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"Grey's Anatomy" photo courtesy Getty Images

McDreamy is McDead ...

... and other news about the relationships we have with people we don’t even know

If you’d like to understand human relationships better, seek out Valerie Kretz (Communication & Media Studies) in her media psychology lab and ask her about “Grey’s Anatomy.” Or, as she’s often busy analyzing our responses to this television series and other entertainment media, watch it and observe for yourself.

The death of Dr. Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd after 10 years and 241 episodes of the medical drama fuelled Kretz’s study of fans’ Twitter feeds after the event. “McDreamy is McDead: Fan Responses to a Parasocial Break-Up” appeared in the scholarly periodical Journal of Fandom Studies.

Parasocial? It’s the academic term to describe the bonds we form with people that we don’t know. We don’t know them because they are celebrities, or Instagram influencers, or royalty or (let us break it to you gently) Not Real. They’re people like Harry Potter, Anne of Green Gables, Bart Simpson or indeed McDreamy himself.

“Grey’s Anatomy” is now up to season 17 and more than 370 episodes, all rich in material for Kretz and the students working with her in her (currently informal) lab. “Many of [the students] were aged 10 when the series launched but they’ve gone back to the beginning on Netflix,” says Kretz.

The fictional Grey-Sloan Memorial Hospital’s real-time response to the Covid pandemic has prompted a further study, this one on how viewers responded to TV drama scenes including people staying home, tele-commuting to work and wearing masks in public. “It connects to our parasocial bonds again, when we are affected by seeing the characters we know experiencing things that we can relate to. Over a series we can see characters develop and grow as people.” (Kretz’s paper on this topic, co-authored with Veronica Hefner of St. Mary’s College of California, will be presented at the National Communication Association Annual Convention in November.)

So it was written in the stars that “Grey’s Anatomy” would be one of the screen media samples featured in another of Kretz’s recent publications on emotional responses to, and enjoyment of, depictions of romantic relationships. “Who Feels All the Feels?”, in the Iowa Journal of Communication, looks at how entertainment media intersects with our real-world romantic relationships.

In the study, couples in established relationships (more than three months – that’s a long time in a pandemic) answered questions about their level of satisfaction with their relationship, watched a mainstream entertainment video clip that features romantic relationships and immediately logged their emotional responses to the material and their enjoyment level – whether they found it funny or inspiring.

As well as “Grey’s Anatomy,” the clips randomly assigned to the participants were from a TV sitcom (“The Big Bang Theory”) and two popular films (“50 First Dates,” a romantic comedy and “The Notebook,” a romantic drama). All the clips depicted romantic relationships, either in a positive light or under stress.

“What I was interested to know was how those big romantic moments or gestures that you get in these films made the viewers feel,” says Kretz. “Did they feel inspired or jealous, and how did that relate to how they felt about their own relationships? The TV depiction of romantic relationships is usually less idealized. In ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ relationship problems are a source of comedy. Sitcoms are almost always fed by couples’ struggles. How did they feel about that?”

As Kretz suspected, the respondents with “a high level of relationship satisfaction” were more likely to be amused by the content and also more likely to be left feeling hopeful (those feelings we have been chasing for the past year). “Think of it as the ‘rich-getting-richer’ effect,” says Kretz.

But the key factor in how the viewers felt about the material was not whether they were already fans of the shows, how they felt about their own relationship or how old they were. (The survey pool was aged between 18 and 64). Instead, their responses were often driven by their individual approach to relationships in general, represented by their attachment orientation: anxious (fear of rejection) or avoidant (fear of intimacy), related to the attachment theory first outlined by John Bowlby in 1969.

“Attachment orientation is formed when you’re an infant, it has to do with how responsive your caregiver is. Though it can change over time, it influences the relationships we have throughout our lives and it is a driver in how we respond to depictions of relationships.

“Your own view of your own relationship is not objective. If you’re avoidant, it’s possible you don’t perceive yourself as all about relationships, and the content about relationships means less to you, regardless of how it compares to your own experience.”

Finally, Kretz and co-author Anna VanSeveren ’21 have been working on a study of entertainment media as sexual assault prevention. Back to that hospital in Seattle and a particular episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” (episode 19 season 15), in which a young woman arrives in the emergency room having been sexually assaulted. Another character recalls past trauma related to sexual assault and a teenage boy receives advice about asking for consent.

“Our question was, can you show that episode to someone and impact their attitudes and intended behavior, through their being immersed in the story and experiencing empathy with people who have experienced sexual assault? It’s an important piece of work. We had relatively few male students taking part, and that is something we would want to change in a follow-up study, but the attitudes in favour of positive change were the same across genders.”

Kretz and VanSeveren will present their findings to date at the National Communication Association convention.

“I’m working on students getting more involved in my research, including coming up with ideas that we can look at together,” says Kretz. “Admissions has given me a grant to involve freshmen. Gracie Giese ’25 and Ellie Catania ’25 will be joining me. There’s exciting times ahead.”

Reading list
Valerie Kretz earned her M.A. from Marquette University and her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. All the publications referenced in this article are publicly available online:

McDreamy is McDead: Fan Responses to a Parasocial Break-Up Journal of Fandom Studies, Volume 8 Number 2

Who Feels All the Feels? Individual Differences in Emotional Responses to and Enjoyment of Depictions of Romantic Relationships Iowa Journal of Communication, Volume 52 Number 2

Television and Movie Viewing Predict Adults’ Romantic Ideals and Relationship Satisfaction Communication Studies, Volume 70 Number 2

Nov. 5, 2021