thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Nature/Nurture & Teen Dating: Switched at Birth, Race, and (dis)Ability

In girl culture, race, teen soaps on August 9, 2011 at 10:06 pm

Phoebe Bronstein

Ever since Huge last summer, I have been a serious fan of ABC Family—a fandom that definitely took me by surprise. After Huge, then it was Pretty Little Liars, which I love. I watched the first season in one day. Then I couldn’t help being curious about Switched at Birth when it premiered earlier this summer. And truth be told, I am most certainly going to watch The Lying Game, when it premiers next week and am considering Revenge, whenever that premiers. Really, I think teen shows are where it is at these days in TV (I give Gossip Girl credit, despite not knowing whether that credit is due), and so I figure it is about time I talked about one of my ABC Family shows: Switched at Birth.

Switched at Birth Poster

So I think Switched at Birth is pretty well intentioned as television shows go—it tries really hard to be family oriented, embrace and represent diversity, and promote awareness about disability, and specifically deafness. If you have never seen it, Switched at Birth is about exactly what the title suggests: two baby girls, Bay and Daphne, are switched at birth in the hospital. Bay, the Puerta Rican baby, winds up with a rich white suburban family, while Daphne, the white baby, winds up with the alcoholic Puerto Rican single mother. Then, sixteen years later a DNA test, prompted by Bay, who has always felt out of place in the suburbs, reveals the switch. So Daphne, now deaf after getting meningitis as a baby, and her mom Regina, now sober, move into the wealthy family’s house so the girls and their requisite parents can get to know each other. Then, teenage drama ensues.

Vanessa Marano aka Bay

Katie Leclerc aka Daphne

The representation and discussion of deafness is central to the plot, and generally seems much more interesting than anything else I have seen where deafness on television is concerned. Particularly, the show insists that being deaf is not a disability, but just a difference. To this end, a significant portion of the show focuses on the deaf community and is in sign language with subtitles at the bottom of the screen. Instead of having deaf characters as side characters and integrated into the hearing community, for example Marlee Matlin’s character on West Wing, Switched at Birth suggests that there is a whole world with its own culture outside the hearing community. For example, we learn about an all American Sign Language version of Frankenstein. The show is careful to consider that the deaf community may not want to be integrated into the hearing community. Further, the show currently features a hearing/deaf romantic relationship as a means to think through the potential difficulties of such a relationship: Bay and Emmett respectively.

However, as much as I want to like this show, I find myself at times uncomfortable with the racial politics of Switched at Birth. At once, I think they are trying almost too hard to defy stereotypes; however, it just doesn’t seem to work in their favor. For example, the two moms represent two differing poles: Kathryn (Lea Thompson of Caroline in the City fame) is the uptight white suburban housewife, while Regina is Puerto Rican, a recovering alcoholic, artsy and passionate, and a single mom. Both are stereotypes. And what we learn from the show is that these qualities are genetic. That is, that despite being raised in an uptight white suburban home, Bay’s passionate and artistic nature cannot be tamed. She is fiery, and she gets that from Regina and her Puerto Rican side. While Daphne, at least initially, is more level-headed and logical and sporty (just like her biological father, a former pro-baseball player). Some of this stuff seems to be getting smoothed out as the show progresses, but the stereotypes are still very much there.

Blair Redford aka Ty

Charles Michael Davis aka Liam Lupo

Further, near the beginning of the series the two girls, Bay and Daphne, date two guys neither of whom are coded as white, Ty and Liam respectively. Ty Mendoza is (from his last name) likely Latino, he is poor, and he lives in Regina and Daphne’s old neighborhood, which in the show is clearly the wrong side of the tracks (however, Ty is played by the actor Blair Redford who appears to be white). Following Richard Dyer (I have an academic crush on him) in White, whiteness is an expandable and collapsible category and is cinematically, or in this case televisually, constructed. That, is whiteness is constructed through lighting, costuming, make-up, etc. And whiteness signals power, or at least proximity to power. So Ty, because he is figured as of a lower-class, is coded as less white than Daphne, and even Bay. And while Bay dates Ty, Daphne goes after Liam, who is African American and perhaps Italian (his last name is Lupo). Also, Liam happens to be Bay’s ex-boyfriend. So Complicated! However, very quickly both girls ditch these initial love interests and move on to two blond boys: Emmett and Wilke. And to keep in line with Dyer, dating two blond white boys (the whitest of the white) adds to both Daphne and Bay’s whiteness.

Sean Berdy aka Emmett, Bay's new beau

Austin Butler aka Wilke, who is now interested in Daphne

A few final thoughts: Given the show’s seeming sensitivity to discussions of disability, the racial politics seem odd and worth talking about. Not that bad or weird racial politics are unusual on television, but in a show that is seemingly so well intentioned and working hard against certain stereotypes, it does this at the expense of reinforcing other stereotypes. So I still think teen shows are doing some of the more interesting work on television at the moment, and thus I am going to keep watching Switched at Birth, if only to figure out what is going on. But also teen television, is also one of the few places we see shows about women and shows that would certainly pass the Bechdel Test. Now, talk amongst yourselves.

  1. ps I just learned from Kristen Warner that Liam was blindcasted, which is makes things even more interesting I think …

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