In the autumn of 2012, I was taking a full load of college classes, working toward my degree. One of my favorite classes that semester was an Adaptive PE class, in which we learned about how to modify physical education and recreational programs for people with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities. It was also during this time that I discovered season 1 of Switched at Birth on Netflix, and watched it all in one week during break. I was impressed with the show's handling of the specific issues facing the deaf and hard of hearing.
Flash forward three years, and I realized that while I'd stopped after watching season 1, the show had kept going. Two weeks ago I went looking for a new show to watch on Netflix, and found that there were three* more seasons of Switched at Birth to catch up on! Of course, I got started immediately. And I'm so glad I did. Not only was it as good as I remembered, it actually got increasingly better with each season as they expanded on the characters' stories. Plus, my timing was perfect -- I finished last week, just in time for its return for the second half of season 4 tonight (August 24)!
Without going into any spoilery details, here's a short list why you should be watching this excellent show:
Seriously kickass female leads.
There are four main female characters -- Bay, Daphne, Regina, and Kathryn -- and even more recurring characters. Each of these are fully rounded, complex, well-developed characters with their own motivations, making their own decisions and mistakes.
It's clear the creators set out to create a show that is smart and engaging, and tells the stories of some amazing women. It was absolutely no surprise to me at all to learn it is the creation Lizzy Weiss, who was also the producer of another show I loved: Cashmere Mafia.
Fantastic representation of young women.
We meet Bay and Daphne when they're 15 years old. Over the next few years we get to watch them grow into intelligent, brave, amazing young women, even as they make some serious mistakes, learn some valuable lessons, and generally explore who they are and who they want to be.
Fantastic representation of older women.
It's not just their daughters who get to have a rich inner life and character development. The moms do too. Regina and Kathryn both have their own storylines. Both get to deal with issues related to being a parent of a child switched at birth, of course, but they also get their own careers and relationships.
It's one of the few shows with disability issues front and center.
Deafness isn't simply a plot point. It's woven into the fabric of the show. Daphne is deaf and goes to a school for deaf students. Her best friend is Emmett, who is also deaf, and whose mother is played by the wonderful Marlee Matlin. While not every storyline involves someone who is deaf, the bulk of them do. And the actors who play the deaf characters? Yep, they're deaf or hard of hearing themselves.
There are a couple of episodes with guest star RJ Mitte, who plays a pre-med student who was injured in a snowboarding accident. The interactions between his character, Campbell, and Daphne show that people with different disabilities may be able to relate with each other on some issues, but still have their own lessons to learn about the ways others experience the world.
The issues around deafness and Deaf culture, and all other disabilities, are treated with care and respect. We get to watch as Daphne's birth family struggles with learning how to sign. Sometimes it's funny: "You signed 'hang out' wrong. You said 'you guys get circumcised a lot.'" But all the time it's touching that they are willing to learn an entirely new language to be able to communicate with her.
It's so totally sex positive!
Everyone is having sex! OK, not really. But there's enough sex going on that it's part of the various storylines. And in no case is anyone ever shamed for it. Not only that, but characters talk about sex, and while the parents are a bit uneasy with the idea of their children having active sex lives, they address it calmly and support their healthy sexual development.
At one point, Daphne is talking to Regina about a guy she is seeing and says, "I just wish I knew what he wanted." Regina's answer is so spot on it made me whoop out loud. She coolly turned to her daughter and said, "I think that's the wrong question. I think you should be asking what do you want."
Positive examples of lesbian and gay characters. There are high school students who are open and out. There are students who are closeted and whose friends continue to support as they slowly come out. There are gay and lesbian adults. And their sexuality is treated with the same respect as the hetero characters by the writers, and while Renzo may be a colorful character, he's still not a caricature. He's three dimensional, even in his short appearances.
They don't shy away from difficult discussions.
I know... ABC Family is like the modern version of an after school special in this regard. Most of their shows are talking about complicated issue. Switched at Birth is no different in this regard, although I believe they do a better job of it than other shows. It never feels forced or thrown in for the plot. In fact, most of the issues that are addressed -- consent, substance abuse and recovery, bullying, mental illness, birth control, inappropriate relationships, infidelity, etc. -- are part of a character's development, and are on-going discussions rather than simply a theme for the night's episode.
If you haven't been watching Switched at Birth, hope you will give it a try after reading this. It deserves all of the awards they've received over the last three years. And if you do, please let me know what you think of it!
*more precisely, two and a half seasons
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