The latest season 2 episode of Grown-ish, a Freeform comedy, “Messy,” tackles sexual assault on college campuses with an uncertain hand.
Zoey’s (Yara Shahidi) notorious basketball phenom ex-boyfriend Cash Mooney (Da’Vinchi) is back on campus this week and hooks up with a random girl at a party after a few too many drinks. We see these events take place as though we too are a bystander at the party. We see a nameless girl and Cash meet, share perhaps a few too many drinks, and then we see them go into an upstairs bedroom and close the door.
The next morning, the same girl shares an overall enthusiastic impression of the night with a friend. Though she doesn’t really say whether or not the encounter was “epic” or “legendary”, she thinks it doesn’t really matter. “It’s CASH MOONEY,” she emphasizes to her friend, who shares exaggerated details with another friend, and so on until the story becomes that both parties were wasted and the hook-up may not have been consensual.
Grown-ish is in tricky territory now. Spring-boarding into an episode about consent on college campuses with a complicated rumor about a sexual assault that did not actually occur is harmful to the hundreds of victims whose stories are not believed. By furthering a narrative that sexual misconduct is often exaggerated or that famous men are frequently plagued by false stories about their sex lives, Grown-ish is participating in a culture of victim-blaming that keeps people from coming forward, and rapists from being called out and punished. In this episode, Grown-ish is furthering the false narrative that when powerful men are accused of sexual misconduct, it is not true.
The nameless girl herself does not feel that she was pressured into sex — “that night was completely consensual,” she tells Cash days later. Although the politics around powerful men asserting their dominance via reputation rather than force are also complex and at play here — see Season 6, episode 3 of Girlswhere a prominent writer (Matthew Rhys) tries to use his charm and status to coerce Lena Dunham’s character into sex.
So why does Grown-ish choose to tell a story about a sexual assault that didn’t actually happen, when real sexual assaults take place on college campuses at a staggering rate? A story about a real incident, rather than a false rumor, would still allow them to explore the impact of sexual violence and communicate the importance of consent to their millions of young adult viewers. Thankfully the episode does include a clear definition of enthusiastic, sober consent and a discussion about gender roles/expectation and how they impact sex and consent. But it doesn’t make up for the huge oversight in opening the episode with a story that perpetuates a myth that is doing tangible harm to women every single day. And if you’re going to center an episode around the sexual experience of any woman, whether or not she was assaulted, she at the very least deserves a name.
If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual violence, you can reach help at The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) on their website at https://www.rainn.org, or through the national sexual assault hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
Grown-ish continues its 13 episode second season Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC Freeform. It has been renewed for a third season.