This essay will contain spoilers for the ABC Family series “Switched at Birth”.
ABC Family’s “Switched at Birth,” is a show about two young ladies, Bay and Daphne, who were literally switched at birth and reconnected when they were in high school. I am a huge fan. The show is also about deaf culture. Daphne is deaf, so much of the show features ASL and captioning. In the catalogue of melodramatic, and sometimes downright awful (ah, hem “Secret Life of the American Teenager”), shows on ABC Family, “Switched” sets itself apart from the rest by tackling social issues in a more genuine and unique way. This season, they took on two very serious issues: sexual consent and campus rape.
The initial episode, which aired on February 3rd, began with a black screen and white text: “Tonight’s episode contains storylines dealing with sexual consent. Viewer discretion advised.” Not the typical start to a ABC Family show. Bay wakes up naked in a dorm bed with her ex-boyfriend, Tank. They had been drinking together at a dorm party the night before, just after she had fought with her current boyfriend. Yikes. However, this isn’t the typical cheating scenario we often see in sitcoms, it becomes clear early on that Bay doesn’t remember having sex with Tank. She is immediately overcome by regret, dreading the thought that she had cheated on her boyfriend. It isn’t until she talks to her mom that she realizes that something besides cheating may have happened. She posed a hypothetical situation to her mom, about a “friend” getting black-out drunk and sleeping with an ex:
Regina: Well, that’s awful.
Bay: That she cheated.
Regina: That she was raped.
Regina: Well, if she was so drunk that she couldn’t remember it the next day, then she didn’t give consent.
Hearing Regina use the R-word, especially on a network like ABC Family, was the first shock of the episode. It certainly shocked Bay, too. She didn’t know what to think and neither did viewers. Bay then confronts Tank, muddling the situation even further. The show presents flashbacks of both Bay’s and Tank’s versions of the story: Bay’s version shows her as too drunk to consent to a sexual situation and Tank’s shows that he believed he had willing consent. The viewers are as unsure about the situation as many of the characters in the show. We know there was a kiss, but who kissed who? We know they had sex, but did Bay push away? Did she say no? Did she say yes? Was she coherent enough for anything she said to really indicate consent? Would what she said or how drunk she was make a difference in the power balance of the situation?
Tank, a generally well-liked character, is heartbroken to learn that Bay thinks that he may have assaulted her. This is an important point to mention, as they were careful to choose a character that was a “normal,” “good guy.” The writers, knowing that two thirds of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim, did not make him out to be an all-around a monster.
The college administration becomes involved and begins interviewing people from the party to find out what happened. Bay’s boyfriend doesn’t let her explain what happened and breaks up with her for cheating. People get into to physical fights over their opinions on the matter. Bay’s brother is also Tank’s roommate. It became a huge mess really quickly, as you’d suspect.
But what I found most important is the fact that this storyline doesn’t wrap up nicely after the episode’s credits. In fact, it reaches a boiling point and spills over into another episode that is devoted to the story line. The rest of the season, four subsequent episodes, still deals with the aftershocks… including the season finale, where Bay’s boyfriend ultimately sticks by his decision to break it off because he believes that she cheated on him no matter what the situation. Not only is it unheard of for this kind of series to take on such serious and prevalent problems, “Switched” does it in a way that spans over several episodes, doing much more justice to the severity of the issues. Life’s problems do not tie up so nicely after an hour or two. Considering the demographic, young adults and teens, it is pretty incredible to think about how this could help open the door for some much needed discussion within these groups.
In dealing with the aftermath, the writers included opinions from all over the spectrum: there is a friend who blames Bay for drinking too much and putting herself in that situation, another friend blames himself for not looking out for her at the party, Bay’s boyfriend can’t see past her cheating, the college administration pretty much has zero tolerance and expels Tank, classmates attack Bay on social media, and so on. The question that remains, the question that puzzles both Bay and Tank: what happens when both people involved are very drunk? How can you discern whether or not you’ve got consent?
The storyline is careful not to explicitly lay out what happened in the dorm that night, letting us come to our own conclusions and focus on the conversation. The way the situation is portrayed seems painfully real in a world where things are not as cut and dry as Hollywood would have us believe. It is complicated and murky, which feels more truthful. I applaud “Switched” for digging deeper and exposing the type of story that happens on college campuses everywhere, where alcohol and lack of consent play a major role.
It was actually empowering to see a young woman who wanted to figure out what she thought about what had happened for herself. While we do not want to deter women from coming forward after being assaulted, we should also acknowledge that victims also experience this kind of confusion. Bay knows Tank would never intentionally hurt her, but she still feels like something was wrong.
Shows like “Switched at Birth” can provide more than just entertainment and drama to teens. They can challenge the way young adult series’ are perceived and they can break the mold. In this instance, it brought a conversation that needed to be had into the spotlight and did not look to reach a conclusion in a short 43 minutes. It struck a chord with the exact demographic it needed to and there’s nothing more poignant than that.