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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.

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ABC Family / Gilles Mingasson

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.

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.

It's Bay's birth mother Regina (Constance Marie) who first utters the r-word — noting that if a woman is drunk, she cannot actually give consent, and that any consent given while impaired isn't actually consent. It's a shock to Bay, and to the viewer, really, to hear such an open discussion on such a controversial subject on a teen drama — but it's important that this is a conversation happening on a show geared toward a younger demographic. All too often, rape gets swept under the rug or is used as a means to an end to look at victim culture or false accusations or something different altogether; on Switched, however, though it's used for a narrative, it's also instructive and educational. Regina's lines are uttered with such certain sincerity that the moment, like many others on this series, isn't saccharine or forced, but significant.

Typically, sexual assault storylines play out with strangers, their repercussions barely, if at all, glimpsed. A recent episode of The Good Wife looked at the epidemic through the lens of a college disciplinary board following a student accusing another of rape, taking its title ("The Red Zone") from the most dangerous time of year for sexual assault against first-year female students. Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), representing the victim, flicks at the specter of Title IX, saying that the university could open itself up to a lawsuit under the U.S. Code for gender discrimination in education. But the rape didn't happen to Alicia's son Zach (Graham Phillips) or her daughter Grace (Makenzie Vega) — and while the episode was powerfully rendered and meticulously constructed, there was an inherent narrative distance between the topic and the framework of the show; it was a case to be won or lost by Alicia, and while it drew upon real-life inspiration, it ultimately doesn't change the direction of the show or any of the central characters.

That's not the case with Switched at Birth. As Bay goes back and forth about whether she consented to sleep with Tank, the show shifts between each of their perspectives — hers increasingly inebriated, his equally drunk — which differ in small but meaningful ways. Did she kiss him? Did he kiss her? Did she push him away? And if she didn't, did it mean that she was actually able to give her consent? When Bay confronts Tank about her lack of clarity regarding the events of the previous night, he is horrified by what she is implying: that he took advantage of her, that he assaulted her, that he raped her. They were both drunk, he bellows, and he would never do anything like that. Tank is not a stranger to Bay or the audience: He's been presented previously as a "good guy." Which is precisely the point.

The plot doesn't wrap up neatly after one episode; in fact, there's a simmering level of anger, fear, and distress that threatens to boil over in next week's Switched, even as Bay says she doesn't want to do anything about what happened, that she just wants it to go away. But Bay's brother Toby (Lucas Grabeel) — who is also Tank's roommate — tells his girlfriend Lily (Rachel Shenton) about what happened… and Lily is an administrator at the university, meaning she has a legal obligation to bring the situation to the disciplinary board. It looks like Bay's hope that this just goes away will soon be evaporating completely.

But that's because this storyline is realistically messy and fraught — it's painful and profound, showing a night that Bay deeply regrets. Of course, regretting that something happened does not mean accepting responsibility for it — and Switched carefully threads its narrative here, placing the blame for what may have happened on Tank for having sex with Bay when she was clearly too drunk to actually give her legal consent.

That this is all playing out in a show that so many teenagers (and adults) are watching is important for so many reasons. The ultimate irony is that this ABC Family teen drama is doing a far better job of tackling this difficult topic than its allegedly more hard-hitting and award-winning adult counterparts — and that, thankfully, means those in the audience who may soon be college-bound themselves are actually watching.

Switched at Birth airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on ABC Family.