Why Grey’s Anatomy’s New Story Arc Is A Pretty Big Deal

Note: If you aren’t caught up on this season of Grey’s Anatomy, there are possible spoilers ahead.

Instead of ending in a homicidal bloodbath or a deadly plane crash like previous seasons, Grey’s Anatomy’s ninth season is concluding on a marginally more realistic note. Last week — in true Grey’s fashion — Arizona Robbins (Jessica Capshaw) cheated on her wife Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) with Dr. Lauren Boswell (played by Hilarie Burton of One Tree Hill fame) in an on-call room during a blackout. The aftermath of this will play out in the season’s final episode which airs tonight on ABC.

If you’re not a big Grey’s fan (or if you dipped out seasons ago when most of the original cast did), no big! Nine seasons of any show is a hefty commitment, and like Riese said two years ago, “the lesbian storyline became the only reason to watch it at all.”

Here’s a quick recap to get you up so speed: Way back in season four, Callie developed a thing for Dr. Erica Hahn (Brooke Smith AKA Senator Martin’s daughter from Silence of the Lambs). She romantically pirouetted between Erica and Dr. Mark Sloan (Eric Dane) for a handful of episodes before coming out as bisexual — at which point Brooke Smith was fired from Grey’s and the powers that be at ABC received lots of angry emails.

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Enter: Arizona Robbins, a lesbian pediatric surgeon who sustains her peppy persona with a diet of espresso and Tickle-Me-Elmos. Predictably enough, Arizona soon pranced up to the bone-tired bone doctor in a grimy bar bathroom and kissed her sad, heartbroken face.

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Fast-forward four seasons. Between dealing with homophobic parents, baby daddy drama, chicken pox, a near-fatal car wreck, a lost limb, and plenty of patients, Callie and Arizona (Calzona if you’re fluent in Fangirl) have somehow managed to get married and start a family, in turn making me feel wildly inadequate about my own time management skills.

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By having a relationship that’s lasted longer than a sweeps episode, Callie and Arizona have become network television’s golden lesbian couple, receiving nominations for GLAAD Media Awards and faring well in the organization’s Network Visibility Index. Ramirez has also received a nod from NAACP for her portrayal of the most prominent QWOC character on television. Grey’s exec producer/puppeteer Shonda Rhimes has gone as far as declaring that Callie and Arizona are “made for each other” and that their chemistry rivals the two hetero leads on the show.

Which brings us back to the finale! While Arizona’s end-of-season infidelity is a big blow to devout Calzona shippers, it’s actually luring me back into watching Grey’s. With the exception of an occasional YouTube supercut of the lesbian stuff, I haven’t watched a full episode since Callie and Arizona stabilized as a couple. At the risk of feeling like I’m biting the network that feeds me, Calzona became such an immaculate representation of a queer couple, so intentionally squeaky clean, universally likable and perfect that they felt sterilized, and a little bit… boring.

Alice stages an intervention for Callie and Arizona.

Alice stages an intervention for Callie and Arizona

Good visibility and good entertainment are two very different things. While Callie and Arizona look fantastic on paper as a happily married interracial powercouple complete with an adorable daughter, they’ve fallen flat when it comes to compelling storylines; until now, they’ve been safe.

For awhile, ‘safe’ was all that we really wanted in lesbian and bisexual network television characters. If you’re a queer woman, it’s never as simple as just liking a show. I have a learned tendency to approach any portrayal of our community on television with jaded caution. I’m leery of getting attached to a queer character, let alone a couple. From The OC to Degrassi, the list of LGBT character casualties is simultaneously impressive and depressing. Not long ago, just having two lady-lovin’ characters share a handful of scenes together without them being written off, killed off, or fleeing back to their ex-boyfriends felt like a colossal accomplishment.

Fortunately, we’re finally moving beyond that. Queer TV characters are sticking around and actually staying queer! Arizona hasn’t so much as batted an eyelash in McDreamy’s direction, and Callie’s remained true to her bisexuality. Over on Glee, Santana Lopez regularly drops lesbian pop culture references with the best of us. There’s something really satisfying in knowing that Pretty Little Liars’ Paige McCullers dated another girl while Emily Fields was away for the summer, and that Lana Winters was able to find another woman to love on American Horror Story: Asylum. In 2013, lesbian sweeps stunts feel so ten years ago.

Because lesbian and bisexual characters now have longer shelf lives, network TV is beginning to go beyond the same trope-tastic story arcs. If I never see another coming out, lesbian wedding, or gayby narrative on television for the rest of my life, I will have zero complaints.

This is why Arizona’s infidelity is so refreshing to me; there hasn’t been anything like this on network TV before. We haven’t really witnessed a queer woman cheat on her partner, let alone behave unconscionably. Because Calzona have been so tidily written for the past three seasons, I actually trust the decision to throw them this curveball. “We’re equal opportunity over here at Grey’s Anatomy. Straight people have their cheating moments all of the time. We’ve created this relationship that’s very interesting and complex, and I feel like we’re at a moment where this [temptation] feels earned. We’re doing something that feels very in keeping with what’s right for these characters,” Shonda Rhimes told TV Guide’s Michael Ausiello.

Positive visibility doesn’t have to mean perfect visibility. While it might sound like the reverse of what were initially asking for, queer characters doing f*cked-up things only serves to make them more authentic and multi-dimensional in the long-run. Not every LGBTQ character on television has to be an upstanding citizen and role model 24/7; they can be divisive and even villainous. It’s only problematic if they’re divisive and villainous because of their sexuality. Media representation’s goal shouldn’t be to canonize our community as saints, but to humanize us.

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Besides, saints have never made for entertaining television. It’s nice to see Arizona — who has always been all Heelys, “good man in a storm” speeches and Hollie Hobbie scrubcaps — emotionally tailspin into bed with another woman after losing her leg in a plane crash. Along with much-welcome tension, there’s also comfort in knowing that even the best of gay women can be vulnerable, conflicted, and fall apart (something we really haven’t seen outside of dyke-centric shows like The L Word and Lip Service). This is so much more than a breakdown: it’s a breakthrough for queer characters on network television.

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Sarah Fonseca is from tiny Georgia towns yet always finds herself in big cities. An essayist and journal-keeper by heart, her work has been featured in Lambda Review, Lavender Review, Diverse Voices Quarterly, and Thought Catalog. Her ultimate goal in life is to get back to that seven year-old place where everything was backwards ballcaps, long hair, and red rover.

fonseca has written 47 articles for us.

46 Comments

  1. Thumb up 3

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    I am one of the few faithful who’ve stayed with Grey’s despite the ridiculous amount of terribly unrealistic tragedies that have befallen the characters. HOWEVER, I will say that the moment Arizona pushed the lock and turned around to face Lauren (WHO I HAVE TOTALLY HAD A CRUSH ON SINCE ONE TREE HILL, I MEAN HELLO?!?!), I died a little bit of happiness inside. Does that make me a bad person? It probably makes me a bad person. I mean, I love Callie and all…but that’s P.Sawyer.

    Okay…maybe my inner TV-geek is coming out. Putting her away now. Yay for real live lesbians. WOO!

  2. Thumb up 3

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    I, for one, would really love if Grey’s shows the heartbreak and the problems that come with cheating…followed by Callie and Arizona moving past it. Cheating doesn’t have to be a dealbreaker, and it can be something that couples work through and deal with and (mostly) forget about. Just like all the other problems couples deal with and eventually get over and decide the good is too important.

    I only say that, because I feel like that almost never happens on tv, unless it’s a “I love you too much to let you go” tearful realization (probably in the rain) and never revisited. Like that one moment is enough.

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    I really like this article, even though to me, the relationship has been fraught with terrible writing; Arizona has never been given much of a defined personality and the writers have often inserted her to bring ~*drama*~ to the show, since all of the other relationships are booooring. Her cheating on Callie, while perhaps realistic, didn’t thrill me as a storyline because it felt less of “let’s show a queer relationship with all of its trappings” versus “Oh shit we need SOMEBODY to cheat on SOMEBODY, might as well be Arizona since Callie was so nice about her no-leg anger and it’ll really get ratings.”

    But I work in TV and am a cynical git, so that’s probably why I feel this way. Which, again, is why I liked this, because I was happy to see people view it so differently from me.

  4. Thumb up 13

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    Yes to all of this, except:

    “… like Riese said two years ago, ‘the lesbian storyline became the only reason to watch it at all.'”

    I disagree! As with Pretty Little Liars, it’s the friendships that inspire my deep and abiding love for the show – and it’s the queer storylines that inspire my giddiness. I knew from the pilot I was going to watch Grey’s forever for Meredith & Christina. Meredith & Alex has become really important to me, too, but the friendship between the women where they are still each other’s “person” and their male partners can just deal with it … that’s a television dream come true. It’s been enough to make me suffer through five seasons of motherfucking Owen Hunt.

  5. Thumb up 10

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    While I get that this new move is important in the way it has a queer woman “behave unconscionably,” I think you have really missed out on some truly powerful relationship struggles Callie and Arizona have gone through by not watching.

    You say, “…Calzona became such an immaculate representation of a queer couple, so intentionally squeaky clean, universally likable and perfect that they felt sterilized, and a little bit… boring.” But the plane crash storyline actually tested their relationship in really serious ways. Arizona lost her leg and was incredibly traumatized by the whole experience, but one very important aspect of this was the fact that she was unconscious when the decision needed to be made, and Callie told them to amputate. Arizona blamed her for it, refused for months to work on any PT, to hold their daughter, or come back to work. She lashed out at Callie, and their relationship seemed almost doomed. This led to some very poignant and emotional moments between the two of them, including some very tough love on Callie’s part. And they ultimately worked through all of it together and became stronger. As a disabled woman, I loved watching the process of acceptance played out on network television (rather than keeping Arizona in the “my life is worthless” space or “aren’t I a shiny-happy inspirational disabled person” space). And the fact that they chose the show’s shiny-happy queer couple to thrust this very real and painful problem onto? Shows how real and human and visceral they are as characters. I hear you. A lesbian character cheating is new. But Callie and Arizona were hardly a boring couple before this incident! Go back and watch season 8. It’s worthwhile.

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      So true! They’ve had all kinds of relationship-threatening drama this season, and just when it seemed like things were ok again…

      Also I missed the whole One Tree Hill thing, so I’m just disappointed that all we get is another lipstick lesbian

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      I agree! I’ve also really enjoyed Callie’s bisexuality and the tension it brought up between Arizona and Mark, both in the beginning and after Callie got pregnant. And Callie and Mark’s relationship, where he’s always encouraged her to pursue women and the completely relaxed sexuality between them was delightful. Their weird little family-of-choice (the closest thing I’ve seen to egalitarian polyamory on TV, even though it’s not technically polyamory) was one of my favourite things about the show and even though I had my issues with Mark I am sad he’s dead because it means no more weird little pseudo-poly family dynamic.

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    While I appreciate the overall gist of this piece, I very much disagree in this instance.

    This isn’t a good or interesting storyline, it’s hack work. It’s totally out of the blue, has NOTHING to do with the Arizona we’ve spent years with and is a cheap ratings stunt.

    In two episodes Shonda fucked up a character that I’ve invested years in.

  7. Thumb up 2

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    I’m on the fence a bit – I like that they’re spicing up the story line and trying to write stuff that isn’t just the standard tropes. That’s really cool that Rimes is thinking about story that way.

    But I dislike when a cheating story seems to come from out of left field. I think people don’t just change their minds that quickly about fidelity. Usually there are some problems with communication in a relationship already when cheating happens.

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      Hmmm… I would agree, but not in all cases.

      1) I don’t know what either one of those character’s view on fidelity is. I just know they love each other deeply.

      2) Sometimes people don’t cheat because the opportunity doesn’t present itself. It’s a terrible reason not to cheat, and I doubt that’s the reason here, but it’s true.

      3) Finally, Arizona just went through the most traumatic experience of her life with the amputation of her leg (besides her brother dying. besides her best friend dying. besides all other Grey’s tragedies, etc…). 3/4 of the season revolved around her self-worth and confidence in her own sexual appeal/physical appeal to others as a handicapped person. From that perspective it wouldn’t shock me that , despite her love for her wife, she would be vulnerable enough to indulge in lust with a hott chick who’s really into her. Lest we forget that before Callie, Arizona was a such playgirl and dated (effed) half the women in the hospital. There was a whole episode around that. So maybe she’s always needed to feel lusted after by the masses. Or by more than one person. Idk. Not saying it’s right. It isn’t. But it’s not that all out of left field.

  8. Thumb up 4

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    Thanks for writing this article and acknowledging how huge this plot twist is for Grey’s Anatomy and lesbian characters on TV in general. While I see your point of view and agree that it is good that television writers are evolving away from misrepresented, stereotyped, lesbian characters…I’m still sort of devastated for the character of Dr. Calliope Torres. I mean, 2 spouses have now cheated on her! Come on Shonda, give the woman a break already! :)

  9. Thumb up 0

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    The only reason I recognize Hilarie Burton is because a few years ago someone told me I looked kind of like her, so of course, I had to google. I don’t really look like her in the slightest, but I’m just going to go ahead and pretend I do because then I can play a slightly fucked-up version of six degrees of lesbianism between myself and Sara Ramirez. /cool story bro.

    Oh, also, go realistic representation of LGBTQ characters, etc etc, insert other smart people stuff here.

  10. Thumb up 7

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    At least she didn’t pull a “The Kids are All Right” and sleep with a dude.

    And now I’m going to spend the rest of the evening trying to figure out a way to make a Ben Wyatt inspired calzone/Calzona pun.

  11. Thumb up 2

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    I have been watching Grey’s faithfully from the get go. I also think this storyline is great. I has real potential to add some depth to Arizona, which has been better this season with her recovery from the crash, but overall weak since her introduction. Also, this move is less out of the blue than it might appear. Arizona and Callie have had intimacy problems all season. There was hinting and suggestion that these got resolved, but I’m not too sure. I would imagine that there’s something about an affair, a hot, talented, taboo stranger who is attracted to you that incites wanting sex, feeling sexy again, in the way that a partner might not. I applaud the writers treating the Calzona relationship like early Derek/Meredith: flawed, complex, and (hopefully) worth fighting for.

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      That’s true! I definitely didn’t think of it that way. Assumed everything was fixed and over with. Actually haven’t heard any real follow-up after the supposed intimacy resolution.
      Thanks!

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      As a person with intimacy issues caused by trauma, I can definitely confirm that sometimes someone new who has no knowledge of your baggage (or any previous sexytimes experiences with you to compare to) is VERY appealing when you’ve not had sex with your partner for a long time due to trauma. I’m polyamorous, so I don’t have to cheat to get that kind of “outside” experience, but I can see how it might be appealing even for someone monogamous who has previously been very hardline about cheating. Not being able to intimate with your partner and then trying to re-establish intimacy is harrowing, and Arizona has been through one HELL of a year.

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    Even though I absolutely love Callie so therefore would be mad at Arizona, but the whole thing is just too confusing. I would feel better if I could understand why she would be tempted to cheat. There isn’t anything in her past (that I can remember) that would signify any want or temptation to cheat. I know that things have been seriously terrible for Callie and Arizona, more so for Arizona, but I just can’t understand. Since I don’t know what the issue is, I can’t even think that they might overcome this.
    It is kind of interesting that it is Arizona instead of the tired trope of the bisexual woman cheating. And she isn’t cheating with a guy!
    I just realized something. Callie might not find out this season and Arizona might hide it. :O That would be the absolute worst.

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      I think it’s connected to the PTSD. Jessica Capshaw just did an interview about this cheating storyline where she said that Arizona has been trying to keep it together all season and pretend that everything is okay(regarding the plane crash/losing her leg). This infidelity sounds like it was her breaking point. She couldn’t keep pretending she was fine anymore and Dr. Lauren is her way of acting out. I think what happens in that last minute of the finale pretty much confirms that Arizona hasn’t really gotten over that traumatic event and does still blame Callie for taking her leg(no matter how legitimate a reason she had).

      I do wonder if Hilarie Burton will be back next season. They certainly left it open enough that she could return. I guess it just depends on where Shonda starts the premiere next season. She’s famous for loving her time jumps.

  13. Thumb up 0

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    I’ve gotten interested again as well. Its not that I like a cheating story…but that kiss was pretty damn hot.

    Honestly, lately I’ve felt like Callie and Arizona don’t really listen to each other/are on two different wavelengths soo the cheating didn’t feel totally out of the blue to me.

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    I’m not a Grey’s Anatomy fan, but I agree with your larger points about visibility. LGBT characters who are perfect angels are better than evil ones, but the real thing is to get visibility that REFLECTS our lives, and that means LGBT characters who are various moral shades of gray. And that means they might cheat, or do other screwed up things.

    Honestly, as a bi viewer it’s nice that, finally, in a same-sex relationship where one of the partners is bi, it isn’t that partner who cheats (because even if Callie had cheated on a girl, I’m getting sick of the stereotype that bisexuals are automatically more unfaithful). And that either way, the cheating wasn’t with a dude!

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      Totally agree! As another bi-tastic lady, I am glad that if someone had to cheat, that it was the lesbian with another woman. While I supported Callie in her sex positive experiment to determine her level of gay-ness, I would hate it if it was yet another story line of the bisexual woman being a sex addict/relationship wrecker. Seriously.

      It’s 2013 ladies, and it looks like we are finally getting towards equality on the small screen (in some ways)! About damn time.

  15. Thumb up 0

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    Well there you go. Character assassination complete. Wreckage and ruin and the destruction of a character I’ve devoted years to all for cheap thrills a ratings. I hope Callie boots her out the door after that crap.

    Nothing true or real about what happened. It was pulled out of a hat in three episodes.

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    can I just say I would love, LOVE for there to be a lady-lovin’ character on TV who wasn’t femme-y? I am super supportive of femme-identified folks, I know femme invisibility is a problem in the queer /lesbian community, but it seems like butch/MOC/androgynous invisibility is a bigger problem in mainstream representations of the queer community. I get that it’s probably a thing of producers/casting directors being afraid to alienate straight viewers with a lesbian who’s too masculine-looking, threatening their view of gender or whatever, or maybe it’s just a thing of “but butch women aren’t HOT” to straight male viewers.

    but seriously…can you think of ANY butch/stud/masculine-leaning queers currently on TV? at all? in any country?

  17. Thumb up 0

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    “Besides, saints have never made for entertaining television”… Um, the flying nuns would totally disagree. However, me thinks I like this article very much and although “Me” is sad for Arizona… neither Me, Myself, nor I are sad for her lady parts. Lauren is HAWT, even if she is just a figment of her phantom limb. PHANTOM LOVER!!!! (On a serious note, I think it is very realistic that they explore the results of ignored trauma, which just so happens to manifest itself in Arizona’s case as out of control adultery. Hot hot adultery. Wrong. but… HOT.

  18. Thumb up 0

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    *unpopular opinion time* I’ve been with Greys from the beginning, and there is absolutely nothing good about Arizona cheating, even with Hilarie’s slimeball character. i take strong issue with the claim that they were boring: they were happy, and what exactly is wrong with that? personally i enjoy when people i care about, even fictional people, are happy. they deserve a little boring happiness, and taking that away is not good television, it is RAGE TELEVISION.
    rant over.

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