Between Derek dying, watching April and Jackson suffer the loss of their baby and closing the book on Arizona and Callie’s marriage, we were all a little worse for wear coming into the Season 12 premiere of ABC’s medical monolith, Grey’s Anatomy.
Although showrunner Shonda Rhimes and several cast members have been hinting all summer that this season would see the return of a lighter, happier Grey’s, we all knew there would be tears, too. It’s Grey’s — there are always tears.
And, well, Rhimes came out swinging tonight, proving that she is capable of delivering hilarity and heartbreak in an action-packed one-hour arc. But where she really succeeded in the Season 12 premiere was in making a powerful statement.
Of the several highly anticipated fall premieres we’ve covered this week, most have proven to be bound by a deeper, more socially conscious sinew than years past. Empire addressed the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality and mass incarceration. Nashville tackled topics like postpartum depression and sexual identity crises. While this generally seemed to be well-received, some fans argue that these shows are politicizing too much — that TV is a form of escapism and shouldn’t involve being “preached at.”
Only, here’s the thing: Social commentary in mass media is important. I’d go so far as to tender it has never been more important — we are byproducts of a digital age and, for younger generations, pop culture is the most palatable way by which to receive these messages.
This is where the Season 12 premiere of Grey’s Anatomy was able to truly shine.
Instead of playing the shrinking violet with their first big medical case out of the gate, Grey’s opted to center the episode on two young girls who’ve been hit by a train. At first, we aren’t aware that they know each other. We don’t realize they are in love.
But they are. In a sweet exchange between one of the young girls and Dr. Callie Torres (played by Sara Ramirez, who was brilliant in this episode), the girl confesses, “We just wanted to be together, dead or alive.”
They have been bullied and they have been abused. They’ve been ridiculed and socially ostracized. One of the girls, Jesse, has a particularly narrow-minded mother who has resorted to combing through her daughter’s belongings and threatening to send her to a gay conversion camp — the latter of which spurs a tense standoff with Callie, who asserts, “You can’t pray away the gay.”
Contrary to some remarkably uninformed Twitter users, Grey’s doesn’t have a quote-unquote gay agenda. It has an anti-bullying agenda. It has a human agenda. Does that include shedding light on the insufferable bigotry the LGBTQIA community is subjected to on a daily basis? Sure.
As the young girls fight to survive, other stories emerge. Dr. Maggie Pierce shares that she was relentlessly bullied as a child for being petite and having a lisp. People called her “Little Maggot Pierf.” We know from Callie’s backstory in previous seasons her family has been intolerant of her sexuality, and even Karev confided in Jo that he was bullied for being “the fat kid in class.”
The premiere’s story line clearly struck a nerve with fans, many of whom empathized or personally identified with the persecuted girls.
In one of the most dramatic moments of the episode (besides the moment Maggie threw a punch!), Jesse’s father reaches his breaking point, yelling at his wife, “I don’t care if she’s gay. I care if she’s loved, and I care if she’s happy, and that’s what you should care about, too. What’s wrong with you that you don’t?”
And therein lies the crux of it. I care if she’s loved, and I care if she’s happy. Such is the stuff we should all be focusing on. Especially since teen suicide is the third leading cause of death among young adults aged 15 to 24 — and LGBTQ teens are five times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual peers.
Five times more likely. That’s not a misprint, although I certainly wish it was.
This statistic was humanized earlier this year when the suicide of a transgender teen made national headlines. In January, 17-year-old “Josh” Alcorn posted a note to Tumblr imploring parents to love their children unconditionally. She signed the note by the name she knew in her heart, Leelah, and then stepped in front of tractor-trailer at 2:15 in the morning.
So, yes. Tonight’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy was courageous and important.
Watching the episode, I couldn’t help but think of the old story about a man who used to walk along the beach each day before work. One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked in the distance and saw a small child seemingly dancing in the surf. As he got closer, he realized the child wasn’t dancing but, rather, bending down, picking up starfish and tossing them back into the sea so they wouldn’t die when the tide receded. “But, young man, do you not realize there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference,” the man said.
The child bent down, gently scooped up another starfish and tossed it into the ocean. As it sunk beneath the breakers, he said, “But I made a difference for that one.”
And that, my friends, is the essence of tonight’s episode.