Here’s How ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Addresses Social Issues That Matter

The Shondaland show featured same-sex marriage long before it was legal in the U.S.

Grey's Anatomy

“Grey’s Anatomy” has a way of pulling at our heartstrings, but it also has a way of keeping its pulse on hot-button issues like gay marriage and gun control, not mention the way feminism and civil rights are engrained in nearly every story. The show uses its specific brand of tear-jerking to address these issues without putting itself of a soap box.

Who didn’t cry along with Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson) when hospital shooter Gary shot intern Charles Percy (Robert Baker)? And who didn’t shed a few happy tears at the site of Callie and Arizona, both in white wedding dresses, tying the knot years before same-sex marriage was legalized across the United States?

Now, I’ve been known to wax poetic on the glories of “Grey’s” and its heroine, but after a week when we saw yet another shooting at an elementary school, and when Australia legalized same-sex marriage, it seems the perfect time to explore how the show tackles them.


Let’s start with how “Grey’s” empowers women. The center of the show and titular character Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) has several famous relationships throughout the 14 seasons, most specifically her relationship and marriage with Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey). But as the show currently stands — and has for several seasons now — Meredith is on her own. She had a cautious relationship with Dr. Nathan Riggs (Martin Henderson), but encouraged him to return to love-of-his-life Megan Hunt (Abigail Spencer) once she was found to still be alive.

This selflessness shows that Mer doesn’t need a man to be happy. She’s surrounded by people who love her — Alex Karev (Justin Chambers), Maggie (Kelly McCreary) and Amelia (Caterina Scorsone) — is a dedicated mother and a talented surgeon. She knew true love, and that’s enough for her. She doesn’t need to keep chasing it.

One great example of Meredith standing up for herself — and being a great role model in the process — is when she learns she’s not earning equal pay back in Season 12. The incident is treated as it might present itself in real life: Meredith finds out offhand, and spends much of the episode nervous about approaching her boss, asking around to see what salary she should ask for. It’s empowering to watch Meredith eventually steam past the anxiety and get what she deserves: a raise.

Same Sex Marriage

“Grey’s Anatomy” has featured LGBTQ relationships since the beginning that are just as complicated and heart-wrenching as their straight counterparts. Doctors Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) and Arizona Robbins (Jessica Capshaw) were married back in Season 7, in 2010 — five years before it was legal across the United States.

Callie’s story arc in particular is emblematic of the way the show embraces the whole rainbow of sexuality. She’s attracted to Mark Sloan and Arizona at the same time, blowing away stereotypes about what it means to be bisexual. Callie ends up getting pregnant by Mark, and the baby, Sofia, is raised in a family with two moms and a dad; giving representation to family dynamics beyond what you’d find in “Leave it to Beaver.”

Mass Shootings

Perhaps one of the issues “Grey’s” is most known for addressing is mass shootings in the United States, which it first did back in 2010 with the iconic two-episode Season 6 finale, long before the mass shootings last year in Orlando or this year in Las Vegas that would become the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

In the 23rd and 24th episodes of Season 6 (“Sanctuary” and “Death and All His Friends”), a vengeful man comes to Seattle Grace to avenge his wife, who died in surgery. He’s out to kill Derek, who was the surgeon on the case, but ends up injuring several along the way. The aftermath doesn’t include a lot of “thoughts and prayers,” but offers a stark look at the pain caused by a shooting.

The show also covers a wide range of hot-button topics that aren’t wedge issues — in the midseason finale this week, the hospital was attacked by ransomware, and earlier this season, a storyline was dedicated to Visa issues for Megan’s adoptive son from the Middle East. Some might wonder how a show can remain successful for 14 seasons, but when each episode can be related to things we all deal with, it’s easy to see why “Grey’s” is a beloved hour in our week.

“Grey’s Anatomy” will return to ABC Thursday, Jan. 18.