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Grey’s Anatomy, gay parents and non traditional families on TV

Last week’s Grey’s Anatomy ended with a cliffhanger this viewer predicted at the very moment we saw Callie and Arizona in a car; crunching noises and the show’s classic fade to white, warning that one or more characters is probably about to die. We’re working up to that time of year where shows are starting to set up minor arcs to lead to end of season storylines, and this one promises to be a doozy in grand Grey’s Anatomy tradition.

Viewers have been following the Calzona, as some fans like to call it, relationship with much interest through its tempestuous twists and turns. Grey’s went out on a limb in the fifth season by daring to reorient a character viewers had interacted with as straight, and turning Dr. Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) into a bisexual character with the famous ‘glasses moment’ with Dr. Erica Hahn (Brooke Smith) in bed. First the show was praised for depicting bisexuality, and then it was slammed for Dr. Hahn’s abrupt departure, which smelled of gaywashing to some viewers.

Grey’s defied expectations by continuing to pursue love interests for Callie, rather than returning her to the safe ‘bisexual by name, heterosexual by depiction’ zone. With the introduction of Dr. Arizona Robbins (Jessica Capshaw), Grey’s started on a new storyline for Dr. Torres and it has introduced layers of complexity to Callie’s characterisation. As with other relationships on the show, the characters are often at odds and move through several breakups and reconciliations, perhaps most notably with the ‘going to Africa’ storyline, created to give Capshaw some much-needed maternity leave.

While the ex-girlfriend’s away in Africa, the mice will play, and Callie returned to her on-again, off-again relationship with Mark Sloan (Eric Dane); Grey’s isn’t afraid to put the ‘bi’ in ‘bisexuality,’ evidently. Torres ended up with a bit more than she expected: A pregnancy, and the return of her ex-girlfriend. The show could have taken this in a lot of different directions, but where it ended up was a love triangle, with Sloan and Robbins agreeing to coparenting duties.

This sets up a model of parenting and relationships rarely seen on network television. The trio are working together cooperatively to make parenting decisions and prepare to raise a baby. Callie, in the middle, has a sexual history with both Mark and Arizona. While she and Arizona are in a relationship, Mark also plans to play an active role in parenting. An arrangement perhaps not so remarkable to some viewers, but groundbreaking for television, where there are rigid rules about families and who is allowed to participate in them.

This has made for a number of scenes in recent episodes where the two do battle over Callie’s body and she utilises her full library of crisp retorts to put the kibosh on any attempts to exert control over her uterus. It’s also made for some good humour, and Grey’s has avoided playing some of the obvious things for laughs, keeping characters true to themselves as they evolve within the relationship. Long-term Grey’s fans knew the show wouldn’t leave the trio in a holding pattern forever, though. Something always has to give. Following last week’s car crash with a pregnant Callie and Arizona in the front seat, the question is, what?

The show could take Arizona out of the picture, resolving the tensions created by allowing Mark and Callie to rejoin forces in a more conventional relationship. Or the show could kill off the baby, effectively taking Mark out of the equation by giving him no reason to have an involvement with Callie and Arizona’s relationship.

What the episode may be setting up for is a complex bioethical dilemma, one where Callie is in a coma and Mark and Arizona are forced to make decisions on her behalf; the comatose and unlikely-to-revive woman as incubator for a baby storyline is hardly a new one, of course. Presumably Arizona and Mark would have a lively disagreement over which one deserves custody, made more complex by the fact that Arizona is the show’s pediatric surgeon, and thus would presumably be responsible for any lifesaving measures.

What all of these potential storylines do is back well away from the nontraditional parenting model worked out by Mark, Callie, and Arizona in response to the pregnancy. Is Grey’s shying away from this? It’s possible that the show will give us a scare that draws the three closer together as they bond over caring for the baby, but this possibility seems remote; Shonda Rhimes has a penchant for axing characters and on a show with an ensemble this big, someone’s got to go. Like all television, the show is drama-driven, and thus we were unlikely to see this relationship resolved in a happy way. Unfortunately, in this case, making the right decision for the show to maintain drama may be the wrong decision for viewers.

If the Grey’s creative team does make the decision to terminate the relationship by whatever means, it represents a tremendous missed opportunity and a loss for queer representation on television. For viewers with family relationships like this one, Grey’s was one of the few places they could tune in to see themselves on television, and it had a significant impact on social attitudes as it forced people to talk about the relationship and engage with it as part of their response to the show.

Grey’s is playing the drama for ratings; I’m sure we’ll see a record number of viewers tuning in tonight to see what happens next. I wonder how many of those viewers will also be mourning the loss of one of the few nontraditional families on television, one that transcended boundaries of race and sexuality.

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