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Switched At Birth: “Black And Gray”

Illustration for article titled Switched At Birth: “Black And Gray”
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When talking about a subject as important, widespread, and complicated as campus rape, it’s hard to even know where to begin. That’s why Switched At Birth’s two-part exploration of what happened between Bay and Tank after a wild dorm party feels so essential, as it attempts to hit as many of the personal, emotional, and institutional effects of the situation as possible. The relative lack of similar stories in mainstream entertainment—especially considering the elevated awareness of the problem due to several current high-profile cases on campuses nationwide—is why it unfortunately feels so surprising. This is a lot of responsibility for Switched At Birth to take on, but the show wears the burden well, fully committing to telling a comprehensive story while holding back just enough judgment to let viewers watch and decide for themselves what they think about the situation. As the episode’s title of “Black And Gray” suggests, there are no easy, cut-and-dried answers here—and that’s what makes rape stories so hard, both in real life and fiction.

One of the most interesting choices the writers made in this story was to have Bay slowly realize what happened to her, rather than it being immediately clear. Bay wakes up next to Tank naked and hung over, with a nagging feeling something is wrong, but immediately clamps that screaming intuition down, not trusting that her feelings are even justified considering her own participation in the drinking that led up to the rape. It’s Regina that even uses the word rape for the first time; before that, the concept is too foreign for Bay to consider as something that could happen to her with a guy like Tank. Bay’s subsequent questioning of Tank—insisting that she might not have said no but she certainly never said yes—is flooring to hear, simply because you rarely see sexual consent framed in this way on television. If Bay didn’t explicitly say yes, was it rape? If she didn’t say no, was it rape?

To Tank, it definitely wasn’t, and the choice to use the character of Tank in this story was another interesting one. This is someone who has been liked by the audience, someone who has loved and protected Bay in the past. Tank has his faults but by his own admission he’s not some sort of sexual predator, and that’s the point the show is trying to make: Rape isn’t only one thing, and it doesn’t only present itself one way. But it isn’t until the administration finds out and starts a Title IX investigation that Tank realizes this is more than Bay having some sort of morning-after regrets: This is a potential crime that could have serious implications on his life and future.

Once Melody and the school administration gets involved, the story goes from Bay’s story to a more widespread look at how rape affects not just the person who was raped but everyone in their orbit, and that’s where things get more complicated. Bay remains the sort-of confused center of a strengthening hurricane, and she must decide how she wants to move forward when everything around her is swirling so fast. The campus is investigating, so during witness questioning Bay’s name inevitably gets out. Bay is forced to tell Emmett, who tunes out at the “cheating” part before Bay can reveal the whole story. Anonymous commenters trash Bay in the comments of a campus newspaper story on the incident. (One thing the episode doesn’t do a great job of handling is Tank’s position on the football team, which certainly would have had a great impact on how the story was filtered through the student body.) Other partygoers are dismissive of what happened, saying it was obvious Bay and Tank were going to hook up, while Travis blames himself for not protecting her and Mary Beth insists it was Bay’s job to protect herself by not getting so drunk she lost control.

It’s with these two different viewpoints, represented in a frustrating fight between Travis and Mary Beth, that Switched At Birth raises an oft-ignored point: What is your responsibility as part of a community like a college campus, both to prevent an assault and to carry the burden of what happens after an assault? Travis feels like he should have taken Bay home and removed her from the situation, but was that his job? Mary Beth feels like a woman should never put herself in that situation in the first place but is that fair? (“We can’t let our guard down. It sucks for us, but that’s how it is.”) Or is it just everyone’s job to simply do the best we can, learn from any mistakes, and do better in the future? There are no easy answers, and the writers smartly don’t imply that there are, hoping that asking the questions and getting a conversation going is enough.

As Bay continues to wrestle with her own feelings about the rape, her family around her is wrestling as well. If there’s one thing these two episodes simultaneously excel at and fumble a bit, it’s how Bay’s rape affects her family around her. Seeing Toby and Daphne rally around their sibling was incredible, as was seeing Regina and Kathryn come together to help, and John offer Bay the comfort she needed. Survivor stories are about more than the survivor, but at times this episode in particular tries to do so much that it loses a bit of Bay’s journey in the process. This is a story of many sides and many aspects, but Bay’s is the one I’m most concerned with. Luckily this is an ongoing series, and Bay’s journey to overcome could just be beginning. After seeing how well everything has been handled so far, I trust Switched At Birth is committed to telling this story in the future.


When I was in college, Felicity aired its own two-part episode about campus rape (“Drawing The Line: Part 1 & 2”). This story hit a few similar beats as this one—it was date rape, and it happened after a night of drinking—but the biggest similarity to me was how hard it was to watch, and how important it felt when I was watching it. Before that time I’d never seen rape portrayed in this way on a show I was so invested in, and it affected how I thought about and reacted to rape stories in the future, both in my own life and in a broader sense. With its own story, Switched At Birth is primed to affect its fans young and old in the same way, which is perhaps the most important story of all.

Stray observations:

  • Carrie Wikis Some Art: Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (also known as Whistler’s Mother), James McNeill Whistler, 1871, oil on canvas. (I have no idea if this is really where the name comes from, but that’s what the Switched At Birth Wiki says and I’m going with it, because this is a tough one to Google.)
  • I hope all universities would be as quick to believe a rape accusation as thorough to investigate it as UMKC was here. Sadly, I am not sure this is the case.
  • Speaking of the university, did Tank get expelled via text message?
  • How do you think the “I thought I had a green light” scene between John and Tank ended? Did they just awkwardly shake hands and John left? Did John punch him in the face? That was an odd scene.
  • Love Regina figuring out something is wrong and Regina and Kathryn coming together to help Bay. Especially touching was Kathryn’s scene relating her own story of assault to Bay, and saying perhaps the most important lines in the episode: “What happened to you does matter, and you’re the only one who knows exactly what you are going through. You need to speak for yourself.”
  • But the thing that brings the tears? Bay and John. He says exactly what Bay needs to hear: “I love you, same as always.”
  • The only person who doesn’t come off so well in this episode is the fellow rape survivor from the Student Crisis Center, which is a bit uncomfortable. I know she served a story point but it still felt a bit bracing.