‘Grey’s Anatomy’: Study Reports That Shonda Rhimes’ Push Back—Against Executives at ABC Not Wanting to Show Graphic Details of a Rape Kit—Was Worth It

Critics of ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy often suggest that it is a soap opera that has been on the air for far too long. However, the series is still impacting the country positively after over 15 years. Researchers recently found that the series caused a significant spike in calls to a sexual abuse hotline as well as vital conversations about rape and abuse on social media.

Let’s take a look at how Shonda Rhimes helped to raise awareness across the country by pushing execs to allow her to show essential details on air.

Kelly McCreary and the female staff of Grey-Sloan
Kelly McCreary with the female ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ team | Mitch Haaseth/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

Which episode of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ caused the spike in calls to a sexual abuse hotline?

The Grey’s Anatomy episode, named after a Tori Amos song, “Silent All These Years,” aired Mar. 28, 2019. It explored consent and was inspired by Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. 

Two storylines intertwine in the powerfully moving episode. In one, Jo Wilson (Camilla Luddington) finds out she was the product of rape, and that is why her mother left her at a fire station.

In another scene, Jo—a victim of domestic abuse herself—meets a patient named Abby (Khalilah Joi), who she soon finds out was sexually assaulted after leaving a bar. Abby is afraid to tell her husband or the police, worried it will become a victim-blaming scenario. Jo and Teddy Altman (Kim Raver) give her a safe space where she can talk if she chooses to.

Abby eventually gives the okay to begin collecting evidence for a rape kit. The doctors take great care in asking her at each step whether she is ready to proceed or not—emphasizing the importance of consent. Following the collection, Abby tells Jo and Teddy that she is afraid of all men.

In the extremely emotional scene that follows, the two doctors collect all of the women staff they can find to line the hallway. Then they form two lines of women standing up for each other, blocking any men from entering—while they wheel Abby to surgery.

What specifically did ABC’s Executives want Rhimes to leave out of the episode?

After a script of Grey’s Anatomy is written, it is then sent to ABC for review. They often return it with standard notes such as “Don’t be too explicit in your language” or “Don’t be too gory.” However, this episode received particular notes according to showrunner, Krista Vernoff

“Please don’t show any fluid on the Q-tips” read notes initially from ABC’s Broadcast Standards and Practices, regarding the episode. “Please don’t show any bodily fluids under the blue lights,” they instructed. 

“Shonda wrote back a pretty passionate response,” Vernoff told The Hollywood Reporter, “of the myriad [of] ways that networks are willing to show actual violence. [She added] that what we were doing here was the medical process that happens in the wake of violence and they were trying to tell us we couldn’t show it. She said, ‘Respectfully, I decline these notes.'”

“Ultimately, ABC understood that she was right,” continued Vernoff. “I really give them credit that they came back and said, ‘You’re right. You can proceed as scripted.'”

The ABC reviewer was then invited to be apart of the hallway of women during the very powerful scene, and she came. Nearly the entire female writing staff of Grey’s Anatomy was present in the hallway. The female executive producers on the show and from Shondaland as well as most of the female crewmembers were all there because they chose to be.

What exactly did the study find regarding the spike in calls/social media?

According to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, social media posts mentioning sexual assault and calls to a sexual assault hotline skyrocketed after the episode aired in March 2019.

The end of the episode included a public service announcement during which Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) shared the phone number for the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network Hotline (RAINN).

To assess the episode’s influence, researchers analyzed data on Google, and Twitter searches for the two weeks before and the week after the episode ran.

Online searches for the RAINN hotline increased 41 percent after the episode aired. Tweets, including the word “sexual assault hotline,” jumped 1,955 percent. RAINN also reported a 43 percent increase in calls to the hotline in the 48 hours after the episode came out.

“Increasing accurate portrayals of sexual assault in the media coupled with increased awareness of organizations similar to RAINN may positively affect public health,” concluded researchers.

Hopefully, these results will help other media outlets to explore the same types of scenarios to increase public awareness further. Grey’s Anatomy will return from winter break on Jan. 23, 2020.

How to get help: In the U.S., call the RAINN National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to connect with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.