Grissom & Sara

// 18 February 2009

Crime Scene Investigation has long been the televisual highlight of the week in my house, so it was with some sadness that I tuned in last week to witness the apparent demise of one of the show’s greatest assets: the relationship between team supervisor Gil Grissom (William Peterson) and CSI Sara Sidle (Jorja Fox). What made this portrayal of heterosexuality so notable was not anything intrinsically subversive about its set-up (older, more powerful guy gets it on with younger, more attractive woman) but the refreshingly non-formulaic way it was represented.

From the earliest seasons of CSI Grissom and Sara had ‘chemistry’, but in the six (six!) series it took to reveal they were having some kind of intimate relationship the story arcs of the show had not revolved around the kind of tedious will-they-won’t-they narrative forced down our throats by the likes of Ross and Rachel (Friends) or Carrie and Big (Sex And The City). Grissom and Sara’s relationship was not presented as the pinnacle of human fulfilment for either of them, neither did we have to endure them whining about one another in homosocial friendship situations, which is the ploy TV usually uses to subordinate all other significant relationships, especially women’s, to the search for romantic love.

Grissom and Sara disobeyed the rules of heterosexual romantic plot development by never hating each other, then deciding they were madly in love and instantly getting married. Instead they actually had both personal and professional respect for one another, and genuine shared interests (in, you know, searching hotel rooms for semen stains and peering intently at corpses). Obvious though this sounds when it comes to finding a compatible partner, it’s amazing how infrequently we actually get to see it.

When the time finally came to reveal that Grissom and Sara were more than just ‘good friends’ the announcement was unusually ambiguous. There were no grand declarations, no farcical misunderstandings, and no last minute dashes to the airport/train station to retrieve a fleeing lover in the nick of time. We saw them together, outside of work, in dressing gowns, talking. The implication was of post-coital soul-bearing, but it the details were left entirely unclear. The viewer could not presume either that this was their ‘first time’, nor that their relationship would be/had been necessarily normatively sexual.

It’s this opaqueness which gives the Grissom/Sara relationship a distinctly queer character. The near invisibility of their intimacy continued throughout the following series of the show where we were given only glimpses, mere suggestions, as to what they might be up to after their shifts were over. Such a portrayal is not only characteristic of the kind of subtextual longing that is the subject of much slash and fan fiction, but also of the hidden-in-plain-sight mode of representing gay and lesbian relationships in much mainstream television – we only saw them kiss once (rather chastely), and personal remarks remained firmly coded. By the end of season seven, when Sara’s kidnapping forced their relationship into the open, Grissom even had to literally ‘come out’ to the rest of the team.

Perhaps I am attaching too much significance to what I see as the mildly progressive non-normativity of Grissom/Sara. Should I really be more concerned about the absence of out queer characters on CSI, or its persistent pathologisation of ethnic/sexual minorities? However, while it lasted Grissom and Sara seemed to offer the possibility of doing things differently. Maybe though we should be adhering to the CSI maxim of following the evidence: in the context of such an ambiguous relationship, can we assume the end is really the end?

Comments From You

Anne Onne // Posted 18 February 2009 at 1:21 pm

Hi, welcome!

I don’t watch CSI (the not even remotely realistic TV-forensics of most shows puts me off watching them more than occasionally) so I’ll focus on your last question rather than the subject.

I think it’s not either/or. I think it’s important to point out the bad points of a particular series, because we want things to improve, and because pretty much every series has problematic scenes/ideas/framing.

However, that needn’t stop us from enjoying what may just be entertaining, whether it be the problem-solving, the friendships, the romance, or whatever. It also need’t stop us from really appreciating the progressive elements, and recommending them on that account. Whilst I think complaining about problematic elements and boycotting and discouraging people from going for a non-progressive series is good, it’s only half the answer. I find making a point of praising that which is good, recommending it, and pointing out how much it means to be also very important. Both because we need something to enjoy and not focus on the negative constantly, and also because this may do more to encourage movement in that direction.

harpymarx // Posted 18 February 2009 at 2:18 pm

I am a big fan of CSI: Las Vegas. And found your analysis useful.

Indeed the Grissom and Sara storyline and discourse didn’t fulfill the usual stereotypes of ‘will they, won’t they’.. None of the traditional gender roles being asigned (yes, older man younger woman but there was always a respect and equality). To be honest, it was kinda a breath of fresh air. Neither of the characters generated the Hollywood standards of, ‘boy meets gurl, boy and gurl have misundertanding, boy and gurl split up…..’ Yada Yada, you get the drift.

Grissom and Sara’s relationship evolved and developed over the series. Both, again, don’t fulfill any expectations or stereotypes, both have an oddness of character (which I very much like) and are singular. Both have very little in back stories or ‘baggage’ so no analysing their past histories. But they come together, and I must admit I did find the scene where she shaves hiis beard with a cut throat razor kinda intense and passionate (as it is based on loyalty and trust) and it beats the usual choreographed sex scenes.

And now they have split up, Grissom was last seen staying at Lady Heather’s. And there has been an ongoing story arc about Grissom’s and Lady Heather’s friendship. It will be interesting how this develops.

Though I have to say I have developed a interest in ‘Dexter’ on ITV…Now that deserves some analysis on human relationships and behaviour.

Cara // Posted 18 February 2009 at 3:24 pm

Abolsutely, Anne Onne – it’s not either/ or. It’s possible for some aspects of a media to be progressive, and some not.

Take Friends, since Bill mentioned it – now while it’s no paragon of progressiveness (especially Rachel not even *considering* a termination when pregnant with Emma, come on; see also the way the guys are made fun of if they do anything outside masculine norms) there *were* elements of progressiveness (such as the way traditional masculinity was mocked, too. & all the female characters were pretty strong & independent, even if they *did* eventually all settle down into heteronormative relationships).

Sorry if that’s derailing, I haven’t seen CSI.

Elena1701 // Posted 18 February 2009 at 8:10 pm

I also really enjoyed the portrayal of the Grissom/Sara relationship for much the same reasons, particularly the understated way it was shown on the show. Once the whole team knew about the relationship it was mentioned more often, but this was still fairly subtle, and, as you say, it was different to the typical relationships shown on television. So I was sad to see it ending too – you’re not alone!

chem_fem // Posted 19 February 2009 at 10:06 am

I’ve not seen this show, but can I ask an off topic question. Why is the male character referred to by his last name and the female one her first?

I don’t want to accuse you personally, having not seen the show that is probably what they are called on TV. I just thought it interesting that the male character was referred to in a way that was more formal than the female one.

Ellie // Posted 19 February 2009 at 1:54 pm

I’m a CSI: Las Vegas fan and I agree, I really like Sara and Grissom’s relationship too, well I actually really like both the characters mainly, and their relationship is borne out of their characters. It wouldn’t sit right with who they are as individuals to be in the kind of het relationship you usually see on popular dramas.

It’s great to see a sexual relationship where the woman is intelligent and respected and loved for something other than being attractive.

Bill Savage // Posted 19 February 2009 at 6:02 pm

Harpymarx, I also enjoyed the shaving. And the bee-keeping outfits! I’m not sure what to make of the Lady Heather situation. In the early seasons I thought she and Grissom were doing/had done something, but like with Sara I’m not at all sure it would be anything heteronormative… and I thought that was quite interesting. But in her last couple of appearances she’s been totally domesticated and (to an extent) normalised which I was a bit disappointed by! We shall have to wait and see how it develops…

Bill Savage // Posted 19 February 2009 at 6:10 pm

Chem_Fem, Hi, I’m glad you asked this because I was aware of it while I was writing. Basically that is how they are referred to in the show, so I was just replicating that. In case you’re interested, two of the other main male characters are also known by their last names (Brass, Hodges), but all the others, male and female, are generally referred to by their first names. So there you go, make of it what you will!

Anna // Posted 19 February 2009 at 6:25 pm

I never noticed that before.. Mind, the trend is somewhat reversed in CSI Miami as the leading male character (Horatio) is often referred to as ‘H’ (pretty informal) and one of the female CSIs is generally called ‘Boa Vista’ (her surname). Can’t believe I’m analysing CSI this much!

Bill Savage // Posted 19 February 2009 at 6:29 pm

Anne Onne, this is totally it, I mean I don’t know about you but I don’t think there exists a TV programme or film that is completely unproblematic in terms of representation so you kind of have to celebrate what you can or engaging with popular culture would be unendingly depressing! I feel like I’m ususally complaining about something, which was why I tried to single Grissom/Sara out as something that was not only entertaining, but also different and in some ways progressive!

Just don’t get me started on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit – now there is a show I will actively watch in order to be disappointed as my feminist beliefs are betrayed before my very eyes!

Bill Savage // Posted 19 February 2009 at 6:33 pm

Anna, I’m sure there is an argument to be made about referring to people by their surname being a mark of respect or deferal to their authority and that it is more common for male characters, but yes, there are exceptions. Also, I don’t think it’s possible to analyse CSI “too” much!

Bill Savage // Posted 19 February 2009 at 6:42 pm

Cara, yes, I am in total agreement with you in principle, and then we can agree to disagree over the interpretation of any particular show…can you tell I find it hard to read anything progressive into the construction of gender in Friends?!! Having said that though, I have probably seen every episode…more than once…

Anne Onne // Posted 19 February 2009 at 8:19 pm

‘I mean I don’t know about you but I don’t think there exists a TV programme or film that is completely unproblematic in terms of representation so you kind of have to celebrate what you can or engaging with popular culture would be unendingly depressing!’

Yes, SO true. Every series will occasionally make me wince and criticise, some much more often than others. I criticise a lot, and it doesn’t ruin my enjoyment of things (or I’d be truly depressed by now for lack of entertainment that aligns with my beliefs) but it gets so tiring to focus only on the negatives. We all need a break, and to enjoy something.

And I genuinely like when they do something more progressive than normal, it makes me feel that I and others not whitehetmale count. It’s a big thing to see something progressive, sadly. Also, it normally aligns with good character development and an actually interesting plot, so that adds to the enjoyment.

I find the best way to get people to see the difference is to recommend good things and explain why they are good. A lot of the time I felt uneasy about things that were problematic, without being able to put my finger on it exactly, because the problems were so wide spread. But when I started reading criticism that held up good examples, and experienced and compared them, I could really feel the difference. A lot of people accept really sloppy, unimaginative (by which I mean kyriarchical) entertainment because they haven’t realised there can be anything else. The success of creators like Miyazaki shows that people can genuinely value interesting female characters, we’re just told we don’t really want them, or get given sexified ‘she’s a kind of tough hot babe who lives to be a mother and will be saved by him in the end’ and told they’re strong female characters when they really are not.

And don’t get me started on Law and Order: a more self-congratulatory vehicle for misogyny in the guise of crime drama there has never been, as far as I’m aware. I especially like how they usually get a female character to voice the most misogynist views (because women apparently CAN’T be sexist!) and always frame the male characters as moderate, sensible, and right. Even when they’re basically not.

SavingSaraSidle // Posted 20 February 2009 at 7:51 am

I’m a huge CSI: LV fan, as you can tell from my website =D.

To chem_fem – (to add to what Bill said) Hodges, Brass, and Grissom are all referred to because this is how they answer on the phone and the police radio. It’d be just like if you said Detective _____. You use the last name for these situations.

I love GSR (Gun Shot Residue aka Grissom Sara Romance) because of it’s subtlety. I am young (19), but I can’t stand all the sex that is thrown in our faces now in movies and television. GSR was the epitome of what a tasteful relationship should be, and I hope GSR returns in the future.

Cara // Posted 20 February 2009 at 12:28 pm

Bill, thanks for the reply – I can practically quote episodes of Friends!

I dunno; the construction of gender in Friends isn’t without problems, but…it certainly is an improvement on, well, name most other US comedies/ dramas (*cough* SATC *cough*) where most guys are shown as commitment-phobic, emotional retards, borderline emotionally abusive…and women are obsessed with shopping and getting married….*sigh*.

But yes of course we can agree to disagree :-)

Beth // Posted 21 February 2009 at 12:22 am

I feel the same way about Grissom and Sara, but I think that otherwise gender norms are pretty well reinforced throughout the CSI world, particularly with regard to victims. Five just ran an advert showing how death was ‘not always ugly’ or some such. Cue lots of conventionally attractive dead women in their underwear.

I think it’s a show that tries very hard to be progressive, but hasn’t quite got there. For example, trans women are referred to by the correct pronoun, but always presented as victims. Women can get to positions of authority, but never quite to the top. Women are almost never the ones to chase and tackle to the floor a suspect on the run (something that happens on ever CSI:NY episode). Anyone engaging in non-normative sex is regarded as perverted an an automatic suspect. Even gay and lesbian people are rare, even in NY.

But for all my gripes, I do enjoy that the show an enormous amount.

Bill Savage // Posted 24 February 2009 at 8:54 am

You are totally right. The representation of trans-people in these types of shows is generally atrocious. They often start out using the correct pronouns then when they “discover” the “true” gender (usually on the autopsy table) they get all confused and start saying “…he..errr…she…it?”. So irritating.

Bill Savage // Posted 24 February 2009 at 8:59 am

I so wanted to refer to it as GSR but I thought no one would get it! If you ask me CSI hasn’t been the same since Sara Sidle left, she was always my favourite too!

Bill Savage // Posted 24 February 2009 at 9:15 am

Yes, again! Thanks for commenting. I never got back on why you shouldn’t get me started on L&O: Special Victims Unit, which is the programme in this genre which I feel has the most “special” relationship to feminism. It just seems that every week they take a crime which is statistically overwhelmingly perpetrated by men against women/children/gays/trans-people and turn it round so they commit the crime, so prostitutes kill their clients, women abuse children and so on. Then, despite being a “special victims” unit they investigate said crimes with all the tact and subtlety of a pitbull. You’d have thought they would have had specialist training in dealing with special victims, yet whenever they encounter trans-people or anyone with any kind of fetish-based sex life or whatever it’s like they’re discovering an alien lifeform. It is so incredibly annoying on so many levels, but the constant repudiation of any kind of feminist analysis of crime/violence is possibly its most notable feature. That said I still enjoy the subtextual sexual tension between quite-dykey Detective Olivia Benson and occasionally feminist Assistant District Attorney Casey Novak!

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