Why Grown-ish Tackled That Thorny College Campus Sex Debate

Photo: courtesy of Freeform.
After the hijinks of clean up parties and bucket list romps, freshly renewed Grown-ish got serious on Wednesday night. The latest season 2 episode of the Freeform comedy, “Messy,” is built around an enthusiastic sober consent policy. Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi) explains the new rule as “mutual voluntary consent communicated clearly before and during any sexual activity.” Considering the fact that “sober” is a major qualification in Cal U’s new policy, that also means sexual contact must be made outside of the influence of drugs and alcohol.
On a college campus — where “let’s just be honest, people are drinking and smoking and whatever,” as episode writer Richard Manus says — those kind of parameters seem nearly impossible to enforce. So the Grown-ish gang spends the entire episode debating the merits and pitfall of the new policy hanging above their already complicated sex lives — and that’s the whole point.
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“Consent is sexy,” Grown-ish executive producer Julie Bean tells Refinery29 over the phone. She’s echoing the words of Ana Torres (Francia Raisa), who spends the episode defending the policy (even though it seems she may have broken it). That’s why Bean urges fans, “Slow down. Take your time. Make sure you’re happy and you’re safe and you’re okay with everything that is happening to you in the course of a night. If people are even just talking about [ESC] then that will open itself up to some safer spaces hopefully.”
With this level of concern for the personal lives of their viewers, it’s no surprise the Grown-ish writers room decided early in season 2 pre-production to tackle the complicated matter of consent on campus. Bean had an extra layer of interest in the topic, since her stepson had recently become president of a newly co-ed fraternity at his college. With open doors to women came new rules against sexual contact with prospective new members. Once Grown-ish started looking into consent, they found the enthusiastic sober consent policy some colleges had started to employ.
“We were just like, ‘How the hell does that work? So we wanted to put that policy on trial and look at it from all angles,” Bean explains. Soon enough, “Messy,” was born. The final product of the episode originates from a sexual encounter between Zoey’s ex, star basketball player Cash Mooney (Da'Vinchi) and a young woman at a party named Krista (Aketra Sevillian). While Krista feels happy about the hookup, the Cal U rumor mill spins a far more salacious story suggesting sexual assault. The school implements the ESC policy in response, and the Grown-ish crew spends 90% of the episode sitting around the student lounge hashing out the topic.
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However, this wasn’t always the way “Messy” was going to go. Bean and Manus confirm Grown-ish writers tried episodes where consent was a small part of the episode. Another version had the gang separated by gender, while another had them completing other tasks while mulling over the policy. Other options dealt with a scenario where rape actually did take place. “That takes over the story,” Bean admits. “How can you really talk about anything but the victim? We tried it that way a couple of times to be honest, and it just felt disrespectful to not talk about the sexual assault and focus on the policy instead.”
Manus adds, “Rape and sexual assault is such an open and shut thing, as it should be … We really thought it would be interesting to filter this subject of enthusiastic sober consent through all of our characters and figure out what that would look like on a campus.”
That is how Grown-ish ended up giving fans one of their most integral lessons: men can be assaulted by women, and that’s never a fact to laugh about. The writers room originally shrugged off the impossibility of such a crime before a personal story was shared. “Someone was like, ‘I gotta tell you, I know a guy.’ And we were like, ‘Holy shit,’” Bean remembers. According to Manus, the team was “derailed” for “almost an hour” discussing the new point of view. After such an intense reaction, everyone agreed the story, which Vivek (Jordan Buhat) shares in the episode, needed to be broadcast through “Messy.”
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Although the writer’s room conceived of the integral gender-related plot line, it was star and producer Yara Shahidi who perfected it. Manus and Bean approached the actress with the script and asked her, “Is there anything in here that makes you uncomfortable? Is there anything that’s been left out that makes you uncomfortable?” Shahidi's response was a fully marked-up script. One of the 18-year-old's biggest focuses was the woman-on-man assault.
“The line where she’s like, ‘The fact that we’re laughing about that story — about a guy getting assaulted — is problematic,’ was really important for her,” Manus explains of the tough moment.
Between the difficult conversations about who qualifies as a victim, complex policy dissections, and each character’s reckoning with their own sexual culpability (yes, Zoey, sex with your high boyfriend isn't exempt), it’s difficult to remember we’re watching a young adult sitcom. This is why Bean — who promises upcoming heavy-hitting episodes about cultural appropriation and Black mental health — doubts a comedy like Grown-ish will return to the subjects of sexual assault and consent.
“I feel like we exhausted [the topic] in this episode,” she says. “To go down that road, certainly with one of our characters, I don’t think it would suit us tonally. But, season 3. I don’t know what will happen. There definitely will be questionable relationships, but nothing that borders on any kind of assault.”
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