With Isaiah Washington's apology, the Official Entertainment Remorse Machine has kicked in -- and nothing is solved

By Mark Harris
Updated January 25, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST
Isaiah Washington, Grey's Anatomy
Credit: Karen Neal

Mark Harris on Isaiah Washington’s apology

For a while, Isaiah Washington was actually going to get away with it. I’m talking about how things felt before the Official Entertainment Remorse Machine kicked in — the denial, then the half-baked small apology, then the more impressive, bigger, ”I’m scared” apology (the one that goes, ”I have sinned, I must look deep inside myself and deal with my issues, I shall summon leaders of the offended community to meet with me”) with a side order of official corporate rebuke, presumably followed by regret-soaked on-air interviews and a group hug. For three months, all the evidence suggested that everyone — Washington, Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes, Touchstone TV, and ABC — had decided it was no big deal for an actor to refer to a gay colleague as a ”faggot” on the set and that if everyone just averted their eyes, the word would become a tiny speed bump that a show could bounce over without looking back.

Forgive my skepticism, but I’m not a huge fan of apologies that come only after an evident threat to one’s livelihood; I have difficulty believing that they spring spontaneously from a troubled soul. After all, it wasn’t until Washington used the word again (during his ”denial” at a press session after the Golden Globes), and two of his castmates called him on it, that a public outcry forced the issue. After Mel Gibson’s Driving While Anti-Semitic bust, he was probably still looking for a post-mug-shot clean shirt when acts of contrition started flying out of his publicist’s fax machine. And Michael Richards still had his own racist slurs ringing in his ears when he threw himself on the mercy of David Letterman. So why did it take a producer, a show, a network, and a corporation such an unconscionably long time to locate their sense of the right thing to do?

If I sound grudging about Washington’s apology, it’s not because I don’t believe him (I suppose time will tell if he’s sincere). It’s because now that he’s started the Machine, everyone is reading from the same script, and we already know how this trite old plot plays out. Pop culture (and that includes all of us who are pop culture consumers) has become addicted to a cycle of misbehavior followed by regret followed by a warm wallow in forgiveness in which we agree to pretend that saying you’re sorry undoes whatever was done. And anyone who isn’t willing to play that game gets labeled a bad sport or a sore winner.

So, at the risk of sounding uncharitable, let me hold off on accepting that apology for a moment. Considering that everyone in a position to do something about it was content to let the word faggot hang in the air all winter, I’m sure they’ll indulge me if I mention a few regrets of my own. I’m sorry that the first time this happened, Shonda Rhimes, whose commitment to on-air diversity is evident (even if the evidence stops short of including an actual gay staffer at Seattle Grace), thought it was okay to write this off as a private affair rather than immediately let the many offended fans of her show know how hateful she thought that epithet was. I’m sorry that T.R. Knight, the target of Washington’s slur who came out following the incident, didn’t have the instant, unqualified, and loudly public (because that matters) support of every one of his colleagues. I’m sorry that the overall non-reaction to Washington’s behavior helped to reinforce a perception that some quarters of the African-American community tolerate homophobia, a stereotype that is only going to divide us more unless both groups fight it at every turn. I’m sorry that it took ABC half the TV season to remind itself of its corporate responsibility. I’m sorry that not a single sponsor of Grey’s Anatomy had the guts to speak up, even last week. I’m sorry that we in the gay community didn’t make a lot more noise about this a lot sooner. I’m sorry that so many actors choose — and it is, whatever they tell themselves, a self-serving choice — to stay in the closet, since the more out actors there are, the less okay homophobia in entertainment becomes. I’m sorry that there aren’t more gay characters on television: I don’t want quotas or tokens, but I do think that shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Lost and Heroes, which pride themselves on the variety of their ensembles, could expand their vision to better reflect their world, since series ranging from The Office to The Wire have shown that it’s not so hard. Most of all, I’m sorry that the rerun ritual that Washington’s apology invites us to watch is likely to obscure all this.

Anyone who calls a colleague a faggot and manages not to get fired should count himself lucky. But Washington’s use of the word didn’t break anything that wasn’t already broken, and his apology won’t fix it any more than his dismissal. For all the progress that has been made fighting homophobia, and for all the ways in which the entertainment industry has led that fight, we clearly have miles to go. The problem is a lot bigger than Isaiah Washington, and the solution doesn’t come gift-wrapped in the words ”I’m sorry.”