Associate Professor Miranda Banks talks about consent to writers and an actor on Grown-ish in a talkback of an episode on which Banks consulted.
By Erin Clossey
Fans of the Freeform coming-of-age sitcom Grown-ish may not see Emerson College in the show’s fictional university setting, Cal U.
But it’s there.
One of the show’s writers this season was Hailey Chavez ’15, and Visual and Media Arts Associate Professor Miranda Banks (who had Chavez in two classes) consulted on the show, working with the writers to make the characters’ college experience believable to audiences.
“I gave [the writers] an overview of topics and they just peppered me with a bunch of questions,” said Banks. “It was very fun. The topics had changed [since they had been in college] and the way we talk about things had changed.”
Grown-ish, a spinoff of ABC’s Black-ish, follows that show’s daughter, Zoey, as she navigates college and early adulthood.
“The show is trying really hard to be authentic to what a group of college friends would be thinking about or what they would be talking about,” Banks said.
One recent episode that Banks was brought in to consult on deals with a new policy Cal U instates around enthusiastic sober consent. The episode consists of the friends sitting around talking about the policy, who it’s for, how it affects students, and its consequences, intended and otherwise.
In a post-episode talkback with writers and one of the actors, Banks, who teaches classes in gender and media studies, talks about how much the concept of consent has changed in just one generation: from “no means no” to “yes means yes” to “an enthusiastic, sober yes means yes”.
“I thought [the writers] really pushed [the conversation] in different directions,” Banks said in an interview with Emerson Today. “It didn’t feel moralizing. To me, what I thought was great about the episode was they actually showed people how to have a conversation about it.”
As the youngest writer on the show, Chavez isn’t that far removed from the college classroom, and the show has interns who are current students. But what the writers didn’t have was the perspective of college administrators and faculty.
Enter Banks, whose courses in Gender, Sexuality, and the American Entertainment Industry (co-taught with Marketing Communication Associate Professor Kristin Lieb) and The Writer in Hollywood Chavez took as a Writing for Film and Television major.
“When we were discussing these kind of hot button issues [around] enthusiastic sober consent and trying to get a feel for what is actually happening in colleges right now from an administration standpoint, I referenced Miranda and we wanted to reach out and see if she would actually talk to us about what is going on behind the scenes,” Chavez said.
To ensure that the show didn’t make light of sexual assault, the episode was rewritten a couple of times, which actually pushed it back in the season, she said. But it was crucial that the show addressed the issue both responsibly and sensitively.
Grown-ish being a sitcom, it also was important that the issue be addressed through humor. A lot of that was achieved naturally through the characters, Chavez said.
“We’ve built these characters and they have quirks and we try to bring the comedy out from them,” she said. “It was particularly hard with this episode because we didn’t want to seem like we were making light of this woman’s experience.”
The writers decided to make the sexual act at the heart of the episode consensual, so that the story – and its central discussion — could focus on policy. “We found … when you try to write a story where the lines were blurred, it takes over the conversation,” she said.
Chavez said her college experience finds its way into to her work, particularly since the university on the show has similar values to Emerson.
Her next gig, as a writer on Disney Plus’ forthcoming Diary of a Female President – about a 12-year-old Cuban-American girl and aspiring commander-in-chief — may not draw as much from her college days as Grown-ish does, in terms of material. But the skills she learned at Emerson, in screenwriting classes with Banks and Comedic Arts Director Martie Cook, will come in handy.
“Those classes I felt like really gave me a leg up on my peers when I graduated,” Chavez said. “I did learn how to write a pilot, I learned how to write for comedy.”