Content, Context and Conduct
November 6th, 2008
When 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.
When we last left ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, Dr. Preston Burke had left his fiance at the altar and had moved out of their shared apartment. As the source of a great deal of controversy over the past year thanks to the use of a hateful slur against gay castmate T.R. Knight, actor Isaiah Washington‘s job was often in jeopardy in the eyes of television media, but Shonda Rhimes always stuck by her star. With the season over, however, that has changed: as of this moment, Isaiah Washington has been fired from Grey’s Anatomy.
There is something fascinating about this whole saga, and I think that it goes beyond the question of homosexual actors in hollywood. Over the past year it seems like “Coming Out” is becoming standard practice: Lance Bass, Neil Patrick Harris, T.R. Knight and most recently David Hyde Pierce have all done so. T.R. Knight, however, was the only one to really be forced out of the closet thanks to a tabloid story, which makes him the most distinctive case. Despite a much more open society, it seems being gay is still seen as an oddity, as something that (when revealed) changes everything. Washington’s use of the ‘f-word’ was certainly an instigative act that resulted in him going into counseling and taping a PSA on the subject of equality.
The media has beaten this angle of the story to death, although not unjustly so. Washington’s statement was hurtful, juvenile, and unacceptable, and if this is punishment for that act then there is reason to be pleased with this retribution. However, I think that Washington’s problems did not stop there, and that as an individual his actions AFTER the event have gone somewhat unanalyzed. If you are Shonda Rhimes, how do you handle an actor whose actions off-screen affect his on-screen character to the point of overshadowing the show itself? And, if you’re that actor, how could you possibly return to work in that scenario? It’s an important question, and one that has been raised in the past. And one that Cultural Learnings will now analyze.