Portrayals of Deaf characters in film do not have a great track record. Hush and The Sound of Metal focus more on using Deafness to strike terror, than on portraying it accurately. Sarah Sparks, a clinical audiologist and cochlear implant user, calls Sound of Metal “absolutely cringe-worthy”. Janine Harvey, a recreational programming major in Ontario, jokes that a Deaf woman, who uses her eyes for communication, would notice a serial killer waving through the window.
In 2018, A Quiet Place was released. The Deaf community waited with trepidation and hope to see if this film would finally get it right. Critics praised the film for casting Deaf actress Millicent Simmonds as the Deaf daughter of Lee (John Krasinski) and Evelyn Abbot (Emily Blunt). Ninety percent of the film took place in silence and American Sign Language got a great portion of screen-time. Izzy Forest, a student at Gallaudet University, says she and her friends were “happy to finally have a Deaf person in a Deaf role.”
Yet, although A Quiet Place is comparably better to the detested Hush, it still misses the mark.
Reagan Abbot’s (Milicent Simmonds) cochlear implant in the film becomes a weapon used to defeat the monsters. The final film image shows Reagan clutching her cochlear implant while Evelyn cocks a gun. In that final-image moment, the cochlear implant rather than the Deaf character became the focal point of the film. Although it was nice to see a cochlear implant user get the spotlight, the portrayal was one-dimensional, failing to acknowledge the nuances of what being a cochlear user really means.
“When the movie used the CI to destroy the monsters I laughed a little but I also was like ‘ummmmm,’” writes Forest. For many, the cochlear implant ‘fixing’ the family’s situation seems to disturbingly mimic the false perception that cochlear implants ‘fix’ Deaf people.
The depiction of Deaf people as ‘broken’ and needing to be ‘fixed’ is damaging for many reasons. For starters, it plays dangerously into an idea of audism, that hearing individuals are objectively better than the Deaf. However, this depiction also perpetuates the misconception that cochlear implants allow Deaf or Hard of Hearing individuals to hear perfectly. “They’re a prosthesis and like any sort of prosthetics they have limitations,” says Sparks. Matt Hall, a linguistic and cognitive development researcher, agrees: “Hearing children tend to acquire language in a way that is effortless and automatic, but for children who learn spoken language through CIs the process is different and variable.”
Acquiring language through cochlear implants has a long and complicated history. Only exposing Deaf cochlear users to speech can cause issues of language deprivation. Although cochlear users may hear sounds, they do not always understand them. Harvey describes the robotic sound from her cochlear, stating that it took a long time to get used to the implant. As a result, Harvey started speech and listening therapy when she was five and the process was lengthy.
Kimberly Sanzo, founder of Language First, an organization which educates parents of Deaf children on the importance of sign language, describes how sometimes kids slip through the cracks. Cochlear implants make it appear that these kids are understanding more than they do: “Little do you know that they’re missing huge chunks of information,” Sanzo says, “when there’s speakers, or it’s too noisy, or in the water when their hearing aids are out […] All of a sudden they’re ten years old and don’t understand word boundaries and haven’t developed a strong vocabulary.” Cochlear implants come with a host of their own obstacles and throwing the technology haphazardly into a film under the guise of a ‘solution’ to Deafness does a disservice to the community.
“We have to give Deaf and Hard of Hearing children everything that we can possibly give them [cochlear implants, hearing aids, and sign languages],” says Sparks. Harvey agrees, describing herself as the embodiment of how different modes of communication can open your world. Harvey uses both sign and speech in her day-to-day life, preferring to have an ASL interpreter in her lectures and classes, but often speaking to her hearing friends, “if someone has a large accent I even prefer to write or text back and forth in the notes app on my phone.”
However, Sparks feels the film did well in showing cochlear users using multiple forms of communication: “That’s one thing I found to be positive about A Quiet Place,” Sparks says. “The character is clearly a signer and also clearly uses a CI. I’d rather see more ‘both/and’ characters rather than ‘either/or’ characters.”
But, in other ways, A Quiet Place still fails to recognise the complicated context of cochlear implants.
Linguistic overprotection occurs when sign language used with Deaf children is overly-simplified. Linguistic overprotection deprives children of the opportunity to build vocabulary; For example, referring to mayonnaise as ‘white sauce’ instead of mayonnaise. Sanzo emphasizes that this normally happens when the child’s only model for ASL is a hearing parent who only knows the basics: “[Parents] think that they can become fluent in ASL after two to three classes and that that’s good enough to model language for their Deaf child […] they’ve had no exposure to native signers.”
A Quiet Place does illustrate the impacts of non-native signers being the only sign language model for their kids. The phrases used throughout the movie are short and simple. Lee Abbot’s signing seems awkward and unnatural, his face soft and passive without the type of animation you expect from a native user. Of course, that’s not to say that hearing people shouldn’t learn ASL, but it does raise questions of why the whole Abbot family could not have been depicted as Deaf and cast with Deaf actors.
Not all reactions to A Quiet Place were negative. Harvey liked how, in the film, cochlear implants were a weapon against the monsters: “It’s amazing the things you can do with CIs. I liked seeing how you could play around and manipulate the frequency of the sound,” she says. But Sparks quickly points out the flaws in the technological depiction. “CIs don’t give off feedback,” she emphasizes. The many technological misrepresentations in the film indicate a lack of research.
At the end of the day, the truth is that there’s just not enough representation of Deafness in film. It’s impossible for one film with one Deaf character to represent an entire community. “I do think that at times people in one ‘group’ or another feel misrepresented by a Deaf character whose experience is different than their own,” says Sparks.
“On the one hand you’re happy to see CIs in mainstream media because you want kids with implants to see themselves as heroes in movies. But why is the implant itself always the hero? Why can’t the superpower be that they sign? Why does the technology have to be the centre of the story,” asks Sanzo. A Quiet Place makes cochlear implants the saving grace of the Abbot family, failing to acknowledge that Deaf individuals are perfectly capable with or without a cochlear implant. Deafness is not a detriment and that they often quite enjoy being Deaf.
There seems to be an underlying disappointment that whenever a Deaf character appears in a film, their Deafness becomes the whole character. “I do like the idea of a CI being portrayed in a positive way as something that’s not just a negative experience,” says Sparks, “but what I would rather see is characters with visible CIs in media where no one actually mentions the technology at all.”
As we approach the March release date of A Quiet Place 2, audiences should be encouraged not to take one depiction of Deafness at face-value. It’s easy to buy into the depictions of minority groups presented in films and let that drive our understanding of those communities. If the depiction of cochlear implants in A Quiet Place can teach us anything, it’s to approach these films with a critical view.
Words by Kalli Dockrill
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