Ellen Pompeo Recalls Not Being Allowed to Say 'Vagina' on Grey's Anatomy: 'There Was a Big Fight'
"You can say 'penis' 97 times but you can't say 'vagina'?" the actress recalls of the arguments behind the scenes during the early days of the series
"Vagina" used to be a no-no word on the set of Grey's Anatomy.
On Thursday, Ellen Pompeo appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! following the medical drama's (shocking) season 17 premiere. While chatting about the big series return, the star also recalled when studio executives tried to stop the writers from having characters say "vagina" back in season 1.
The example of past censorship was even more stark since one 2005 episode, titled "The First Cut Is the Deepest," saw Pompeo's Meredith Grey carrying a severed penis around the hospital on ice the entire broadcast.
"There was a big fight — I may be butchering this story but — there was a big fight because with standards and practices, which I'm sure you deal with on occasion, you can say 'penis,' but you couldn't say 'vagina,' at the time," Pompeo, 51, told Kimmel.
"And that's why ... That's where the term 'va-jay-jay' came from. [Creator Shonda Rhimes] made up 'va-jay-jay' because standards and practices would not let us say 'vagina.' And Shonda's argument was like, 'We said "penis" in that episode 97 times. You can say "penis" 97 times but you can't say "vagina"?' "
"They were like, 'Yep, yep, you can't say "vagina." ' So she came up with 'va-jay-jay' and that's how that problem was solved," added Pompeo.
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Rhimes, 50, spoke to O, The Oprah Magazine back in 2006 about the instance of censorship and how she decided to start using the vagina euphemism on the show. She said she overheard one of the Grey's assistant saying "va-jay-jay" and thought it was "the greatest phrase I'd ever heard."
"The network said we were using the word 'vagina' too much. I kept saying, 'It's a medical show! We can't say "vagina," but we can say "penis" a million times in an episode?' " Rhimes told Winfrey at the time. "In one of our first shows, we used the word 'penis' about 32 times — but when we said 'vagina' twice, the broadcast-standards people blinked. We fought that and won — but 'va-jay-jay' is our favorite alternate term."
At the end of the season 17 premiere of the beloved ABC drama, fans were shocked to see Patrick Dempsey's character, Derek Shepherd, back sharing the screen with Ellen Pompeo's Meredith Grey. Though it was a dream sequence inside Meredith's imagination (Derek died in an April 2015 episode), the emotional moment was a major twist — one producers were careful to keep secret behind the scenes.
RELATED VIDEO: Grey's Anatomy Showrunner Says Keeping Patrick Dempsey's Surprise Return Secret 'Was an Epic Feat'
"I have to say that it was an epic feat, the keeping of this secret," showrunner Krista Vernoff told Deadline. "I didn’t send cuts to the studio and network that included that last scene. I didn’t have writers’ assistants in the writers’ room for the last couple of months. There were writers who didn’t know we were doing this on that staff. Most of the actors didn’t know we were doing this. The crew didn’t know we were doing this when they showed up on the day."
Also talking to Deadline, Dempsey reflected on the longevity of the drama series and being back on set, saying, "It’s crazy how much time has passed, but it really was so comforting, and lovely, and inspiring to go back, and to work together, to see everybody. It really was so open too; that was the thing, really — people were very, I think, vulnerable in a positive way, where we were all grateful to be there and to be together."
Grey's Anatomy airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on ABC