Screening Deafness

September 19, 2021   •   By Lennard J. Davis

MOVIES ABOUT DEAFNESS are made not for Deaf people: they are for hearing people by hearing people. To that end, a recent rash of films offers a tourist’s introduction to the Deaf world, one in which viewers don’t even have to learn sign language to “hang out with” and “relate to” Deaf people: CODA (2021), Sound of Metal (2020), A Quiet Place and A Quiet Place Part II (2018, 2021). Films including Mr. Holland’s Opus, Wonderstruck, La Famille Bélier, Beyond Silence, Hush, The Tribe, and Children of a Lesser God, which cut across genre, are all precursors to this trend.


In nearly all these films, being Deaf is treated as a problem that the film has to fix in some way. And when hearing people think about what it might be like to be Deaf, they always think of two things they’d miss — music and birdsong. So, these films often revolve around music.


Believe it or not, Deaf people really don’t spend much time thinking about these things. I grew up in a Deaf family, and never once did my parents say, “I wish I could hear music,” or, “Oh, that I could listen to the birds…” This was very far from their essential needs and desires. What they wanted was greater availability of interpreters, less discrimination, and better ways to communicate using technology. In fact, they would often celebrate the fact that they could not hear sounds. They’d recount the inevitable story about someone who got their hearing back and was driven crazy by all the ambient noise in the world — cars, trucks, horns, rumbles, and even, yes, loud music and screeching birds. Their goal wasn’t to find better ways to be part of the hearing world, but to find better ways of being part of the Deaf world.


As a CODA [Child of Deaf Adults] myself, it was of more than passing interesting for me to see the much-publicized, highly buzzed-about CODA, purchased by Apple+ for $25 million — more money than any other film has garnered at the time. Anecdotally, I can say that people perk up when I say that my parents were Deaf; still, I wondered why Deafness was suddenly hot and in demand and why the CODA experience was suddenly one commanding such attention. (That is when they haven’t misheard me and think I am saying my parents were “death.”) CODA is an American remake of the French film La Famille Bélier, which came out in 2014. The only other CODA film of note is the German Beyond Silence (original title Jenseits der Stille), which was released in 1996 shortly after the “Deaf President Now” revolution at Gallaudet University.


It is hard to make a general statement about popular films about CODAs since there are so few, but all three films share a template: they are about a hearing child in a Deaf family who wants to be a musician (a singer in CODA and La Famille Bélier; a clarinetist in Beyond Silence). All these films revolve around the idea that the Deaf parents won’t let the hearing children realize their dreams, because they are needed at home to interpret or simply because the parents don’t appreciate the whole endeavor of music. That dynamic sets up the formulaic resolution involving a reconciliation in which the Deaf parents come to see the value of music and, by extension, of their child. The problem is made to lie with the Deaf family — not with the hearing world.


Need I say that no CODAs that I know who wanted to pursue music, or any passion actually, faced opposition from their parents? I know so many CODAs — including Paul Raci, who has a heavy metal band and recently was nominated for an Oscar for his role in Sound of Metal — who play instruments, sing, or just love music. Meanwhile, there are Deaf rock bands, Deaf sound artists, and one of the world’s most renowned drummers, Dame Evelyn Glennie, is Deaf. Deaf people like anyone else, like to dance to rock music. Even as the father in CODA, Frank Rossi (Troy Kotsur), arrives to pick up his CODA daughter Ruby (Emilia Jones), he is blasting rap music from his pickup truck. Within the Deaf world, song signing — using ASL in sync with musical lyrics — is a much-appreciated art form. The supposed Deaf opposition to music is a red herring, thrown to clamoring hearing audiences who want to consume a movie that celebrates what they think is important — an imagined communion between hearing people and Deaf people through the eucharist of music.


While the films are ostensibly about CODAs and their Deaf family members, their real aim is to present the Deaf World as fascinating, even endearing, but ultimately less desirable than the hearing world. CODA children are the stand-ins for the hearing members of the audience, situated as they are between the hearing world and the Deaf. Being a CODA is a complex identity, but, sadly, these films only hint at these larger issues, because they are obsessed with the smaller ones — music and the ability to use spoken language.


The problem goes deeper because of the manner in which the Deaf parents are portrayed as isolated. The Rossis are apparently the only Deaf people in the town of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Yet, in reality, there is a thriving Deaf community in that town. If the screenwriter had given them a community, would the film’s narrative arc make any sense?


The “logic” of the film also demands that the Rossis only use sign language, and their sole nexus and communication lifeline with the hearing world is their CODA child. Inevitably, they don’t want to lose her. To buttress this point, the film manufactures a crisis: the day she stays back from the family fishing boat to pursue her singing, the boat is boarded by the Coast Guard whose radio messages have been unheard by her father Frank and her Deaf brother Leo (Daniel Durant). This debacle results in their business being fined and curtailed. We are made to see Ruby’s presence as crucial to the continuation of their livelihood.


The implication is that Deaf people need hearing people to run a business and succeed in life. But life, as such, is always defined as part of hearing privilege. Yet, to take one example from the real world, there has been an acclaimed pizza restaurant called Mozzeria in San Francisco and Washington, DC, owned and operated by Deaf people that has done very well for many years until the latest stress test set up by COVID-19. The servers speak sign language, and the patrons can communicate by writing, pointing, articulating — whatever makes sense. There is no problem with the business of being Deaf.


Deafness is not about isolation; it is about community, and the most obvious aspect of community is sign language. Many Deaf people define themselves as being in a linguistic minority, not as disabled. Deaf people are proud of their language and its nuances, of their history, culture, and political activism. In one of the earliest Deaf silent films from 1913, George Veditz celebrates “our beautiful sign language as the noblest gift God has given to deaf people.” The emphasis isn’t on “hearing loss” but on “Deaf gain” from being “people of the eye,” as Deaf Studies scholars H-Dirksen Bauman, Joseph Murray, and Ben Bahan have put it. Yet these films are obsessed with the problems of hearing loss or absence. In all these films, true community can only be achieved when Deaf people become part of the hearing world — or when their children do. This is audism and hearing privilege times 10.


To be Deaf is to be part of, as the ASL sign puts it, “Deaf World.” Most Deaf people have gone to Deaf schools and for some even Deaf universities like Gallaudet and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. While communicating with the hearing world seems very important to the hearing viewer of such films, it is less so for Deaf people. They live, thrive, and communicate with other sign language users, most of whom are Deaf.


The Deaf parents and brother in CODA are seen as essentially without language, because “all they have” is ASL. But, not only does ASL provide community and connection for so many individuals, many Deaf people are also trained to speak orally. In fact, Frank speaks the word “Go” very clearly and distinctly at the end of the film. And in addition to speaking, Deaf people can use assistive devices and even cell phones, as does Leo when he is flirting with Ruby’s hearing friend. FaceTime, interpreters, TTYs, telephone relay, and even writing on paper would be possible in communicating with the hearing world. Why isn’t this form of agency given to the Deaf parents instead of portraying them living in a communications desert? You would have no idea that the ADA existed and that interpreters are mandated in many official settings. Yet this genre of films is glued to a different reality: it is as if birds were obsessed with making movies in which humans were miserable about their inability to fly.


The parents tend to be seen as relatively uneducated and crude, if lovable, people; they are frequently emotional, crudely sexual, somewhat immature, and often angry. In both CODA and La Famille Bélier, there is a scene in a doctor’s office when the CODA has to translate uncomfortable information to the parents. All of us CODAs are familiar with the situation and have had to pass along information that a child should not have to do. At eight years old, after getting the news on the phone, I had to tell my mother that her father had died. Another friend had to tell his mother that she had cancer.


Even though, as of 1990, the ADA mandated that sign language interpreters were required in medical settings, that doesn’t stop the films from presenting this retro-situation now, always in the mode of crude comedy, not with nuance or sympathy. In both films, the parents have a genital rash or infection, and the daughter has to tell them to use a cream and not have sex for a couple weeks. The parents, having described their symptoms in needlessly crass detail, petulantly refuse to refrain from sex. But who are we laughing at in these scenes? Frank seems to relish referring to his genitals, as in another scene when the daughter has to interpret “Suck my dick” in a public meeting. (She adds in a helpful explanatory note that she is referring to him, not herself.)


You would have no idea in any of these films that Deaf people have been doctors, lawyers, scientists, or professors. We wouldn’t have the light bulb or even movies if it were not for Deaf Thomas Edison. Forget the internet without hard-of-hearing Vinton Cerf. And no cookies without Deaf founder of the Girls Scouts Juliette Gordon Low. Why always portray the Deaf person as an angry, sexed-up, crude misfit to the hearing world? The parents may be lovable and even “wise” between their bouts of crassness, but, as far as the movie is concerned, Ruby was raised by wolves.


Though the Deaf community criticized La Famille Bélier for hiring hearing actors to play Deaf characters and for the broad humor that made the parents seem uncouth, films like these tend to be garner awards. CODA swept Sundance with four wins including Best Director of a US drama and the Audience Award. Sound of Metal had six nominations including Best Picture in this year’s Academy Awards. La Famille Bélier was nominated for six César Awards, and Beyond Silence was nominated for Best Foreign Film in the Academy Awards. In Sound of Metal and La Famille Bélier, hearing actors played the parts of Deaf people. And in all the CODA films, the actresses who played the hearing child were not CODAs.


Does this kind of authenticity matter? The CODA community is arguing this point through social media with a split between those who are grateful to see a film about themselves and those who are upset that Ruby is played by a non-CODA. Many are glad to see Deaf actors finally playing Deaf roles but feel that the same ground rules weren’t applied to the main character. There has been a growing awareness that having writers, directors, and actors of the same identity they are portraying often brings greater clarity and authenticity to the story arc and the plot. We would now be hesitant to go to a film that portrayed white actors playing people of color, but we still don’t have a problem with the non-disabled “cripping up.”


Formulaic approaches aside, we must ask what a good film about Deafness and CODAs would look like. CODA hits a few of the points about the close interrelationship between hearing children and their parents but never goes beyond the surface of these issues. For example, one character says that Ruby was never a baby, and many CODAs will resonate with this aspect of their lives, since being the ears and interpreter for the parents involves an early entrance into responsibility and adulthood. Another scene has Ruby bringing her amused but oblivious crush home to her Deaf parents — another incident that will resound with CODAs. And Beyond Silence has a memorable scene in which the CODA sits under the television screen and interprets for her parents watching the show. Obviously, closed captioning now obviates that role, most CODAs I know remember the duty and annoyance of having to answer questions about plot points and relationships in the middle of a gripping television show. And perhaps the most poignant is the difficulty of getting one’s parents’ attention — especially in the time-honored tradition of infants — by crying. That lack of connection from the moment of birth can have powerful psychological effects. But these are not explored in the film, which makes Ruby, aside from her signing duties, look like any other teen.


Missing too from CODA are the pleasures of growing up in a Deaf community, which often replaces or takes the place of family. For the overwhelming majority of Deaf people born into hearing families that do not take the time to learn sign language, Deaf school and “Deaf World” fill that gap. But, in the end, CODA never takes us beyond the Rossi family into a wider, more diverse Deaf community. It is basically a standard high-school movie, complete with teen crush, mean girls, and the promise of breaking out of the rut by some talent or ability.


By contrast, A Quiet Place Part II and Sound of Metal offer us a less formulaic roadmap through the country of Deafness. In the former, we meet a family with a Deaf child, Regan (Millicent Simmonds). The family can speak ASL and use this ability to outwit scary aliens that are blind but have acute hearing to track and eat their victims. Being able to be silently communicate through sign language turns out to be a huge advantage, as does the annoying feedback from hearing aids and cochlear implants, which jams the monster’s ability to track his prey. Deafness fills the space without becoming the space, establishing a kind of background radiation that doesn’t have to make a point. These films invoke much of what is real about the “Deaf World” without moralizing or creating problems that aren’t there in the first place. Regan can communicate with hearing people quite well and isn’t the helpless Deafie that Ruby’s parents are made to be.


And while Sound of Metal is not without its problems, its ending offers a refreshing alternative to the “must-have-music” plot. Ruben (Riz Ahmed) plays a heavy-metal musician who loses his hearing, the film following his introduction to Deafness as a way of life. He learns sign language but never “fits” into that world. He opts for cochlear implants, the film creating a false dichotomy between cochlear implants and Deaf culture. Ultimately, the noise of the world, distorted through electronics, is unbearable. The film ends with a satisfying silence as Ruben removes the implants. There is no special status given to being able to hear, and silence, while initially frightening for Ruben, turns out to be his solace.


These films, as well as Deaf U, a reality television series more about sex and friendship than it is about coursework, show Deaf people enjoying rock music, dancing, song signing, signing and speaking orally, and wearing cochlear implants as well as hearing aids: in other words, business as usual rather than hyped-up false situations and improbable solutions. To truly have a film that delves into the Deaf experience in all its complexity, you need Deaf and CODA writers, directors, and actors involved in every aspect of the process. Otherwise, these movies will continue to be mere gestures in the wind instead of signs with meaning.


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Lennard J. Davis is Distinguished Professor of Arts and Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of many books on disability and Deafness, including his memoir, My Sense of Silence: Memoirs of Childhood with Deafness, about growing up as a CODA.