Leave it to a Shonda Rhimes show to give us one of the most definitive episodes of television about consent that I've ever seen. This week's Grey's Anatomy took on the topic from multiple angles—and the result was incredibly emotional, powerful, and, I hope, educational.
The episode centers around Dr. Jo Karev (Camilla Luddington) in two different story lines. In flashbacks we see Jo meet her birth mother, the woman who abandoned her at a fire station as a baby. But after finally letting her mother know how much resentment and anger she still feels, Jo learns she was the product of the rape of her teenage mother.
Then, back at Grey Sloan Memorial, Jo meets a patient named Abby (Khalilah Joi), who she believes has been abused in a domestic situation. Jo, herself a victim of domestic abuse, handles the situation with care—and soon she learns Abby has also been sexually assaulted.
When Jo brings in another female doctor, Teddy Altman (Kim Raver), to help with the situation, they make sure Abby knows she is in a safe space where she can talk if she wants to. Eventually Abby reveals she was raped after leaving a bar—but she's afraid to tell her husband as well as the police, because she knows all too well that her actions may be twisted into a victim-blaming scenario. The portrayal of Abby's reaction to her trauma is powerful to watch, and so is the doctors' desire to give her agency in her treatment while holding their own emotions in check.
Once they begin collecting evidence for a rape kit (after Abby gives her OK), the process is shown in heartbreaking detail. What stood out to me is how the doctors ask their patient at each step whether she's ready to proceed. They do nothing until they hear her verbally say, "Yes." And once they do have her permission, they are methodical yet still sensitive as they swab the bite marks on her skin and take samples from inside her body. It's even more gut-wrenching when you consider that it's possible some women may not receive the same kind of care. “What you did today, with Abby, that was not protocol…it should be," Teddy later tells Jo.
But when it's time to take Abby to surgery, she tells the doctors that every man she sees reminds her of her rapist. So the women of Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital line the hallway with female faces—doctors, nurses, orderlies, administrative staff—and physically block male staff from entering space. All so Abby can feel safe. At this point, I sobbed. It was an amazing visual of women standing up for other women.
The show adds another layer of consent when Dr. Ben Warren (Jason Winston George) is shown having a talk about it with his adolescent stepson, Tuck. "You pay attention to the girl you're with," he tells the young man. "You need to care about her feelings, her joy, at least as much as you care about your own. And she gets to change her mind at any time. If she says 'stop' or stops having fun, you just plain stop. Time out. Game over." It really is that simple—and I'm grateful to the show I've loved for all these years for stating it so plainly.
One big reason Grey's Anatomy was able to handle this episode in such a sensitive and multifaceted way? Because it's led by women, including Rhimes and showrunnner Krista Vernoff. This episode, aptly titled "Silent All These Years" after the Tori Amos song about a sexual assault, was also written by a woman, Elisabeth Finch, and directed by a woman, Debbie Allen. It was inspired, in part, by Christine Blasey Ford's testimony in the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings. "How it didn’t mean anything, it hurt our souls," Vernoff told Entertainment Weekly. "I went to the writers and said, 'The message that has just been sent to all young women is that consent doesn’t matter. We have an opportunity here to teach men and women about consent and to talk about how lasting and impactful rape can be for generations.'"
Finch took inspiration from a visit she'd made to the Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center, where they make sure no stranger is in the hallways as a survivor is passing through. "She pitched this scene to me as the 'army of awesome,' which was lining the hallways with women who would just stand there and witness this survivor’s journey to protect her," Vernoff said. "It’s so rare to get that kind of representation in TV, that looks at the fallout of violence and focuses on ways we can support and heal each other rather than further damage each other." She added that as people read the script, they asked if they could be involved in the scene. It was deeply personal for the women on her staff.
"There was reverence in that hallway," Vernoff said. "The feeling that every woman in that room had some kind of relationship to this story was simultaneously devastating and powerfully healing. In this moment we got to say, 'There are better ways we can all come together. We can witness each other. We can change.'"
It could be felt through my television screen as well—and while it was gut-wrenching to watch, it was necessary. I'm grateful for it, as are many others:
Abby Gardner is a regular contributor to Glamour. Follow her on Twitter @abbygardner.