“Callie is hot. She’s like really sexy, like almost dirty hot,” Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) tells her friend/roommate/erstwhile lover George O’Malley (T.R. Knight) during Grey’s Anatomy season 3 episode “I Am A Tree.” My emotional hackles rose when I heard those objectifying words a few weeks ago. Although I’ve been writing about ABC’s long-running medical drama since 2017, I had never seen 2006 episode “I Am A Tree” or heard Meredith’s squint-inducing “compliment” about George’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez). Up until last month, when I decided to start Grey’s Anatomy from the very beginning, I hadn’t watched any season prior to its thirteenth.
Callie — brought to life by non-binary, Mexican-born actor Sara Ramirez — left Grey’s in 2016 after season 12, which is why I hadn’t witnessed the character at work until my viewing session made it to her season 2 introduction. The Callie I had heard about was a powerful, complicated bisexual Latinx surgeon — a pioneer for queer and Latinx representation on TV. But the Callie that first appeared on Grey’s Anatomy was far from the person I was expecting to see. This Callie was the victim of subtle body-shaming and oversexualizing digs, along with sidelining narratives.
OG Callie, one of modern television’s very first Latina leading ladies, deserved so much better.
Callie enters Grey’s Anatomy as a saviour for George, the go-to Nice Guy at Seattle Grace Hospital (these storylines take place years before anyone ever dreamed the words “Grey Sloan Memorial”). George begins “What Have I Done to Deserve This?,” Callie’s debut chapter, devastated over his failed hookup with Meredith the night prior. The encounter ended when Meredith burst into tears in the middle of sex. Then, overcome with embarrassment over talking to Meredith at work, George falls down the hospital stairs, dislocating his shoulder. Enter Callie. As an orthopedic surgeon, Callie is able to quickly reset George’s injury; as a flirtatious woman — at just the right time! — she inflates George’s wounded ego by calling him “amazing” for a recent miracle surgery and asking if he has a girlfriend. By the end of “Deserve This,” Callie hits on George in a straightforward manner and gives him her number.
During her first few seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, Callie never loses her status as a part of George’s story rather than the driver of her own.
Often, this marginalizing habit leads to offensive conversations around Callie, the sole Latinx person in the regular cast and one of the few Grey's women larger than a sample size (while Ramirez is non-binary, Callie identifies as a woman). As previously mentioned, Meredith refers to Callie as “dirty hot.” No one else on Grey’s Anatomy is seriously described in such a way, despite the entire cast’s near-constant boots-knocking (scrubs-rubbing?). Meredith has had sex all over the hospital. Cristina Yang (Emmy-winner Sandra Oh), who identifies as Asian-American and Jewish, is found straddling her boyfriend Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington) in red lingerie in the same episode Callie is called “dirty hot.”
“And [Callie's] hot for you,” Meredith tells George as he plays a terrible game of darts. “In my opinion, you could keep using the darts as weapons. Or you could go get lucky with the sexy, hot, dirty girl.”
George leaves to find Callie. During a later season 3 episode, George’s frenemy-at-the-time Alex Karev (Justin Chambers) tells him, “She’s hot, but she’s not for you.” Alex’s simple reasoning: “Because she’s hot.” It is difficult not to feel like Grey’s is playing into the sexy Latina trope, which defines Latinx characters by their unbridled innate sexuality (in the face of their much more libidinously conventional and demure white or East Asian counterparts). While these assumptions are detrimental to performers and creativity at large, they also feed into damaging expectations for real-life Latinx femmes. This is particularly true if we’re talking about a character on network TV’s hottest show, as Grey’s Anatomy was during this time in the aughts.
George’s best friend and eventual love interest, Izzie Stevens (Katherine Heigl), adds an even more insidious theme to the in-series discourse around Callie. Izzie, a thin, white, blonde woman, continuously suggests Callie — larger, browner Callie — is suspicious or dangerous. Izzie calls Callie “a total freak” and asks if she could be “hiding something.” It is worth remembering that Mexican immigration was a pressing, controversial topic at this time. Grey’s confusingly suggests Izzie is correct to have such loaded questions about Callie by revealing she inexplicably lives in the basement of Seattle Grace. This is extremely odd since it is eventually confirmed that Callie comes from extreme generational wealth.
In a yet another body-shaming slight, when Callie grabs Meredith during a disagreement, Izzie yells, “She’s very little, and you’re hurting her!” The underlying meaning is that Callie is so much bigger and scarier than teeny, tiny Meredith. If the message isn’t obvious, Izzie goes on to say Callie “went all cage fighter” in the argument.
Still, it’s George who strikes the final emotional blow against Callie, who agrees to abruptly marry him following a family tragedy. During a marital row in 2007’s “Scars and Souvenirs,” Callie says that Izzie is attracted to George and that is why she is undermining their relationship (Callie is correct). “Come on. She’s Izzie. She’s blonde. She’s stacked. She’s a supermodel. I’m George,” he responds, saying Callie’s theory is impossible. Callie asks what that outlooks means for her as his wife. “Come on. You are gorgeous. And you are curvy,” George continues, suggesting that Callie isn’t a “supermodel” at her size or so far out of his league. When George sees Calle’s face fall, he tries to make amends, pitifully adding, “I never thought you would go for me.” His words don’t fix the problem.
Nothing can really fix the problem of such foundational disrespect. Still, this issue continues to plague Callie for 11 more episodes. In that time, George and Izzie begin their affair, Izzie turns Callie into a pesky supporting character in Gizzie’s harmful love story, and Callie learns all about it. Callie recognizes her inability to forgive George for his betrayal while standing in the rain. That storm is the first step to cleansing Callie of all her George baggage. By the end of the season, Callie is forging her own path and realizing her first crush on a woman: surgeon Erica Hahn (Brooke Smith).
Now that is the Callie Torres I kept hearing about.