“We will keep telling these stories that make us all uncomfortable, and force conversations between kids and parents, and all of us. And our hope is to encourage more people to believe survivors,” said “13 Reasons Why” producer Joy Gorman Wettels at the 19th annual ceremony Wednesday.
The awards, which are presented by Hollywood, Health & Society (HH&S), a program of The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, celebrate shows that spotlight important topics like nuclear safety, maternal health, HIV/AIDS, autism, sexual assault, mental health and disabilities. This year the 12 honorees were “13 Reasons Why” (sexual assault), “Chicago Med” (HIV/AIDS), “Empire” (abortion), “GLOW” (abortion), “General Hospital” (Alheizmer’s diseas), “Grey’s Anatomy” (maternal health), “Jane The Virgin” (breast cancer), Madam Secretary” (nuclear safety), “One Day at a Time” (mental health), “Sesame Street” (autism), “Sofia the First” (vision impairment) and “Speechless” (disability).
“This is a show for anyone who’s ever been a teenager. And anyone who’s going to be a teenager,” Wettels told Variety. “That is really the spirit that we come to the storytelling with: ‘Damn, we’ve been through some s— you guys, we have to honor the kids who we are portraying.’”
During the awards, which were held at the Taglyan Complex in Hollywood, Calif., many honorees spoke about the effects that their shows have had on real people — the writers from “Chicago Med” said the numbers of people who visit clinics went up after their episode about HIV/AIDS, and the team behind “One Day at a Time” said viewers have tweeted at them saying they went back on their medication after watching the episode in which Penelope (Justina Machado) struggled with PTSD and depression. Michelle Badillo and Caroline Levich, writers for that episode, said it was a healing process to write the story, and the experience made them confront their own mental health and realize they should explore therapy.
“We’re delighted to shine a spotlight on writers and producers who entertain viewers and at the same time provide them with accurate information. We hope the shows and storylines we honor will spur other writers to recognize and use responsibly the power they wield,” Martin Kaplan, the director of the Lear Center and HH&S’ principal investigator, said in a statement.
Kate Folb, the director of HH&S, said that beyond anecdotal evidence, research has shown that media has an impact on people’s perceptions. She cited a recent example where audiences were surveyed before and after watching an episode of the USA show “Royal Pains” involving a transgender teen, and it was found that people who were exposed to the storyline had more positive attitudes toward transgender people and policies.
Folb also highlighted two of the honorees, “Empire” and “GLOW,” for their realistic portrayals of abortions that contradicted many common myths about the procedure, which she says is more safe than people believe. In each series, the woman is in complete control of her body and her decisions to terminate the pregnancy.
“If we see abortion at all on television –which is very rare, if we do see it — it’s fraught with indecision and angst and anguish and fear, and sometimes people die from abortions on TV, which is completely inaccurate,” Folb said. “[These shows] really address the issue for what it is: something that is very routine … it’s not dangerous at all. And women are usually pretty clear about their decision. There may be some emotion involved, but they’re pretty clear about wanting to have this abortion and they often feel relief after. So we’re honoring them because these two shows actually show that, versus all the drama that we sometimes can see around the subject matter.”