The “ABC Family” network, owned by Disney after beginning life as one of Pat Robertson’s properties, [1. ABC Family is still contractually obligated to broadcast Robertson's show "The 700 Club" twice daily, although they precede it with a disclaimer.] has broadcast four of my favorite TV shows of recent years.
Teen drama Make It Or Break It, about the friendship and rivalries of four female gymnasts trying to make it to the Olympics, was terrific at first – and a rare show that both admired teen girls for having big ambitions, and emphasized the value of hard work. The short-lived Huge, set at a weight-loss camp for teens, was an amazing show for diversity, having not just one but many fat characters. Even better, one of Huge‘s lead characters was openly skeptical about the shaming of fat kids, and the entire goal of weight loss. The witty Bunheads, a gloriously unrealistic show about a small-town ballet school, is one of the best shows currently on TV (and may not get a second season) – see Abigail Nussbaum’s excellent Bunheads post.
But the show that blew me away this week was the Switched At Birth episode “Uprising” [2. Season two, episode nine.] I’d recommend watching this episode, even if you haven’t been watching the series – it can be seen for another week for free on ABC Family’s website, and it can also be downloaded for two bucks from Amazon.
Switched At Birth is, as the title suggests, a teen drama about two 16 year old girls whose families suffer an upheaval when they find out that they were “switched at birth” in the hospital. The show is highly conscious of identity politics – one girl is being raised by her Latina hairdresser mother, the other girl by a wealthy White couple – but the most important identity politics in the show is Deaf versus hearing. One of the girls, Daphne, is Deaf; the other, Bay, is hearing.
Switched At Birth is the best depiction of Deaf characters and culture ever done in mainstream TV or movies. An essential part of that is that Switched At Birth has Deaf characterS, plural. Most TV shows that include a Deaf character have just one Deaf character (typically played by Marlee Matlin), such as Matlin’s character on The West Wing, Matlin’s character on The L Word, Matlin’s character on Seinfeld, and Matlin’s character on Desperate Housewives. [3. Matlin also has a major role on Switched At Birth.]
One character cannot stand in for an entire community. And for Deaf characters especially, having just one character who speaks ASL is terribly limiting (because who do they speak it to?). Switched At Birth has three or four Deaf characters [4. Deaf characters on Switched At Birth are played by actors who are themselves either Deaf or hard of hearing.] who appear in virtually every episode, as well as several supporting Deaf characters. So no one Deaf character has to stand in for all Deaf people; and conversations taking place entirely in American Sign Language (ASL), with subtitles, are a regular staple of Switched At Birth.
In this week’s episode, however, virtually all dialog was in subtitled ASL. (Put down your phones and ipads; this is a show that has to be watched.) It’s extremely compelling – partly because in a show with major themes of linguistic outsiders and insiders, the producers successfully turn most of the hearing characters, and most of the audience, into linguistic outsiders for an episode. As in most TV dramas, there is a music score intended to enhance and mirror the character’s emotions, but because no characters are speaking over the music, it at first seems more intrusive than in most scored TV shows – but once I got used to it, it seemed normal. [5. According to series creator Lizzy Weiss: Even in our 'regular' episodes, we use score to reflect the emotional state of the characters in the scenes, and this episode is no different. The score and the songs represent the emotional state of the characters as they struggle to take back their school.]
That alone would make “Uprising” one of the best forty minutes of TV in any year. But for a political junkie like me, “Uprising” also had other pleasures.
(Mild spoilers follow.)
Nearly all the important teen characters on Switched At Birth – including the two main characters, Daphne and Bay – attend Carlton, a school for Deaf kids. This season, Carlton has begun a pilot program in which a handful of interested hearing students, including Bay, are permitted to enroll. This pilot program seems to have unlimited funding available, while virtually all of Carlton’s other programs suffer from severe budget cuts. Then, at the end of the episode before “Uprising,” the school board announced plans to close Carlton and distribute the Carlton students throughout the mainstream (i.e., hearing) schools.
Inspired by the “Deaf President Now” student takeover of Gallaudet University almost exactly twenty-five years ago, and also by the Occupy movement, the Carlton students lock themselves in Carlton until the school board agrees to keep it open. Carrie at the AV Club describes what happens:
The kids are more than willing to wait it out inside until they get what they want, and their demands are straightforward (keep Carlton open and deaf, with no punishment to those kids who participated in the protest). It’s the process of asking for these demands that turns out to be far more complicated than any of them expected. They want to keep Carlton deaf—but how deaf? Is Noah’s Meniere’s disease enough for him to “count”? Bay isn’t deaf but is there fighting for her school. Will she even be allowed to attend if the protestors get what they want? Or is she fighting for a cause her classmates don’t even think she should be involved with in the first place? No two people’s views are 100% the same, creating a nice tension between even the kids who on the surface are very similar.
And underlying all of that is the larger political puzzle – how can a small minority possibly convince a large, privileged majority that they legitimately require a space of their own? Even the hearing people who have allied with the Deaf students are often depicted as good-intentioned but fundamentally not grasping the central issues.
There are some clunky bits in the episode, particularly the way that social media support is presented as appearing as by magic, rather than as the result of a planned campaign. (And how did the kids manage to install that amazing banner on the rooftop?).
Still, the presentation of identity politics as a Thing That Matters – and that is complex, even for folks on the same side of an issue – is incredibly rare. Showing politics at the grass roots, rather than as the adventures of powerful White men in expensive suits, is even rarer. The decision to present Deaf issues with Deaf people as the point of view characters is virtually unknown on mainstream TV. This is TV worth watching.