ately, I’ve noticed Deaf people and ASL all over my TV screen. From Sue Thomas, FBEye, to episodes of the ever popular Glee, to Kay Jeweler commercials, to re-runs of The West Wing, deafness seems to be everywhere lately. While I think it’s great that deaf people are getting wider media exposure, I think we should be asking ourselves if this is the kind of media exposure deaf people want. I have never seen an episode of Sue Thomas, FBEye, so I don’t really feel that I can make judgements about it, but the other three I’ve seen several times. It seems to me that The West Wing portrays a positive and empowering picture, while Glee makes fun of deafness and the Kay commercial violates a common value held by the deaf community. Hearing and deaf people alike can be getting the wrong ideas from these negative portrayals, and I think the impact should be discussed.
The West Wing, with Marlee Matlin as Joey Lucas, is an ideal portrayal of what a deaf person’s life in politics could be like. Joey is considered one of the team, equal to anyone else on the show. The President suggests she run for congress, she’s trusted with intimate and important secrets, and some on the staff start to learn sign language so they can communicate with her better. Not only that, but she upholds most of the values of the Deaf community. Joey has an interpreter who follows her everywhere and is her voice. Although she does speak on very rare occasions, mostly she speaks only in sign language, and reads what’s going on in the room from her interpreter’s hands. She has a bit of a flirtation with the Deputy Chief of Staff, but they never date or even kiss. Any serious relationship she has is not with a hearing man. By treating her in the script as an equal, The West Wing has given a wonderful deaf role model to Deaf America.
I do have a few good things to say about Glee. The students in the choir actually performing the song were wonderful, and their ASL was wonderful as well. That being said, Glee was awfully insulting to deaf people in general. While things like the deaf “soloist” speaking above the music, and the fact that they didn’t show much of the ASL , felt like minor violations of deaf culture to me, what really bothered me was the way the advisor of the deaf school was portrayed. He was played for laughs, insisting he was hard of hearing and yelling back and forth in silliness with the regular staff. I like to think that I’m not quick to take offense, but to me, this heavily implied that officials in the deaf world are unprofessional and ridiculous. I felt the same embarrassment for the show as I would have felt if they had decided to do a choir number in black face. It was extremely inappropriate, and it made me sad. Normally I really like Glee.
My Deaf Culture teacher has told me that, much like catholics marrying outside of Catholicism, Deaf – Hearing marriages are very frowned upon. And yet in the Kay Jeweler commercial, we see a hearing man with inferior sign language skills giving a deaf woman an expensive piece of jewelry. In my world, girls only accept expensive pieces of jewelry if they’re romantically involved with the man giving it to them, so I think we can safely assume that the two in the commercial are seriously dating. So let’s look at this from a not necessarily deaf point of view. The man admits that his sign language skills aren’t very good, and for Deaf people, lip reading and writing things down are great for communicating basic needs but aren’t very good for substantive thoughts and feelings. By this, we can infer that they have never had a real conversation in their whole life, and why, why, why, would a nice girl like that have anything to do with a man she has never really spoken to? Maybe because he buys her expensive jewelry. But then what does that say to deaf little girls about what they should be dreaming of when they grow up? Nothing good. It’s upsetting to me that Kay couldn’t come up with a less ludicrous idea for a commercial featuring sign language and deafness, but obviously they couldn’t.
Deafness and ASL has been everywhere lately. While the portrayals aren’t always the most flattering, or the most in line with Deaf Culture, there could be some truth to the saying “any advertising is good advertising”. After all, wider exposure of ASL only makes more people realize what a beautiful language it is. Hopefully this will incourage more people to get into a classroom, where they will be exposed to the truth of what Deaf Culture really is.