Yesterday morning on Super Bowl Sunday, my Facebook and Twitter started buzzing not just with all the sports, but surprisingly, also with this use of #deaftalent. Immediately, I zoned in on the matter and surprise surprise – it’s another round of appropriation of Deaf culture in mainstream media! Settle in boys and girls – you’re in for a treat.
New York Daily News dropped an article last week on how hearing actress Catalina Sandino Moreno was going to be playing a “mute deaf” mother in the upcoming film Medeas, directed by Italian director Andrea Pallaoro. (NY Daily News has now changed the article title, but the original title still remains on the YouTube video.
Let me break down for you the many things wrong in just that sentence alone.
1. Hearing actors playing deaf roles.
ACK, NO – THIS IS NOT OKAY. Where do I even begin? While I’d consider the Deaf community to still be one of the most oppressed minorities today – it’s still problematic for hearing people in artistic fields to understand why casting hearing actors in d/Deaf roles is controversial. Take a look at this interview with Catalina below:
*Surprise surprise, no subtitles offered on this video. An alternative subtitled version can be found here.
Let me ask this: would blackface or yellowface be acceptable in Hollywood today? No. This is absolutely the linguistic equivalent of that horror in the Deaf community. You are placing people with no connection to or real understanding of what it means to be d/Deaf, in d/Deaf roles. You are placing people who are not fluent in Sign Language in roles that use Sign Language. When the Deaf community does watch the film, they can tell immediately whether or not the signing is accurate and fluent, and if it is not – it makes their movie-going experience incredibly frustrating. If you aren’t respecting the language and culture that the character comes from – why are you doing this film/play in the first place? Why does this story need to be told by you? In this particular case, the producers and director of Medeas did NOT take into consideration the experience of the audience members that are actually part of the demographic that is being portrayed in their film. Here is their recent response to a person questioning why a hearing actress was cast on their Facebook.
While yes, I understand that actors play roles they aren’t “born” into for a living, there obviously needs to be greater discussion and education on the Deaf Community in Hollywood and on the stage. You can make the argument that acting allows you to take on a character and become someone else with different backgrounds and languages than you personally grew up knowing – but here’s the thing: just because Sign Language and the Deaf Community aren’t as obviously racially inclusive as Black or Asian communities (making blackface and yellowface acts outrageously not okay in today’s society) doesn’t mean that anyone can just play Deaf. Just as much as I could never legitimately and respectfully play the roles of Kim in Miss Saigon or Nettie in The Color Purple, I could never play a Deaf character – despite my CODA background. (Fun fact: I was offered the role of Sarah in Children of a Lesser God in college – very touched by the offer, but especially thankful that I didn’t end up in a potential shit-storm over that role.) Now with Nina Raine’s Tribes out on the regional and high school circuits – I’m starting to get nervous over authentic Deaf interpretation and accurate signing in high school theater, but I’ll save that for another post.
“Disability is as visual as race. If a wheelchair user can’t play Beyoncé, then Beyoncé can’t play a wheelchair user.” – Maysoon Zayid
While I had a very hard time finding any detailed information on the deaf character Catalina plays in Medeas (Is the character deaf or Deaf? Does she sign? What sign language does she use?), I have no choice but to focus in on what I do know: the fact that they hired a hearing actress to play a “deaf-mute” character, while there was PLENTY of incredible Deaf talent to choose from.
Hearing actors already have such a monopoly on acting. I’d say 98% of all roles in television, film, and theater are all hearing roles. Why would you take the opportunity away from a Deaf actor when they already are fighting for bigger opportunities and bigger roles in Hollywood? Switched at Birth was the first time I had ever seen a recurring Deaf character on mainstream television. There needs to be greater opportunities for Deaf and Hard of Hearing actors. Deaf talent is so vast! Tap into that! That is why people are getting upset over this latest casting controversy. Understand this better, Hollywood.
Here’s some Deaf responses:
2. Nobody uses the word “mute” anymore. It’s outdated and glaringly offensive.
Deaf people are not mute or “deaf-mute” people. They are Deaf. Here is the official breakdown from the National Association of the Deaf (NAD).
Deaf-Mute – Another offensive term from the 18th-19th century, “mute” also means silent and without voice. This label is technically inaccurate, since deaf and hard of hearing people generally have functioning vocal chords. The challenge lies with the fact that to successfully modulate your voice, you generally need to be able to hear your own voice. Again, because deaf and hard of hearing people use various methods of communication other than or in addition to using their voices, they are not truly mute. True communication occurs when one’s message is understood by others, and they can respond in kind.
3. Appropriation, appropriation, appropriation!
This entire creative intent is a cultural appropriation nightmare.
Cultural appropriation is the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group. Specifically, the use by cultural outsiders of a minority, oppressed culture’s symbols or other cultural elements.
If they were still so very set on using Catalina Sandino Moreno after searching for legitimate Deaf talent, then could they share with us the inclusion of the Deaf community in the artistic pursuit of the story? Did they consult members of the community on how to portray legitimate and authentic d/Deaf traits? Is there extensive use of sign language in this film? How did they go about utilizing that language? If they were more transparent on how they used a minority culture in their film, I don’t believe they would be getting such backlash right now.
The New York Times picked this film as a Critic’s Choice, yet in their review – you get absolutely nothing on Deaf Culture. Shameful.
Bottom line: the Deaf community has faced and is still facing oppression in all forms. This is not only insulting to the extremely capable Deaf and Hard of Hearing actors that could have performed beautifully in the role, but it’s just another tangible example of hearing oppression in the form of entertainment. By taking a minority community’s truthful struggle, denying them the chance to represent themselves, and putting it on the big screen for profit is a revolting use of appropriation in 2015. Do not take advantage of the on-going Deaf struggle in order to sell tickets to your hearing-dominated film and make it a box-office success.
Here are ways to take action against Medeas:
1. Use #deaftalent in the messages you bring to social media. Call them out! The more we share the outrage, the more united the #deaftalent response becomes.
2. Leave a message on Medeas’ Official Facebook.
3. Boycott the film. (I sure as hell am.)
4. Talk about this! Hearing allies, especially talk with a Deaf/HoH person about #deaftalent! If you feel passionately against this as I do, don’t let that stop here at the end of this blog post. Let your reaction spill over into something else – keep it moving! Share this with somebody who isn’t aware – help educate and spread the word in whatever way feels comfortable to you.
Thanks for reading! As always, you are more than welcome to leave your comments below. Find me on social media if you’d like to talk more!