ABC Family’s Campus Rape Storyline Goes Where Scripted Television Hasn’t Gone Before
Switched at Birth, which kicked off a multi-episode arc last night about campus rape featuring one of its main characters, might just be the bravest show on television.
Bay (Vanessa Marano) can't remember her actions after a night of partying and wakes up in bed next to Tank (Max Adler) in the Feb. 3 episode of ABC Family's Switched at Birth.
ABC Family / Gilles Mingasson
The anger directed at HBO's The Newsroom in December in the wake of an episode that attempted to capitalize on the debate surrounding the scourge of college sexual assault crystallized the complexity of emotions surrounding the very complicated issue plaguing campuses nationwide. At the time, the Rolling Stone/UVA debacle was dominating headlines — a magazine story that was meant to serve as crusading journalism, peeling back the lid of insidious behavior at the Virginia university and bringing awareness of the situation to a larger audience, instead had the opposite effect as the story's factual basis was attacked and the magazine backed away from supporting the writer. Any platform that the story could have provided rape victims — particularly those on college campuses — was undone, and the piece itself has become a watchword for reckless reporting and a lack of fact-checking. In the months that followed, the conversation continued, especially when two 2015 Sundance Film Festival projects dealt with campus rape: Kirby Dick's The Hunting Ground and Morris May and Rose Troche's interactive Perspective. There is something in the air at the moment — the discourse and epidemic are reaching a boiling point.
The latest entrée into the conversation is, on the surface, a surprising one: A teen television show waded into the murky waters of campus rape narratives in its Feb. 3 episode. But that teen series, ABC Family's groundbreaking Switched at Birth, has never been one to shy away from potentially explosive issues of race, class, or the hearing/deaf divide (many of its main characters are deaf or hard-of-hearing and the show has embraced the use of American Sign Language and closed captioning). The teen drama, created by Lizzy Weiss, might have initially been about the ramifications of two families — one white and wealthy, the other Latina and struggling to get by — learning that their daughters had been switched at the hospital as babies. But in the four seasons since, it's evolved into a canny exploration of communication, expression, and identity.
There's a reason the particular issue of campus rape is one that is poignant for Switched's deaf and hard-of-hearing characters — and why it's fitting now. Last year, the Washington Post ran a story about the climbing rates of campus rape and the belief among university administrators that "robust reporting" could contribute to preventing these crimes in the future. The university with the highest rates of reporting forcible sex offenses proved to be Gallaudet University, which saw "more than 11 per thousand students in 2012." Gallaudet also happens to house the nation's premier deaf education program, and the university's dean of student affairs and academic support pointed toward the resources available — "direct access in terms of communication and language with on-campus personnel without requiring the need for an interpreter" — as the reason for the higher overall numbers and reporting rates.
Switched at Birth has long looked toward Gallaudet and deaf history and culture for inspiration for its storylines. Though it's unclear whether the Post's reporting played a role for Weiss and the writing staff in penning the Jan. 27 episode, the installment saw Bay Kennish (Vanessa Marano) waking up after a drunken night in the bed of her ex-boyfriend Tank (Max Adler), her clothes scattered on the floor. In the Feb. 3 episode, Bay struggles to recall the events of the night before, wondering whether she had cheated on her long-distance boyfriend, Emmett (Sean Berdy), by possibly drunkenly sleeping with her ex. But more troublingly, she is uncertain about whether she consented to having sex with Tank or not in the first place.
ABC Family / Gilles Mingasson