Misrepresentation Of Deaf Community And Sign Language In American Media

In American society, we pride ourselves on being a melting pot of ethnicity, culture, and languages. Other nations bring food, spices, and dialects to our homeland which we use to enrich our own culture. Millions of Americans fluently speak languages other than English and can be represented accurately in mainstream American media. How is it, then, that while Deafness pre-dates the United States, its language is brutally misused and misrepresented within all aspects of mainstream culture? As a hearing person as well as a student keen on delving into the culture of Deafness, it’s clear to me that the misrepresentation of American Sign Language (ASL) in mainstream media is reprehensible and should be firmly addressed.

In the 1800s as American culture grew and flourished, Deaf Americans were left to their own devices to create and preserve their own separate culture and history within the hearing world. As people such as Alexander Graham Bell advocated the outlawing of sign language, the gap between the Deaf and hearing world grew deeper by each passing day. Then came the era of silent films. John S. Schuchman, a former academic advisor at Gallaudet University, described this time as the “Golden Era” for the Deaf community. For a few years between 1893 and 1929, Deaf people nationwide felt they had equal access and opportunity in the film industry. In this short period, the hopes that the Deaf could be represented in mainstream media seemed plausible for the first time in history. This golden era was short lived, as all technological advances are sure to be followed by another bigger, better invention with shorter intervals between innovations. Soon after the silent film boom, came the so-called “Talkies.” While the Deaf had previously thrived in the film industry with their natural talent for exuberant facial expressions and telling body language, the Deaf community was now excluded completely from film. Since the Deaf were involved so heavily in the film industry prior to the use of sound, it seemed natural to directors to continue to use sign language roles in talkies, yet they excluded those who were fluent in the language. Schuchman brings to light the example of the actress Jane Wyman, a hearing woman, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of a Deaf woman in 1948. The language was now depicted as “wooden” and lacking in emotion due to the fact the people presenting were not part of the Deaf community in any way. This is where the abhorrent misuse and misrepresentation of ASL in film and media can be clearly notated as beginning. I remember watching the movie “Hush” after first starting to learn ASL in high school and being enthralled at seeing the language on my screen. Unfortunately, when talking about it to an interpreter who had also seen it, I was appalled to learn that the movie had not hired any Deaf actors and many of the signs and significant cultural statements were incredibly incorrect. As I progressively learned more about ASL and the Deaf community, I realized this was not an isolated incident.

While the hearing world functions under the belief that ASL is a visual substitute for English, the Deaf community struggles to communicate how wrong this belief is. The syntax, parameters, and descriptive linguistics are vastly different to the English lexicon. While signs can be linked back to English words and used to form a somewhat coherent sentence, lacking a full understanding of the complexity of the language can lead to a cultural trainwreck. Pierre Schmitt, a social science researcher based in Paris, focuses on the ASL interpretation of the National Anthem at the 2014 Super Bowl. He goes in depth, speculating that while Amber Zion, a deaf performer, gracefully showcased her rendition of the anthem, she was a “prisoner of the bubble” on screen. Hearing people thought she was merely interpreting the lyrics to our national anthem, when in reality, she was presenting it in her own language as a visual poem. Schmitt goes on to scold the decision to trap her in a small section of the screen as if she were nothing but a glorified captioning system, stating this action “promotes the perception of sign language as an accommodation for a minority who has a handicap as opposed to a full-fledged language of artistic expression”. What mainstream media continually fails to understand is that the Deaf community doesn’t view ASL as a way to catch onto the coattails of the English language, the community views it as its own separate entity with its own rules and cultural significance. As an ASL beginner, it was easy for me to make this common mistake as well; yet it only took an open mind and a few simple classes to correct my mental assumptions. In a research article on syntactic priming by use of psycholinguistic studies, Matthew Hall et al. notes: “These analyses find many syntactic devices that are familiar from spoken language research (e.g. hierarchical phrase structure, constituent order, movement operations, anaphora, embedding, etc.), but there are other syntactic devices that make use of the unique affordances of the manual modality to accomplish grammatical functions (e.g. facial marking for topics and interrogatives, spatial marking for verb agreement, etc.).” By downplaying Zion’s rendition of the anthem and treating it as a mere way to ‘catch up’ with the hearing world or as a simple substitute for English, Deaf culture itself was downplayed across all of America and further set back in the minds of hearing people due to the lack of understanding by mainstream hearing media.

As Hollywood deflects criticism by the Deaf community, the community has not been stagnant. In an effort to tell its own story, Deaf filmmakers produced a documentary named ‘Through Deaf Eyes.’ The documentary goes through the entirety of Deaf Americans’ struggles to form their own culture, and expands on the community that has now settled into the roots of our nation. Lawrence R. Hott, a hearing producer who aided in the production of the film, asks viewers to bear these thoughts in mind before watching: “How does a deaf person relate to hearing professors, employers, lovers, or their own hearing children? What’s it like to read lips — or try to? How is it to raise a deaf child, if you are hearing, or how does it change your world to have an electronic device surgically implanted in your ear and hear language instead of seeing it? Hollywood has had a hard time understanding any of this, especially the reality of reading lips”. The film was a huge success, and is now shown in sign language classes as basic curriculum. In addition to highlighting cultural norms, it actively combats the perpetuated stereotype that all Deaf people can read lips. In too many depictions of the Deaf in movies and television shows, the roles are played by hearing people who feign an ability to read lips. While reading lips is a possible skill, it should not be the default skill characters in media assume. Even experts in the field, such as Hott, feel a need to make a change in the media industry; yet one documentary aimed towards an already tight-knit community won’t make big ripples in mainstream society. What will make the greatest permanent effects?

Throughout my childhood, I have been on movie sets, peering at camera lenses and hearing the repetition of “rolling!” squeaked through walkie-talkies a vast amount of times. Though I was never interested in taking up major roles, being paid to be a part of the background set was, and still is, an appealing job to me. Being a part of productions allows me to absorb information about the film industry from behind the scenes. While spending hours watching these productions being made, I have observed that only a small amount of time during the filming session is actually spent filming. The crew buzzes around the set or location like bees in a hive; whatever media they produce as a result is the sweet, valuable honey. Too often, it is apparent a bee or two is lacking from the hive. Missing from the buzz is an advocate for the cultural preservation of American Sign Language. As I continue to strive forward towards my goal of becoming a certified ASL interpreter, it becomes increasingly clearer to me that the film industry simply throws a few signs at hearing actors and tells them to run with it, with no education about the culture behind it. While some shows attempt inclusivity, such as ‘Switched at Birth’ which Columbia University professor Saljooq M. Asif claims to “upend expectations, confront differences, and challenge the meaning of normality,” even that endearing drama series didn’t cast their main Deaf character with a Deaf actress. As an outspoken fighter for those who deserve to be heard, rallying for accurate Deaf representation in the film industry will be a large part of my life as I embark on a mission to be a representative of this language. Deaf actors deserve to be cast in Deaf roles, and this will not happen until someone bridges the gap between the hearing and Deaf world and forces major Hollywood producers to cross it. I intend to help build this bridge and to draw as much attention to it as possible.

Continually seeing hearing people damage the reputation of sign language on screen damages the relationship between the Deaf and hearing community more than it already has been damaged. Hearing people are uneducated on the language and culture of the Deaf, and these misbeliefs are perpetuated by misrepresentation of the community in the media. It not only affects the ability for the Deaf to function in the hearing world unimpeded by stereotypes and rude ideals, it affects the hearing world from being able to understand a culture that is rich in different perspectives and beneficial new mannerisms. In an ideal world, inclusivity is a normalized word. In my world, inclusivity is a goal I strive every day to implement into society in any way possible.

Works Cited

  1. Asif, Saljooq M. “Deaf Gain Goes Prime TIme: Identity, Spaces, and Marginalization in ABC Family’s Switched At Birth.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, vol. 12, no. 1, Jan 2018, pp. 35-51. EBSCOhost.
  2. Hall, Matthew L., et al. “Syntactic Priming in American Sign Language.” PLoS ONE, vol. 10, no. 3, Mar. 2015, pp. 1-19. EBSCOhost.
  3. Hott, Lawrence R. “Creating the History through Deaf Eyes Documentary.” Sign Language Studies, vol. 7, no. 2, Winter 2007, pp. 135-40. EBSCOhost.
  4. Schmitt, Pierre. “Representations of Sign Language, Deaf People, and Interpreters in the Arts and the Media.” Sign Language Studies, vol. 18, no. 1, Fall 2017, pp. 130-47. EBSCOhost.
  5. Schuchman, John S. “The Silent Film Era: Silent Films, NAD Films, and the Deaf Community’s Response.” Sign Language Studies, vol. 4, no. 3, Spring 2004, pp. 231-38. EBSCOhost.
09 March 2021
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