Ask yourself this: how often do you see Deaf characters depicted within mainstream media? And, if you managed to come up with some, how often were they only characterised by their deafness? Unfortunately, this is quite often the case, but model, actor, and now producer Nyle DiMarco, has taken a significant step in the right direction towards increasing representation of Deaf talent in mainstream media with his new show.
Since premiering in early October, Deaf U (now streaming on Netflix), has been the subject of much debate within Deaf communities, who have discussed whether the show does enough to represent all areas of Deaf culture.
The setting for the show, Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, has been around since the mid-19th century as various forms of institutions for Deaf individuals, and, is now self-identified as “the premier institution of learning, teaching and research for deaf and hard-of-hearing students”. However, the show focuses less on the prestigious establishment and more on the drama, friendships, and relationships of a small group of its students. With its candor around topics of sexuality, sexual trauma, and familial relationships – it is one of the more ‘real’ reality shows I have seen recently.
Hopefully, this is only the start of a journey towards film and television that tells the stories of all of its audiences
Much of the appeal of Deaf U, is that it does not pander to hearing people in its presentation; there is no voice-over or over-explanation of the Deaf experience. In fact, what we see are typical experiences among college students who happen to be Deaf, which is not something audiences are often presented with in mainstream media. Recently in popular cinema, comedian CJ Jones appeared in Baby Driver (2017) as foster father to Ansel Elgort’s character, and young talent Millicent Simmonds starred in A Quiet Place (2018) within which the use of sign language was central to the family’s survival. Both actors have been praised for their success in these roles, but the fact that these few examples are so unique is indicative of a larger problem with representation of Deaf individuals on the screen.
The show has been met with a lot of backlash from Deaf communities who are concerned the show does not do well to represent all areas of Deaf culture. The choice of female participants in the show has been criticised as not being diverse enough, as black Deaf women are frequently underrepresented in the community. The use of many hearing people behind the scenes has led to debate on whether media can be truly representative if it does not make use of minorities behind the screen as well as in front of. And lastly, it has ignited conversations on a larger topic which focuses on Deaf individuals who want to be part of hearing communities, as the negative treatment of Cheyenna, whose social media channels were criticised as pandering to hearing audiences, led her to leave Gallaudet.
Executive producer Nyle DiMarco has indicated that the show deliberately sought to show students of all backgrounds
Within the community, some Deaf individuals may choose to vocalise, use hearing aids, or not use sign language, or they may have been brought up in families that raised their Deaf children with these. The show depicts the differences of those considered to be ‘elites’ – having been brought up in Deaf families and as part of the wider Deaf community – and those who may have only been introduced into such communities later in life. One of the stars of the show, Daequan, confessed he didn’t even realise he was considered part of the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community until later in life, and therefore only learned sign language when he began to attend Gallaudet.
Honest depictions of the diversity within these groups can help to subconsciously educate audiences and eradicate prejudices
Executive producer Nyle DiMarco has indicated that the show deliberately sought to show students of all backgrounds. As such, we see the conflicts that arise among different groups, as would be the case with any mix of beliefs and backgrounds. Conversations around how the Deaf experience should be presented on screen, and the role in which Deaf people play in creating these depictions, are central to ensuring minority communities receive truly representative content and appear in front of mainstream audiences as much as those in majority and frequently represented groups. Alongside this, honest depictions of the diversity within these groups can help to subconsciously educate audiences and eradicate prejudices while still being a source of entertainment.
There are a lot more conversations to have around the issue of representation, and it is, thankfully, a topic that is being discussed and acted on more and more. One way this is happening is through the introduction of new inclusion standards from the Academy. I ultimately encourage readers to go out and seek works from Deaf individuals to gain further insight into the Deaf experience. But, even if you don’t watch Deaf U to support its Deaf creators and stars, simply watch it to be a fly on the wall of a seemingly typical American college. The ups and downs of the lives of these students certainly kept me hooked, and will likely engage anyone equally as nosey as me (if you aren’t equally baffled by and in admiration of Alexa by the end, then I don’t think you were really watching it). Hopefully, this is only the start of a journey towards film and television that tells the stories of all of its audiences.
Trailer courtesy of Netflix via YouTube.
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