#deaftalent response to Medeas

medeas

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.

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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:

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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.

  1. 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!

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14 thoughts on “#deaftalent response to Medeas

  1. If the reviewers used the term mute, that may be beyond the control of the filmmakers.
    However, if the studio used that term while marketing the film, then that is different, completely their error.

    1. Totally, totally agree with you. It’s hard to pinpoint where the term mute with the Medeas project first originated, since both the interviewer and Catalina use it in the video. I’m going to do more in-depth digging to see if I can find the original source – the studio or the press. Either way, it needs to be corrected.

  2. I humbly disagree.
    I am a CODA. An extremely strong one at that. My father is Spanish and my mother, strong ASL. My aunt’s and uncles are deaf, Spanish speaking…. My mother while very prominent in the deaf community was always with my dad.
    I. The oldest of three in our immediate family and as well the oldest of all cousins, was the interpreter.
    I sign better than I speak. The Segall brothers were personal friends and I have been compared to many great theatrical inspirations. In sign.
    I can hear. And quite well……
    Culture, however…….
    Ga to Sk.

    Love.

    1. Hi Deana! Thanks for reading. It’s always so exciting to meet other CODAs, but to be honest – I’m a little confused as to what you disagree on. Could you tell me more about what exactly you’re not agreeing with?

  3. Maybe one person should see it to see how “authentic” her signs are (or most likely AREN’T). That way we can really judge the truthfulness of her performance.

    1. I agree! The trailer I managed to find didn’t show any signing at all – so I’m very, very curious to see if and how it is utilized in the film. It’s just very apparent that the studio did not realize how this casting stunt would set off a pretty emotional reaction within the Deaf community. I’m also really eager to learn about the deaf artists they did consult with and learn more about that process. I think a little more transparency from their end would help answer and address the growing concern over #deaftalent.

  4. You are reeeeally reaching here. Comparing a hearing actor playing deaf to blackface? Nope. Not even close. How absurd. In that case, no straight actors playing Hedwig, no non Jewish actors playing Shylock, and no one can ever play a character in a wheelchair who isn’t physically impaired. You are really reaching with this inane argument.

    1. Hey Brett! Thanks for your feedback. I would politely disagree with you – pretending to be deaf without the proper education on the Deaf community is SO VERY damaging. Deaf people do not like to be imitated, and they are reacting in a very just way. Deaf actors are already fighting for opportunity, it is massively upsetting to see parts that are so accessible to them be taken away and given to actors who already have access to a vast number more parts. Also – I’m really only addressing the Deaf talent concern here – I am not making arguments for LGBTQ or physically disabled characters. I don’t have the life experience to speak on that matter – does that make sense? However, you should definitely address your questions to individuals who would be able to answer. You might be surprised with their reactions. Let me know if I can answer anything else for you regarding Deaf talent, though!

      1. Let’s just call these arguments what they are though, at their core. Possessiveness over what one demographic or minority sees as their experience alone. Sorry, though.
        That’s what acting is. Being someone the artist is not. Years from now these arguments that have risen to the forefront recently (Deaf actors and Asian American actors claiming propriety over Deaf and Asian roles) will be seen as quaint and excessively PC.

      2. I wouldn’t call standing up for representation possessiveness. It’s very clear that there are very minimal parts featuring Deaf characters. On television, can you legitimately name a show that features a d/Deaf/HoH character for more than just one episode? Deaf people have been fighting for this for over 30 years – to be represented in mainstream media. So, when news about a very abled and hearing actress playing a role that they absolutely could play with no limitations, it’s upsetting. When Deaf actors try to audition for hearing roles, they are ALWAYS cast aside and told that they can’t play those roles. I really don’t see how the Deaf community calling out abled actors taking away roles specifically catered to Deaf actors’ skills is “possessiveness”. It’s legitimate. I fully support the Asian community’s fight, as well. Never dismiss someone who tells you that they aren’t being represented and offered equal chances – check your privilege before you devalue another person’s frustration and struggle.

  5. Reblogged this on Inside A Deaf Woman's Mind and commented:
    With such a wide range of deaf people available, and more than willing, to perform and looking for an opportunity to do so, the decision to cast a hearing person to play a deaf person is deeply insulting. Also, “deaf mute” is a very much outdated term from the 1800s to early 1900s, and shows the ignorance at large about deaf people. Deaf people are rarely, if ever, mute. Yes, some of them are unable to speak with their mouths, but they more than make up for it with sign language. We as a society are supposed to be much more educated and enlightened now, but instantly it has been shown to be false, as a throwback term from over 100 years ago has been made headlines. There are 38 million deaf people in the USA, and we will no longer remain silent. We are not mute. We are going to make ourselves heard and seen.

  6. I’m on this, too about being creative BUT why is it ok to hire a hearing actor to portray the role of a Deaf person when it isn’t cool to have white actors perform as black characters? It is so wrong and equally offensive. We have a plentitude of talented Deaf actors around us. Support _#_deaftalent_

  7. Attention needs to be drawn to the media that also reprint words and continually make an editorial choice to use “Deaf-Mute” and terms that are archaic and perpetuate stereotypes. I am glad they took the title in print down..that was my first Tweet..take it down.

  8. Hi Rachel,

    I totally support your advocacy on how D/deaf talent is poorly casted in films made by hearing filmmakers. Also, I am compelled to share with you some good news — “Always Chasing Love,” a film that I think you would appreciate.

    Always Chasing Love is entwined with love stories about one lady’s search for her birthparents and the crime of passion that ensues, told in American Sign Language, Italian, American English and Australian English. The cast and crew for the film were mixed with hearing and D/deaf talent. Deaf actors and actresses, such as Alexandria Wailes and Hillary Baack, were casted in the roles of D/deaf characters, and deaf talent, such as Michelle Banks, were represented behind the camera as well. This film is currently in postproduction and can be followed at Facebook.com/allchaselove and Twitter.com/allchaselove

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