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Critic's notebook: 'Grey's Anatomy,' blasted for Brooke Smith firing, is behind the gay character learning curve

Aaaand they’re back. After a brief respite from the entertainment media and Internet chatterazzi, “Grey’s Anatomy” has returned to the headlines with charges of homophobia, cultural obtuseness and just plain poor judgment for the firing of Brooke Smith. Smith found herself in the tragicomic situation of getting the big Emmy-worthy “Oh, my God, I’m gay” monologue in one episode and the boot in the next.

So swift was that boot that just last night Dr. Erica Hahn (Smith) took her final stand against the generally disgraceful medical standards of Seattle Grace, turned on her complicit almost-girlfriend Callie (Sara Ramirez) and stalked off into the night presumably never to be heard from again.

Just as many Americans were simmering in outrage over the passage, in three states, of bans on gay marriage, the folks at “Grey’s” jettison their first, and newly realized, gay character. That show has had its share of what-were-they-thinking moments, but this one may set the industry standard.

And it continues to resonate. On Wednesday, it pierced even election-saturated HuffingtonPost, which first reported that Patrick Dempsey, when asked by Ellen DeGeneres what had happened with Smith, literally pulled out the list of talking points given to him by ABC and read them.

Part of the outrage is due to Smith’s small but devoted fan base, but the decision also provided an exasperating reminder that certain prejudices are still ascendant in television, even on shows as forward-thinking as “Grey’s.”

While the success of NBC's “Will & Grace” opened the door for ABC's gay weddings (“Brothers & Sisters”), gay children (“Ugly Betty”) and transgender romance (“Dirty Sexy Money”), female characters seem restricted by rules that are (surprise, surprise) more about providing sexual titillation than narrative honesty or character development. When Smith got those first fateful pages sending Erica into the arms of Callie, she should have made darn sure it was just a single drunken interlude or that she, like Callie, would quickly follow it up with hot sex with a man. Because most lesbian characters are only allowed to have sex on network television if they are part of a single-episode story. Any main character hoping to explore her Sapphic side must be sylphlike, gorgeous, under 30 and bi. For obvious and irritating reasons.

Yes, complaints that the Erica/Callie romance took a graphic and ghastly turn mid-month were excruciatingly valid, but that was a single-episode problem, easily resolved and much more quickly forgotten than Meredith’s drowning or the George and Izzie debacle.

I suspect what irked whoever made the call — and it appears that it was the network's decision, not the show's creator, Shonda Rhimes — was precisely what made the Erica/Callie relationship significant. Not that they were both women. But that they were both women of substance, of, how shall I say this, average size and appearance. At least, by TV standards. With hips, you know, and actual breasts. Not two girly waifs exchanging a stolen kiss and grope over a line of coke in a bathroom stall, not an androgynous club kid putting her best moves on some sitcom heroine. These are the kind of gals who aren’t supposed to be sexually active at all on television, much less with each other.

Other networks have pushed lesbian themes a bit more successfully by playing by the hot-girl rules. On “House” the bisexuality of 13 (Olivia Wilde) is mostly a narrative tic — not only an easy way to keep her “mysterious” but also good for a few punch lines — but this season she did engage in some steamy, though mostly anonymous, sex. On “Bones,” Angela (Michaela Conlin) recently revived feelings for her college girlfriend (though her need to get everyone’s approval about her past would have made more sense if she was actually still in college. Twenty years ago.)

In the wake of protest over Smith’s firing, Rhimes insisted it was not because Erica was a lesbian because Callie was a lesbian (though this does not explain Callie’s frequent and highly satisfactory sex with men). But because the two characters didn’t have the right chemistry.

I’ll buy that. If by lack of chemistry she means it wasn’t believable that these two women would have sex with each other in a supply closet.

The real problem with Erica, and perhaps with Smith, as a part of the show, is that the character and the actress is a grown up. Smith looks and acts like a real woman, and Erica behaved like a real surgeon, which made her seem angry and cold compared with her more youthfully appealing cast mates. As an actor, Smith shines rather than sparkles, and “Grey’s,” for better and worse, is all about the sparkle.

In other words, and they are words I deeply regret, Ramirez, with all her lipglossed lusciousness, may be hot enough to be bi, but Smith is not hot enough to be gay.

At least not on network TV. At least not yet.

— Mary McNamara

Note: Some of the language here is grabbed from my post on this topic on Monday.

Comments () | Archives (16)

this is a great article about the ridiculous action ABC has taken!

can we get over this already?

I was most interested in Callie and Erika on this show. I thought they had amazing chemistry and it was the fact that they were both successful and "women of success" that made me believe the relationship. And this was exactly the type of media lesbian relationships need - it legitimizes them and shows that anyone can be a lesbian and should be treated as any other couple. This change in the show has lost them a viewer.

Can't we just get over this. My gawd everything, everyone does these days has to analyzed.
Why does it have to have any under tones, might it be Ms Rhimes thought the actress sucked, her numbers were bad and so there she goes, she got the boot. The story line wasn't going anywhere???Gay, straight, black, white whotfcares. Thats part of the business, yes it sucks, but man ,your IT one day and the next its asta la bye bye baby. I got one more thing to say now, is every show going to have there token "Gay now" just to say oh hey we have gays on our show, like us, watch us we are poliitcaly correct!!!

I would hope that Shonda and her writing staff would have the grace to be embarrassed by the ham-fisted way they developed the Erica/Callie relationship - but not as much as ABC should be embarrassed for their cowardly response to the relationship once it was developed.

Yup, there's plenty of shame and embarrassment to go around!

Megan why should we?! She was sacked without a good reason. The relationship only took a sexual turn because of the natural chemistry between Ramirez and Smith not Shonda Rhimes claims there isn't any. It sucks and is homophobic.

Thank you for writing this article

Remember what happens to Women's Murder Club? Here's one fandom that isn't all that surprised to see ABC screw up. Again. Women of substance, literally and metaphorically, het or gay, obviously not ABC's thing.

Did she really get fired or just written out? If she didn't make up the character why would she get fired. Not her fault.

Mary thanks for such a thougt provoking assessment I agree wholeheartedly as an independent ,successful woman the Hahn character had depth and I loved Brooke smiths portrayal she was ( past tense sadly) incredible,.

This is disgraceful, yet expected. Please go to ABC.com and hit the CONTACT US link to tell them exactly what you think. Thanks to this wimpy move, lesbians now have ZERO viability on prime time TV which has over 600 characters. If gay people are 10% of the population (as are African Americans) this is so sad considering we jumped a major hurdle for equality electing our first African American president ---but are still proving that gays are the last group of people you don't even have to tolerate.

---Mari SanGiovanni
Author of: "Greetings From Jamaica, Wish You Were Queer..."

Spot on analysis! Thanks for writing this.

Thanks Mary! What a great article about the horrible firing of Brooke Smith. I couldn't have said it better myself!!

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Greys Anatomy and ABC think they can contiinue to project sterotypes, pull characters that are real life reflective and no one will notice because they are ABC. Well ABC, Shonda and Grey's shame on you for your treatment of Brook Smith and her character. Your lack of understanding the real world and deciding we do no want to see lesbian characters is as backwards and discriminatory as Prop 8. If you dont think the straight community wants to see lesbians - then you need to call up Ilene Chaiken who successfully ran the Lword for years eventhough the acting and script bascially sucked.

No more Greys for me.

I recommend everyone go to www.wolfevideo.com and get real shows with real diversity and honest scripts. ABC and Rhimes think we are all stupid enought to keep watching the BS they produce.

Poor Shonda,

It seems there is such criticism of any lesbian, bi or gay storyline from the LGBT community, even for the L Word, that the fact that any show with lesbian, bi or gay content that lasts a few episodes can be be viewed as a success. How can one expect writers/creators like Chaiken and Rhimes and the creators of Ugly Betty and Brothers and Sisters to feel confident to tackle LGBT issues if practically everything they write is construed as disappointing, offensive or parsed and scrutinized for accuracy in the LGBT community? Is there room to fail or not quite hit the mark as there is with heterosexual story lines?

Would all this outrage over Isaiah and now Brooke be happening if the creator of Grey's Anatomy were white? Why are minorities so hard on and intolerant of each other? Why are women so hard on each other?

Where is the outrage that Heigl, known and praised for her outspokenness during the Washington incident and then for her criticism of Rhimes' writing staff, has said nothing about Smith's firing and neither has TR Knight who is gay? Where is the outrage for their silence?

Instead people attack, threaten to boycott and hope for the cancellation of the show of the woman who dared to create a lesbian story line on network TV where even Chaiken was unable or uninterested in doing so. (The fact that there is any dramatic show with any kind of storyline created by an African American woman/writer/creator is an anomaly, lest people forget.) Instead people malign and try to destroy the creator who fired one of her most popular characters/ actors when he hurt the LGBT community.

When is it enough? When Rhimes is also hung in effigy in WeHo?

Isn't it better people try and solve problems together?
What happened to strength in numbers instead of falling prey to the horrific strategy of divide and conquer?


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