The Shape of Air: American Sign Language as Narrative Prosthesis in 21st Century North American Media

Pamela J Kincheloe

Abstract


The word “prosthetic” has its origins as a mathematical term. According to scholar Brandon W. Hawk, Plato uses the words prosthesis and prostithenai in Phaedo to mean "addition, add to, to place", and Aristotle uses it in a similar, algebraic sense in the Metaphysics. Later, as the word appears in classical Latin, it is used as a grammatical and rhetorical term, in the sense of a letter or syllable that is added on to a word, usually the addition of a syllable to the beginning of a word, hence pro-thesis (Hawk).  

This is the sense of the word that was “inherited … by early modern humanists”, says Hawk, but when it appears in Edward Phillips's The New World of English Words: Or, a General Dictionary (1706), we can see how, with advances in technology, it changes from a grammatical/linguistic term into a medical term. What was once word is now made flesh:

Prosthesis, a Grammatical Figure, when a Letter or Syllable is added to the beginning of a Word, as Gnatus for natus, tetuli for tuli, &c. In Surgery, Prosthesis is taken for that which fills up what is wanting, as is to beseen in fistulous and hollow Ulcers, filled up with Flesh by that Art: Also themaking of artificial Legs and Arms, when the natural ones are lost.

Hawk also points to P. Dionis in Course Chirurg (a 1710 textbook detailing the art of chirurgy, or surgery, as it’s known now), who uses the word to denote one type of surgical operation; that is, prosthesis becomes not a word, but an act that “adds what is deficient”, an act that repairs loss, that “fills up what is wanting”, that fills up what is “hollow”, that “fills up with flesh”. R. Brookes, in his Introduction to Physic and Surgery (1754), is the first to define prosthesis as both an act and also as a separate, material object; it is “an operation by which some instrument is added to supply the Defect of a Part which is wanting, either naturally or accidentally”. It is not until the twentieth century (1900, to be exact), though, that the word begins to refer solely to a device or object that is added on to somehow “supply the defect”, or fill up what which is “wanting”. So etymologically we move from the writer creating a new literary device, to the scientist/doctor acting in order to fix something, then back to the device again, this time as tangible object that fills a gap where there is lack and loss (Hawk).

This is how we most often see the word, and so we have the notion of prosthetic used in this medicalised sense, as an "instrument", in relation to people with missing or disfunctional limbs. Having a prosthetic arm or leg in an ableist society instantly marks one as "missing" something, or being "disabled". Wheelchairs and other prosthetic accoutrements also serve as a metonymic shorthand for disability (an example of this might be how, on reserved parking spots in North America, the image on the sign is that of a person in a wheelchair). 

In the case of deaf people, who are also thought of as "disabled", but whose supposed disability is invisible, hearing aids and cochlear implants (CIs) serve as this kind of visible marker.* Like artificial limbs and wheelchairs, these "instruments" (they are actually called “hearing instruments” by audiologists) are sometimes added on to the purportedly “lacking” body. They are objects that “restore function to” the disabled deaf ear.  As such, these devices, like wheelchairs and bionic arms, also serve as a shorthand in American culture, especially in film and visual media, where this kind of obvious, material symbolism is very helpful in efficiently driving narrative along.   

David L. Mitchell and Sharon T. Snyder call this kind of disability shorthand "narrative prosthesis". In their 2001 book of the same name, they demonstrate that disability and the markers of disability, far from being neglected or omitted (as has been claimed by critics like Sarah Ruiz-Grossman), actually appear in literature and film to the point where they are astonishingly pervasive.  Unlike other identities who are vastly underrepresented, Mitchell and Snyder note, images of disability are almost constantly circulated in print and visual media (this is clearly demonstrated in older film studies such as John Schuchman's Hollywood Speaks and Martin Norden's Cinema of Isolation, as well). The reason that this happens, Mitchell and Snyder say, is because almost all narrative is structured around the idea of a flaw in the natural order, the resolution of that flaw, and the restoration of order. This flaw, they show, is more often than not represented by a disabled character or symbol. Disability, then, is a "crutch upon which literary narratives lean for their representational power, disruptive potentiality and analytical insight" (49).  And, in the end, all narrative is thus dependent upon some type of disability used as a prosthetic, which serves not only to “fill in” lack, but also to restore and reinforce normalcy. They also state that concepts of, and characters with, disability are therefore used in literature and film primarily as “opportunist metaphorical device(s)” (205). 

Hearing aids and CIs are great examples of "opportunist" devices used on television and in movies, mostly as props or “add-ons” in visual narratives. This "adding on" is done, more often than not, to the detriment of providing a well rounded narrative about the lived experience of deaf people who use such devices on a daily basis. There are countless examples of this in American television shows and films (in an upward trend since 2000), including many police and crime dramas where a cochlear implant device-as-clue stands in for the dead victim’s identity (Kincheloe "Do Androids"). We see it in movies, most notably in 2018’s A Quiet Place, in which a CI is weaponized and used to defeat the alien monster/Other (as opposed to the deaf heroine doing it by herself) (Kincheloe "Tired Tropes"). In 2019's Toy Story 4, there is a non-signing child who we know is deaf because they wear a CI. In the 2019 animated Netflix series, Undone, the main character wears a CI, and it serves as one of several markers (for her and the viewer) of her possible psychological breakdown.

It seems fairly obvious that literal prostheses such as hearing aids and CI devices are used as a form of media shorthand to connote hearing ideas of “deafness”. It also might seem obvious that, as props that reinforce mainstream, ableist narratives, they are there to tell us that, in the end, despite the aesthetic nervousness that disability produces, "things will be okay". It's "fixable". These are prosthetics that are easily identified and easily discussed, debated, and questioned.

What is perhaps not so obvious, however, is that American Sign Language (ASL), is also used in media as a narrative prosthetic. Lennard Davis' discussion of Erving Goffman’s idea of “stigma” in Enforcing Normalcy supports the notion that sign language, like hearing aids, is a marker. When seen by the hearing, non-signing observer, sign language "stigmatizes" the signing deaf person (48). In this sense, ASL is, like a hearing aid, a tangible "sign" of deaf identity. I would then argue that ASL is, like hearing aids and CIs, used as a "narrative prosthesis" signifying deafness and disability; its insertion allows ableist narratives to be satisfyingly resolved.  Even though ASL is not a static physical device, but a living language and an integral part of deaf lived experience, it is casually employed almost everywhere in media today as a cheap prop, and as such, serves narrative purposes that are not in the best interest of realistic deaf representation. Consider this example: 

On 13 April 2012, Sir Paul McCartney arranged for a special event at his daughter Stella McCartney’s ivy-covered store in West Hollywood. Stars and friends like Jane Fonda, Gwyneth Paltrow, Chris Martin, Quincy Jones, and Reese Witherspoon sipped cucumber margaritas and nibbled on a spread of vegetarian Mexican appetizers. Afterwards, McCartney took them all to a tent set up on the patio out back, where he proudly introduced a new video, directed by himself. This was the world premiere of the video for "My Valentine", a song from his latest (some might say oddly titled) album, Kisses from the Bottom, a song he had originally written for and sung to new wife Nancy Shevell, at their 2011 wedding.

The video is very simply shot in black and white, against a plain grey backdrop.  As it begins, the camera fades in on actor Natalie Portman, who is seated, wearing a black dress. She stares at the viewer intently, but with no expression. As McCartney’s voiced-over vocal begins, “What if it rained/We didn’t care…”, she suddenly starts to mouth the words, and using sign language. The lens backs up to a medium shot of her, then closes back in on a tight close up of just her hands signing “my valentine” on her chest. There is then a quick cut to actor Johnny Depp, who is sitting in a similar position, in front of a grey backdrop, staring directly at the camera, also with no expression. There is a fade back to Portman’s face, then to her body, a close up of her signing the word “appear”, and then a cut back to Depp. Now he starts signing.  Unlike Portman, he does not mouth the words, but stares ahead, with no facial movement.  

There is then a series of jump cuts, back and forth, between shots of the two actors’ faces, eyes, mouths, hands. For the solo bridge, there is a closeup on Depp’s hands playing guitar – a cut to Portman’s face, looking down – then to her face with eyes closed as she listens.  here is some more signing, we see Depp’s impassive face staring at us again, and then, at the end, the video fades out on Portman’s still figure, still gazing at us as well.

McCartney told reporters that Stella had been the one to come up with the idea for using sign language in the video. According to the ASL sign language coach on the shoot, Bill Pugin, the choice to include it wasn’t that far-fetched: “Paul always has an interpreter on a riser with a spot for his concerts and Stella loves sign language, apparently” ("The Guy Who Taught Johnny Depp"). Perhaps she made the suggestion because the second stanza contains the words “I tell myself that I was waiting for a sign…” Regardless, McCartney advised her father to “ring Natalie up and just ask her if she will sign to your song”. Later realizing he wanted another person signing in the video, Paul McCartney asked Johnny Depp to join in, which he did. When asked why he chose those two actors, McCartney said, “Well, they’re just nice people, some friends from way back and they were just very kind to do it”. A week later, they all got together with cinematographer Wally Pfister, who filmed Inception and The Dark Knight, behind the camera. According to the official press release about the video, posted on McCartney’s website, the two actors then "translate[d] the lyrics of the song into sign language – each giving distinctly different performances, making ... compelling viewing" ("Paul McCartney Directs His Own").  

The response to the video was quite positive; it immediately went viral on YouTube (the original posting of it got over 15 million views). The album made it to number five on the Billboard charts, with the single reaching number twenty. The album won a 2013 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Pop Vocal album, and the video Best Music Film (“Live Kisses”). McCartney chose to sing that particular song from the album on the award show itself, and four years later, he featured both the song and video as part of his 31 city tour, the 2017 One on One concert, in which he made four million dollars a city. All told the video has served McCartney quite well.

But…

For whom the sign language?  And why

The video is not meant for deaf eyes. When viewed through a deaf lens, it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, “compelling”; it isn’t even comprehensible. It is so bad, in fact, that the video, though signed, is also captioned for the deaf and hard of hearing. To the untrained, “hearing” eye, the signing seems to be providing a “deaf translation” of what is being sung. But it is in fact a pantomime. The actors are quite literally “going through the motions”. 

One egregious example of this is how, at the end of the video, when Depp thinks he’s signing “valentine”. it looks like he's saying “fuck-heart” (several media sources politely reported that he’d signed “enemy”). Whatever he did, it’s not a sign. In response to criticism of his signing, Depp said nonchalantly, “Apparently, instead of ‘love' I might have said, ‘murder'” ("Johnny Depp Says").  

That wasn’t the only point of confusion, though: the way Portman signs “then she appears” was misunderstood by some viewers to be the sign for “tampon”. She actually signed it correctly, but media sources from MTV.com, to the Washington Post, “signsplained” that she had just gotten a bit confused between ASL and BSL signs (even though the BSL for “appears” bears no resemblance to what she did, and the ASL for tampon, while using the same classifier, is also signed quite differently).  

Part of the problem, according to sign coach Pugin, was that he and Depp “had about fifteen minutes to work on the song. I signed the song for hours sitting on an apple box under the camera for Johnny to be able to peripherally see me for each take. I was his “human cue card”. Johnny’s signing turned out to be more theatrical and ‘abbreviated’ because of the time issue” ("The Guy Who Taught").

Portman, perhaps taking more time to rehearse, does a better job, but “theatrical and abbreviated” indeed; the signing was just not good, despite Pugin's coaching. But to hearing eyes, it looks fine; it looks beautiful, it looks poignant and somehow mysterious.  It looks the way sign language is “supposed” to look.

Remember, the McCartney website claimed that the actors were “translating” the lyrics. Technically speaking, “translation” would mean that the sense of the words to the song were being rendered, fluently, from one language (English) into another (SL), for an audience receptive to the second language. In order to “translate”, the translator needs to be fluent in both of the languages involved. To be clear, what Depp and Portman were doing was not translation. They are hearing people, not fluent in sign language, acting like signers (something that happens with dismaying regularity in the entertainment industry).  Depp, to his credit, knew he wasn’t “translating”, in fact, he said "I was only copying what the guy showed me”. “But”, he says, "it was a gas – sign language is apparently very interpretive. It's all kind of different" (italics mine) ("Johnny Depp Passes the Buck"). 

Other than maybe being an embellishment on that one line, “I tell myself that I was waiting for a sign…”, the sentiments of McCartney’s song have absolutely nothing to do with ASL or deaf people.  And he didn’t purposefully place sign language in his video as a way to get his lyrics across to a deaf audience. He’s a musician; it is fairly certain that the thought of appealing to a deaf audience never entered his or his daughter’s mind. It is much more likely that he made the decision to use sign language because of its cool factor; its emo “novelty”. In other words, McCartney used sign language as a prop – as a way to make his song “different”, more “touching”, more emotionally appealing. Sign adds a je ne sais quoi, a little “something”, to the song. The video is a hearing person’s fantasy of what a signing person looks like, what sign language is, and what it does. McCartney used that fantasy, and the sentimentality that it evokes, to sell the song. And it worked.  

This attitude toward sign language, demonstrated by the careless editing of the video, Depp’s flippant remarks, and the overall attitude that if it’s wrong it’s no big deal, is one that is pervasive throughout the entertainment and advertising industries and indeed throughout American culture in the U.S. That is, there is this notion that sign language is “a gas”.  It’s just a “different” thing. Not only is it “different”, but it is also a “thing”, a prop, a little exotic spice you throw into the pot. It is, in other words, a "narrative prosthesis", an "add-on".  

Once you see this, it becomes glaringly apparent that ASL is not viewed in mainstream American culture as the language of a group of people, but instead is widely used and commodified as a product. The most obvious form of commodification is in the thousands of ASL products, from Precious Moment figurines, to Baby Signing videos, to the ubiquitous “I LOVE YOU” sign seen on everything from coffee mugs to tee shirts, to Nike posters with “Just Do It” in fingerspelling. But the area in which the language is most often commodified (and perhaps most insidiously so) is in the entertainment industry, in visual media, where it is used by writers, directors and actors, not to present an accurate portrait of lived deaf experience and language, but to do what Paul McCartney did, that is, to insert it just to create a “different”, unique, mysterious, exotic, heartwarming spectacle. Far too often, this commodification of the language results in weirdly distorted representations of what deaf people and their language actually are. 

You can see this everywhere: ASL is a prominent narrative add-on in blockbuster films like the aforementioned A Quiet Place; it is used in the Oscar winning The Shape of Water, and in Wonderstruck, and Baby Driver as well; it is used in the indie horror film Hush;  it is used in a lot of films with apes (the Planet of the Apes series and Rampage are two examples); it is displayed on television, mostly in police dramas, in various CSI programs, and in series like The Walking Dead and Castle Rock; it is used in commercials to hawk everything from Pepsi to hotel chains to jewelry to Hormel lunchmeat to fast food (Burger King, Chik Fil A); it is used and commented on in interpreted concerts and music videos and football halftime shows; it is used (often misused) in PSAs for hurricanes and police stops; it is used in social media, from vlogs to cochlear implant activation videos.  You can find ASL seemingly everywhere; it is being inserted more and more into the cultural mainstream, but is not appearing as a language.  It is used, nine times out of ten, as a decorative ornament, a narrative prop. 

When Davis discusses the hearing perception of ASL as a marker or visible stigma, he points out that the usual hearing response to observing such stigma is a combination of a Freudian attraction/repulsion (the dominant response being negative). Many times this repulsion results from the appeal to pathos, as in the commercials that show the poor isolated deaf person with the nice hearing person who is signing to them so that they can now be part of the world.  The hearing viewer might think to themselves "oh, thank God I'm not deaf!"

Davis notes that, in the end, it is not the signer who is the disabled one in this scenario (aside from the fact that many times a signing person is not in fact deaf). The hearing, non signing observer is actually the one “disabled” by their own reaction to the signing “other”. Not only that, but the rhetorical situation itself becomes “disabled”: there is discomfort – wariness of language – laughter – compulsive nervous talking – awkwardness – a desire to get rid of the object. This is a learned response. People habituated, Davis says, do not respond this way (12-13).  While people might think that the hearing audience is becoming more and more habituated because ASL is everywhere, the problem is that people are being incorrectly habituated. More often than not, sign language, when enfolded into narratives about hearing people in hearing situations, is put into service as a prop that can mitigate such awkward moments of possible tension and conflict; it is a prosthetic that "fills the gap", allowing an interaction between hearing and deaf people that almost always allows for a positive, "happy" resolution, a return to "normalcy", the very purpose of the "narrative prosthetic" as posited by Mitchell and Snyder.  

Once we see how ASL is being employed in media mostly as a narrative prosthesis, we can, as Mitchell and Snyder suggest we do (what I hope this essay begins to do), and that is, to begin to “undo the quick repair of disability in mainstream representations and beliefs; to try to make the prosthesis show; to flaunt its imperfect supplementation as an illusion (8).   In other words, if we can scrutinize the shorthand, and dig deeper, seeing the prosthetic for what it is, all of this seemingly exploitative commodification of ASL will be a good thing.  Maybe, in “habituating” people correctly, in widening both hearing people’s exposure to ASL and their understanding of its actual role in deaf lived experience, signing will become less of a prosthetic, an object of fetishistic fascination.  Maybe hearing people, as they become used to seeing signing people in real signing situations, will be less likely to walk up to deaf people they don’t know and say things like: “Oh, your language is SO beautiful”, or say, “I know sign!” (then fingerspelling the alphabet with agonising slowness and inaccuracy while the deaf person nods politely). However, if the use of ASL as a prosthetic in popular culture and visual media continues to go on unexamined and unquestioned, it will just continue to trivialise a living, breathing language. This trivialisation can in turn continue to reduce the lived experiences of deaf people to a sort of caricature, further reinforcing the negative representations of deaf people in America that are already in place, stereotypes that we have been trying to escape for over 200 years.   

Note

* The word "deaf" is used in this article to denote the entire range of individuals with various hearing losses and language preferences, including Deaf persons and hard of hearing persons, etc. For more on these distinctions please refer to the website entry on this published by the National Association of the Deaf (NAD).

References

Davis, Lennard. Enforcing Normalcy. New York: Verso, 1995.

"The Guy Who Taught Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman Sign Language." Intimate Excellent: The Fountain Theater Blog. 18 Mar. 2012. <https://intimateexcellent.com/2012/04/18/the-guy-who-taught-johnny-depp-and-natalie-portman-sign-language-in-mccartney-video/>.

Fitzgerald, Roisin. "Johnny Depp Says Sign Language Mishap Isn't His Fault." HiddenHearing Blog 14 Apr. 2012. <https://hiddenhearingireland.wordpress.com/2012/05/29/johnny-depp-says-sign-language-mishap-isnt-his-fault/>.

Hawk, Brandon W. “Prosthesis: From Grammar to Medicine in the Earliest History of the Word.” Disability Studies Quarterly  38.4 (2018).

McCartney, Paul. "My Valentine." YouTube 13 Apr. 2012.

McGinnis, Sara. "Johnny Depp Passes the Buck on Sign Language Snafu." sheknows.com 10 May 2012. <https://www.sheknows.com/entertainment/articles/959949/johnny-depp-passes-the-buck-on-sign-language-snafu/>.

Miller, Julie. "Paul McCartney on Directing Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman." Vanity Fair 14 Apr. 2012. <https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2012/04/paul-mccartney-johnny-depp-natalie-portman-my-valentine-music-video-gwyneth-paltrow>.

Mitchell, David T., and Sharon L. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disabilities and the Dependencies of Discourse. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P. 2000.

Norden, Martin. F. The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in Movies. Rutgers UP: 1994.

"Paul McCartney Directs His Own My Valentine Video." paulmccartney.com 14 Apr. 2012.  <https://www.paulmccartney.com/news-blogs/news/paul-mccartney-directs-his-own-my-valentine-videos-featuring-natalie-portman-and>.

Ruiz-Grossman, Sarah. "Disability Representation Is Seriously Lacking in Television and the Movies: Report." Huffington Post 27 Mar. 2019. <https://www.huffpost.com/entry/disability-representation-movies-tv_n_5c9a7b85e4b07c88662cabe7>.

Schuchman, J.S. Hollywood Speaks: Deafness and the Film Entertainment Industry. U Illinois P, 1999.


Keywords


disability studies; deaf studies; film; television; deaf



Copyright (c) 2019 Pamela J Kincheloe

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