only in a string of relationships with men, and then in a series of two relationships with women, which seems to be moving her towards a “lesbian” identity rather than a bisexual one. This is definitely a problem with television, which seems to have a hard time depicting bisexuality; characters who are said to be “bi” often seem to be leaning more towards lesbian or gay identities and in fact often characters initially framed as bi later magically turn into gay or lesbian characters, as though a bi identity is something which is inherently temporary.

But, in all fairness, Callie hasn’t been out as bi that long, and I am still reading her as bi, even though other viewers and the show itself may be pushing her into the lesbian category. She’s been in two relationships, which both happened to be with women, but I don’t think that quite pushes her into the “labeled as bi but really a lesbian” category. Since she’s monogamous, it’s not like we have the opportunity to see her in numerous different relationships, and I’m pretty comfortable with her depiction so far. Since Grey’s does seem to like things like love triangles, it would be interesting to see Callie experiencing attraction to someone of another gender and to have that be a source of conflict in her relationship which also reminds viewers “hey, bi really means ‘bi'” but I’m not sure that’s required.

As someone who identifies as queer, I’ve definitely gone through phases where I’ve dated one gender more than another, or dated a string of people of the same gender. I don’t think that dating three men in a row would make me someone who is attracted primarily to men, or that dating two androgynes in a row would suddenly make me someone who is only attracted to androgynes. We love who we love, and Doctor Arizona Robbins is pretty damn lovable.

ETA: This post has been edited; see note in comments.

8 Replies to “LGBQT Representations On Television: Doctor Arizona Robbins”

  1. Whoa whoa whoa. I think there must have been some miscommunication because that was not my point at all. My problem was that initially Callie is verbally labelled ‘bisexual’, but then that disappears into ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ as the show moves along. Which is fine is that is what she actually is, of course, but problems arise because that change wasn’t explored explicitly. For instance, it confirms an inevitable ‘bi now, gay later’ in many people’s heads, or that bisexual people are flipfloppers whose orientation changes according to which relationship, and that sort of thing. My problem was not at all with the genders of the people with whom she has been in relationships.

  2. My abject apologies! I was paraphrasing a conversation that occurred a while ago and obviously got it very, very wrong. I will edit the post to reflect that (by taking out said reference) and again I apologize.

  3. I love Arizona. To bitty pieces. At first she irritated me, with her wheelie shoes and butterflies…

    But then I saw that she and I have an interesting thing in common: she got frustrated with Chief Webber one day (and rightfully so, IIRC), and that frustration with authority figures apparently that emotion manifests in tears, which is as embarrassing as hell, and that embarrassment makes you more frustrated because you know that you don’t want to be crying at this moment because society has painted women as softer…blah blah blah.

    Been there, done that.

    And she has learned to deal with that, and how to recover in the moment and get over the fact that she has feelings and that she has responses to those feelings.

    Another thing, and maybe this is because I haven’t seen a lot of S6, but I didn’t get the impression that she was that Conservative per se. Just pro-military, which I don’t consider a litmus test for Conservatism (in the same way that people assume that LGBTQ folk must be liberal, they often also assume that military people must be Conservative…happens to me all the time). It is entirely possible I miss some big “these are my fundamental values” thing, but I didn’t ever notice a lot of political leaning from her one way or the other, except for that one “hey, let’s not forget that the troops are people too” speech.

    I miss seeing the show every week b/c I used to do open threads about it so I could discuss this kind of stuff and mull it over. Great post.

  4. Oooh, thank you for bringing up the scene about the crying! I do that as well and find it every bit as infuriating as she does (I start to get angry that I am crying which makes me cry more) and I loved that scene very much, so I can’t believe I left it out; it was so very excellent. I loved how she approached that scene and said “I need to say this and I am going to say it.”

    And also, good point about conservatism/military conflation, which is something I am sometimes guilty of even though I should know better. I have gotten other little twitches that she is a bit conservative, but not enough to firmly point to.

    Also, SPOILER WARNING for people who haven’t seen the latest episode (which is one reason I didn’t put it in this post):

    What do people think about the brewing conflict between Dr. Torres and Dr. Robbins re:children? (It’s something I will probably get into more when I write about Callie, which I do plan to do…at some point in the relatively near future.) I have some thoughts of my own but I thought I would open up the floor first.

  5. meloukhia: I’m bothered by the brewing situation re: children. It feels to me, right now, like a deliberate “Happy couple? Nooo! Let’s throw in what’s probably going to be a two-way dealbreaker to fuck ’em up!” decision by the writers. The preceding bit where they talked about being stable and happy serves to reinforce that impression. The whole thing feels contrived, not organic.

    I don’t know, maybe they’ll do something useful with it, but it bothers me that they’re specifically doing this to the one same-sex couple; I also can’t help wondering if they’re doing it to avoid the gay-parenting conversation completely.

    I hope I’m just being overly cynical, but right now it’s bugging me.

  6. That’s pretty much exactly where I am at. It was sooooo obviously contrived, the way it was introduced. And I am worried that some very problematic tropes about children/deciding to have (or not have) children are about to rear their ugly heads here. And, good point on the avoidance of actually addressing gay parenting; gay parents on television would, obviously, cause the world to end. Much better to have a fight about it, right?

  7. Exactly. It’s not as though having two lesbians parent together wouldn’t subvert TV-culture tropes! Instead, by making them argue and possibly segue to a bitter lesbian breakup, they’re choosing the easy, more well-trodden path.

  8. Thank you for pointing out that pediatrics is not necessarily an easy specialty and, of course, to be a pediatric surgeon, one would need five years of grueling surgical training followed by pediatric subspecialty training. Our peds surgeon here, a mature woman with a British accent and a great sense of humor, would never be mistaken for soft. I would like to add, however, that pediatrics can be, at least partly, sunshine and teddy bears.

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