Earlier this year, the hit ABC Family drama Switched at Birth made headlines with its bold, unapologetic portrayal of campus assault. When one of the main characters was the victim of a sexual assault by someone she loved and trusted, Switched at Birth made waves by telling that story in a fresh, smart way, giving its characters realistic reactions and educated arguments that straddled both sides of the debate.
With the second half of season four off to an eventful start, Switched at Birth is yet again capturing audiences with a one-of-a-kind story that centers around a surprise pregnancy for Toby (Lucas Grabeel, pictured) and Lily (Rachel Shenton). But it’s not just any pregnancy. When Lily finds out the baby has Down syndrome, it opens the door to a whole slew of delicate conversations surrounding special needs, diversity, and abortion.
I spoke with Switched at Birth creator Lizzy Weiss about why she felt she needed to tell this groundbreaking story, and what she hopes it accomplishes by starting—and changing—the conversation about those with differences and disabilities.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY COMMUNITY: TV pregnancies can be so iffy—the term “jump the shark” comes to mind. What made you decide to introduce a baby now?
LIZZY WEISS: It was this storyline. It was really a desire to get into this. And I think that is important say; it really is a story. Meaning, I don’t have an agenda except, number one, my job is to be a good storyteller. And number two, hopefully while we’re doing that, to illuminate really interesting conversations to get people talking. I’m not here to push my personal agenda on anyone. I want to be fair to both sides, because I think that makes for good TV, and it keeps all of the characters smart and it’s fair to both sides.
Once we decided to have Lily be pregnant with a Down syndrome baby, I knew that she would keep it, and it wasn’t because of the network and it wasn’t because they pushed anything or said they couldn’t do anything. It was really because in that story, that was the right choice for a family that has a deaf kid and for a show that is, to some extent, about difference and disability. Once it became a story about Lily, I just knew, of course she would have the baby, because of the kind of family she is in. And that is, for this show and this moment and this family, the right decision.
It could have been just a regular pregnancy, and it still would have packed a punch. How did you decide go the Down syndrome direction?
Because this is a show about people who are different, and this is an iteration of that. I just think there are ties there, and I was really interested to get into what Daphne’s perspective (as a deaf person) would be on that. Not from religion, not from science, even though those are all part of who she is too.
We have really dived into all that territory about what it means to be deaf and treated differently, and I thought it was a better way of tackling one of the biggest themes on our show, which is difference.
In some ways, it’s a more extreme form of difference, so it’s getting into territory that you don’t see discussed that often. I do like to do that when I can, when it comes up organically and when it makes for a good story. The story about Down syndrome does really does speak to the themes of the show.
Sometimes I feel like Switched at Birth is your answer to the underrepresentation of those often ostracized or marginalized groups of people. Do you feel a certain kinship to telling stories of diversity and difference? Do you feel like you sort of owe that to your audience?
Once I made Daphne deaf, and I got interested in deaf culture, I realized it’s a culture, it’s a way of talking, it’s a way of being; these [are] little niche communities that I find fascinating. Once I became fluent in the [deaf] culture and understanding, it kind of evolved from there. I became more interested and educated about it. I was on a disability panel at Sundance this year, and I was on there with a bunch of other people, like RJ Mitte (Breaking Bad‘s Walt Jr.), and [Paralympic athlete] Amy Purdy, who is an amazing snowboarder, and actor JR Martinez (All My Children). Just by hearing them talk, I learned even more about disability and their lives and the importance of showing the world as it is. And I became even more of an advocate, and it just kind of keeps evolving.
Switched at Birth has always opted for real talk on important issues as opposed to glossing over them, and has made a clear name for itself as a show that tries to highlight, and maybe even change the conversation around, topics like rape, deaf culture, domestic violence, addiction, etc. What kinds of conversations do you hope a story like this starts?
Though Toby and Lily end up making the choice they made, I was very careful and thought it was really important that Lily say, “I firmly believe that every woman has the right to choose what happens to her body and that children should only brought into this world when they are wanted and able to be cared for.” And I just wanted to make sure that was onscreen to counter, so I wouldn’t be accused of putting forth an agenda. But that being said, everyone has their say. I do think it’s just a slightly revolutionary way to look at the world to see it as not worse, just different, as Daphne said [in last week’s episode] as she’s trying to explain to Mingo. I don’t think [Mingo] is a dunce; he’s just a regular person who assumes deaf is worse, and thus Down syndrome is worse. And it’s a shift in perspective that I think you have to be taught, which is—if you don’t live it yourself—it’s actually not worse, it really is just different. They may have lives better than you in a way you can’t understand unless you really are inside it. That is a shocking thing to understand for most people: that being deaf or having Down syndrome is not necessarily worse, it’s just different. That’s the takeaway that I think is shocking for people.
I found it very interesting to see that Bay (Vanessa Marano) and Regina (Constance Marie) both have a pro-choice stance, and Kathryn and Daphne share a pro-life opinion. That revelation highlights a lot of themes on the show: nature vs. nurture, cultural and socioeconomical identity vs. DNA, etc. Was that an obvious choice for those characters?
No. Great question! They argued with me about it. My answer to that is, people surprise you. I think Daphne could have gone either way. She is a scientist, she’s not religious. Look at John (DW Moffett)! He surprised you, right? He doesn’t say “abort,” but he doesn’t seem that clear on what to do. He’s not as clear behind closed doors as you might imagine, which I did on purpose.
And I think for Kathryn (Lea Thompson) and Daphne, I could have gone either way. For Kathryn, I ended up doing that, because of the nature vs. nurture thing, and because I really wanted the girls on opposite sides. But I think for Kathryn, you could have believed either way, and either way that we chose for her would have completely worked with her character. But Katie [Leclerc] argued with me and said she was surprised, but we talked about it and she got there.
You know the Bechdel test? I just loved the idea of our two protagonist girls arguing onscreen about something really important and having a debate about it that had nothing to do with boys and nothing to do with clothes or anything that is in that Bechdel test. I just really wanted them to be on opposite sides, to hear smart answers on both sides.
At the end of the episode, Regina tells Bay that she’d better get on board really quickly with Toby and Lily’s decision to keep the baby. Are we going to see everyone be on board moving forward, or will there be more moments of discord over this decision in the family?
There’s still more processing to be done with the reality of carrying a Down syndrome kid. There were some leaked photos of a baby shower, and at the baby shower, something comes up. You can imagine that having a shower for a Down syndrome baby might be a little different for some people, whether it should be or not. So we bring that up in the shower.
What else can we expect from the rest of season four?
We are still dealing with the fallout from the campus assault, so Max Adler will be coming back at some point as Tank. And we have a special episode coming up where the kids go on a trip together. It’s our first episode where it’s kids only, no parents, and it’s for spring break.
Is there anything else you wanted to share with your audience about this special storyline?
I can tell you one last thing that is pretty adorable—one pretty special thing I am very proud of. The day we shot the socks scene, I rushed to set that day to make sure that scene went exactly the way that I wanted. And what I saw totally made me tear up. All of the crew was wearing mismatched socks that day. I am not kidding! I was so stunned. There were mismatched socks everywhere to support the story. It was so touching. I was like, This is such a special show. I couldn’t believe it. That’s our crew for you.
Switched at Birth airs Mondays at 8/7C on ABC Family.