Over the past few weeks, ABC Family’s Switched at Birth has been exploring the topic of campus rape. While many television shows have been jumping headfirst into the touchy subject, their attempts have fallen flat or ended too quickly. Switched at Birth, however, is approaching it differently.
The Jan. 27th episode of the teen drama showed Bay Kennish (Vanessa Marano), one of the show’s leading ladies, getting drunk at a college party and waking up naked in bed with her ex-boyfriend, Tank (Max Adler), unable to recall the night before. The Feb. 3rd episode shows Bay trying to remember what happened and feeling extremely unsure about whether or not she consented to sex the night before. Her mother points out that if someone is drunk, the sex is not consensual. The dialogue was honest and powerful – especially for such a controversial issue. Throughout the episode a lot of anger and fear is expressed, and things get even messier when Bay’s brother Toby (Lucas Grabeel) tells his girlfriend Lily (Rachael Shenton) about the incident. Lily, being an administrator at Bay’s college, is legally obligated to address the situation. Next week’s episode will explore the consequences of this.
The subject of rape is addressed in many television shows, but not often teen ones. Degrassi: The Next Generation pulled off an extremely powerful storyline in 2002 surrounding Paige Michalchuk (Lauren Collins) being raped by a boy from another school at a party. The assault was a key plot point in the show’s second season, and carried on into later in the series when Paige went to trial. The episodes started a dialogue among teen viewers, but they also aired 13 years ago. A new voice has been long overdue.
What’s different about Switched at Birth’s approach to sexual assault is the decision to use a familiar, lovable character as the offender. Approximately 2/3 of all sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim, which is what makes this storyline so organic. The preview for next week shows Bay struggling to place blame on both herself and Tank, because she is so unsure of what happened. It’s clear that this plot point will be a key component of the rest of the season, as opposed to the “one-and-done” methods many shows use, and that too is making it more realistic.
Campus rape has always been a problem, but in recent months has become a much more public one. Putting the conversation into a television show geared at teen girls is monumental. Girls are watching the events play out in front of them and can understand the terrifying reality that so many college students experience. They are watching Bay openly talk about sex and consent with her mother and can appreciate the importance of that conversation. And most importantly, they are watching Bay contemplate the line between a drunk mistake and being unable to give consent – an internal struggle so many girls face but never speak up about. The topic is important, but the strong execution Switched at Birth is pulling off is essential to the conversation.