Television has a questionable history when it comes to tackling rape. Instead of focusing on the victim or the crime itself, these storylines often serve as simplistic and lazy plot devices, presented as gratuitous violence or a “shocking” twist, often as a shameless ploy for ratings. Rape is usually shown in strict black-and-white terms, or as a quickly forgotten case-of-the-week on a crime procedural. Rarely does TV get into the murkier areas: the he-said/she-said, the discussion of consent (especially when alcohol is involved), the long aftermath for both the victim and the accused, etc. When a series does actually attempt such a thing, it can result in an episode as clunky and offensive as The Newsroom‘s “Oh Shenandoah.” This season, however, TV is catching up with the cultural conversation — and one series in particular, Switched at Birth, is providing a much-needed examination of campus rape culture and the blurry lines of consent.
ABC Family’s Switched at Birth is a teen drama with a somewhat self-explanatory title. The two protagonists (who were in high school when the series begins but are now college-aged) are Daphne, a deaf pre-med student who lives on campus, and Bay, who doesn’t attend the college but does go to a dorm party. Prior to the party, Bay gets into a fight with her long-distance boyfriend — her plans to join him in Los Angeles were thwarted and he kissed another girl; the details aren’t important here — and later gets very drunk, eventually blacking out. She wakes up the next morning in bed with her ex-boyfriend Tank, clothes strewn about the floor, unsure of exactly what happened the night before.
From there, things only get murkier and more confusing for Bay. Her biggest concern is that she may have cheated on her boyfriend, not that she may have been raped. In fact, the notion that the sex may not have been consensual never crosses her mind until someone else brings up the idea. While speaking with her birth mother Regina, Bay lays out the situation and presents it as something that happened to a “friend,” prompting Regina to introduce the word “rape.”
Regina: Well, that’s awful. Bay: That she cheated. Regina: That she was raped. Bay: What? Regina: Well, if she was so drunk that she couldn’t remember it the next day, then she didn’t give consent.
The multiple-episode arc goes deeper and deeper as it progresses. Bay confronts Tank, who maintains that the sex was consensual and that he didn’t attack her. She runs it by a select few friends and family, who are all supportive and all give her advice on what to do next. The storyline switches from Bay’s point of view to Tank’s, and then brings in the bigger world around them: The administration finds out and is required to start an investigation (even if Bay doesn’t want to cooperate); Bay’s brother (and Tank’s roommate) and father both confront Tank to seek the truth; Bay tries to tell her boyfriend what happened, but he writes it off as cheating before hearing the whole story; Bay’s friend Mary Beth plays the role of victim-blamer, opining that maybe Bay shouldn’t have drank so much and put herself in that position; Bay’s non-biological mother opens up about her own past sexual assault; a newspaper article is published, and commenters identify Bay as the victim and begin attacking her character.
Throughout the arc, Switched at Birth never explicitly says what happened in the bedroom that night, instead allowing the viewers to come to their own conclusions. Rape is important and complicated, and can’t always be easily dissected and solved. Despite what most television says, it’s not a black-and-white matter that has a clear-cut solution at the end of the hour. The Switched At Birth writers are aware of this, and aimed to start a conversation rather than crafting a definitive account.
Switched at Birth creator Lizzy Weiss spoke to Flavorwire about the controversial storyline.
Flavorwire: Can you tell me a bit about the origins of this storyline? Was it something that you had been planning for a while, or were you heavily influenced by the news (such as the Rolling Stone UVA article)?
Lizzy Weiss: We were influenced by both the news and stories we knew from kids and cousins and nieces and nephews in college. But the Rolling Stone article in particular didn’t come out until after we had decided to do [the storyline]. Having our girls this age, we knew if we avoided it, we’d be missing out on the most talked-about conversation on campuses today, and more importantly, that we had an opportunity to participate in it and say something of value.
Did you always know the consent storyline was going to involve Bay and Tank, or did you brainstorm it with other characters?
We did briefly discuss doing it with Daphne, but she had already been attacked on her truck a couple seasons ago, and just spun out last season after losing someone important to her.
Once we landed on Bay, I knew pretty instantly that it should be Tank. It’s really important to the story that he’s someone everyone (viewers and characters alike) knew well and loved. I wanted to keep it messy, both in the circumstances of what happened and in their history.
Can you expand on why Switched at Birth is focusing more on the murky, gray area of consent between two friends (and exes), rather than writing a more straightforward, black-and-white rape storyline?
First of all, the more straightforward situations have already been covered a lot on TV, and I wasn’t sure we had much new to add to that story. What we were reading about and hearing about were situations that were much more confusing to all parties involved about what really transpired. We wanted to keep it universal, and I think this kind of circumstance is a lot more common than the more clear-cut one in which violence is used or in which the woman clearly says no.
Was it always the plan to never explicitly say what happened and instead leave what happened in the bedroom open-ended?
Yes. The differences [in their stories] are pretty slight (who kissed who first, the phrasing of a few lines), and both of them are telling the truth in their minds. They’re not trying to lie. People misread things, mishear things, and see and remember situations the way they want it to be/have been.
And we didn’t want to land on one of them misremembering because those details are actually irrelevant. The facts to this particular issue of consent remain the same: They were both really, really drunk. That’s the key to this story. “Can an extremely drunk girl give consent?” That’s it. Discuss amongst yourselves.
Why did you choose to Mary Beth as the one voice that doesn’t support Bay? It’s an interesting choice, especially because the men in Bay’s life immediately believe her.
It had to be a girl. It’s easier to understand why she’s saying it — it’s a protective device that girls use so they don’t live in fear all the time. “This won’t happen to me because I’m more careful than she was.” A guy saying that would just sound like a dick.
As for the others’ reactions, we definitely debated. I remember saying that Toby would be torn because Tank is his close friend. And that John might say to Kathryn, “Drunk sex? That counts as assault? Then I assault you three times a week.” But all the writers (especially the guys) yelled at me, “He’s her brother! He’s her dad! They have to side with her — instantly!” And they were right. Let Mary Beth and the strangers on campus have the more controversial reactions. Our family is her warm blanket.
What was the preparation like in the writers room? Did you talk to any experts?
We read a couple case studies, but then we just kept it true to our characters and shaped it like we do every story we break.
After we completed the scripts, Break the Cycle — a group that educates young people about assault and abusive relationships — read them and gave us their stamp of approval. We also hosted an online conversation with them after the first episode aired. They guided myself, Vanessa, and Max in answering tweets from viewers about the issue.
Were you worried about any negative response to the storyline? What were ABC Family’s and the actors’ — Vanessa Marano and Max Adler in particular — responses when you pitched it?
Everyone got it right away — how important the story was to tell. The network, of course, was as surprised as viewers were to hear that we wanted to do it with Tank, but they understood why it was essential. And they encouraged us and were our partners in every draft to keep us honest to the “it’s not black or white” perspective. They’d call me after a draft and say, “It’s tipping too far in this direction in this scene,” or even, “with this line.” They were as committed as we were to keeping it even-handed.
Vanessa is such a pro. She totally got it right away and was on board. And frankly, as a regular, she’s always opening scripts and reading about crazy stuff we want her to do, and she takes it all in stride.
Max was a different story because we don’t have a contract with him for every episode like we do with Vanessa, so I had to call him weeks before anyone else knew to get him to commit to the dates and talk him through what our intentions were. I promised him that we weren’t going to do a character assassination, at least in terms of letting his character speak for himself and make his case. (And in fact, a lot of viewers are siding with Tank.) I’m sure Max was nervous before he read the scripts, but as soon as he did, he was really pleased with the structure and the details and the challenge as an actor for the many meaty scenes he got, and for the opportunity to be part of such an important national issue.
Has the response to the storyline surprised you at all?
I am a feminist and minored in Women’s Studies, and I was prepared for (some) women and rape survivors to be really angry that we were telling a story in which the act is not clearly labeled “assault.” But to my surprise, women (and survivors) are just really happy that we are putting the story out there and getting the conversation going. That’s the most important thing. We don’t have all the answers. But hopefully the episodes will get people arguing so that at least everyone is clear on the new world we live in.