‘Switched at Birth’ and Ableist Romance

[caption id="attachment_7811" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Switched at Birth promotional poster. Switched at Birth promotional poster.[/caption]

Written by Erin Tatum.

In today’s unapologetically ableist media, Switched at Birth is a diamond in the rough in many respects. The narrative follows two teenage girls, Bay Kennish (Vanessa Marano) and Daphne Vasquez (Katie Leclerc) after they discover that a hospital mixup led to them being switched at birth and deal with the fusion of their two families. Daphne also happens to be deaf as a result of early childhood meningitis. Bay’s entire family learns sign language, meaning that coupled with Daphne’s other family and friends, pretty much everyone in the cast had to already be or become fluent in American sign language for the role. The show features Marlee Matlin prominently and casts actual deaf actors to authentically represent Daphne’s life in the deaf community. It’s safe to say that you’d be hard-pressed to find a more disability-friendly show on television. That level of representation for disabled actors continues to be virtually nonexistent, not to mention fleshing them out as actual characters instead of forcing them to be background token minorities.

[caption id="attachment_7807" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Emmett finds himself falling for Bay pretty quickly. Emmett finds himself falling for Bay pretty quickly.[/caption]

In spite of all the progressivism, arguably the main appeal of the show for most viewers annoys the hell out of me: the relationship between Bay and Emmett. Emmett (Sean Berdy) is a motorcycle bad boy literally described by the writers as a “deaf James Dean.” A staunch advocate of Deaf culture, Emmett prefers his way of life and repeatedly insists that he only wants to date a deaf girl. Of course, this desire is portrayed as stubborn and naively foolish. Emmett initially sulks over a long time unrequited crush on Daphne, but it only takes a few episodes for Bay to start winning him over. This would all be well and good if Bay and Emmett’s blossoming romance weren’t used to paper over and invalidate his original desire to maintain his culture. A firm belief system is only relevant to illustrate how much you’ll change for love! Every character teases Emmett or acts surprised by his feelings for Bay, as if the fact that he fell for a hearing girl proves the inevitable dominance of the status quo. Again, portraying his commitment to deaf values as laughably myopic and unsustainable is unfortunate because it belittles the historic and everyday prejudices against the deaf community. Bay should not be Emmett’s ambassador to the hearing world. Minorities do not “reform themselves” by learning to accept total immersion in the majority. That’s not how that works. Bay’s just another generic Mary Sue whose informed exceptionalism is enough to convince those alleged radicals that integrating into the mainstream is better! Isn’t everything more romantic when you can make the challenges of your marginalized partner all about you?

[caption id="attachment_7812" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Emmett practices his speech to make Bay happy. Emmett practices his speech to make Bay happy.[/caption]

Predictably, the relationship becomes… all about Bay, and not just because she’s the main character. Bay has to contemplate dating a deaf guy. Bay can’t learn sign language fast enough. Bay wants to know why Emmett insists on remaining nonverbal. To clarify, Emmett chooses not to speak and communicate solely in sign language. I think Daphne is actually the only hearing impaired character thus far who is also verbal. As I understand, it’s a matter of personal preference. Bay assures Emmett that he shouldn’t be self-conscious about his voice around her. She wants them to speak so badly that Emmett takes speech lessons and even considers getting a cochlear implant to please her. We’re supposed to see this as proof of his commitment to her, but this is fifty shades of fucked up. You should never be expected to change a fundamental aspect of your identity for your partner. Emmett already told her that speaking aloud makes him uncomfortable. End of discussion. Curiosity is understandable to an extent, but not if you’re going to pick apart their private lives to see if they live up to your standards. The ableist impulse to “help” disabled people by making them seem more “normal” is disgusting. Making matters worse, Bay is portrayed as the accepting supportive girlfriend when she eventually let go of the idea that Emmett had to become verbal.

[caption id="attachment_7808" align="aligncenter" width="259"]Things get heated between Emmett and Daphne when Daphne confesses her feelings for him. Things get heated between Emmett and Daphne when Daphne confesses her feelings for him.[/caption]

Bay finds time to play the victim even in the earliest days of her relationship. Daphne has particularly unfortunate timing and decides that she actually does have feelings for Emmett just when Bay and Emmett have made things official. Bay feels threatened due to Emmett and Daphne’s shared deaf experience, rather than worry about more obvious red flags like their deep friendship or Emmett’s massive crush that apparently evaporated. Infuriated by Daphne’s sudden realization, Emmett turns Daphne down and tells her that he is with Bay (but not before kissing Daphne, which is somehow never brought up again because I guess their entire friendship was an elaborate plotpoint to give Bay drama). Emmett rushes to tell Bay that he’s chosen her. God, I hate this trope. Nothing kills the romance in a new relationship more than anxiously waiting to see if you’re someone’s second choice in a love triangle.

[caption id="attachment_7852" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Bay braces herself for rejection. Bay braces herself for rejection.[/caption]

Bay has already let her insecurities get the best of her and melodramatically announces to Emmett that he might as well be with Daphne since she (Bay) will never understand what it’s like to be deaf. She also makes it seem like Emmett was setting her up to be let down all along with his ~deaf elitism~, when it’s actually been her pushing Emmett to live up to her standards from the beginning. Fuck you, Bay. If you can’t tell, I hate Bay with a fiery passion and I think that she’s a whiny, entitled asshat. God forbid that the privileged able girl feels inferior to – gasp – someone who she knows is widely perceived as socially unworthy! (Her paranoia emcompasses more than just rejection, clearly.) As his final ace in the hole to prove that he really is committed to her, Emmett whirls Bay around and struggles to enunciate the words “I – just – want – you,” the first and only time he has spoken onscreen.

The fandom collectively swooned.

That single sentence was viewed as the ultimate romantic gesture. He overcame his biggest barrier to profess his love to her! So dreamy.

Let me pause for a second before I dissect the worlds of no that accompany that sentiment.

Here’s the thing: disabled people should never, ever have to transcend into “ableness” to make a case for themselves as viable romantic interests. Ever. A romantic relationship can never work if it’s built upon one person patting themselves on the back for being gracious or self-sacrificing enough to be with the other person. That’s not a relationship, that’s elaborate, sociopathic ego masturbation.

By forcing Emmett to speak to keep her from walking away, Bay is essentially admitting that she’ll only stay around if he lets her mold him into the person that she deems acceptable – that is, either a more able person or a person that perpetually highlights her greatness as able savior. Why is the burden on him to prove he’s not that committed to deaf exclusivity? See, it’s not Bay who has to understand a different perspective, Emmett is the one who needs to change and open up his mind! Again, Bay’s exceptionalism is reasserted when the audience is reminded that it’s allegedly Emmett’s agency at work here, because Bay is great enough to throw his lifelong belief in deaf solidarity out the window after a few short weeks of flirting. Yeah, okay.

[caption id="attachment_7810" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Emmett teaches Bay the sign for "I love you." Emmett teaches Bay the sign for “I love you.”[/caption]

Ultimately, audience response naturalizes passive ableism far mare than the portrayal of Bay and Emmett’s romance in itself. Reaction to the couple often reveals cringe inducing depths of ignorance. The consensus generally seems to be adoration for Bay’s selflessness in wanting to be with a deaf person and learning sign language for Emmett (so she’s a saint for… wanting to talk to the boy she likes?). Most bizarrely, Bay and Emmett’s relationship has produced a desire in many fans to have a deaf boyfriend. Yes, you read that right.

You have to admit the idiocy here is blatant and undeniably impressive.

No other sentiment could better encapsulate the habitual dehumanization of people with disabilities as well as the pervasiveness of ableism.

Even as Switched at Birth‘s resident heartthrob, Emmett is never respected on his own merit. He is only valuable in the ways that he can benefit Bay’s character. If they’re together, the able community can find a palatable way to pretend to embrace trans-ability romance through compulsive and obligatory worship of the able savior.

Disabled people are never equal partners, they’re pets and ego boosts.

People want a deaf boyfriend so that they can relish the idea that they’ll be the only ones who can communicate with them and that closeness will create some sort of special bond.

Do I need to explain why that’s problematic?

You can’t specifically engineer a situation so that your partner is isolated to the point where they’re only physically able to talk to you. That’s unhealthy and abusive, to say the least. And just, the fetishism and infantilism and jesus, everything about the half-baked romanticization of deaf/hearing relationships because of this silly show is so fucking wrong.

[caption id="attachment_7851" align="aligncenter" width="218"]Emmett paints a timeline of their relationship milestones to impress Bay. Emmett paints a timeline of their relationship milestones to impress Bay.[/caption]

Bay and Emmett get in a fight and Emmett sleeps with another hearing girl (conveniently casting Bay as the victim yet again, surprise). They break up. Despite several attempts to win her back, Emmett has thus far been unsuccessful. They’ve actually been apart as just friends with very little interaction for quite a long time, not that I’m complaining. They’re obviously endgame, but I’m hoping when they do get back together, they’ll be on more equal footing.

Romances shouldn’t be about falling in love with the idea of yourself being virtuous enough to tolerate someone else.