Representation of Deaf Culture in Mainstream American Media:
Where Is It Going? Where Has It Been?
By Imani Ribadeneyra
Deaf person vs. deaf person.
What is Deaf culture? Who are its members? Why are they considered a culture, let alone a subculture, at all? This paper is not an attempt to give a history of Deaf culture, rather an attempt to define its current state of tension, internally and externally, and how that tension is represented in the media. I will begin by trying to define its members, practice, behaviors, and beliefs. After this I will try to briefly explain how deafness has been traditionally perceived and represented in American mainstream media. Using two different forms of documentary as representations of Deaf culture, I will make inferences on where the perceptions of deafness and Deaf culture come from, as well as where these views seem to be going and how these representations affect the external and internal perceptions of the culture and the culture itself.
Although it may seem as though this group of people who are far from what can be considered a subculture, or culture for that matter, without shared or distinct clothing, religion, diet, or geography it is important to recognize they have created a culture based on their unique beliefs and practices. This culture’s foundation is rooted in the belief of Deafness as an alternative, not pejorative, lifestyle. Their members profess this everyday as they use sign language and live full lives through Deaf culture.
In the US alone there are roughly 35 million people considered deaf or hard of hearing. There are several interpretations of the term deafness, but for my purposes the concepts of Deaf and deafness are distinguish by two paradigms – the cultural and the clinical (The Positive Influence of Television on Attitudes Toward Deaf Culture 3). The clinical, or scientific definition, describes a deaf person as someone who has a hearing impairment compared to others’ “normal” hearing ability. From a hegemonically social standpoint this can be seen as a matter of exclusion or isolation from the hearing world; from this perspective deafness is seen as a disability and severe disadvantage in life.
However, quite conversely, the Deaf community considers being Deaf a linguistic and cultural lifestyle choice rather than a medical condition needing treatment. This marks a significant shift in the way we can perceive and narrate hearing loss. Deaf culture illustrates the behavior, beliefs, history, art, literature, traditions, and values of people who are affected by deafness and use sign language as their main means of communication.
This characteristic, among others, distinguishes Deaf people not only from hearing people, but also from deaf and hard of hearing people who do not use sign language in their everyday lives. Deaf people range from those who are profoundly deaf to those who hear nearly well (Padden and Humphries 1). The key distinction here is the term Deaf, versus deaf, is used to describe the subcultural practices that have emerged of a group of people within the larger group of those who suffer from hearing loss. As described by Geertz “one of the most significant facts about us may finally be that we all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life, but end in the end having only lived one” (Padden and Humphries 4).
The humungous gap in perception of deafness that exists not only between hearing and deaf people, but also among deaf people themselves, is where we find the core of this conversation. With great advances in medicine and technology we are approaching a stage in society where doctors have the ability to “fix” deafness with cochlear implants, or prevent it altogether with genetic mutations. Deaf culture is now forced to question what kind of future they have in a dominant hearing world, if they have one at all. Interestingly enough, we are also at a point in society where sign language and Deaf culture are gaining more media attention and interest than ever before. Is it possible that these two perspectives exist simultaneously? More importantly, with concerns of the future of Deaf culture, can these two schools of thought on deafness co-exist long term?
An External Hearing Perspective to Explain Tensions in Deaf Culture.
The first media I intend to analyze is Sound & Fury, a documentary produced in 1999 by PBSthirteen, which illustrates a family’s struggle over whether or not to provide two deaf children with cochlear implants. As the family debates what is best for the two deaf cousins, Heather, 6, and Peter, 1.5, viewers are exposed to one of the most controversial issues affecting the Deaf community today. Cochlear implants may provide easier access to the hearing world, but what does this mean for the child’s sense of identity with their deafness and Deaf culture? Is it possible that deaf people with implants can exist between the deaf and hearing worlds? Can someone exist across hearing and Deaf culture?
The film was directed by Josh Aronson and producer by Roger Weisberg who are both hearing individuals who seem to have little to no interaction with Deaf culture prior to the film. However, there is one coordinating producer, Jackie Roth, featured on the PBS site that is deaf and grew up in the Deaf community using sign language from birth. She is also able to lip read and speak well. As an educator and consultant in the field of deafness, as well as the previous art director of the New York Deaf Theater, she provides the dominantly hearing producers of the film some credibility in terms of Deaf culture.
The film blends the expository and observational modes of documentation as described by Bill Nichols. One the one hand, in reference to the expository mode it emphasizes an impression of objectivity and fulfills the audience’s expectations of logical cause and effect plot line. One the other hand however, in reference to the observational mode of documentary it seems to be a nonintrusive and tedious documentation of overhead everyday speech (Nichols 35-39). By catering to these modes it only makes sense that the film caters to a hearing perspective because knowledge in the expository documentary is “in compliance with the categories and concepts accepted as given or true in a specific time and place, or with a dominant ideology of common sense” (Nichols 35). The audience, typical of an expository documentary, assumes that the film will follow the rules of a commonsensical world in which logical cause and effect will unfold. In the film we see the family constantly at war about the cochlear implants, what they mean for the future of these deaf children and Deaf culture as a whole. The arguments for and against the cochlear implants are both questioned throughout the film. The hearing family’s decision is an active change while the Deaf family’s is one that doesn’t change their child, yet it seems as though throughout the film the Deaf family is questioned more aggressively than the hearing family for their decision. This choice of framing by producers is logical because it lends to the hearing hegemony. The hearing parents decide without any hesitation to give their child the implant at a very young age, while the Deaf parents question themselves and waver on their decision throughout the film. Deaf culture seems to win out from one perspective because the Deaf family ultimately decides that their child will not get the cochlear implants, at least for now, but in the film they must constantly justify why they wouldn’t want their child to join hearing culture. The film’s exposure to Deaf culture and their perspectives seem to give it an alternative perspective, yet ultimately I feel the audience is given a typical hearing world solution to an inherently Deaf problem. The viewer is persuaded to believe the Deaf family should give in the hearing world and the cochlear implants. At least for some period of time every subject featured in the film sees the positives of cochlear implants, yet we don’t see the same revelations or arguments illustrated for the preservation of Deaf culture.
According to Nichols, this hegemonic frame allows each documentary to contribute new content, it brings attention to a new subject, to which familiar concepts and ideologies can be applied (35). Sound & Fury provides just this, its focus on Deaf culture is brought to the forefront because it interacts and is framed by a dominantly hearing culture. The film is dominantly expository, yet there are hints of the observational mode of documentation. Although the film uses voice over to translate sign language for hearing viewers and its subjects address the camera, it also has very long takes, no visible intervention by the filmmakers, and very little music external to the observed scene (Nichols 29). Through the lack of subtitles with spoken dialogue the producers really drive home the fact that although this is about Deaf people and their culture, this media is made by hearing people for hearing people. The producers seem to be exhaustively documenting the everyday, seeing how preoccupied the family is with Deaf culture, the producers simply had to wait for conflict within the family to arise. There is evidence for a distinct choice of framing according to the hegemony, but retrospectively after watching the film I began to question whether framing it according to hegemonic hearing ideology was intended or simply unavoidable.
Stylistic Dominance of the Hegemony.
It wasn’t until after I watched the film that I noticed small yet vital stylistic decisions which show how much the hearing world perspective dominates the film. For starters the tagline, which I failed to notice at first glance, seems like quite an aggressive accusation; “If you could make your deaf child hear, would you?” As if they are asking parents would you save your child if you could? Questioning why NOT change your child, assuming the question would be why wouldn’t you become hearing rather than why would you. This completely ignores the fact that a hearing life doesn’t necessarily translate to a happier or easier one. Quite obviously the question is framed to cater to the hearing perspective that produces and consumes the film. If we were to watch this film from a Deaf perspective how differently the tagline would be framed and worded. Maybe it would go something like this; “If you could change who your child was, would you?” or “If you could choose your child’s traits instead of accepting them for who they are, would you?” With a small effort into analyzing this tagline we can easily see how framing and perspective represent deafness as a pejorative or subordinate way of living to that of the hearing world. The tagline represents the transparent perception of deafness as a disability and disadvantage in our culture.
The fact that audio narratives accompany sign language yet spoken dialogue is never accompanied by subtitles is in direct relation to the film’s target audience, its goals, and its framing. In making the seemingly obvious choice to translate sign language to audible English the filmmakers instantly frame the film for hearing people. They distinctly choose to leave out subtitles where dialogue can solely be heard. Although the film could be seen as an educational tool for hearing people who have little exposure to Deaf culture, I think the film’s producers missed the mark because they are simply reasserting the established narrative which places Deaf culture as secondary to hearing culture. The conflict in the film is resolved for the hearing family by getting implants, simultaneously resolved for the Deaf family by their decision to relocate to a Deaf community that will fulfill their desire for understanding and acceptance. In this way the film asserts there is little place for coexistence among Deaf and hearing culture.
The final title page culminates the hierarchical structure of interaction in production of mainstream films. Before this moment it might be argued that this was an unbiased film made to question hegemonic ideologies concerning Deaf culture and perception of deafness in America, but after this its hegemonic frame can’t be ignored. The film’s goal might have been to help hearing people understand the tensions within and without Deaf culture, but it does not help hearing people understand the validity of Deaf culture’s alternative ideologies, beliefs, and practices. With this final title page the filmmakers take away any chance for the audience to make their own decisions on the cochlear implant conflict. They are forced to take the side of the hearing world because as soon as you see that the Deaf community has “re-evaluated” their position, you as a hearing, deaf, or Deaf viewer, must rationalize that this must be the dominant perception and accepted solution across all cultures. The final title page, gives in to the expository mode’s need for a tidy and logical solution. The film’s conflict needed resolution, and with this title page the question of cochlear implants and the future Deaf culture was given one.
Deaf Culture as a Distinct Other.
Broadly speaking there are three approaches to explaining how representation of meaning through language works; these three approaches are reflective, intentional, and constructive (Hall 24). For our purposes of analyzing Deaf culture and its representations in mainstream American media we will focus on the constructionist approach of representation because this approach argues that what signifies objects is not the objects themselves rather, “the fact that they are different and can be distinguished from one another (Hall 24).” In Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices Stuart Hall argues that it is the difference between objects that carries meaning, not each object in itself, nor the concept for each object (Hall 24). We see this principle exemplified through the representation of deafness and Deaf culture in mainstream media. Constantly deafness and Deaf culture are explained, thus given meaning, only through their comparisons to the hearing world.
It is clear through Sound & Fury that Deaf culture is perceived as a distinct other. It is also clear, as a white female living in New York City, arguably the most diverse city in the world, that Deaf culture is perceived as a distinct other to the American societal norm. Constantly in our dialogue with mainstream media we form understandings of the values, beliefs, and behaviors of Deaf culture through its comparisons to the hearing world. In the second media representation we will analyze, Project Runway, I will focus on Justin Leblanc a 27-year-old designer who is completely deaf, but received cochlear implants when he was 18. Justin is the first deaf contestant in 12 seasons of this competition reality show. Interestingly enough I see his deafness as something that falls into the background of the plot and his character development. Do his cochlear implants and participation in the hearing world take away some of his otherness that is his Deaf culture? In 2012 do we think this means his Deaf culture, otherness, is ignored by producers or something that is more widely accepted as norm thus invisible to viewers?
Deafness Represented in the Post-Documentary World.
Post-documentary media represent a fabricated reality in which the producer places subjects in a completely contrived situation and expects them to act “natural.” In this form the producers keep the documentary idea of observation, yet the observed subjects are placed in a situation that clearly lends to action. Reality television shows, like Project Runway, illustrate the shift in relationship between television and everyday life, “a changing and increasingly hybridized set of practices, forms, and functions, one which cultural and commodity value lie most often in the right blend of familiar and the new, of fulfilled expectation and shock” (Corner 255). Because a Deaf person is placed in this artificial reality, the audience is exposed to the behavior of a Deaf person within the constraints of this post-documentary form of representation. The question can be raised of whether the producers of the show included Justin Leblanc because his talents were on par with other contestants or solely because they saw the potential combination of deafness and success as something that could provide shock value. As a follower of the show I can only believe that his successes and failures through out the season prove that he was able to compete because of his talents, not his shock value, but the argument can be raised for either side.
Similar to Big Brother, Project Runway dispenses with the difficulties of extracting the personal from the social by building its own social situation precisely for revealing the personal; circumstances are not so much of observation, as they previously were in documentary, but are those of display. The living space is also the performance space. There is a blend between observed action and ‘cameos’ (Corner 257). Cameos become increasingly important throughout the season to character and plot development. Viewers construct their relationship to Justin, as well as their perspective of deafness, based of this new form of documentary that functions as a diversion. Project Runway specifically utilizes this new form through the “game frame” that uses a constrained time frame to provide urgency of plot (Corner 261). Through the show we see Justin’s, as well as the other contestants’, character develop at a speed they never could in a true observational or expository documentary. One of the most significant in developing the plot and entertainment value for the medium is the process of “selving” in which subjects’ “true selves” seem to emerge from the underneath the “performed selves” as a consequences of the applied pressures of circumstances, competition, and group dynamics (Corner 261-262).
With this new form of documentary the audience is given a new frame to consider deafness and Deaf culture. Although the producers construct the competition and situation that Justin, the deaf subject, exists in they don’t have very much control over how his character develops or in this instance “selves.” Because Justin’s talents are more than adequate compared to his hearing competitors, Project Runway asserts a new narrative of deafness and Deaf culture to the hearing world. With the overt lack of representation of Deaf culture in the media, this exposure can give new meaning to deafness and Deaf culture for all of Project Runway’s viewers. Todd Gitlin describes how usually the most dominant frames are taken for granted by media producers (257). Justin LeBlanc’s character provides a narrative very different from representations I am accustomed to that show deafness as an unquestionable disadvantage. In recognizing the new narrative produced, I also recognize that the deafness as a disadvantage frame has been the one dominantly used and taken for granted by producers and viewers. I wonder how many of our media representations would drastically change if they consciously framed from not only a deaf, but a Deaf, point of view. Imagine a show or documentary that was created for Deaf and hearing worlds from a completely unapologetically pro-Deaf culture frame. In order to alter the dialogue surrounding deafness and Deaf culture we first need to alter the frames and perspectives through which they are represented.
Justin doesn’t win the season, but he is seen as a fierce competitor who uses his deafness and Deaf culture as an advantage. He is never seen as subordinate or incapable, rather he thrives and makes it much further than most contestants (a finalist at that). Justin is constantly forced to put himself out there, prove himself, and bring to life what it is to be a success deaf person, who has cochlear implants but also uses sign language because of the format of the documentary as a diversion. Does this mean that he has solved the issue of existing in both Deaf and hearing worlds? Has he solved the irrevocable conflict presented in Sound & Fury?
In watching the show I wonder if Justin’s character could be defined by his otherness to both Deaf culture and the hearing world. He constantly defines himself by his uniqueness of hearing, deaf, and Deaf identity; this uniqueness of identity that he seamlessly interweave into his designs. After doing research I then began to wonder how the Deaf community perceived Justin, his character, and the representation of cochlear implants on the show. Although Justin asserts multiple times that his deafness and Deaf culture influence his designs and prove to be an advantage in his cameos, it doesn’t seem that other competitors or the judges acknowledge his Deaf narrative much at all. There is little attention paid to Deaf culture by hearing characters throughout the season, which could be seen as progressive or regressive for the culture.
In his first cameo on the show Justin asserts, “I’m completely deaf. I have this little device right here, but the moment I take it off I can’t hear a thing. So I wanted to show people that deaf people like me, or people with disabilities like me could do something like this.” Later in another cameo featured in part one of the finale he asserts, “My mother and father taught me that deafness is not a barrier but an opportunity. And to just really strive for the best of the best. I’m humble and thankful I’m here, but I want to win.” It is through these cameos, and several others throughout the season, we see how his deafness is an intrinsic part of his identity; most importantly that he has a Deaf identity. It is clear through his statements that he still associates with Deaf culture, but it is also evident that he feels no need to mention his Deafness at every possible occasion during the season. This could be correlated to an idea of wanting to be perceived as an equally capable competitor. By choosing not to highlight his otherness Justin could be seen as asserting his deafness and Deaf culture as a norm. Additionally, with reference to the cochlear implant conflict, it is apparent that despite his cochlear implants Justin still holds deafness and Deafness as foundations of his identity. Justin describes the first time he hears on the show as something exciting, yet very frightening. His collection at the finale is used to illustrate his transition from the Deaf to hearing world when he first received his cochlear implants. With this we can see Justin as creating a completely new narrative in the media in which a Deaf person can exist in both the hearing and Deaf worlds. Through his collection we can see that he never completely gives up one for the other and appreciates both fully.
Once again it could be questioned whether this narrative is something Justin truly embodies or was created by producers editing choices. It can also be questioned whether lack of acknowledgment of Deaf culture is a sign of progression in widespread understanding or eradication of the culture. Quickly after his introduction cameo Deaf culture is pushed to the background and, aside from small appearances by his sign language translator, it doesn’t make a strong reappearances unless in Justin’s deliberate assertions. Is the representation formed in Project Runway better equipped to ignore Deaf culture because Justin has cochlear implants? Would he have been able compete if he didn’t have the implants? Would he even want to? These questions must be raised because the representation of deafness and Deaf culture is becoming more and more relevant each day. I have heard of several deaf characters not only making appearances in mainstream media, but also becoming the focal point, and with this we must again question what these representations mean for the perceptions of the culture internally and externally. Overall I believe in comparing the representations of Deaf culture and deafness between Sound & Fury in 1999 and Project Runway in 2012, we can see that more positive narratives concerning the preservation of Deaf culture have formed.
Cultural Relativism of the Definition of Deaf Culture.
Our perceptions and representations of Deaf culture and deafness have obviously shifted from 1999 when Sound & Fury was produced to 2012 when Justin made his debut on Project Runway. As asserted by Hall, “the main point to get hold of here is the way discourse, representation, knowledge, and ‘truth’ are radically historicized” (46). Here we draw on Foucault’s idea that truth is so intrinsically affected by the cultural and historical context in which it is being asserted. We can see this is infinitely valid with concerns to deafness and Deaf culture. Ten years ago our understanding, knowledge, and ‘truth’ of deafness and Deaf culture were much different then they are today because of many factors such as, advances in technology, increasing academic preoccupation, rising social interest, and incrementally increasing representations in the media. Foucault’s prime example in regards to this idea of arbitrariness of truth in fact caters to the meanings and representations of Deaf culture. He uses mental illness to describe the varying versions of ‘objective fact’ across varying historical periods and cultures (Hall 46). Meanings consequently will change from one culture or period to another, so it’s important when analyzing media artifacts to understand and accept the cultural relativism that is inescapably present. Mainstream American media has traditionally represented and ‘objectively’ asserted deafness and Deaf culture as distinct and clear pejorative to hearing culture. We can see a shift away from this narrative as the stylistic undertones and overall narrative of Sound & Fury are compared to the narrative of Justin LeBlanc in Project Runway. Within the past 12 years America’s dominant hearing culture has made visible changes in its accepted ‘truth’ about deafness and Deaf culture, proving that knowledge of Deaf culture as it is will constantly be transforming, alongside the hegemony and mainstream media, with a cultural relativism. It is not certain where our knowledge of Deaf culture is going, but it is certain that with increasing exposure and representation in the media interest and efforts to truly understand Deaf culture will also increase. As more and more mainstream media focus or include Deaf culture in their narratives the internal and external perceptions of Deaf culture will change. How these narratives are constructed and received will drastically affect whether these changes are progressive towards acceptances and preservation of Deaf culture, or regressive towards the eradication of it altogether.
Alternative Frames to Shift Dominant Ideologies.
In order to contribute to a progressive narrative for the preservation of Deaf culture, deafness, and sign language I am proposing an autobiographical webseries to be produced completely by Deaf people. Instead of trying to understand Deaf culture by consuming an “objective” representation of it produced by hearing people, I propose that Deaf people unapologetically produce a subjective representation of their Deaf culture. This would quite possibly form a new kind of observational documentary in which the subject observes their own world and the subjects they interact with, rather than the producers observing the subject. With little attention to a traditional cause and effect plot line these documentaries would follow whatever narrative participants decide. This short webseries would feature 5-25 minute videos representing whatever aspect of life Deaf people think appropriate. Each participant would have to be someone who actively uses sign language and has some sort of identity with Deaf culture, however I think hearing family members, significant others, or friends could also be producers. It would be ideal to have Deaf video editors who could then go in and perfect the videos to the participants’ liking. These videos would have only as much sound on the video as appropriate to each person’s hearing level. Additionally, it would be up to each specific participant whether or not sign language would be accompanied by voice over or subtitles. Each Deaf person would be given a chance to show people what it is like to be in their shoes. They would even be given the chance to show the world what it is like to have media framed from their perspective.
As explained by Giltin, some frames prevail widely across media outlets and forms because the hegemony, or dominant ideology, constantly rules these institutions (Giltin 46). Hearing culture holds this power of framing over Deaf culture. It perpetuates consistent frames, which are persistent patterns of interpretation, presentation, selection, and emphasis in the media. Giltin establishes that mass media are a significant social force in forming ideology, thus the hegemony impresses their definitions and ideologies upon those they rule severely limiting what subjects are thought of and what is thought about them (Giltin 48). This dictatorship of hegemonically framed media may seem ever-present, however with the advent of widespread Internet availability, increasing capabilities of personal and small-scale independent production, and a rise in alternative media outlets such as blogs the hierarchy can be shifted. Today counter-culture media can be easily produced at a high quality, which allows it to gain the exposure and popularity necessary to question and challenge mainstream hegemonically positioned media.
These short documentaries would give our dominant hearing society new frames and narratives concerning Deaf culture because of the distinct Deaf perspective it comes from. Consequently there is a possibility for a cultural shift in the knowledge, understanding, and ‘truth’ about Deaf culture. ‘Truth’, as discussed by Foucault, inescapably has a cultural relativism. This cultural relativism, directly correlates to the societal ideologies, which accordingly to Giltin are most affected by mass media. This means media producers have the power to change the world they live in. I argue that today, because the Internet blurs the lines between mass and independent/personal media, a web series could gain the popularity and critical acclaim necessary to begin shifting dominant ideologies. In changing representations of this culture in the media the perceptions of the culture can change, thus through these representations the ‘truths’ about Deaf culture in society can be revolutionized.
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