Following the recent furore over the casting of the straight actor Jack Whitehall as Disney’s first openly gay character, I have been reflecting on the general issue of LGBT+ representation in the media. I feel that things have absolutely improved in that regard since I was a teenager.
To cite one example, just the other day, I was far more teary-eyed than I would like to admit as I watched Piper and Alex tie the knot in Season 6 of Orange is the New Black. Piper isn’t exactly my favourite character – I’ve often been irked by her self-involved, whiny behaviour – but come on, who doesn’t cry at a wedding? Especially when said wedding just happens to be a same-sex ceremony in which the gender of the two people isn’t brought up for debate as though it’s some kind of deeply controversial issue. The Piper-and-Alex wedding was presented as a simple ceremony of commitment between two people who loved one another, and that gladdened my heart.
Still, my teenage years weren’t entirely devoid of LGBT+ representation, however flawed that representation may have been at times. The O.C.‘s Alex Kelly and Grey’s Anatomy‘s Callie Torres were two strong, authentic bisexual characters whose storylines deeply affected me at a time when I was not able to be open about who I was. They are the characters I would like to talk about in today’s blog post.
The O.C. was a magnificently over-the-top teen drama that will always have a fond place in my heart because it ran from 2003 to 2007, when I myself was an impressionable, melodramatic teenager who was tragically misunderstood by absolutely everyone … or so it seemed! To me, Alex embodied everything I longed to be during my teenage years: she was confident, outspoken and achingly cool.
When I first saw Alex on screen, living an open and unapologetic life as a bisexual person, it set off a firestorm of conflicted emotions within me. It made me anxious. It made me want to cry. It even made me feel somewhat angry. On some level, I thought: “if I’m not allowed to be happy, outspoken and confident, then why is she allowed to be?” I definitely had a bit of a self-loathing, Paddy Manning/Keith Mills mentality going on (this will make sense to any Irish person who watched a certain Late Late Show debate that occurred shortly before our marriage equality referendum in 2015 – the cringe factor was unbelievable).
At that point, I knew I was bisexual, but I had decided that it would be easier to simply ignore every crush I developed on a girl, and to focus exclusively on guys. I had persuaded myself that it would be far better to live out my life convincing myself and others that I was straight – regardless of what that might cost me in terms of my own personal happiness – because I didn’t want to deal with the jokes, the derogatory comments, or any other forms of unpleasantness that would be associated with coming out.
My beliefs on that were challenged by Alex’s self-assured attitude – and her refusal to apologise or cower in fear when her love interest Seth found out that she had previously dated a girl.
Don’t get me wrong – she and Seth were adorable together. I loved the dynamic that existed between them. Still, a part of me cheered when Seth turned up to the club where Alex worked – he was determined to launch into a big showdown over the fact that she had dated a girl prior to dating him – and she greeted him with the calm response: “I’m working, so if you’ve come down here for some big dramatic confrontation, it’ll have to wait.” I lived vicariously through Alex Kelly in so many ways.
When Alex’s relationship with Seth ended, and Marissa caught her eye, my tendency to live vicariously through her went through the roof.
Every O.C. fan of old remembers the iconic beach scene in the episode The Lonely Hearts, where they kissed for the first time. During a time in my life when I was dire need of some positive bisexual representation in the media, Alex Kelly gave me the tiniest glimmer of hope that it might, in fact, be possible to live happily and authentically as a bisexual person, rather than continually cringing and feeling the need to apologise for my very existence. This is why it broke my heart when The O.C.‘s creators ended the Marissa-and-Alex storyline in a rushed, botched kind of way, citing conservative pressure to abandon the controversy and push Marissa back into the arms of her ex-boyfriend Ryan. Creator Josh Schwartz said:
The network was very nervous — it was an extremely conservative time in our country and everyone was freaking out. We had a whole episode where every kiss between them was cut out, just so I could get one kiss in the ‘Rainy Day Women’ episode. I was literally on the phone with Broadcast, Standards and Practices, bartering for kisses. It was a battle, and The Powers That Be are part of a big corporation, and were going in front of Congress at the time (every network was) — so I understand they are all good people who were under a lot of pressure. But they wanted that story wrapped up as fast as humanly possible and Alex moving on out of the O.C.
The way in which the creators chose to wrap up Alex’s storyline was disheartening. They transformed her into a paranoid, bitter person in the space of just two episodes: a personality overhaul that was hugely inconsistent with how her character had been in all of her previous episodes. It seems this was done for the sole purpose of giving Marissa a more plausible reason to break up with her. Once Alex left The O.C., Marissa’s relationship with her was completely brushed under the carpet and never mentioned again, except for a few brief moments when it was brought up as a joke: as some sort of wild ‘phase’ Marissa had been through.
Still, the fact remains that for one golden moment in time, Alex Kelly gave me a glimpse of what it could mean to be a joyous, fulfilled bisexual person who was not willing to take anyone’s BS.
Her sassiness, her humour and her overall badassery was like a light in the dark for me … and I am sure I’m not the only one who felt that way.
The inimitable Dr. Calliope “Callie” Torres of Grey’s Anatomy was another T.V. character who stood out to me at a time when I was struggling to make peace with myself. Callie made her first appearance on Grey’s Anatomy in 2006 as a romantic interest for Dr. George O’Malley. Their relationship and subsequent marriage was doomed to fail over the fact that George was, essentially, unable to get over a crush he had on their colleague Izzie Stevens. I sympathised deeply with Callie when it finally emerged that George had cheated on her with Izzie. I could clearly see her sense of betrayal and loss building up, until it exploded out of her at last during a confrontation with a deceased patient’s partner. This man had refused to allow his partner to live with him until she lost enough weight. The woman had responded by frantically dieting to try and please him, and by doing so, she had ended up in Seattle Grace Hospital, dying of complications related to malnutrition.
When Callie confronted her patient’s partner over his actions, all he had to offer up in response was the feeble comment: “I loved her.” Callie’s resulting diatribe – delivered while rain poured down all around her, and emotion was wrought into every inch of her face – has to be one of the most heart-rending moments I have ever seen on television.
You didn’t love her. You just didn’t want to be alone, or maybe she was good for your ego, or maybe she made you feel better about your miserable life, but you didn’t love her, because you don’t destroy the person that you love!
Following her divorce from George, Callie struck up a friendship with Addison Montgomery, who was dealing with the fallout of her own marriage breakup. Side note: To be 100% honest, I always secretly hoped that something would happen between Callie and Addison. However, the two were always platonic friends and never anything other than that. In the back of my mind, I always felt those two could have made each other so happy…
As it was, however, Addison was the first person who knew that Callie had developed feelings for a visiting doctor named Erica Hahn – she knew it even before Callie herself did – and she was the first one to directly ask Callie about it, saying “you two seem like a couple … a really happy couple.”
To me, there was always something a little bit offputting about Erica. She seemed too dour – too staid and serious – to ever match up with Callie’s warm, vibrant spirit. I wasn’t best impressed when Erica criticised her by saying, “you can’t kind of be a lesbian.” Callie deserved better, damn it!
Callie’s turmoil over her emerging feelings for Erica was instantly relatable for any bisexual person who has ever struggled to put themselves into the “gay” or “straight” box. She was initially reluctant to acknowledge what was going on and tried to laugh it off by telling Addison, “I like penis. I’m a huge, huge fan of penis.” When she finally began to make peace with herself, Erica’s harsh, coldly delivered rejection – “you can’t kind of be a lesbian” – hurt her just as much as the painful process of divorcing George had. It also tapped into the latent biphobia that bisexual people can sometimes face within the LGBT+ community.
Grey’s Anatomy‘s portrayal of Callie and her struggle went far beyond the judgemental, knee-jerk “bisexuals are greedy and confused” portrayal that was so common in media at the time (things have improved since then, but there is still some work to be done).
Callie eventually learned to be unapologetic and outspoken about her orientation. The word “bisexual” is rarely mentioned in movies or T.V. When Rosa Diaz from Brooklyn Nine-Nine openly said “I’m dating a woman. I’m bi” earlier this year, it caused a sensation among bi people because we’ve become so used to the “no labels” rhetoric that is so often trotted out in film or T.V. whenever a character is neither gay nor straight. Callie’s proud usage of the word “bi” caused a lump to rise to my throat.
Callie’s relationship with Arizona Robbins has gone down as one of the best portrayals of a relationship between two women in T.V. history. Here, too, Callie’s interest in Arizona was met with an instance of biphobia – Arizona would not consider dating her at first because she was a “newborn” when it came to lesbian relationships – but their love gradually blossomed and it was a joy to watch. Their struggles on the show ranged from amusing to heart-wrenching, just like those of the heterosexual couples. They were given many opportunities to face growth, hardship, laughter and love together. However, Arizona was sometimes insecure over Callie’s bisexuality, and was known to use it against her during heated arguments.
Callie’s iconic “you can’t pray the gay away” speech – one that she made while coming out to her disapproving father – was a moment that really stood out to me. Her refusal to cower in shame was contrasted with the emotional breakdown she endured when her family would not accept her or love her for who she was. Though her father did eventually find some level of peace with Callie’s orientation, the show made it clear that her mother never would.
Callie left Grey’s Anatomy in 2016 and I have missed her ever since.
Sara Ramirez – the actress who played Callie – is herself bisexual, and an amazing role model and advocate for LGBT+ people. Her Twitter feed is a testament to the tireless work she does to advocate for LGBT+ youth and make the world a better place. In September 2016, she even donated her hair to “Locks of Love”, an organisation that makes wigs for children who suffer from medical conditions that cause their hair to fall out. She now rocks a buzz cut look. It is no exaggeration to say that Ramirez is one of my idols … as was the character she played on Grey’s Anatomy for so many years. Callie Torres helped me to make peace with who I was and I will always be thankful for that.
I will leave the final word to Ramirez herself, who explains in this interview what her decision to come out meant to her.