Shonda Rhimes explains why Arizona got the girl

Love it or hate it, Grey’s Anatomy changed television.

That may seem an overstatement, since Grey’s isn’t in the category of the dramas usually referred to as transformational — The Sopranos, Mad Men or Six Feet Under, for example. But in terms of pop culture, the influence of the show is obvious every time someone says, “Seriously?” or refers to an essential part of the body as the “va-jay-jay.”

Sure, Grey’s often is infuriating, but that’s just proof that we have an emotional investment in the characters and their stories. And for that, we have to thank Shonda Rhimes, who was chosen as one of TV Guide’s “Players” — the people who made the decade’s best TV.

Rhimes takes her place among J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost, Fringe), Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), Dick Wolf (Law & Order, ad infinitum) and others who may be more acceptable in critics’ circles. But Rhimes is the lone female among them and the one who has done more to bring strong, independent women and normal lesbians to network television than any other creator.

In her interview with TVGuide.com, Rhimes talked about finding a color-blind, gender-blind cast:

When I wrote the pilot to Grey’s, I didn’t put race to anybody; there was no ethnicity. I basically said we’re just going to bring in great actors and whoever is right for the part will get the role … People would come in and we’d have a black woman, a blonde woman and an Asian woman all competing for the same role. The only tweaking I did was I asked Sandra Oh if she wanted her character to have a Korean last name, but the character remained exactly the same.

The diversity wasn’t planned, but was just a result of casting the right actors and letting the characters be.

A lot of other people who are older than me fought very hard so that I could get to write a television show and let people just be people. We don’t have a black character on a show and just talk about it all the time that they’re black, or they have these shoes because they’re black. Characters just get to be characters.

And that’s probably why a main character turned out to be bisexual. But Callie’s coming out process was not always smooth (as is the case in real life) and Rhimes apparently was not quite prepared for the reaction.

I learned that we were in the awkward, strange, uncomfortable position of being the only network show with lesbian characters and when you’re the only, everyone’s staring at you and dissecting everything you do. Really we were just trying to find the most organic way for the characters to play out their relationships.

What about Callica vs. Calzona?

I didn’t read or know about the feedback with Callie and Erica. What I was looking for with Arizona was a pediatric surgeon and then I noticed that there’s really good chemistry [between Callie and Arizona]; they play really well together. There’s a little spark there that feels interesting. Let’s put them together romantically and see what happens.

To me, the difference in the relationships is that Erica came out at the same time Callie was discovering she was bisexual and defining herself. Arizona is a character who’s known who she is since she was a teenager and is very comfortable with who she is. She’s not struggling at all; she already knows her place, which I liked. I felt like there was something about being a strong, confident lesbian character that was interesting.

OK, I don’t quite buy that Rhimes didn’t read the Callica feedback, but I do appreciate that putting Callie with a confident, out lesbian allows the writers to more organically boost Callie’s security in her own sexual orientation. Of course, it helps that I love Arizona and Callie together.

Read the rest of Rhimes’ interview and let us know what you think. Do you agree that Shonda Rhimes and Grey’s Anatomy changed television? Who do you think should be on the list of the decade’s best TV creators?

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