Narrative Function of Deafness and Deaf Characters in Film

Miriam Nathan Lerner

Abstract


Introduction

Films with deaf characters often do not focus on the condition of deafness at all.  Rather, the characters seem to satisfy a role in the story that either furthers the plot or the audience’s understanding of other hearing characters. The deaf characters can be symbolic, for example as a metaphor for isolation representative of ‘those without a voice’ in a society. The deaf characters’ misunderstanding of auditory cues can lead to comic circumstances, and their knowledge can save them in the case of perilous ones. Sign language, because of its unique linguistic properties and its lack of comprehension by hearing people, can save the day in a story line. Deaf characters are shown in different eras and in different countries, providing a fictional window into their possible experiences. Films shape and reflect cultural attitudes and can serve as a potent force in influencing the attitudes and assumptions of those members of the hearing world who have had few, if any, encounters with deaf people. This article explores categories of literary function as identified by the author, providing examples and suggestions of other films for readers to explore.

Searching for Deaf Characters in Film

I am a sign language interpreter. Several years ago, I started noticing how deaf characters are used in films. I made a concerted effort to find as many as I could. I referred to John Shuchman’s exhaustive book about deaf actors and subject matter, Hollywood Speaks; I scouted video rental guides (key words  were ‘deaf’ or ‘disabled’); and I also plugged in the key words ‘deaf in film’  on Google’s search engine. I decided to ignore the issue of whether or not the actors were actually deaf—a political hot potato in the Deaf community which has been discussed extensively. Similarly, the linguistic or cultural accuracy of the type of sign language used or super-human lip-reading talent did not concern me. 

What was I looking for? I noticed that few story lines involving deaf characters provide any discussion or plot information related to that character’s deafness. I was puzzled. Why is there signing in the elevator in Jerry Maguire? Why does the guy in Grand Canyon have a deaf daughter? Why would the psychosomatic response to a trauma—as in Psych Out—be deafness rather than blindness? I concluded that not being able to hear carried some special meaning or fulfilled a particular need intrinsic to the plot of the story. I also observed that the functions of deaf characters seem to fall into several categories. Some deaf characters fit into more than one category, serving two or more symbolic purposes at the same time. By viewing and analysing the representations of deafness and deaf characters in forty-six films, I have come up with the following classifications:

  • Deafness as a plot device
  • Deaf characters as protagonist informants
  • Deaf characters as a parallel to the protagonist
  • Sign language as ‘hero’
  • Stories about deaf/hearing relationships
  • A-normal-guy-or-gal-who-just-happens-to-be-deaf
  • Deafness as a psychosomatic response to trauma
  • Deafness as metaphor
  • Deafness as a symbolic commentary on society
  • Let your fingers do the ‘talking’

Deafness as Plot Device

Every element of a film is a device, but when the plot hinges on one character being deaf, the story succeeds because of that particular character having that particular condition. The limitations or advantages of a deaf person functioning within the hearing world establish the tension, the comedy, or the events which create the story.

In Hear No Evil (1993), Jillian learns from her hearing boyfriend which mechanical devices cause ear-splitting noises (he has insomnia and every morning she accidentally wakes him in very loud ways, eg., she burns the toast, thus setting off the smoke detector; she drops a metal spoon down the garbage disposal unit). When she is pursued by a murderer she uses a fire alarm, an alarm/sprinkler system, and a stereo turned on full blast to mask the sounds of her movements as she attempts to hide. Jillian and her boyfriend survive, she learns about sound, her boyfriend learns about deafness, and she teaches him the sign for orgasm. Life is good!

The potential comic aspects of deafness may seem in this day and age to be shockingly politically incorrect. While the slapstick aspect is often innocent and means no overt harm or insult to the Deaf as a population, deafness functions as the visual banana peel over which the characters figuratively stumble in the plot. The film, See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989), pairing Gene Wilder with Richard Pryor as deaf and blind respectively, is a constant sight gag of lip-reading miscues and lack-of-sight gags. Wilder can speak, and is able to speech read almost perfectly, almost all of the time (a stereotype often perpetuated in films). It is mind-boggling to imagine the detail of the choreography required for the two actors to convince the audience of their authenticity. Other films in this category include:

  • Suspect
  • It’s a Wonderful Life 
  • Murder by Death
  • Huck Finn
  • One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • The Shop on Main Street
  • Read My Lips
  • The Quiet

Deaf Characters as Protagonist Informants

Often a deaf character’s primary function to the story is to give the audience more information about, or form more of an affinity with, the hearing protagonist. The deaf character may be fascinating in his or her own right, but generally the deafness is a marginal point of interest. Audience attitudes about the hearing characters are affected because of their previous or present involvement with deaf individuals. This representation of deafness seems to provide a window into audience understanding and appreciation of the protagonist. More inferences can be made about the hearing person and provides one possible explanation for what ensues. It is a subtle, almost subliminal trick.

There are several effective examples of this approach. In Gas, Food, Lodging (1992), Shade discovers that tough-guy Javier’s mother is deaf. He introduces Shade to his mother by simple signs and finger-spelling. They all proceed to visit and dance together (mom feels the vibrations on the floor). The audience is drawn to feel ‘Wow! Javier is a sensitive kid who has grown up with a beautiful, exotic, deaf mother!’

The 1977 film, Looking for Mr. Goodbar presents film-goers with Theresa, a confused young woman living a double life. By day, she is a teacher of deaf children. Her professor in the Teacher of the Deaf program even likens their vocation to ‘touching God’. But by night she cruises bars and engages in promiscuous sexual activity. The film shows how her fledgling use of signs begins to express her innermost desires, as well as her ability to communicate and reach out to her students. Other films in this category include:

  • Miracle on 34th Street (1994 version)
  • Nashville (1975, dir. Robert Altman)
  • The Family Stone
  • Grand Canyon
  • There Will Be Blood

Deaf Characters as a Parallel to the Protagonist

I Don’t Want to Talk about It (1993) from Argentina, uses a deaf character to establish an implied parallel story line to the main hearing character. Charlotte, a dwarf, is friends with Reanalde, who is deaf. The audience sees them in the first moments of the film when they are little girls together. Reanalde’s mother attempts to commiserate with Charlotte’s mother, establishing a simultaneous but unseen story line somewhere else in town over the course of the story. The setting is Argentina during the 1930s, and the viewer can assume that disability awareness is fairly minimal at the time. Without having seen Charlotte’s deaf counterpart, the audience still knows that her story has contained similar struggles for ‘normalcy’ and acceptance. Near the conclusion of the film, there is one more glimpse of Reanalde, when she catches the bridal bouquet at Charlotte’s wedding. While having been privy to Charlotte’s experiences all along, we can only conjecture as to what Reanalde’s life has been.

Sign Language as ‘Hero’

The power of language, and one’s calculated use of language as a means of escape from a potentially deadly situation, is shown in The River Wild (1996). The reason that any of the hearing characters knows sign language is that Gail, the protagonist, has a deaf father. Victor appears primarily to allow the audience to see his daughter and grandson sign with him. The mother, father, and son are able to communicate surreptitiously and get themselves out of a dangerous predicament. Signing takes an iconic form when the signs BOAT, LEFT, I-LOVE-YOU are drawn on a log suspended over the river as a message to Gail so that she knows where to steer the boat, and that her husband is still alive. The unique nature of sign language saves the day– silently and subtly produced, right under the bad guys’ noses!

Stories about Deaf/Hearing Relationships

Because of increased awareness and acceptance of  deafness, it may be tempting to assume that growing up deaf or having any kind of relationship with a deaf individual may not pose too much of a challenge. Captioning and subtitling are ubiquitous in the USA now, as is the inclusion of interpreters on stages at public events. Since the inception of USA Public Law 94-142 and section 504 in 1974, more deaf children are ‘mainstreamed’ into public schools than ever before. The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1993, opening the doors in the US for more access, more job opportunities, more inclusion. These are the external manifestations of acceptance that most viewers with no personal exposure to deafness may see in the public domain. The nuts and bolts of growing up deaf, navigating through opposing philosophical theories regarding deaf education, and dealing with parents, siblings, and peers who can’t communicate, all serve to form foundational experiences which an audience rarely witnesses.

Children of a Lesser God (1986), uses the character of James Leeds to provide simultaneous voiced translations of the deaf student Sarah’s comments. The audience is ushered into the world of disparate philosophies of deaf education, a controversy of which general audiences may not have been previously unaware. At the core of James and Sarah’s struggle is his inability to accept that she is complete as she is, as a signing not speaking deaf person. Whether a full reconciliation is possible remains to be seen. The esteemed teacher of the deaf must allow himself to be taught by the deaf. Other films in this category include:

  • Johnny Belinda (1949, 1982)
  • Mr. Holland’s Opus
  • Beyond Silence
  • The Good Shepherd
  • Compensation

A Normal  Guy-or-Gal-Who-Just-Happens-to-Be-Deaf

The greatest measure of equality is to be accepted on one's own merits, with no special attention to differences or deviations from whatever is deemed ‘the norm.’ In this category, the audience sees the seemingly incidental inclusion of a deaf or hearing-impaired person in the casting. A sleeper movie titled Crazy Moon (1986) is an effective example. Brooks is a shy, eccentric young hearing man who needs who needs to change his life. Vanessa is deaf and works as a clerk in a shop while takes speech lessons. She possesses a joie de vivre that Brooks admires and wishes to emulate. When comparing the way they interact with the world, it is apparent that Brooks is the one who is handicapped. Other films in this category include:

  • Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (South Korea, 1992)
  • Liar, Liar
  • Requiem for a Dream
  • Kung Fu Hustle
  • Bangkok Dangerous
  • The Family Stone

Deafness as a Psychosomatic Response to Trauma

Literature about psychosomatic illnesses enumerates many disconcerting and disruptive physiological responses. However, rarely is there a PTSD response as profound as complete blockage of one of the five senses, ie; becoming deaf as a result of a traumatic incident. But it makes great copy, and provides a convenient explanation as to why an actor needn't learn sign language!

The rock group The Who recorded Tommy in 1968, inaugurating an exciting and groundbreaking new musical genre – the rock opera. The film adaptation, directed by Ken Russell, was released in 1975. In an ironic twist for a rock extravaganza, the hero of the story is a ‘deaf, dumb, and blind kid.’ Tommy Johnson becomes deaf when he witnesses the murder of his father at the hands of his step-father and complicit mother. From that moment on, he is deaf and blind. When he grows up, he establishes a cult religion of inner vision and self-discovery.  Another film in this category is Psych Out.

Deafness as a Metaphor

Hearing loss does not necessarily mean complete deafness and/or lack of vocalization. Yet, the general public tends to assume that there is utter silence, complete muteness, and the inability to verbalize anything at all. These assumptions provide a rich breeding ground for a deaf character to personify isolation, disenfranchisement, and/or avoidance of the harsher side of life. The deafness of a character can also serve as a hearing character’s nemesis.

Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995) chronicles much of the adult life of a beleaguered man named Glenn Holland whose fondest dream is to compose a grand piece of orchestral music. To make ends meet he must teach band and orchestra to apparently disinterested and often untalented students in a public school. His golden son (named Cole, in honor of the jazz great John Coltrane) is discovered to be deaf. Glenn’s music can’t be born, and now his son is born without music. He will never be able to share his passion with his child. He learns just a little bit of sign, is dismissive of the boy’s dreams, and drifts further away from his family to settle into a puddle of bitterness, regrets, and unfulfilled desires.  John Lennon’s death provides the catalyst for Cole’s confrontation with Glenn, forcing the father to understand that the gulf between them is an artificial one, perpetuated by the unwillingness to try. Any other disability could not have had the same effect in this story. Other films in this category include:

  • Ramblin’ Rose
  • Babel
  • The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
  • A Code Unkown

Deafness as a Symbolic Commentary on Society

Sometimes films show deafness in a different country, during another era, and audiences receive a fictionalized representation of what life might have been like before these more enlightened times. The inability to hear and/or speak can also represent the more generalized powerlessness that a culture or a society’s disenfranchised experience.

The Chinese masterpiece To Live (1994) provides historical and political reasons for Fenxi’s deafness—her father was a political prisoner whose prolonged absence brought hardship and untended illness. Later, the chaotic political situation which resulted in a lack of qualified doctors led to her death. In between these scenes the audience sees how her parents arrange a marriage with another ‘handicapped’ comrade of the town. Those citizens deemed to be crippled or outcast have different overt rights and treatment.

The 1996 film Illtown presents the character of a very young teenage boy to represent the powerlessness of youth in America. David has absolutely no say in where he can live, with whom he can live, and the decisions made all around him. When he is apprehended after a stolen car chase, his frustration at his and all of his generation’s predicament in the face of a crumbling world is pounded out on the steering wheel as the police cars circle him. He is caged, and without the ability to communicate. Were he to have a voice, the overall sense of the film and his situation is that he would be misunderstood anyway. Other films in this category include:

  • Stille Liebe (Germany)
  • Ridicule
  • In the Company of Men

Let Your Fingers Do the ‘Talking’

I use this heading to describe films where sign language is used by a deaf character to express something that a main hearing character can’t (or won’t) self-generate. It is a clever device which employs a silent language to create a communication symbiosis: Someone asks a hearing person who knows sign what that deaf person just said, and the hearing person must voice what he or she truly feels, and yet is unable to express voluntarily. The deaf person is capable of expressing the feeling, but must rely upon the hearing person to disseminate the message. And so, the words do emanate from the mouth of the person who means them, albeit self-consciously, unwillingly.

Jerry Maguire (1996) provides a signed foreshadowing of character metamorphosis and development, which is then voiced for the hearing audience. Jerry and Dorothy have just met, resigned from their jobs in solidarity and rebellion, and then step into an elevator to begin a new phase of their lives. Their body language identifies them as separate, disconnected, and heavily emotionally fortified. An amorous deaf couple enters the elevator and Dorothy translates the deaf man’s signs as, ‘You complete me.’ The sentiment is strong and a glaring contrast to Jerry and Dorothy’s present dynamic. In the end, Jerry repeats this exact phrase to her, and means it with all his heart.  We are all made aware of just how far they have traveled emotionally. They have become the couple in the elevator. Other films in this category include:

  • Four Weddings and a Funeral
  • Knowing

Conclusion

This has been a cursory glance at examining the narrative raison d’etre for the presence of a deaf character in story lines where no discussion of deafness is articulated. A film’s plot may necessitate hearing-impairment or deafness to successfully execute certain gimmickry, provide a sense of danger, or relational tension. The underlying themes and motifs may revolve around loneliness, alienation, or outwardly imposed solitude. The character may have a subconscious desire to literally shut out the world of sound. The properties of sign language itself can be exploited for subtle, undetectable conversations to assure the safety of hearing characters. Deaf people have lived during all times, in all places, and historical films can portray a slice of what their lives may have been like.

I hope readers will become more aware of deaf characters on the screen, and formulate more theories as to where they fit in the literary/narrative schema. 

References

Maltin, Leonard. Leonard Maltin’s 2009 Movie Guide. Penguin Group, 2008.

Shuchman, John S. Hollywood Speaks. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Filmography

Babel. Dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Central Films, 2006. DVD.

Bangkok Dangerous. Dir. Pang Brothers. Film Bangkok, 1999. VHS.

Beyond Silence. Dir. Caroline Link. Miramax Films, 1998. DVD.

Children of a Lesser God.  Dir. Randa Haines. Paramount Pictures, 1985. DVD.

A Code Unknown. Dir. Michael Heneke.  MK2 Editions, 2000.  DVD.

Compensation. Dir. Zeinabu Irene Davis. Wimmin with a Mission Productions, 1999. VHS.

Crazy Moon. Dir. Allan Eastman. Allegro Films, 1987. VHS.

The Family Stone. Dir. Mike Bezucha.  20th Century Fox, 2005. DVD.

Four Weddings and a Funeral.  Dir. Mike Newell. Polygram Film Entertainment, 1994. DVD.

Gas, Food, Lodging. Dir. Allison Anders.  IRS Media, 1992. DVD.

The Good Shepherd. Dir. Robert De Niro. Morgan Creek, TriBeCa Productions, American Zoetrope, 2006. DVD.

Grand Canyon. Dir. Lawrence Kasdan, Meg Kasdan. 20th Century Fox, 1991. DVD.

Hear No Evil. Dir. Robert Greenwald. 20th Century Fox, 1993. DVD.

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Dir. Robert Ellis Miller. Warner Brothers, 1968. DVD.

Huck Finn. Stephen Sommers. Walt Disney Pictures, 1993. VHS.

I Don’t Want to Talk about It. Dir. Maria Luisa Bemberg. Mojame Productions, 1994. DVD.

Knowing. Dir. Alex Proyas. Escape Artists, 2009. DVD.

Illtown. Dir. Nick Gomez. 1998. VHS.

In the Company of Men. Dir. Neil LaBute. Alliance Atlantis Communications,1997. DVD.

It’s a Wonderful Life. Dir. Frank Capra.  RKO Pictures, 1947. DVD.

Jerry Maguire. Dir. Cameron Crowe. TriSTar Pictures, 1996.  DVD.

Johnny Belinda. Dir. Jean Nagalesco. Warner Brothers Pictures, 1948. DVD.

Kung Fu Hustle. Dir. Stephen Chow.  Film Production Asia, 2004. DVD.

Liar, Liar. Dir. Tom Shadyac. Universal Pictures, 1997. DVD.

Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Dir. Richard Brooks. Paramount

Miracle on 34th Street. Dir. Les Mayfield. 20th Century Fox, 1994. DVD.

Mr. Holland’s Opus. Dir. Stephen Hereck. Hollywood Pictures, 1996.  DVD

Murder by Death. Dir. Robert Moore. Columbia Pictures, 1976. VHS.

Nashville. Dir. Robert Altman. Paramount Pictures, 1975. DVD.

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Dir. Milos Forman. United Artists, 1975. DVD.

The Perfect Circle. Dir. Ademir Kenovic. 1997. DVD.

Psych Out. Dir. Richard Rush.  American International Pictures, 1968. DVD.

The Quiet. Dir. Jamie Babbit.  Sony Pictures Classics, 2005. DVD.

Ramblin’ Rose. Dir. Martha Coolidge. Carolco Pictures, 1991. DVD.

Read My Lips. Dir. Jacques Audiard. Panthe Films, 2001. DVD.

Requiem for a Dream. Dir. Darren Aronofsky. Artisan Entertainment, 2000. DVD.

Ridicule. Dir. Patrice Laconte.  Miramax Films, 1996. DVD.

The River Wild. Dir. Curtis Hanson. Universal Pictures, 1995. DVD.

See No Evil, Hear No Evil. Dir. Arthur Hiller. TriSTar Pictures,1989. DVD.

The Shop on Main Street. Dir. Jan Kadar, Elmar Klos. Barrandov Film Studio, 1965. VHS.

Stille Liebe. Dir. Christoph Schaub. T and C Film AG, 2001. DVD.

Suspect. Dir. Peter Yates. Tri-Star Pictures, 1987. DVD.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Dir. Park Chan-wook. CJ Entertainments, Tartan Films, 2002. DVD.

There Will Be Blood. Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson. Paramount Vantage, Miramax Films, 2007. DVD.

To Live. Dir. Zhang Yimou.  Shanghai Film Studio and ERA International, 1994. DVD.

What the Bleep Do We Know?. Dir. Willam Arntz, Betsy Chasse, Mark Vicente. Roadside Attractions, 2004. DVD.


Keywords


film; deaf characters; representations of deafness

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Copyright (c) 2010 Miriam Nathan Lerner

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