A New Kind of Television

When I first started watching Switched at Birth, I was pretty excited to see deaf people represented on mainstream television. My ASL instructor at the time–a deaf actress herself–warned me not to be too excited; deaf was usually a one-episode story arc featuring Marlee Matlin. But despite the bizarre, uninspired plot line, the show surprised me. There wasn’t just one deaf character, there were numerous. And they didn’t all view their deafness in the same way: while Daphne speaks and occasionally hides her deafness to get by in the hearing world, others, like Emmett and Travis, do not speak for individual (though very legitimate and real) reasons. Communication between the deaf and the hearing occurs in many ways–lip reading, on occasion, but more typically slow and English-esque sign language with written or typed messages when the meaning isn’t clear or the light isn’t good enough. The show regularly and thoroughly (and without compromise!) articulates the struggle of deaf and hard-of-hearing people to survive in a world that wants to fix something that isn’t broken. While the show could certainly use some characters of color and a discussion of cochlear implants**, but while I haven’t had the opportunity, in particular since the all-ASL episode, to talk to the deaf community about their perspective, the show has left me feeling pretty good about the direction progressive television could be headed in.

Similarly, I was excited about The Fosters, albeit wary. I’ve watched Ellen, Will & Grace, The L Word, Queer as Folk, Modern Family, Glee, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: a lot of white, gay, trans*- and biphobic, rich, glamorous, effeminate men and women who hardly get to kiss (The L Word and Queer as Folk are exceptions to this, but only because they were on Showtime), let alone become more than stereotypes or issues-of-the-week (here’s lookin’ at you, Glee). And sure, they were all progress. They were all a Big Deal. But I’ve never felt represented watching any of these shows, and for that matter, I don’t know anyone who has. The characters were eye candy and comedy–or edgy and tragic. The Fosters, potentially at least, was gearing up to fill the gap that these shows left by tackling visibility, politics, and community.

I cried a lot the first episode. There’s the biracial lesbian working mothers couple. Steph talking to her adopted kids in Spanish without subtitles. The gender non-conforming Jude who wants to wear a dress. Callie who has been screwed over by the adoption and school-to-prison system. Lena, a black woman with natural hair who calls herself a feminist to a straight-white-male and it isn’t a dirty word. So much good in one episode. All the things I had wanted to fix about television: the answers were here.

And the show has not backed down. Jesus shamelessly takes his ADD medication and later pursues the morning after pill for his girlfriend (because proactive birth control and sex education are the healthy option). Lena argues with her mother about African-American racial politics. There’s a Quinceñera. When Jude is bullied for painting his nails, his friend (crush? Dare I speak too soon?) paints his in solidarity. There was a short-haired lesbian in a plaid shirt, and for once I got to think to myself, hey, she looks like I do. I could grow up to be that person. I would like that.

The thing that felt the most off to me in the show thus far is that the poetry slam wasn’t quite accurate.

You guys, read that again.

The poetry slam wasn’t quite accurate.

How privileged are we to have a television show where the thing they can’t get quite right is a freakin’ poetry slam.

No, their lives aren’t perfect. They fight, they’re bullied, they make sacrifices, and run away from their problems. But they support each other. They are community. At the end of the day, they hold hands and kiss (or get it on in the back of the car, your choice). If you aren’t watching The Fosters (or Switched at Birth for that matter), you’re making a mistake. Meanwhile, I’ll be on the edge of my seat for every episode. Thank you, ABC Family. Please don’t let us down.


**Editor’s Note: At the time of this post, I hadn’t watched the most recent episode of Switched at Birth, which opens up the discussion of cochlear implants. Goddammit, ABC Family. You read my mind.

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