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Last week on Grey's

A 12-year-old black boy named Eric, his devastated parents and the police who shot him in the neck: in a story that seemed straight out of CNN, last week’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy featured a plot to which many viewers could relate. Episode writer Zoanne Clack has described the episode, titled “Personal Jesus,” as “an amalgamation of stories that were out in the media and personal experiences.” Clack’s goal, especially as an underrepresented female screenwriter in Hollywood, was to tackle “unconscious bias” in policing and how it drives the rates of police brutality when it goes unchecked, putting black lives like Eric’s at risk. 

Coming on the heels of an episode centered on domestic violence that aired the week before and another episode the former week in which an intern on the show comes out as transgender, the serious subject matter of the newest episode surprises few. Episodes featuring social issues like police brutality have appeared in other shows as well, such as the police sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine and the police drama Law & Order: SVU. Even preceding television, other forms of media like the 1940 comedy film starring Charlie Chaplin which satirized Nazi fascism, The Great Dictator, have also featured explicit stances on prominent social issues. Storytelling has always been used as a tool for sharing narratives and spreading awareness regarding issues, and shows like Grey's Anatomy are only its more recent platforms. 

Though these shows sometimes may seem as just a means of relaxation after a long day or an escape from real-life obligations and issues, the stories their writers choose to tell can do far more than just entertain. For mainstream viewers, especially those critical of anti-police brutality movements like Black Lives Matter, episodes like "Personal Jesus" connects them to experiences from which their privilege shields them. Television creates a platform separated just enough from reality that the perspectives it presents does not incite as much backlash in comparison to real-life narratives, but not so much that viewers forget about the real-life implications. 

"Personal Jesus" and similar television shows walk the line between fiction and reality. The show’s writers, for example, purposely named the child victim 'Eric' as a nod to real-life police brutality victim Eric Garner, whose murder galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014. This tactic generates nuanced conversations about social issues like police brutality even outside the living room—all under the guise of television discourse. 

To this end, the larger the audience is, the more effective television becomes. Shows with fan bases as massive as Grey's Anatomy or Law & Order wield more power due to their reach. However, just as the size of such platforms enables television to spread diverse, nuanced narratives, the mishandling of complex social issues can, at best, fall flat. At worst, they can perpetuate existing prejudices and stereotypes. Grey's Anatomy has largely avoided this by working closely with advocacy groups like GLAAD (the LGBTQ non-profit centered on media representation), which is evident in such decisions like casting a transgender actor to play a transgender character on the show.

In short, Grey's Anatomy has done its research and has included in the show-making process the voices of those it seeks to accurately represent, creating episodes that challenge its viewers to think critically and empathetically. Easily digestible for a mainstream audience, its thoughtful portrayals of social issues have the potential to change more minds and impact more lives.


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