Hollywood Starry-Eyed Over The Same Old Deaf Stories
I’m copying over a Twitter thread on The Simpsons with some thoughts on media representations of deafness. I’m also offering this in ASL for expanded access. I’m skipping the GIFs but here’s the thread in its original glory.
Let’s have a chat about The Simpsons, CODA, & media representations of deaf people & deafness. Thesis: hearing people writing about deaf people is tedious. repetitious. lacking variety. insipid. stale. soul destroying. Look up boring in the thesaurus. No shortage of options.
As an opener, check out Alex Abenchuchan’s recap of The Simpsons episode with some critical analysis. Alex points out some fallacies in the story. Let’s take a deeper dive.
The fundamental problem with the episode is that it echoes the underlying sentiment found across stories about hearing people’s encounters with deaf people & deafness. The compulsion is to help, to be the hero, to somehow fix deafness. Deafness is framed as a problem.
Deaf lives are framed as less-than-worthy. Rarely are there stories that either celebrate deaf people or treat deaf people as everyday folks with typical lives. This is one thread of what I call the benevolence porn phenomenon. I distinguish benevolence porn from inspiration porn by examining the subject of attention. In benevolence porn, it is the interpreter, the caretaker, the parent, the abled person, who is celebrated and offers audiences validation/affirmation for their goodness. Such storylines absolve abled people of accountability for maintaining social structures and systems of power that maintains disability, debility, and disablement. One common manifestation of benevolence porn is the attention given to sign language interpreters for providing access. Disability Studies scholar Rachel Kolb calls this the Hero Complex.
To recap, the plot is tired & regurgitated ad nauseam. It frames deafness as a condition that requires solution. Centers the hearing person as a hero. The story is meant to make hearing people feel good. Misconceptions about the deaf experience. With me so far? I’m not done!
Here, I’ll illustrate a few things about why this music storyline needs permanent retirement. Then close with some thoughts. Deaf people have a relationship with music. Deaf people create music. Deaf people enjoy music. Deaf people hate music.
Deafness is a spectrum. Deafness is also historically, socially, and culturally contingent. Deafness is fluid and dynamic, changing throughout our lives with and without technologies. So our relationships with music vary.
Jason Farr (@farr_jason) is a deaf scholar who occasionally posts music appreciation posts unrelated to signed music. If anyone needed evidence. Ahem. Signed music? Well, yes. Deaf people enjoy traditional aural music through using residual hearing, tactile vibration, and technologies like holding empty plastic bottles.
There’s some modern wearable tech that you can wear to feel the music. Back in my day as a Gallaudet student, hearing students would complain you could hear the music from Clerc Hall from the next building over. Step out of the 7th floor elevator in Clerc and your body’s pounding. I’m also a little shocked our biannual RockFest concerts in the Receiving Dock haven’t deafened the area’s longtime residents. We also enjoy and create signed music. I personally am not super into this genre but I did appreciate Raven Sutton’s (@Freelove19xx) work.
Deaf musicians have been around for some time. SignMark, Finnish deaf rapper, debuted his work in 2006. Black Deaf Rapper Warren Wawa Snipes has some music here.
And here’s an oldie but goodie: Beethoven’s Nightmare. Unsure when they debuted but it feels like they’ve been around forever. There are many scholars who have written about deaf people as creators and appreciators of music, both what we traditionally understand as music and what deaf people have challenged about our ideas of what music is. Here, I recommend Jody Cripps’ body of work as well as Summer Loeffler’s essay in Deaf Gain: Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity edited by H. Dirksen L. Bauman and Joseph J. Murray.
The Journal of American Sign Languages and Literatures produced a special issue exploring various aspects of deaf musicality. Deaf Artists have produced many works featuring musical instruments. Musical instruments were often used in deaf schools to encourage music appreciation (read foster performative hearingness). I personally took flute lessons. One example is Harry Williams’ work Inner Visions.
That wasn’t meant to be an exhaustive list but to illustrate my point. The belief that deaf people have no relationship with music is wrong. Scholar Anabel Maler just dropped this VERY timely essay on the epistemic violence committed against deaf people by denying our knowledges of music and sound.
Christine Sun Kim posed the question best: who owns knowledges about music and sound? Her magnificent body of work has been a collective critique of social understandings of deaf people’s knowledges about sound and music. Perfect gif here saying SAME OLD SAME OLD. (Check out the Twitter Thread for those gifs. Worth it!).
Oh, and what were the historical circumstances that contributed to this present condition of denying those deaf knowledges? Check out Anabel Maler‘s essay here. Did I already say it was VERY timely? Jason Farr also has work on this.
Kim suggests this in her work, I agree, I think this echoes in Farr’s too, that deaf people have actually a very intimate knowledge and relationship with sound. Because we have to think about it all the time. Consciously. And it’s forced onto us too.
This is what happens when you don’t have deaf writers in the room. Again, proximity to deafness (e.g. having a deaf sibling) Is. Not. The. Same. Thing. It is possible to write compelling stories for all audiences that’s still funny & real while true to The Simpsons canon.
Oh yeah, the CODA movie. That too, I did say I’d comment on that. Same old story over there too. And I hate the framing of deaf people as inherently unfit parents. We don’t need to feed into those beliefs when we have traumatic histories with reproductive rights, eugenics, and in 2022 still, court battles between hearing and deaf caretakers/parents of nondeaf children over deaf people’s fitness because they cannot use spoken language despite spoken language not being at all a necessary component of being a fit parent.