A convo with 'Switched at Birth' creator Lizzy Weiss about the show's crucial campus rape storyline
We’re about a month into 2015, and one of the most intense, intelligent, and important storylines currently airing on television is coming to us from ABC Family’s Switched at Birth.
Switched at Birth has made a name for itself telling the stories of individuals and communities typically underrepresented on television. With remarkable guts and tremendous empathy, the show deep dives into the deaf community and its relationship with the hearing world, the fractious divide between have’s and have-not’s, racial micro-aggressions, and the struggles of being body positive in a world that’s body negative. Now, the show is taking on rape culture, with its character Bay Kennish (one of the girls who was, like the show’s title suggests, switched at birth with her co-lead Daphne Vasquez) waking up from a drunken hook-up with an old flame and coming to the sickening realization that she did not give her consent.
The story is a two-parter, the first part aired this past week, the second part airs tonight (Tuesday) on ABC Family at 9/8c. I had the great privilege of talking with Switched at Birth creator and showrunner Lizzy Weiss about this story arc. Here’s what she had to say.
Hello Giggles (HG): In your interview with Cosmopolitan, you talked about the dialogue surrounding rape, feeling like it had plateau’d from the time you were in college until about six months ago. In your opinion, how has the conversation changed, and how did that affect how you told this story?
Lizzy Weiss (LW): When I went to college, the conversation surrounding rape revolved around the phrase ‘No means no.’ Today the entire paradigm has shifted to ‘You need to get a yes.’ That’s a massive change. Guys have to get clear-headed consent instead of just saying ‘You never told me to stop.’ And that puts the onus on the guys to think carefully about whether the woman is in a sober enough state to give consent. This is so important to talk about — to protect everybody. No one wants to get in a situation where something horrible follows both parties around for the rest of their lives.
HG: One of the things that struck me most about the first episode of this story arc was how conflicted Bay feels throughout, she’s unsure how to define the events of the night, how to feel about what happened, whether or not she can trust what little she remembers about the party, and I was hoping you could speak to the choice of telling this story in shades of grey (vs. the black and white we tend to see when we see sexual assault storylines play out onscreen).
LW: The fact that both parties were drunk was a huge part of the story. Bay genuinely doesn’t remember if she says yes. She could have. The question then becomes — is a super inebriated ‘yes’ a valid one for consent? We were laser-focused on that one issue, and for many people, it’s a sticky one. How is a guy supposed to know when ‘yes’ means ‘no’ in the morning? How drunk is too drunk? These are really important questions to get both guys and girls to talk about. And we chose to tell the story that way because that’s what happens at a lot of college parties: kids drink a lot and then they climb into bed.
We weren’t trying to make anyone the bad guy, that’s too easy. We wanted to be realistic and specific and ask really hard questions so that both girls and guys understand the new rules moving forward, and everyone is informed and communicative so that situations like this one are prevented.
HG: I was struck and touched by how supportive Bay’s friends and family were — they listen well, provide her with the information she needs, and ultimately support her wishes. I was hoping you could speak to this choice as well, especially in the light of the campus rape documentary The Hunting Ground which just premiered at Sundance, in which so many survivors interviewed agree that as nightmarish as their assault was, what was almost worse was the lack of support they received once they reported their attacks.
LW: Our show is a family show, in which the bonds between parent and child and between siblings are very strong, so it never crossed my mind to have anyone in her immediate family doubt her. However, as you move in concentric circles beyond the immediate family to friends and then to acquaintances and then to strangers, we definitely wanted to show the responses varying. People have a lot of judgment about these situations because they want to find psychological reasons that this kind of thing ‘couldn’t happen’ to them or anyone they love. While Bay’s family is incredibly supportive, we definitely do show the nightmarish response she gets from the larger community once news of the assault is leaked (in episode 6). Hopefully we show a situation in which even though it’s a nightmare, speaking out is the right thing to do.
HG: You have so many young viewers — some who are enrolled in college, others who will be attending in the future — how do you hope this storyline can educate and support these viewers?
LW: To both genders: get and give clear consent. Guys: if you have any doubt that the girl is too drunk, walk away. Girls, be aware of yourself and your circumstances and how much alcohol you are drinking so that you don’t find yourself in a situation where you aren’t in control enough to say ‘no.’ And if you are in a situation in which you want to set limits, be unafraid to set them. It’s your body.
Lastly, if something like this has happened to you, know that there are a lot of places you can go to talk through it. I worked with a group called Break the Cycle after the episode aired and they suggest calling 866-331-9474 or going to @loveisrespect for support.