College, Drugs, and "Grown-ish"

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College, Drugs, and "Grown-ish"

By Jonita Davis 03/09/18

The show spends a lot of time building scenarios where the substance use is normalized and there are no consequences.

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Title screen for Grown-Ish with main actor and logo
Is the television show Grown-ish representing college life accurately and responsibly?

The spin-off of ABC’s hit family comedy Black-ish has been a hit for another network, Freeform. According to Deadline, the show had 1.56 million viewers the night it premiered and was ranked the number one show for women ages 18-34 and the most-watched scripted show for its time-slot. All eyes were on the way the show would distinguish itself from the family-friendly Black-ish and the older, more wholesome, A Different World. According to Deadline writer Erik Pedersen, the show was “billed as a contemporary take on the current issues facing students and administrators in the world of higher education.” But in trying to distinguish itself from its predecessors, Grown-ish is sacrificing its responsibility to present a balanced view of drug and alcohol use to its impressionable audience.

There are numerous examples of drug and alcohol misuse in the first episode alone, including mentions of drugs and drug dealing, alcohol bingeing, and plenty of drinking. The drug dealer, named Vivek (played by Jason Buhat), funds his designer clothing habit with the proceeds from selling coeds an assortment of drugs in pill form. His introduction by the narrator Zoey (Yara Shahidi) presents his drug sales in a lackadaisical manner that does not convey the dangers of such substances or address the responsibility of the person distributing them.

Vivek actually does not see himself as a drug dealer but as an entrepreneur. It is only when Zoey and the twins Sky and Jazz (Chloe and Halle Bailey) point it out that he acknowledges it with a smile. Sky and Jazz also offer up a comparison image of a relative who is a known dealer in their community. This does not stop Vivek from dealing, however. The very next episode the guy is giving Zoey illegal Adderall pills to help her study.

The binge drinking occurs in the very first episode as well. Zoey takes her new roommate Ana (Francia Raisa) to a party where they are served drinks as soon as they arrive. Zoey has a few, but Ana has more. The two separate, but we see Ana again, just as she goes into a drunken stumble and ends up falling into a blow-up pool which she then vomits in. Makeup running, voice slurring, Ana calls for Zoey, but Zoey is embarrassed and returns to campus, leaving Ana to her own devices. In the next episode, Zoey laments about love and crushing on a fellow student Aaron, played by Trevor Jackson. He sticks Zoey with the chore of passing out cups at another party. Although they never specify, we can assume that the cups are for alcohol. Meanwhile, everyone around her is drinking as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.

Let me note here that Zoey and her friends are all college freshmen, including Vivek the dealer. All are fresh out of high school. This means none of them are of legal age to be drinking in the state of California—where the Grown-ish story world is set. Yet their use and misuse of alcohol run unchecked in every episode.

The example they are setting is a bit mixed, however, when the episodes are considered in their entirety. For example, while Zoey does end up taking the illicit Adderall Vivek gives her for studying, the last thing she does is crack a book. Instead, her time is spent in a feverish hyperfocus that results in too much money spent online and a project that hasn’t been touched. Her friends later confirm the effects of taking Adderall without a prescription. The alcohol binge also comes to a bad end, with Ana’s embarrassing and disgusting faceplant in front of a party full of people. And Zoey’s friends do end up further reprimanding her for leaving an intoxicated friend alone.

Actually, binge drinking comes with a few dangers that are NOT addressed by Grown-ish. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism issued a fact sheet for college drinking which included consequences such as assault, sexual assault, academic problems, injuries from various accidents while impaired, suicide, and even death. Drinking and failing to support a friend who is impaired can be hazardous to college students. However, the show has yet to address these issues. The dangers of illicit drug use are similar. Hundreds of thousands of young people ages 18-24 engage in these dangerous activities every year.

So, it would seem the prudent course is to be more direct in addressing the dangers. However, Grown-ish does not. Instead, the show spends a lot of time building scenarios where the substance use is normalized and there are no consequences. There are a few scenes where consequences do occur, but the characters simply go on using again afterward, as if the consequence never happened. Audiences don’t get to see what happened, and these acts are portrayed as a normal part of college life. Even the minor effects of substance use—hangovers, nausea, headaches, and other symptoms—are absent after the characters indulge.

By glossing over the effects of substance misuse and ignoring the associated risks, Grown-ish paints an unrealistic picture of college life. This is significant because the target demographic for the show seems to be teens and young adults, many of whom will be considering or starting college and have no idea what to expect from the college experience. The Postsecondary National Institute says that about 24 percent of college freshmen are first-generation students: “students who are predominantly non-white and from low-income backgrounds, face myriad financial, academic and social barriers to entering and completing college as the first in their families to navigate college admissions, financial aid, and postsecondary coursework.”

Now, some may rebut this by saying no one should use a television show to build or affirm expectations. The problem is that many of the young people who will be watching Grown-ish have few places to turn for realistic and helpful resources about drug and alcohol use. The people of color in the show draw their interest and provide relatable characters, and because this is probably one of a limited number of examples of college life, the show ends up guiding their expectations. The mild treatment of substance misuse is much more dangerous to these students.

It is hard for a new show to blaze its own trail; it’s maybe even harder for a spinoff to break away to gather its own audience. But this should not be done at the cost of social responsibility. The showrunners and writers of the show—which is smart and edgy—must find a way to depict the substance use that goes on in college while also accurately portraying the downfalls of substance misuse. Having an imbalanced approach only harms the viewer who most needs the information.

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