‘Switched’ marks a shift in the way television tackles issues of the day
The show has “made kids who are outside the mainstream, either who look different or feel different, feel a little bit better about themselves.”
“Switched at Birth” follows Bay Kennish and Daphne Vasquez, two girls who were separated from their biological families as infants because of a hospital error. The show has tackled a number of social issues — including sexual consent and, recently, safe spaces on college campuses — over its nearly sixyear run. But “Switched,” now in its final season, has been just as compelling in exploring the daily lives of its main characters.
Most shows about teenagers are coming-of-age stories to a certain extent; even young superheroes grapple with their identity. But “Switched at Birth” is a more earnest repre- sentation of our attempts to figure out who we are and who we want to be. The “switch,” as they frequently refer to it on the show, allows both Bay and Daphne to explore different sides of themselves. Bay embraces the Puerto Rican roots of her biological mother, Regina, and becomes more devoted to her artistic talent. Daphne is able to develop her natural athletic abilities under the tutelage of her biological father, John, a former Major League Baseball player. And because Daphne is deaf, Bay becomes fluent in American Sign Language.
From its first episode, “Switched” has incorporated deaf culture and ASL in an unprecedented way. The show won a Peabody Award in 2012. As the committee put it: “The series is truly remarkable in depicting this world, but is equally important because it makes deaf culture ‘normal,’ another part of the communities surrounding it. Throughout the series, scenes are frequently presented completely in American Sign Language. In this powerful manner, the expression of teenage feelings, the frustrations of trying to play sports, the fear that comes from being arrested by police who shout unheard commands, all become very real, almost taken for granted, by the audience.”
The Feb. 28 episode marked the culmination of a five-episode arc that began when a picture of Daphne and her ex-boyfriend, Mingo, made the rounds on social media. The photo was from a costume party, where Mingo sported faux dreadlocks and a gold grill in an attempt to look like rapper Lil Wayne. Daphne’s friend Iris, who is black, told Mingo — the resident assistant in her dorm — that she was offended by the costume. But neither he nor Daphne understood the issue, because it was a costume party and — as Mingo put it — he wasn’t wearing blackface. Daphne wrote an oped for the school newspaper defending Mingo’s right to free speech, further alienating Iris.
“Everywhere I go on campus, I have to be on guard. I have to put on this, like, this armor, to protect me from stuff you don’t see,” Iris later tells Daphne. “Like when I woke up to find a little tiny drawing of the Confederate flag on my door. Like when a frat guy told us their party was for hot girls only, but they really meant white girls. Like when my geology professor made a joke about ‘savages’ and looked right at me. Or like the other night when I got home and my RA was making fun of black people.”
Later, the conversation veers beyond microaggressions when the lawn in front of the Black Student Union is covered in cotton balls, which many black students see as a menacing threat that evokes slavery. Iris begins a hunger strike in response. She and other students in the Black Student Union petition to get the university to expel the students responsible. The episode shifted the show’s perspective to Iris and two other black characters — Chris, the star of the university’s baseball team, and another student, Sharee. But it was done in a way that felt authentic to the show, following the more established characters.
Sharee met Daphne when she was one of the hearing students accepted to Daphne’s high school, which had formerly been for deaf students. The changes at the school were the subject of a memorable episode, done entirely in ASL, that found the deaf students protesting for their right to an exclusively deaf school. Sharee was initially hesitant to get involved in the student union effort, telling Daphne that she was used to racist incidents and comments, but she became fully committed following the cotton-ball controversy. “I was 4 when I was called the n-word for the first time,” she told Daphne’s mother. Regina, recalling her own childhood experiences with racism, encouraged Sharee to share her story while she was trying to get signatures for the petition, which yielded more signatures.
The protest mirrors efforts by black students at predominantly white universities such as Harvard and Georgetown, where students organized a group dubbed Being Black at Georgetown to raise awareness about racist incidents on campus and the day-today realities of navigating a school that would not exist without slavery.
On “Switched,” Iris and her cohorts succeed in getting the cotton-ball culprits expelled and landing a meeting with the university president — but only after Chris announced he would be sitting out of an important and lucrative game after an incident in which he was shoved to the ground by police officers who thought he was stealing his own bike. The episode featured meaningful commentary about the act of protest — who should participate and how far demonstrations should go — that elevated it from the ripped-from-the-headlines approach seen in other shows.
“Switched” picked up the story line in the following week’s episode, as Mingo organized an annual party in a way that felt like a response to the costume party incident. The variety of perspectives is one of the show’s best qualities: It doesn’t tell viewers what to think, but rather showcases an array of ideas.
When creator Lizzy Weiss accepted the show’s Peabody Award, she said that the best feedback she had received was that the show “made kids who are outside the mainstream, either who look different or feel different, feel a little bit better about themselves because they get to watch themselves represented on screen week after week as the leads on a mainstream TV show, leading complex, happy lives.”
Amid all of the drama, that is what makes “Switched at Birth” truly special.
Lizzy Weiss, creator of “Switched at Birth,” on the best feedback she has gotten
In “Switched at Birth,” Daphne Vasquez (played by Katie Leclerc), left, and Bay Kennish (Vanessa Marano) explore different sides of themselves and social issues facing their generation in thoughtful ways.