#BlogElul 8: Hear

Recently someone I follow on Twitter posted:

“Things I haven’t watched yet because I consider it self-respect:
• DEAF U
• Sound of Metal
• Later seasons of Switched at Birth
• CODA
• A Quiet Place 2″

In case you’re wondering, yes they’re Deaf. Underscoring the issue a bit more, another person I follow said,

“#CODA joins the lineup of other films about Deaf people for hearing people (Hush, A Quiet Place, The Sound of Metal), another film for hearing people to constantly recommend to Deaf people and then bitterly, indignantly defend when we don’t love it.”

Of all the thoughtful analysis though, the one I’ve gravitated to most was from Jenna Beacom, M.Ed:
https://twitter.com/jfbeacom/status/1426274926504419332

“35 years ago, the movie Children of a Lesser God was released. The representation was deeply flawed. As a newly deaf teen, I came away from it thinking that deafness was terrible and tragic and that maybe, if I was pretty enough, a hearing man would love me anyway. But it was a success. It opened doors. It made a big enough star out of Marlee Matlin that, when she was told that hearing actors were going to play her husband and son in #CODA, she put her foot down and insisted on deaf actors. All respect to her for doing that. I’m certain the movie was massively improved by their involvement. All three deaf actors are wonderful.

But the story at the center of #CODA is just not redeemable.

If it were set in the past, a lot of it would make more sense. No ADA, no texting, no email? Sure, maybe. But the way deafness is seen as a burden, both to the deaf Rossis and to their poor overworked CODA daughter, is both offensive and harmful.

There is an absolutely mystifying lack of professional ASL interpreters, the presence of whom would poke giant holes in the plot. I get that they’re isolated, and poor. There are incidental situations that make sense. But a news station interview? A doctor? A COURTROOM?

If the Rossis were meek and passive, maybe. But a lack of ASL interpreters at the doctor or at court is just illegal. Nothing else about their characters – the family who stands up in a meeting, curses everyone out, and declares they’re going to set up a new co-op – is in keeping with them just passively saying oh okay no professional interpreter that’s fine. So, it’s for plot reasons. I get that. But it sends a terrible message to hearing people, both in terms of their communication responsibilities (“so it’s fine if I just make their kid interpret instead of getting a pro”) and in terms of our competence, as deaf people.

The Rossis’ resistance to Ruby’s singing is portrayed as a natural offshoot of their deafness. A false binary is assumed; that being deaf means that you can’t enjoy music, or understand anyone else’s enjoyment. This is bullshit. (I have a CODA. She sings. Love it for her!)

So both parts of this are a problem. The false binary (I also enjoy music, myself), and that it’s seen as valid or natural that the family – especially Jackie – is so awful to Ruby about her singing. Jackie later apologizes for “driving you crazy” with… clothes and makeup? Jackie’s awful approaches like insisting that Ruby take out her headphones (I would never do that) or saying “If I was blind, would you want to paint” (the ABLEISM packed in that!) are never really engaged with. She’s cute and charming and just ya know deaf.

The centering of the hearing perspective at all times, for a movie that is about deafness, is often infuriating. As an example, when Ruby’s departure is imminent, the Rossis finally learn to engage with the hearing community. It’s because of her.

Ruby is 17 in the movie; she’s been interpreting for a maximum of say 12 years. Frank’s been there his whole life. What did he do before that? The dependence is so unrealistic; EVEN WITHIN THE MOVIE they are shown as being able to function without her – when forced to do so. Repeatedly, deaf competence is minimized for plot purposes. It’s tempting to say it’s just fiction, it’s just one family, what does it matter? Any representation at all matters, because hearing people are so much more likely to encounter fictional deaf people than real ones.

Everything adds up – what we see on screen, what we read on the page. And the more successful it is, the more it will contribute to a hearing person’s conception of deaf people and deafness. I just wish that what this movie contributes to that conception was more authentic. “

My point in all this? You can’t Hear if you don’t Listen. I am taking this post to shut up and allow Deaf people with Deaf experiences to express their opinion, and to simply take the time to Hear it.

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