‘Switched’ marks a shift in the way tele­vi­sion tack­les is­sues of the day

The Washington Post Sunday - - TELEVISION - BY BETHONIE BUT­LER bethonie.but­ler@wash­post.com

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.

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