Saturday, February 21, 2009

Bi invisibility & biphobia on "Grey's Anatomy"

Cross posted on "The Feminist Review."

Bi characters have thankfully been gaining a bit of visibility on television lately. On the latest episode of ABC's medical drama "Grey's Anatomy," a bi woman named Callie exchanges flirtation with Arizona, a woman who kissed her out of the blue in a previous episode. This female-female kiss was nothing new for "Grey's" as Callie only recently divorced her husband and then dated a woman for the first time in her life. Amidst the rest of the current network hits, "Grey's" is one of the most sexually progressive series.

Not only is "Grey's" depicting a woman who is bi, but one who is still trying out her wings, portraying to young or recently out bi's--and to the rest of the world, for that matter--that questioning one's orientation, being uncertain and making mistakes along the way, is acceptable and doesn't always lead to venereal disease. As in real life, biphobia rears its ugly head more than once, and Callie, like many bi's, is without support or context for her identity, and knows no way of handling it well.

In one episode, Callie's first-ever woman partner breaks up with her by way of an anti-bi slur. Callie is powerless to respond as the woman she cares for tells her, "You can't be a pretend lesbian." Ouch. I don't know if the show writers knew they were treading into the fog of biphobia and bi-invisibility, but it stung to watch. It would have been helpful for Callie to be able to deal in a healthy way with such slander, but all she can do in her situation is hope that her next relationship will be healthy, and that it arrive quickly.

Queer bloggers have referred to Callie as bi far more than entertainment writers, who make the monosexist mistake of calling it lesbianism because, after all, bisexuality can't really exist, right? I watch the show regularly, but am not certain that the word "bisexual" has been used in the show, but neither has Callie been labeled a lesbian. For good or for ill, she's just Callie. Bi-visibility is still a hurdle yet to be jumped, both on "Grey's" an in tv programs in general.

There is one way that bi (and lesbian) women have become visible on tv--in an inside-joke/tongue-in-cheek sort of way--the leather jacket. AfterEllen points out,
Callie is wearing her black leather jacket outside the hospital, which is a time-honored way for TV costume designers to signal that a woman is gay or bisexual
Now the next step is to make it a little more plain, and frankly, less stereotypical.

There's no code to know who's bi in the real world. You either come out or you don't. If "Grey's" wants to respectfully portray bi people, then bi characters must come out to the audience. While ambiguity and the not-knowing is surely part of being bi, so too is refusing to be told, "You can't be a pretend lesbian," or, "You can't be a pretend straight woman." Bisexuality is not pretend anything. It is very real, and very much exists. "Grey's" and other programs are certainly to be commended, even thanked, for increasing bi visibility following the rise of gays and lesbians on tv in the 90's. At the same time, care must be taken to portray bi men and women honestly and accurately. Bring us out of the biphobic shadows of secret codes. Reveal to the world the fullness of our experiences. It will make better tv; it will build a better world.


  1. Ah--people shouldn't worry too much about sexual preferences--does being bi versus being straight make you any less of a person? Many of the most prolific, and accomplished writers and artist had a variety of sexual preferences--Excellent post. Bravo.

  2. BohemianKitsch left this comment on the cross post on "The Feminist Review."


    i think you’re reading WAY too much hate and phobia into Grey’s Anatomy. first off, you mis-quoted the statement that so memorably stung you. Dr. Hahn did not say ‘pretend lesbian’ at any point. she said “…and you can’t ‘kind of’ be a lesbian.” and given how much of an ass she was most of the time, having such a black-and-white attitude about something that SHE HERSELF was still insecure about (did you even notice?) was rather fitting.

    and the Arizona thing was far more innocuous than how you interpret it. what’s so wrong with not wanting to date someone who’s in an experimental phase? can’t you understand how that could be an emotionally unsafe relationship for Arizona? as an adult straight male, i would neither want to date a virgin nor a woman who has only had one short-lived relationship. experience and maturity in sexuality matter! it’s not wrong to be new, but neither is it wrong to choose NOT to go through that with someone.

    there’s more to feminism than accruing a rap sheet of PC violations.

  3. Here is my response to BohemianKitsch's comment above.

    Actually I applaud Grey’s for grappling with bisexuality, since no one else seems to be doing a great job at it, as far as I’m aware on network tv.

    You’re right that I misquoted Hahn. She did say, “You can’t kind of be a lesbian.” (Here’s the scene on youtube for anyone who wants to see it, right before the 2 minute mark But either way, it’s still biphobia on Hahn’s part, mostly internalized biphobia turned outward onto her own girlfriend, which, as you pointed out is a pretty horrible thing to do.

    I see Arizona as a foil for Callie’s internal struggles over her own sexual identity. Whether she likes Callie or not is insignificant. The point is that she makes Callie question herself, as we all do when we are rejected by someone we like.

    I hold nothing against Grey’s. In fact I respect it for the way it depicts (not continues or reinforces) pretty realistically the biphobia that exists in the real world, and bi folk’s attempts to deal with it. I don’t think the show is any more biphobic than the rest of society. It is less so, but still biphobic nonetheless, and needs to examine how it treats bi characters in ways that are more true to the experiences of bi people.

  4. Anthony Arthur left this comment on the cross post on Queer Today:

    I applaud your post. I have seen the episodes you have mentioned and while I do think they should have Callie come out at some point I think in many ways they are handling her character with tact. Besides the jacket thing which completely went over my head I think they are showing a very human character who is struggling with her feelings and sexuality. She is not a cardboard cutout stereotype like most LGBTQ people that I have seen on mainstream television. For that I think they are handling her well but they can do much more as you have stated.


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