Thursday, September 15, 2016

Grey Areas of Abuse: Anatomy of Arizona Robbins’ Biphobia

TW: emotional abuse, abusive relationship, rape culture

Shonda Rhimes makes excellent television. She creates fascinating characters and gives them horrifying, heart-wrenching obstacles to face and overcome. She is an undisputed queen of scarring her fan base emotionally. Part of that comes from her innate ability to weave the most intricately tragic stories that we can't stop watching no matter how much she hurts us. However, another part of it comes from her unwavering devotion to developing unhealthy relationships on her shows.
As an avid viewer of all four of the patented TGIT shows (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder, and most recently, The Catch), I get a front seat to the consent issues and red flags that run rampant in those relationships. Consider her first epic project, Grey’s Anatomy, the medical drama that is now entering its 13th season. It is the product of an absolutely brilliant, finger-on-the-pulse (pun intended) mis-en-scene. All the ingredients combine perfectly to bring us a show that is smart, funny, sexy, and emotionally draining. But the reason that the sexy and the emotionally draining go hand-in-hand is a testament to how ingrained rape culture is in this world.
As positive as the characters and speeches in Shondaland can be for feminism, the shows are still guilty of perpetuating rape culture. I am not blaming Shonda Rhimes for this. It is impossible to hold one person accountable for an entire cultural mindset and institutionalized power dynamics. The issue I take with her work is merely that she is a television genius who manufactures pop culture phenomena on the regular by utilizing, rather than challenging, a very specific and very rape-friendly formula.
Anyone who has watched both Grey's Anatomy and Scandal must recognize the similarities in the structure of their two main romances: the MerDer (Meredith Grey and Derek Shepherd) and Olitz (Olivia Pope and Fitz Grant) relationships, respectively. An unhappily married man has fallen out of love with his wife- an extremely ambitious, accomplished, and badass woman who was with him from his humble beginnings- and proceeds to fall head-over-heels with a younger, up-and-coming force of nature with daddy issues, mommy issues, and walls up to guard her against intimacy. But the married man is enchanted now. He is too enchanted by her to respect the walls, his wife, or the repeated rejections from our heroine. They end up in a tumultuous and devastating relationship on which the ratings depend, and we all eat it up. We have been conditioned to accept it over centuries of reinforcing the idea that love means stopping at nothing until you get a “yes,” and that when a woman's string of “no”s finally gives way to a tired, tearful “yes” that she is saying it of her own free will, and not because she’s just been worn down.
Fortunately, I have encountered plenty of critical Shondaland viewers who see through this in both of the aforementioned relationships. These viewers don't think Grey's Anatomy's Derek Shepherd is as McDreamy as the writers do. They call Scandal’s Fitzgerald “Fuck Boy” Grant's manipulative antics abuse. This is even occasionally acknowledged in-universe, albeit very rarely. Meredith actually tells Derek that he is sexually harassing her in episode 1x02 “The First Cut Is the Deepest,” which is refreshing even though it shouldn’t have to be. Similarly, Olivia confronts Fitz about the way he abuses his power as President to tip the scales in their relationship in episode 2x03 “Hunting Season” when she says “I am not yours; I don’t show up places because you want me.”
These moments of recognition might have something to do with the fact that those characters are men. It is easier for us to identify a man abusing a woman than it is for us to identify a woman abusing a man or another woman. That bias is a result of the gender binary that we are conditioned to believe exists. We view men as physically strong and emotionally repressed and women as physically weak and nurturing. This perception of masculinity makes men the perfect abusers because they can hurt people and they are also insensitive to the pain they cause. So what happens when we, who generally accept the abuse we recognize from a man directed at a woman, see abuse coming from a woman and directed at another woman? Well, judging by the fan reactions to the lesbian couple on Grey’s Anatomy, I’d say that we don’t even know it’s occurring. I speak now of Shondaland's most persistent same-sex relationship: Calzona, the partnership of bisexual Callie Torres and lesbian Arizona Robbins.
The two met when Arizona was introduced in season 5. They had a child together and got married in season 7, but they broke up and finalized their divorce in season 11. Even now, as Grey’s embarks upon its 13th season, the fans have clung to Calzona during their six seasons of on-again-off again romance. They have clung to this couple so ferociously, in fact, that some of them went so far as to send Samantha Sloyan, who portrays Callie's current love interest, Penny, real life hate mail via Twitter. In their devotion to Calzona, these fans seem content to overlook how emotionally abusive Arizona is.
As a bisexual Latina, I strongly identify with Callie. I idolize her. She is vulnerable and fierce and unapologetic and always the first to grant forgiveness to those who have wronged her. She dances in her underwear and inspires me to be a goddess, as she proclaims to be. So perhaps I am biased and overprotective of this idol when it comes to her love interests, but I have never liked Arizona for her. I've never trusted her. I felt that way since season 5 and, as much as I wanted to enjoy the lesbian couple I was given, Arizona kept justifying my distrust. But it’s not a personal opinion when I say that she is an abusive partner.
Arizona is emotionally manipulative. Her most effective tactic is using guilt to make Callie feel bad about herself and about the level of commitment that she puts into their relationship. One of the main points she uses to make Callie feel guilty is to attack and belittle Callie's identity as a bisexual woman. This might seem like a non-issue to anyone who is monosexual (only attracted to one gender) but it's actually a devastating form of abuse.
When we were introduced to Callie in season 2, we assumed she was straight. She had not come out to anyone yet, namely because she hadn't even come out to herself. She pursued loveable fuck up, George O'Malley, as he continuously allowed his friends to get in the way of their relationship. Then things got too intense too soon in season 3 when he hastily proposed marriage to her while grieving the death of his father. Their impulsive decision to get married caught up with them when George soon cheated on her with Izzie and his infidelity destroyed Callie’s self-esteem, sense of self-worth, and even her ability to manage her new promotion to Chief Resident.
After their divorce, Callie established a friendship with- and promptly fumbled through a confusing crush on- Cardio attending Erica Hahn through the second half of season 4. Their relationship awkwardly blossomed through the beginning of season 5, helping them both realize how completely not straight they truly are. But almost immediately after it started, Erica brutally abandoned the relationship when Callie revealed that her attraction to women does not negate her attraction to men. It was there in season 5, shortly after Erica's harsh departure, that Arizona approached the heartbroken Callie Torres in the bathroom of Joe's bar with a sudden kiss and the promise of a new love interest.
For many viewers this was an exciting new development. For queer women in particular it meant we were getting a new Sapphic pairing that would actually be canon. We are usually accustomed to reading into things that never flourish- overanalyzing certain dialogue and what we swear we're not imagining because look at that longing glance again!- between canonically straight female characters. This moment had such a strong impact on viewers that many of them still celebrate and hope for Calzona even a full season-and-a-half after their divorce. The celebration was short-lived for me, however. As their relationship progressed, I quickly found that I could not tolerate Arizona and the condescending way she consistently treats Callie, all because of her bisexual identity. Throughout the course of their relationship, Arizona's biphobia and reliance on bisexual stereotypes stand out, not just as fear or disgust of Callie's sexuality, but as a tool that Arizona utilizes to enact emotional and psychological abuse.

1. Not Gay Enough
After the initial Calzona kiss in the bar bathroom in 5x14 “Beat Your Heart Out,” Callie spends an entire episode freaking out about it to her BFF Mark and then finally gets the courage to pursue this new love interest. In doing so, she explains to Arizona that Erica was the first and only woman she had experience with. Arizona's response to this is to turn her down. And that’s fine. It is perfectly within her rights to turn Callie down, even though she was the one who initiated it. She just changed her mind. That's not the problem.
The problem is in the way she turns her down. When Arizona backtracks upon finding out that Callie had only ever been with Erica before, she talks down to her, playing some patronizing elite elder queer bullshit to belittle Callie’s queer experience.

 “I work in Peds, I spend my entire day around newborns so I try not to in my personal life.”

As a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community, I am insulted by this behaviour. It’s not an inaccurate presentation; intra-community hierarchy is very real and very disrespectful. But to see this come from the mouth of someone who we are supposed to like, and to see it directed at someone who had just gotten her heart broken for not being “gay enough” in her first gay relationship, is a problem. And it’s a problem that I don’t think was ever adequately fixed on the show.
Everyone in our LGBTQ+ community has found their way here through their own unique experiences. Some of us know from an early age. Some of us have to try things out for years- decades!- before we have our realizations. Some of us are constantly shifting and changing the labels we use to identify ourselves. And all of it is okay. Every single one of those experiences is valid. Arizona calling a grown woman “a baby” because she only dated men until her 30s is offensive. It's smug, ignorant, biphobic, and I would even argue that it’s sexist because she is infantilizing Callie and defining her based on her sexual history.

2. Deceitful 
 Much to my displeasure, Callie and Arizona eventually start dating in the second half of season 5. When Callie’s father comes to town to kick the living shit out of cheating ex-son-in-law George, she introduces Arizona as “the person I’m seeing now.” Papa Torres is furious. He disowns Callie. He disinherits her and leads the rest of the family to stop speaking to her, only to come back in 6x05 “Invasion” with the family priest in order to “pray away the gay.”
This is serious business. In a country where conversion therapy and straight camps are a harrowing reality, Callie’s father bringing in a priest to make his daughter straight is an extremely serious storyline to portray. Callie, who has already been emotionally and financially cut off by her family at this point, turns to her girlfriend for support during this surprise homophobic intervention, and Arizona defends Callie’s father. She offers no sympathy and then delivers another haughty elder queer speech to justify his homophobia.

ARIZONA: He hasn’t done anything here. You’re the one who changed the game.
CALLIE: You didn’t expect a little understanding when you came out to your parents?
ARIZONA: I never had boyfriends. Ever. I had a poster on my wall of Cindy Crawford and I wasn’t just looking at her mole. It wasn’t news to my mom when I brought home somebody named Joanne. But you? You dated men your whole life. You loved men. You even married one. You wanna talk about 30 years of a relationship? He’s been consistent for 30 years. And all of a sudden, you’re a whole new girl. So cut him some slack.

Arizona is literally saying that it’s Callie’s own fault that her father is being homophobic. She is saying that it’s okay for her father to bring a priest to stage a traumatic intervention, because in his hetero-normative view, Callie is a straight woman and he has a right to be shocked and disgusted by her queerness.
Furthermore, Arizona is driving the point home by describing how superior she is at being gay. Everyone knew that Arizona was gay from a young age. They could just tell, unlike with Callie who doesn’t fit into the community as easily. Arizona didn’t face any issues with her family not accepting her and now she is telling Callie that this is how coming out is supposed to work, that the level of acceptance you receive is dependent on how you conform to ideas about sexuality, not on your family being decent human beings or anything. Arizona is saying that her family supported her coming out because she never deceived them by bringing home boyfriends. She is suggesting that she deserved acceptance because she was consistent, while Callie deserves the homophobia she’s facing from her family because her path was more complicated and it’s her own fault for not knowing sooner. Arizona is belittling Callie’s experience as a queer woman once again, simply because she didn’t grow up knowing that about herself.
Callie’s father assumed that because Callie liked men that she would only ever like men. Not only was he wrong to assume that but he is outrageously wrong as a parent to allow this new information to affect how he treats her. Yet, Arizona tells Callie that his reaction is okay. She makes Callie out to be the unreasonable one. “Give him room to be a little shocked,” she says, as if it’s even his business at all who Callie is sleeping with! Arizona is literally choosing allegiance to a homophobe over a bisexual woman, specifically, the bisexual woman she is dating. She is even blaming the homophobia on the bisexual woman rather than on the homophobe.

3. Confused
Despite Arizona’s tendency to invalidate Callie’s sexuality, they continue dating to the point where Callie starts thinking about having children with her. When Callie brings the idea up casually, Arizona is adamant about not wanting children. This makes Callie nervous about the relationship and she realizes that they have to confront this issue if they want to have a future together. When she tries to have a serious talk about having children, Arizona immediately asks if the talk will be a confession that Callie is cheating on her with Mark.
This question comes out of nowhere. Callie has been committed to the relationship and has even endured being ostracized and cut off by her family because of it. Arizona is the one who has resisted moving forward on numerous occasions but, because Callie is bisexual, her loyalty is always questionable. Even when the accusation comes completely out of left field, Arizona feels that she has every right to worry about Callie’s monogamy. 

“Are you one of those fake lesbians just having a vacation in Lesbian Land?”

First of all, the term “fake lesbian” is completely offensive. Sexuality is a fluid, ever-evolving thing. It lives on a vast spectrum of experiences and identities. Not all women who get involved with other women identify as lesbians. “Fake lesbian” is a term that holds no actual meaning. All it does is erase other totally valid identities a woman who dates women might claim, such as bisexual, pansexual, and asexual, to name a few.
Secondly, Callie determined that she isn’t a lesbian before Arizona was even introduced on the show. She had not used the term “bisexual” to describe herself yet, which is a major flaw with the way queer characters are portrayed in the media in general, but she did declare in season 5 that she is interested in both men and women. She even got dumped by Erica because of it. Arizona knew this getting into the relationship. So to now accuse her of lying about her sexuality when she has only ever been completely upfront about it reinforces the harmful stereotype that bisexual people are greedy and unfaithful. Arizona isn't just paranoid that Callie is cheating on her. Her specific fear is that Callie is cheating on her with a man, suggesting that a lesbian could cheat on her with another woman and Arizona would not hold it against her in the same way. This is an irrational fear uniquely reserved for bisexual people and is 100% biphobia.
Thirdly, back in 5x16 “An Honest Mistake” when Arizona decided to turn Callie down because she wasn't a seasoned lesbian, she said that this would be a new and exciting time for Callie. On the surface, this might have seemed like Arizona was encouraging Callie to experiment with more women (just not her). However, given her panic in season 6 and how quickly she assumes Callie would cheat on her with a man, this adds another layer to that initial scene when she turned Callie down. In that scene, Arizona acted on her underlying fear that Callie was not serious about pursuing this. Callie just got out of a relationship that helped her realize things about herself and her sexuality that is not terribly easy to navigate at any age. But it was an experience and an identity that Callie was fully claiming. Arizona's implications dismiss Callie's sense of self. She was basically talking over Callie and making the decision for her based on preconceived notions she holds about bisexual people being confused about what we want.

4. Hypersexual
After a short story arc of Callie trying to make it work with Arizona despite her desperate desire to have a baby, they break up. Note: their break up was entirely due to their different feelings about having kids. That's what it was about. Nothing else. But because Callie has been insecure about her bisexuality ever since she first discovered it, and Arizona has done nothing but reinforce that insecurity, Callie lets it fester. When she finally confronts Arizona about it after the break up, Arizona wastes no time turning it around to lay the blame on Callie's bisexuality.

CALLIE: When are you gonna forgive me for not being a good enough lesbian for you?
ARIZONA: When you do something to convince me that you’re falling in love with me and not with being in love. When you do something to convince me that I’m different than George O’Malley, Erica Hahn, Mark Sloan, or that girl at the coffee cart. I mean, you have a huge heart and I love that about you, but I don’t trust you. Why would I?

Arizona is holding Callie's romantic history against her. Callie has had three sexual relationships in the four years before Arizona. She was committed to George from season 2 until their divorce in season 4, she explored her feelings for Erica in the beginning of season 5, and she had casual sex with Mark when she wasn't in an exclusive relationship. This is a pretty unspectacular record. Arizona's prejudice against bisexual women hypersexualizes Callie in an attempt to minimize and invalidate Callie's feelings. This is especially harmful because, in addition to being bisexual, Callie is a Latina.
People of the Latinx community are fetishized for this hypersexual stereotype. This is why “Latina” is its own porn category. The hot, easy Latina caricature is something that every Latina contends with. Arizona is being insensitive to Callie's identity while also using it against her to justify her own paranoia. All this after a break up that was supposed to be about having kids. Arizona accuses Callie of being untrustworthy, but she isn't exactly honest about her feelings and motivations. She said they were breaking up because she didn't want to stand in the way of Callie having children. This made her seem like a martyr, making a sacrifice for Callie's happiness. But the second Callie tries to address the biphobia, Arizona implies that her “oversexed” bisexuality was the real problem in their relationship.

5. Unfaithful
Swept up in the aftermath of the shooter who targeted their hospital in the season 6 finale, Calzona gets back together. Arizona decides that having children is worth it as long as she has them with Callie, saying “I can't live without you and our ten kids.” However, while they were broken up, Arizona applied for a research grant that would send her to Malawi for three years. It turns out she won the grant. Callie chooses to go to Malawi with her but they break up again when Arizona decides that Callie isn't enthusiastic enough to come with her. She abandons Callie in the airport because she has no tact or ability to compromise.
Heartbroken, Callie turns to Mark for emotional support and rebound sex. One night, a tearful Arizona returns to Callie's doorstep with a speech about how she left the grant research behind because she was miserable in Malawi without her. Callie closes the door on her. After repeated attempts to get back with her- including camping outside the apartment as well as buying out Callie's subletters (which is actually by-the-book stalker behaviour)- Callie tells her that she wants nothing to do with her. Arizona ignores this.
At the end of 7x12 “Start Me Up,” an episode that begins with Callie detailing exactly why she doesn't want to get back together (which goes over stubborn Arizona's head), Callie explains that she is pregnant with Mark's baby. Arizona's reaction to this, beginning in 7x13 “Don't Deceive Me (Please Don't Go)” and lasting through the entirety of Callie's pregnancy, is horrific and possessive. She starts by giving Callie a guilt trip about sleeping with a man while she was single and free to do so.

“I’m mad that you slept with someone else. And I know that we were broken up, but you slept with someone else. And I’m even madder that that person has a penis. And I know that you are bisexual, I know that.”

She is upset that Callie had sex with someone else after she abandoned Callie in an airport. That is sort of understandable. Even though Arizona was the one who just walked away for what was supposed to be three years and ended the relationship without trying to work on the issue. She was apparently torn up about her selfish and thoughtless decision and didn't expect Callie to move on so quickly. But ultimately, that's just tough shit.
You don't get to cut someone out of your life and then expect them to still be right where you left them when you try to muscle your way back in. You don't get to break someone's heart and then get mad at them for rebounding. And you especially don't get to get mad that the person they slept with has different genitalia than you. This anger is Arizona being frustrated that she couldn't control Callie and police her sexuality. She is blaming her anger that Callie chose to do this on Callie's bisexuality instead of the fact that she just wants to contain Callie's sexuality. It's none of her business who Callie had sex with when they were broken up, so long as Callie is upfront about any STIs she might be passing on. Arizona has no reason whatsoever to be upset that Callie's partner has a penis, and it is actually biphobic, as well as transmisogynistic, of her to make an issue of it.

6. Greedy
Over the next few episodes, Arizona comes to accept the pregnancy and Callie's invitation to be involved in it. But Arizona doesn't know how to be in a relationship with Callie without controlling Callie. Her first order of business is to move Callie's things back in from Mark's apartment without asking Callie if she wants this. Then, when Callie tries to stop her, she tells Callie that they are back together rather than having a conversation with her about what that means. She gives this disturbing speech that is meant to be romantic but is actually just terrifying and abusive- which I think audiences would recognize if a man had made the same speech.

“You don't get to tell me that we're not together. We are together. Because I love you and you love me and none of the rest of it matters. We are together. And if you ever sleep with anyone else again, I will kick the crap out of you. Now you sit your ass back down there because that's my baby in there and I don't want anything happening to my baby!”

This is not a cute declaration of someone in love, it's a threat. The problem is that people don't see it as a threat when a tiny blonde lesbian is saying it. But it is abuse. She is telling Callie that she no longer has a choice, and making her feel like that's really true by promising physical violence if she disobeys. It doesn't matter that Arizona would probably never actually lay a finger on Callie, or that she might have simply meant it as a figure of speech; putting that threat out there is psychologically abusive.
Arizona continues to exercise this over-bearing control over Callie when she starts telling her what she’s allowed to eat and drink during the pregnancy, disregarding the research Callie had done, and robbing her of autonomy. She also constantly complains about and berates Mark, who is not only the father of their child but Callie’s best friend. Alienating a partner from their friends is a major aspect in an abusive relationship. An abuser wants to be the sole person on whom their partner depends, so they are frustrated when their partner can turn to other people for comfort and support. Arizona resents Mark. She sees him as competition, so the fact that he wants to be involved in his child’s life throws a wrench into her plans.
In 7x16 “Not Responsible” Arizona makes herself out to be a victim, as though including Mark in this pregnancy is some hardship that she is valiantly enduring. She whines about having to consider his feelings as a co-parent of their child. But she doesn’t stop there. As always, she takes special time out to call Callie a greedy bisexual for not pushing Mark out.

“Okay can we just be honest about the fact that this is some kind of bi dream come true? I mean, you get the woman that you love and you get the guy best friend who’s a great lay and then you get a baby. I mean, you get it all. And me? This is not my dream. My dream doesn’t look like this.”

Because it was Callie’s dream to be abandoned in an airport and then listen to you continuously vilify her best friend for an unplanned pregnancy that you don’t have to be a part of? I think not. Arizona insisted on being involved in this situation but she won’t stop bullying Callie about the circumstances that got them all there.

7. Indecisive 
Arizona’s fury goes into maximum overdrive when Mark throws Callie a perfect baby shower. Even when Callie arranged to spend a romantic weekend at a bed and breakfast with her, Arizona loses her temper when Callie texts with Mark during the car ride. She snatches the phone out of Callie’s hands and throws it into the back seat. This is not playful or sweet. This is controlling. This is abusive.
When Callie tries to assert herself and make the decision to talk to her friend if she wants to, Arizona criticizes Callie and Mark’s friendship as well as Callie's identity.

“He gets most of you: the straight you, the Catholic you, the girl who loves baby showers. I just get, you know, the gay you- which is really only about 20 minutes a night, and not even since you just feel too fat to even let me touch you anymore.”

First off, Arizona is trying to make Callie feel guilty for being bisexual, once again, because that’s what Arizona does best. Secondly, she is dividing up Callie’s bisexual identity into a straight portion and a gay portion without Callie’s permission, implying that bisexuality is a mix of heterosexuality and homosexuality and not its own category. This is not only an inaccurate portrayal of the bisexual experience, it is actually harmful. It serves to exclude bisexual people from both the queer community as well as the heterosexual mainstream by making us feel like halves of incomplete wholes that don’t fit in anywhere. Thirdly, she is sexualizing Callie’s identity without her permission. By stating that Callie’s “gay part” is confined to the sex that they have, she is suggesting that Callie stops being queer when they are not having sex at a given moment. This also serves to exclude her from the queer community.
Callie is fed up with the shtick at this point, though, and actually begins to stand up for herself. As Callie argues that she has spent this entire pregnancy trying to make sure that everyone involved is happy, Arizona quickly realizes that she needs something more than her standard guilt trip to get her way. Annoyed by Arizona’s inability to be happy despite her best efforts, Callie asks what she can do to fix it- because Arizona has done so much to make Callie feel like it’s her fault when things go wrong that Callie’s instinct is always to take on the responsibility of patching things up by herself. This is the moment Arizona chooses to propose marriage.
Arizona does not ask Callie if she will marry her, the proposal is an ultimatum. Marrying Arizona is not them taking the next step in their relationship; it is another hoop for Callie to jump through to prove her loyalty to Arizona. This is a bad reason to get married. You marry someone because you want to make a commitment to spend the rest of your lives working together to make each other happy, you don’t marry someone because you want to have the upper hand over their best friend. And Callie knew that this was the wrong time and the wrong way for Arizona to propose, which is why she didn’t give an answer.
Not giving an answer, however, means that Arizona does not have Callie’s full cooperation. An abusive partner cannot stand resistance like this. It means that they are not in control. Arizona resorts to intimidation. Even though she is driving the car with her pregnant girlfriend in the passenger’s seat- the pregnant girlfriend who just took her seatbelt off to retrieve the phone that Arizona had ripped from her hands and thrown into the back seat- Arizona takes her eyes off the road to stare Callie down. Instead of giving Callie time to think about the proposal, she pressures her into making a rushed decision. The only thing that interrupts the stare down is the car crash that Arizona’s reckless driving gets them into. Callie flies through the windshield on impact, resulting in a few major injuries and the premature delivery of their baby, and not once does Callie ever blame Arizona for endangering their lives.
Allow me to reiterate that: Callie never blames Arizona for crashing their car when she deliberately took her eyes off the road for an extended time. Even when Arizona is the only person responsible for it, Callie does not bear her any ill will for this. In fact, she agrees to marry her by the end of the next episode. Isn't this akin to Stockholm syndrome? Hasn't Arizona been teaching Callie since the beginning that anything but complete submission will be met with emotional, and now physical, pain? Their entire relationship thus far has been an ongoing pattern of Arizona punishing Callie with verbal abuse whenever her expectations are not met. 

* * * 
Since her introduction, Arizona's expectations have included such biphobic and unrealistic standards as wanting Callie to fully renounce her attraction to men, wanting Callie to agree that her bisexuality makes her untrustworthy, and wanting to treat Callie's best friend like an absentee sperm donor. All of these expectations go against Callie's sense of self. That's what abusers do; they attack their victim's sense of self. They undermine their victims' ability to trust themselves. Whether she's been doing it with malicious intent or not, Arizona has been working on that ever since she learned that Callie was not exclusively attracted to women. When Callie challenged Arizona's expectations of what a woman who dates women could be, she panicked and allowed her biphobia to get the best of her. But rather than reevaluate her preconceived notions about bisexual women, she continued to lash out at Callie.
Arizona Robbins meets an overwhelming number of emotional abuse criteria. From demeaning and disregarding Callie's feelings and opinions, to trying to controlling what Callie does, to blaming Callie for things that are not her fault- and usually not even bad things- Arizona's behaviour shows signs of emotional abuse. So why are Calzona fans not outraged? Well, as I previously mentioned, we have a huge societal problem with reading toxic behaviour, since it has been so heavily romanticized. Furthermore, our ability to differentiate between what is healthy and what is unhealthy becomes even less acute when a woman is in question, due to hetero-normativity and conventional gender roles. Yet, there is another reason for the fans' dedication to this terrible relationship: it is the only lasting LGBTQ+ relationship on the show.
 Even in Shondaland, a beacon for diversity in media representation, with its colorblind casting and inclusion of well-defined and realistic LGBTQ+ characters, the heterosexual relationships still dominate. On Grey's Anatomy in particular, the patients come from all walks of life, but they are not regular characters. The surgeons are the only main characters, and the only canonically LGBTQ+ surgeons who have lasted more than a couple of seasons are Callie and Arizona. But most other prime time shows didn't even have that when Calzona first came into existence in 2009. With straight couples everywhere, LGBTQ+ viewers are forced to cling to whatever we get. In season 5 we got Calzona. It wasn't perfect but it was ours. Even as its imperfections turned to clinically recognized signs of abuse, many of us held on tight. For what else was there for us to claim?
Calzona's success is unsurprising. With its adherence to a very specific mold wherein respecting another person's boundaries is merely a suggestion, the Calzona relationship fits right in. Verbal abuse from the tiny blonde lesbian's mouth goes undetected because we have a hard time viewing women as abusers. Alternatives are far and few between because most other shows are afraid to portray LGBTQ+ characters and relationships. The societal problems that allowed Calzona to gain popularity are not entirely Shondaland's fault. It is their fault for writing a character like Arizona Robbins and never setting up the consequences that will cause her to learn from her abusive behaviour and change, but this stems from the fact that our society fails to set up those consequences in real life. There's a reason that Shonda Rhimes' career is flourishing: she knows the formulas that work and how to capitalize on those formulas in her writing.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Community Community: Post-modernism, Hypermediacy, and How Twitter Could Save a TV Show

So, being a film major at [Rich, White Hipster College], I get to take awesome classes and write papers on awesome topics.  How awesome? you ask.  Well, let's just say that I wrote my final paper for my TV History and Criticism class on Community.  Yeah, the brilliant and hilarious NBC show.
Since most of my friends are also huge Community fans, I posted my paper on Facebook and one of my friends suggested that I show this paper to Dan Harmon because "he would appreciate it in these trying times." While I didn't want to post it in my real blog I did agree that putting this paper out there would be nice in the wake of this stupid hiatus thing.
One thing I'd like to point out is that I was in the middle of writing this when the last episode, "Regional Holiday Music" a.k.a. "Ripping Glee a New One," aired and never went back to change things like "[Abed's autism] is only ever specifically addressed in the pilot episode" so don't crucify me for statements like that.
Anyway, here it is:

   When John Hughes wrote and directed The Breakfast Club in 1985, a “motley crew” meant five white teenagers with varying socio-economic backgrounds from different rungs on the social ladder.  We have grown slightly more inclusive with our narratives since then, something the NBC comedy Community, a show which (appropriately) dedicates its pilot episode to The Breakfast Club, exemplifies.  Community follows the relationship of seven strangers at Greendale Community College when they form a study group to improve their Spanish.  Though the principle character of the show is still a straight, white male from a middle-class background, the show promotes diversity by making the six other members of the group complex, 3-dimensional characters who are equally important.  For years, people from minority groups have been demanding more media representation and, slowly but surely, it is becoming a reality.  In an age where the average viewer actually has platforms such as YouTube and Twitter from which to speak, it is much easier for the producers of media content to give them what they want and it seems fitting that this is the very thing that might save the show from being cancelled forever.  The relationship between Community and its fanbase is a great illustration of how the line between producer and consumer is blurred in the post-modern world.
   Post-modernism is a term that can only be understood through the explanation of modernism, since the former is a direct reaction to the latter.  According to Jim Collins, those who are opposed to modernism tend to see it as “a period of profound elitism, in which case postmodernism signals a move away from the self-enclosed world of the avant-garde back into the realm of day-to-day life.” (“Television and Postmodernism,” pg. 328)  Essentially, modernism endorses concepts like “the artist as genius” wherein art is created by a single auteur and will not necessarily be understood by the masses.  In fact, the ideal is actually to be incomprehensible to most people, as the goal is to appeal only to the highest in high culture.  Post-modernism, on the other hand, aims to make art more accessible, which is one of the main reasons Collins argues that television is an inherently post-modern medium.  Because television shows are episodic, they are affected by audience response; they need to find people who will consume their product in order to have a product.
   Another aspect about TV which makes it post-modern is the collaborative effort that goes into making a television show.  Unlike modernism where one artist is heralded for their work, post-modernism embraces the idea that it takes a community and the Community community is made up of more than just the cast and crew, since fan reaction on the web contributes as well.  The public displays of affection for Community are comparable to that of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, when you consider that the internet has replaced the physical gathering in this definition of “public.”  The main difference is that Rocky Horror is a movie which has a set script and was filmed long ago.  Even the call backs and live performances which supplement or act in place of the film are running through the same script.  Audience participation merely creates atmosphere.  Community, on the other hand, is a running television show.  More importantly, it is a running television show in the internet age where the voice of the viewer is more easily heard by the producers.
   One major example of how audience response has a hand in molding the outcome of the content is found in the love lives of the characters.  Because television shows are not wrapped up in a neat two-hour package like films are, the stories become more complicated- especially the love stories.  In the pilot episode of Community, we are made blatantly aware of Jeff’s attraction to Britta.  The entirety of the show hinges on his desire to have sex with her; he organizes the study group as a way to get in her pants.  He does not get her at the end of the pilot episode because then there would be nowhere to go from that point and the show would be over before it began.  The audience needs delayed satisfaction where sexual chemistry is concerned and romantic cliffhangers are the only way to build support for the “ship.”  Jeff continues to fail at seducing Britta for the next few episodes, but two very important things happen to affect the pairing as season one progresses: Britta’s popularity with audiences suffers and little throwaway moments throughout the season plant the seeds of a Jeff/Annie pairing.
   In the audio commentary for the episode “Science of Illusion,” creator Dan Harmon reveals the reason behind Britta’s character evolution into “the one we all love to hate.”  He explains that an audience resists when they are told to like a character but when you make that character the one everybody picks on, the audience begins to warm up to them.  Having all the other members of the study group make fun of Britta and establishing the recurring line “You’re the worst” which haunts her through all three seasons are ways of putting audience sympathy in the bank so that in the season finale, when she confesses to Jeff that she loves him in front of the entire school and his ex-girlfriend, there is something real to draw from.  Any good storyteller would agree that the audience will not be entertained unless they are invested in the plot.  In fact, many writers work very hard to make their characters likeable so that the audience will approve of them and care about their actions.  On Community, the main challenge was Britta since she was introduced as the love (or at least lust) interest, so it is important for us to see her in that vein.  And, although he is the main character, it is not as difficult to make Jeff likeable because his charm stems almost exclusively from the fact that he is a slick bastard.  His appeal is based on his unlikeability which, in itself, as quite post-modern since the show calls attention to its own deviation from the television show convention of providing a likeable main character.  Britta, on the other hand, depends on the audience’s reaction so viewers need to understand why Jeff is not only initially but continuously drawn to her.
   This is not the only way in which the audience has contributed to the course of a storyline on Community.  Treatment of the Jeff/Annie ship has been directly influenced by the audience, as evidenced in the season two episode, “Paradigms of Human Memory.”  Subtle hints of the relationship began to spring up throughout the first season of the show, erupting in a season finale, cliffhanger kiss. This relationship is diffused in the first episode of season two but there is more tension to play with as the season plays out and the relationship is brought up again, and even ridiculed, in this “Human Memory” episode.  This particular episode is a “clip show” which incorporates a multitude of flashbacks.  The flashback sequence meant to support Annie’s claim that she and Jeff have had a “general atmosphere of ‘would they? might they?’” all year plays in slow motion and is set to the song “Gravity” by Sara Bareilles.
   The significance of the song relates back to fan reactions to the show.   Harmon credits his discovery of the song to a Jeff/Annie fanvideo he found on YouTube.  Making a fanvideo (a fan-made tribute to a previously created worked, often a montage of pictures and/or clips set to music) is just one of the many things that one can do on the internet to feel as though they are part of the narrative process.  The audiovisual variation on the standard written fanfiction is an outlet for fans to express their feelings, which ultimately blends the roles of consumer and producer- just as YouTube intended.  It was when Harmon saw this video set to “Gravity” that he realized how much audiences care about the show and he went beyond the show’s budget by going into his own pocket to pay the copyright for use of the song as a tribute to the tribute.  This is an extremely Meta example of Community giving back to the community, but then, this show is no stranger to the self-referential.  In fact, not since the opening credits of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (“If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes and other science facts/just repeat to yourself ‘it’s just a show, I should really just relax’”) has a television show been as eager to point out its own “showness” as Community is when it takes a step back and evaluates itself in front of the audience.
   Another noteworthy example of how self-referential this particular sequence is is the way Annie describes the chemistry that she and Jeff are supposed to share.  By saying that their tension is of the “will they? might they?” variety, she assumes the attitude and vocabulary of a fan reacting to the show in a way you would not expect from an actual character on the show.  This level of self-awareness is part of Community’s foundation but it is the kind of thing we expect more from Abed.  Jeff occasionally launches clever attacks on the fourth wall but Abed is usually the one responsible for its ultimate destruction.  Abed’s autism (something which is only ever specifically addressed in the pilot episode- curiously intended as an insult- but which is consistently hinted at throughout the later episodes) allows him to make the observations and comments that make us hyper-aware of what we are watching.  And when a character on the show is doing it, the show itself is really doing it.
   This self-awareness violates the idea of immediacy; an attempt to present such a flawlessly structured fantasy that it lulls the audience into forgetting that what they are watching is not real.  Whenever costume designers spend millions of dollars dressing the actors in period-appropriate clothes or set decorators fuss over how real the snow looks, they are doing it on behalf of immediacy, something that Bolter and Grusin address in Remediation.  One of their more elaborate examples comes in their exploration of Vertigo when they illustrate how Hitchcock’s use of “a peculiar camera technique to represent the sensation” (pg. 150) of Scottie’s vertigo is a case of immediacy and, its complement, hypermediacy.  When the camera assumes Scottie’s perspective and distorts the image for our benefit, the intention is to put us even deeper into the movie than mere spectators.  However, the moment we notice that the camera is doing something unusual, “we suddenly become aware of the film as medium in precisely the way that the Hollywood style tries to prevent.” (pg. 150)  They go on to explain how, because hypermediacy is so unusual, it needs to be justified in the diegesis.
In Vertigo, as in other Hollywood films such as Spellbound (1945), hypermediacy is equated with dreams, mental disorder, or insanity.  When characters are in mental balance, the camera is a transparent lens on the world; when something is wrong (when they are drunk or physically or mentally ill) the subjective camera offers a distorted view that makes us aware of the film as medium and often incorporates or refers to other media.  Even today we can find films that follow the same practice (in which transparency is mental balance, while hypermediacy is mental dysfunction), although with less assurance and consistency than was possible in the 1950s.[1]
 [1] Bolter and Grusin. Remediation. pg. 152
I would argue that, because autism is often seen as a mental illness, most of the hypermediacy is acceptable when Abed is the character who brings it to the table, albeit in a less technical way.
   The examples I cite do not present themselves in the manner in which the show is filmed but, rather, in the actual content.  The dialogue lends itself to hypermediacy and, occasionally, the plot of an entire episode does as well.  For example, the season one episode “Contemporary American Poultry” is a Mafia movie spoof which serves a dual purpose: they get to do a Mafia movie spoof for fun while exploring the depths of Abed’s disability.  The study group embarks on a Goodfellas-inspired journey when they control the cafeteria’s supply of chicken fingers placing Abed in the role of our narrator.  His obsession with pop culture justifies the spoof in the eyes of the audience, but Community does not let itself off the hook that easily.  We have learned something about Abed and the difficulties he has connecting to people in this episode, so now we need to peel back a layer and acknowledge that this episode has been spoofing something, which Jeff does when he says “Abed, the mafia movie is over.”  Yet another layer is peeled back, though, when Abed recognizes the implications of highlighting his disability and focusing on how he uses movies to connect with people, he turns to Jeff and says “Please don’t do a special episode about me.”  By saying this, he reminds the audience that we are getting dangerously close to making this a corny, sentimental episode with an after-school-special type of message.
   The writers of Community know that audience responds favourably to the show’s Meta humour and in season two, they upped the ante when they legitimately shifted mediums to present their entirely stop motion Christmas episode, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas.”  This episode has little to do with Abed’s autism but it is the plainest example of how mental instability can affect the medium and excuse the hypermediacy at the same time.  In this episode, Abed suffers from an emotionally traumatic experience before the plot begins and, as a coping mechanism, imagines that everyone is a stop motion version of themselves.  The audience sees the entire episode in stop motion too.  When we are introduced to this episode’s extraordinary new format, there is no explanation for the stop motion animation and a full minute of the episode passes before Abed calls attention to it.  He tells them that they have “clearly entered a whole new medium” and proceeds to analyze the new medium, suggesting that the rest of the study group move around more because there is “not much point to being animated if you don’t.”  After the initial exchange about the stop motion, Abed insists that everyone commit to the regular format, “starting with a song.”  He is, of course, referring to the show’s theme song (“At Least It Was Here” by The 88’s) which starts playing moments later.  He sings a holiday-themed parody of the song while dancing and frolicking around campus as Jeff and Britta stare on in amazement.
   Perhaps the most obvious thing to point out here is that, by virtue of Abed being a character within the show, he should not know about the show being a show.  He should not acknowledge or even be aware of the show’s format and he certainly should not know about the theme song.  This is simply unheard of!  There have been shows that feature the cast breaking the fourth wall and dancing for the audience while looking into the camera- The Cosby Show is the best example of this- but rare is the occasion when they will break into song for this.  On The Cosby Show, the dance segment is pre-recorded and the same credit sequence is played for the entire season.  It is also important to note that the characters never address this opening credit sequence at all during the show itself.  This disrupts the distinction between the characters and the actors; we cannot tell who is dancing for us but we do not have to think about it very much.  In this episode of Community, Abed announces that he will do this and then jumps right into the song and dance while the others watch, concerned.
   Though the stop motion animation is eventually explained in the story (and therefore excused) it is something that only Abed and the audience experience.  This is not unusual.  Abed is the bridge between the diegesis and the audience because his autism distances him from the characters he interacts with making him more like the audience anyway.  For instance, the moment Shirley and Annie decide to become campus security in “Science of Illusion,” Abed considers what their dynamic would be like in a “buddy cop movie.”  By stating that one of them would be by-the-book and the other one would be the badass, he creates a competition between them, as they both want to be the badass.  He continues to follow them throughout the episode, mincing no words about his role as the audience.  When asked what he is doing he explains that his cable has gone out and, because he accepts this storyline as entertainment, we not only become hyper-aware that we are watching a television show, we become hyper-aware of the potential television show within that television show.  He goes out of his way to play the role of their audience by bringing refreshments and asking a random passerby to hold his spot for him while he goes to the bathroom.  In real life, people joke about bringing popcorn to actual events because it describes the amusement of the drama that unfolds before their eyes; Abed actually does it.
   While it would be enough of a twist for him to remain an audience member throughout the rest of the episode, Community is notorious for taking things a step or two further than anyone anticipates.  He takes a picture of the girls and declares it their buddy cop movie’s poster and proceeds to direct their shenanigans so they will stick closer to a cop movie formula, even intervening by pretending to be a character in the buddy cop movie.  He is constantly reminding us that what we are watching is not real by remaining critical and unaffected at all times.  Even in the stop motion episode, when we have reached the most fantastical layer (i.e. Abed’s imagination) the fa├žade is a very flimsy one because doors are constantly being opened by Professor Duncan who walks in and out of the fantasy at will, revealing the normal setting of the study room in the background.
   At this point the remediation is piled on at least three layers thick.  We have a television show, which is a remediation of what is performed with real people, forming the first layer.  This is not counting the original medium, the written word.  The next remediation of this is the stop motion animation.  It is a different medium from the usual live action television show, making it a remediation of the original format.  Yet another remediation occurs when the characters enter the admittedly Willy Wonka-esque fantasy world within Abed’s imagination called Winter Wonderland.  The imagination is a remediation because Abed is conveying the story as he sees it through oral story-telling, which is a medium as well.  In other words, we are viewing the remediation of a television show through the remediation of stop motion animation through the remediation of Abed’s imagination as described through spoken word.
   The peculiarity of operating within Abed’s mind is accentuated by Abed’s creative flourishes.  He reimagines his friends as “Christmas versions” of themselves, such as a teddy bear and a toy soldier, in order to enrich his fantasy and to take full advantage of the medium.  The Christmas characters are reflections on the regular characters we are used to and offer a commentary on their personalities.  Abed’s tendency to analyze and evaluate the other members of the study group has been a motif throughout the show’s three seasons.  Because he studies both people and plot conventions, he is great at predicting the course of action his friends will take and how things will eventually turn out.  His analyses of other characters often make their way into his dialogue- for example, he describes Jeff as “10% Dick van Dyke, 20% Sam Malone, 30% Zach Braff on Scrubs, 40% Hillary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry” (“Physical Education”) or in “Social Psychology” when he tells Annie that their relationship resembles that of Chandler and Phoebe on Friends.  However, since nothing is safe on Community- not even Community itself- it does not take long for other characters (namely Jeff) to view Abed’s critical lens through a critical lens.
   In the first episode of the second season, Jeff confronts him about his “gimmick” by calling it “a little season one,” which is both an attack on the Abed character (in his own area of expertise) and a very Meta comment on Community as a show.  The same thing happens again in “Paradigms of Human Memory” when Jeff says “Abed, stop being Meta!  Why do you always have to take whatever happens to us and shove it up its own ass?”  This is clearly a comment that can be made about Community but when the comment comes from within the walls of Greendale, it is most effective when directed at Abed.  Abed is Community, for all intents and purposes.  He is multiple layers of Meta, self-aware, hyper-critical, makes pop culture references a mile a minute, and, perhaps the most important similarity, he is too big for his current medium.
   In the third episode of the first season, “Introduction to Film,” we learn that Abed has trouble expressing himself in real life and requires a different medium to do it in.  Just as Abed finds his niche in the world of film, Community comes to full bloom on the internet as opposed to on television.  This show was created for the internet generation, by the internet generation, about the internet age- its success on the internet was inevitable.  The trouble with TV in the internet age, though, is that people no longer need a television to consume media and actually rely on it very rarely.  Episodes are up on and YouTube the next day and, while that is great for the consumer who finds this more compatible with their schedule, it has a negative effect on the ratings.  The system is outdated and the network has no way to interpret data beyond the realm of who watches the show when it airs.
   NBC’s failure to comprehend that Community is an extremely successful show is largely dependent on the fact that most of the Community community does not tune in at 8pm on Thursdays.  If the network took the internet into account at all, it would realize that all the fanfiction, tribute videos, animated gifs, Twitter trends, and internet memes that can be traced back to some of the show’s one-liners (i.e. “I have the weirdest boner right now.”) show that people want this show to continue.  Its lack of both ratings and awards is a poor indication of how people really feel; Community thrives on the web, and the people behind the show know it.  They cater to their massive fanbase by creating Twitter accounts for the Community characters (which are updated whenever the characters tweet on the show) so it makes sense that they would turn to Twitter to rally up support in the face of permanent cancellation.  The general idea is that if there is enough online support, if enough of the Community community comes out to prove that the show is just fine the way it is, the network will reconsider cutting it from the line-up.  Community is the Abed of television programming, and if the people at NBC just took some time to re-evaluate it, they would find that there is nothing wrong with its social interaction; there is merely a problem with the system, and if ever there was a time when audience persuasion could make a network take notice, now is it.