Content, Context and Conduct: Brooke Smith’s Departure from Grey’s Anatomy

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Content, Context and Conduct

November 6th, 2008

smithhahnWhen the news broke over the weekend, it was an odd kind of déjà vu. It was only a year and a half ago that Isaiah Washington was dumped from Grey’s Anatomy for his behaviour on set, in particular in regards to homophobic remarks directed at co-star T.R. Knight, so the event does strike a certain familiarity. However, while scandal may be par for the course for the ABC series, news that Brooke Smith’s character, lesbian Dr. Erica Hahn, has been unceremoniously written out of the show [via EW’s Michael Ausiello] is an issue that is not about the performer’s conduct but rather the context and content of their storyline. The objectionable conduct is not their own actions, but rather the decision by both Shonda Rhimes and ABC to oust this character for reasons that, while not definitively questionable, seem suspicious.

I don’t believe that this is a simple situation, or that this storyline is in itself a creative high point for the drama series: from the beginning, it has felt like a convenient storyline to keep two characters relevant to the melodrama that permeates the series rather than a consistent character development (especially for Sara Ramirez’s Callie). But the decision to end the storyline feels the exact opposite of “organic,” which is ABC’s official line: while eventually Smith’s exit from the show could have felt like a natural event, instead reports about it being linked to a broader concern of the trajectory of the show’s investigation into homosexuality feel almost frighteningly familiar, and scarily believable.

So when Smith makes her exit from Grey’s Anatomy tonight, and we say goodbye to Erica Hahn as a regular character, all attention shifts to a network and a showrunner who, honestly, should know better.
Now, first and foremost, Shonda Rhimes is denying that the question of sexuality has anything to do with it: she’s claiming, as one would expect, that they felt the storyline had reached its end point and that the character didn’t have anywhere to go once they reached the climax (excuse the pun) of her relationship with Callie.

And, in some situations, I would totally agree with the idea of ending storylines when they grow stagnant: there are some characters who, even when added to a main cast, eventually need to leave for the show to keep going at a normal pace. Rose, Derek’s nurse love interest last season, is a perfect example: a character that was part of a major storyline but was, earlier this season, transferred off because she wasn’t relevant to major storylines.

The problem I have with this is that Brooke Smith is not a nameless actress, and Dr. Erica Hahn is not the same as Rose. As a major cardiac surgeon, and as a great foil for the show’s other characters, there was something much more to this woman than her sexuality. In last week’s episode, Smith has a fantastic Emmy submission not only because of her highly emotional scene where she confronts her sexuality head-on (YouTube), but also because of her good work bouncing off of Chandra Wilson as part of her complicated tumour removal.

Which is why it’s hard to buy ABC’s argument here – yes, the show is bringing in Mary McDonnell (Battlestar Galactica) to play a new surgeon for a guest arc, and the addition of Melissa George as a(n ironically bisexual) new intern, plus there’s rumours of Kevin McKidd (Rome) sticking around as the hospital’s new trauma doc, but Hahn’s dynamic with the cast (in particular with Sandra Oh’s Christina) was large enough that an unceremonial exit feels more false than I could imagine. And considering how great she was in last week’s episode, and that she had palpable chemistry with almost the entire cast, the only reason one can think of getting rid of her character is related to her budding relationship with Callie.

And I don’t think that I need to tell you that’s raising some alarm bells: on a network where Brothers & Sisters has an openly gay lead character, it seems unfathomable that the network would be concerned over a lesbian relationship. However, at the same time, Grey’s Anatomy is a show that reads as more of a flagship drama series than Berlanti’s Sunday drama: is is possible that the network feels the show’s sagging ratings (getting trumped by CSI in key demographics where once it dominated the CBS drama) are a reflection of the show’s fanbase reacting poorly to this same-sex relationship? Either way, one has to wonder to what degree they are judging this storyline based on the content as opposed to the context, reading about it in broad strokes as opposed to seeing how it has developed throughout the episodes. I was skeptical when it began, but it has been well-handled, well-acted, and not the waste of time it felt like it could be when it was shoddily introduced.

And even if they are concerned with how it has been executed, I have two questions. First off, slightly in jest, where were they when Shonda inexplicably tried to make George and Izzie hookup and almost wholly ruined their two characters in the show’s third season? And, more seriously, is this a sign of Shonda Rhimes willing to let the network control her series (she would obviously argue that it isn’t, but I don’t think that Ausiello’s reports of backstage shenanigans are total fabrications)? I know that she has two shows at the network (Private Practice, also struggling in the ratings, airs on Wednesdays), and that she obviously would like to keep her job, but at the same time this is very fishy: transitioning the homosexuality storyline away is not an abnormal showrunning practice, but dumping the hard-working and quality actress in the process goes beyond mere tinkering, and I don’t buy her argument that “we did not find that the magic and chemistry with Brooke’s character would sustain in the long run.”

The question of whether this is the result of some level of homophobia from the network is a tricky one, and one that I don’t think anyone can make a definitive statement on, but does it really matter? ABC didn’t make Brothers & Sisters change Kevin into a straight character, so the network isn’t run by bigots, but this decision is still mighty fishy even if it was over some other type of storyline. Similarly, Shonda Rhimes isn’t ending this storyline because she doesn’t approve of homosexuality, but it is still a concern if she doesn’t have a backbone when it comes to her characters. And at the center of all of this is a hard-working, wonderful actress (who was also great in Weeds’ third season in a short guest arc) who, through no conduct of her own but some great acting, now finds herself without a job.

And that’s the biggest issue here: at the end of the day, after the political dust settles, Brooke Smith will no longer be employed on Grey’s Anatomy, and a very worthwhile character in Dr. Erica Hahn will no longer available to the show’s writers. Whether it was worth this sandstorm of controversy that must seem all too familiar to Shonda Rhimes, well…only time will tell. But something tells me the answer is no.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “Content, Context and Conduct: Brooke Smith’s Departure from Grey’s Anatomy

  1. Whatever the reason, I am sad to see her go. I thought it was very brave and exciting to see their relationship grow on the show and now she’ll be leaving which really bites.

  2. Whatever the reason, I am sad to see her go. I thought it was very brave and exciting to see their relationship grow on the show and now she’ll be leaving which really bites.

  3. Bella

    The Part that I think may be a underlining issue is that you don’t wake up one morning when your in your 30s or 40s and go I think ‘I’m going to be gay now’, that would be like a confirmed gay character saying ‘ok Im going to be straight now’ I would like to see how many people would be in arms over that.
    You just don’t wake up and change like that with no inkling what so ever~ More for Callie them Hahn I would say.

    You either have to make a character gay from the start or have a much bigger lead in as to why they are gay and the reasons it hasn’t been brought to the forefront before, that would be good for one of the main character but 2? I just think it is unrealistic, it would be the same if the situation was reversed too, gay to straight. you either are or aren’t and you know from every early on which side or both side your on.

    I could care less about being characters being gay, but to me the way they did it was stupid.

  4. It’s pretty fishy, but I think the real cherry on top is the fact that Melissa George’s Sadie is no longer going to be bisexual. They’ve written it out of her character. Now, that’s fishy.

  5. Bella, I’d tend to agree that it was a bit rushed and hackneyed at points, but last week’s episode (with Erica’s “glasses” moment) was actually quite powerful. From our experience with Hahn, it has seemed like the character was very career-oriented, very impersonal, and that she wasn’t exactly someone who would make very many friends. So, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that, even into her 30s, she could have put off relationships and sexual discovery – now, the show probably could have spent more time organically building to that point, but I don’t think it rings entirely false.

    Ashley, that’s one of those reports that I don’t know if we can trust: that was part of Ausiello’s initial report, but then it has since been edited to say that her character will in fact stay bisexual. So, in that case, this becomes even more confusing – maybe it’s the modern equivalent to the “No Homers” club – there just can’t be more than one non-Callie bisexual in the show’s cast.

  6. Alex

    This situation is terribly sketchy, and it really does smack of network gay panic/homophobia. This isn’t a standard character being written out event. The actress and character have been dropped unceremoniously in the middle of a strongly hyped storyline with no reasoning whatsoever. Then ABC put a gag on the cast (as evidenced by Patrick Dempsey on Ellen) and gave them a prepared statement of utter rubbish. That’s fishy. This whole thing is fishy. I want to know the truth.

    I’m appalled by their treatment of Brooke Smith and her character. I’m outraged as a fan that they’ve barely adressed the situation beyond a throwaway statement with laughable reasoning and outright lies. I loved the character of Dr. Hahn and her romance with Callie, so I’m devastated to see her go, but the seeming reasons behind the axing and ABC/Grey’s handling of the situation is what has disgusted me, and I will no longer watch this show or any other on their network, buy any DVD’s/merchandise and neither will I use the products of their advertisers.

    The fans deserve the truth, and the network should receive all the negative publicity it deserves because of the reasons behind its decision here.

  7. Gem

    Erm, Bella, I hate to disillusion you but it is quite common for women in their late 30s or early 40s to discover that they are, in fact, gay. This is particularly the case with women of Hahn’s generation who would, for the most part, have grown up believing that being gay was somehow unnatural. As Myles has also said, this rings particularly true with Hahn’s character.

    I wasn’t always in favour of their relationship, but I think that’s in part due to the truly terrible characterisation of Callie this season. I had absolutely no problem with it in the build-up in season 4, and Erica/Smith have made me believe it all the way through season 5. It’s just the way that Callie kept backtracking that caught me out. Having problems with being gay or bi? Fine, just don’t be fine with it at the end of one episode and then miraculously un-fine at the beginning of the next.

    I’m furious at Grey’s for their treatment of Brooke Smith. I won’t be watching any longer – their relationship was pretty much the only thing keeping me watching anyway.

  8. Thank you for your interesting analysis!

    I am so very disappointed and hurt by ABC’s decision to fire Brooke Smith, she was an amazing addition to the cast and Erica Hahn was a great character! Erica and Callie definitely had chemistry and their lovestory could have played out beautifully, had the network not gotten cold feet.

    Personally, I think there is a difference between the portrayal of lesbian and gay characters. Currently, there are NO lesbian characters on primetime broadcast TV and there are only three bisexual characters (http://www.afterellen.com/TV/2008/10/visibilitymatters). But the thing about bisexual women on TV is that they often only have relationships with men, their bisexuality is mainly hidden or not shown. However, there are more then 10 gay/bisexual male characters on TV. This makes no sense whatsover, but it is a fact!

    Please sign our Petition ‘Hope 4 Hahn’ to show ABC that we are not okay with their decision!
    http://www.petitionspot.com/petitions/hope4hahn

  9. Fiona

    I agree with the above ,whatever the motivtion, suspect as it seems, the fact that one of the most interestingly complex characters on this show has been axed defies belief.

    I loved the Callie relationship but I loved Brooke Smiths portrayal of a strong able in dependent woman and contrary to what has been written by Sondra Rimes and ABC she had great chemistry with the rest of the cast particularly Sandra Oh.

    I feel especially upset as a good actor has lost a good job for no good reason.

    I wish Brooke Smith well and hope she gets picked up elsewhere.

  10. Pingback: Media Articles so far about Brookegate and the fallout « Actions Have Consequences, Shonda Rimes

  11. Pingback: Grey’s Anatomy - “Rise Up” « Cultural Learnings

  12. 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…”

  13. Bella, some women do indeed reach their 30s and 40s before realizing their preferences. Many people know their inclinations much younger, but some genuinely don’t.

    I don’t think that Erica’s awakening was depicted as being on overnight epiphany — aside from the obvious result of testing her slowly-developing interest. Somewhat miraculous when you consider that both parties appeared to have been modestly dressed!

    Most American soaps get a great deal wrong about human relationships, and writers do have great difficulty getting lesbian relationships to ring true.

    I have to agree that ABC chickened out on the storyline because they were afraid that American religious conservatives were decamping from what they ignorantly perceive as sinful perversion. (Yes, that was a pun.)

  14. Michelle

    I am laughing at gay people that think this is an obstacle in their “rights”. There are other shows that have gay storylines so get over it. Maybe, just maybe the demographics of Grey’s didn’t support gay viewers. What ticks me off is gay people thinkng they need a storyline for equality. Shut up!

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