Minority Portrayals in Hollywood: Switched At Birth

It's 11:30 at night. I've been on campus all day, studying, tutoring, meeting, researching... But I'm excited because one of the few TV shows I watch had it's winter premiere at 8 and I actually remembered to record it. So I grab a water (yes I actually drank water for once!) get comfy in my bed and press play. The excitement lasted for all of 10 minutes before I was spiraled into disappointment, rage, and hopelessness.

The TV Show

Let me first start with a backstory of the show. It's called Switched at Birth. The basic premise is that two baby girls were--you guessed it!--switched at birth. One girl, named Bay,  was placed with the wealthy white family, while the other, Daphne, was placed with the poorer Puerto-Rican mom and Italian father. Naturally when the father sees blonde-ish, green eyed Daphne he accuses her mother of infidelity and abandons the family. Around the age of 3, Daphne has complications with pneumonia which her poorer family cannot afford and ends up partially deaf. The parents realize the switch when the girls are 16.

I can't remember the ins and outs of this part, but Daphne and her mother end up moving in to the other family's guest house and they become a strange blob of a family. From there the show focuses on the nuances of the changes, building relationships between the birth mothers and their children, the relationship with siblings (Daphne has a biological big brother and Bay eventually has a biological half sister). Along with the familial relationship, the show takes a unique turn in incorporating the everyday life of deaf people in the US. Daphne attends a school for the hearing impaired, thus introducing several characters who are also deaf to the show. Eventually Bay joins Daphne at this school and the school becomes one of the main focal points on the show. Needless to say I find this unique spin interesting and refreshing. Having gone to school with someone who is deaf I thought "good for ABC family for bringing attention to a group of people most don't normally think about."

Pre-Existing Racial Climate

I don't consider myself a stickler for racial quotas in shows. As a black person who attended predominantly white schools I understand that even in 2014 there can be situations in which people interact with few people outside of their race (I've actually met a 21 year old who admitted I was the first black person she'd ever had a conversation with). If it makes sense within the context of the show, while I may notice a lack of non-white faces, it usually doesn't bother me. Particularly because I hate the idea of the token character. That being said, prior to Monday's premiere there have been approximately 4 minority characters on the show: 

  1. Regina Vasquez who is Puerto Rican. Portrayed by Constance Marie.  
  2. Bay Kennish, though raised as white due to the switch, is Regina's daughter and is actually 1/2 Puerto Rican. Portayed by Vanessa Marano
  3. Adriana Vasquez, Regina's mother and Bay's maternal grandmother. Portayed by Ivonne Coll
  4. Lana, Bay's biological father's one night stand who turns up pregnant. Portrayed by Annie Ilonzeh

Constance Marie
Ivonne Coll
Vanessa Marano
Annie Ilonzeh
Honestly, I often forget that the Vasquez's are Puerto Rican until Ivonne Coll appears in an episode (which isn't that often) and I hear her slight accent. Even so, they were still dished out all the negative stereotypes. Regina is a recovering alcoholic that can't pay her bills or keep a job and ends up relapsing for a while. Bay is the troubled teen who struggled in classes and thus switched from private school to Daphne's school, interested in art, expresses herself through graffiti... At one point there was a scene where her legal grandmother suggested it was because she was Puerto Rican. I remember this being one of the first episodes to tweak me, but as the episode went on everyone assured Bay her grandmother was racist and her heritage had nothing to do with her performance. I can dig that--a show that doesn't shy from true to life moments and calls out stupidity... Lana, was a fairly short lived character on the show, but when she showed up she drove a wedge between the rekindling of Regina and Bay's biological father, Angelo. She disappeared as soon as she gave birth and against Angelo's wishes gave the baby up for adoption.

Why I Got Mad

Suddenly, on Monday, there is a multitude of black and Hispanic students at the girls' school and they're all ghetto, obnoxious, and mean. They've implemented metal detectors at the school to keep the new students in check, and before the first class can start there's tension between the deaf students (who are all white) and the new students--particularly a girl who introduces herself as Sheree/Sharee/Shiree (no idea how they're spelling it, but they're pronouncing the same way I pronounce my real name). She and Daphne exchange words, after which she picks at Daphne's "accent" and says she hopes Daphne isn't selected to read in class. Following, one of the other students (who may have been white or Hispanic...it was hard to tell) says Daphne can probably read better than Sheree/Sharee/Shiree. Which naturally leads to a fight. After being sent to the office, the new black girl roughs up Daphne in the hall.  Then behold! Daphne's tire is slashed! And then surprise! The parents form a meeting with the principal and discuss steps to remove their children from this environment with juvenile delinquents.

What pisses me off about it, other than the fact my name may become this generation's Shanaynay, is that time after time this is where minority, particularly black and Hispanic characters end up. Why do we have to always be portrayed as juvenile delinquents? Sure, inner city school's are rough and maybe they do have a higher population of minority students, but why couldn't they show non-hostile black and Hispanic kids as well. Surely at least one or two non-white students attended the school prior to this change. To make matters worse, they introduced a new white character who starts off as a dumb frat boy but by the end of the episode he proved to be the nice guy concerned for Bay and protecting her at the wild frat party. Why is it that when show's introduce white characters they get the benefit of depth. Sure they have their share of negative traits, that's the whole point; they're realistic. They write these characters so you see their motivation and more often than not, sympathize with them. Layers allow viewers go through ups and downs with the character and see each character as an individual. The rest of us, however, are relegated to unlikable characters in every single movie and show with no redeemable qualities, and no layers. So we blend into one image and suddenly it's "all black people are mean and ghetto" or Hispanics are "poor and just as ghetto." I waited out the entire episode to see if they gave this name stealer one minute of redeem-ability or if they showed another minority face that balanced her malice, to no avail.

Resolution

As my anger settled, I wanted to do something I thought to myself, "I'm done; I'm not watching anymore." Unfortunately, I doubt my one view changes anything. I couldn't think of anything that I could do to change the situation, to make a change. And I felt helpless. It's a never ending battle that I'm on the losing end of and I have no idea how to combat it. What would you do?

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Author Image Author Image I love reading the Word of God. With prayer God's Word reveals so much: from comfort to temperance, from perspective to affirmation. Digging into the depths of the Word, cross-referencing history, language and time differences, is a passion of mine. In March of 2015 I decided to go back through the Bible doing an in depth study on each section I read. Eventually I decided to share my journal of notes as I partake in this journey. I hope you are blessed by God and inspired to pursue a deeper relationship with Him. I love reading and learning about God, nature, and science. I am interested in how it all connects. The Creator's fingerprints are all over his creation. We can learn so much about Him and how we came to be by exploring the world around us. Join me as I explore the world and draw closer to the One who created it all.
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