The Politics and Practice of Voice: Representing American Sign Language on the Screen in Two Recent Television Crime Dramas

Jennifer Rayman

Abstract


Introduction

In this paper, I examine the practices of representing Deaf ‘voices’’ to hearing audiences in two recent US television crime dramas.  More literally I look at how American Sign Language is framed and made visible on the screen through various production decisions.  Drawing examples from an episode of CSI: New York that aired in December 2006 and an episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent that aired in April 2007, I examine how the practices of filming Deaf people and the use of American Sign Language intersect with the production of a Deaf ‘voice on the screen. 

The problem of representing a Deaf ‘voice’ on the screen is akin to the problem of representing other minority languages.  Film and television producers in the United States have to make choices about whether the majority audience of English speakers will have access to the minority language or not.  In the face of this dilemma media producers have taken several approaches: subtitling foreign speech, translating foreign speech through other characters, or leaving the language inaccessible except to those who use it. 

The additional difficulty with representing national sign languages is that both the language and the recording medium are visual. Sometimes, filmmakers make the choice of leaving some portions of the signed dialogue inaccessible to a non-signing hearing audience.   On the one hand this choice could indicate a devaluing of the signed communication, as its specific content is considered irrelevant to the plot.  On the other hand it could indicate that Deaf people have a right to be visible on television using their own language without accommodating hearing people.

A number of choices made in the filming and editing can subtly undermine positive representations of Deaf ‘voices’ particularly to a Deaf audience. These choices often construct an image of sign languages as objectified, exoticised, disjointed, incomplete, or a code for spoken language.  Simple choices such as using simultaneous speaking and signing by Deaf characters, cropping the scene, translating or not translating the dialogue have powerful implications for the ways that Deaf ‘voices’ are becoming more visible in the 21st century.  Typical filming and editing conventions effectively silence the Deaf ‘voice.’ 

Over 20 years ago, in the comprehensive book, Hollywood Speaks: Deafness and the Film Entertainment Industry (1988), Schuchman’s complaint that the filming and editing techniques of the day often did not attend to preserving the visibility and comprehensibility of sign language eon the screen, still applies today.  As editing techniques have evolved over the years, fr   om reliance on wide and medium shots to frequent intercutting of close-ups, the tendency to cut sign language off the screen, and out of the comprehensible view of the audience, may have even increased. 

Recent Portrayals of Deaf People on Television

During one television season in the United States between August 2006 and April 2007, 30 episodes of six different serial television programs portrayed signing Deaf characters.  Three of these programs had on-going Deaf characters that appeared in a number of episodes throughout the season, while three other programs portrayed Deaf people in a one-off episode with a Deaf theme. 

 

Initial air date for the season

Program and Season

# of Episodes

1

14 Aug. 2006

Weeds, Season 2

5

2

20 Sep. 2006

Jericho, Season 1

13

3

28 Jan. 2007

The L Word, Season 4

9

Table 1.  Dramas with Ongoing Deaf Characters during the 2006-2007 USA Television Season

 

Initial air date

Program, Season, Episode

Episode Title

1

13 Dec. 2006

CSI: New York, Season 3, Episode 12

“Silent Night”

2

3 Apr. 2007

Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Season 6, Episode 18

"Silencer"

3

12 Apr. 2007

Scrubs, Season 6, Episode 16

“My Words of Wisdom”

Table 2.  One-off Episodes with Signing Deaf Characters during the 2006-2007 USA Television Seasons

 

Ironically, although the shows with ongoing characters sometimes allow the Deafness of the character to be incidental to the character, it is only the one-off crime dramas that show Deaf people relating with one another as members of a vibrant community and culture based in sign language.  Often, in the ongoing series, the characters remain isolated from the Deaf community and their interactions with other Deaf people are sparse or non-existent.   For example, out of the 27 episodes with an ongoing Deaf character only two episodes of The L-Word have more than one Deaf character portrayed.  In both Weeds and The L-Word the Deaf character is the love interest of one of the hearing characters, while in Jericho, the Deaf character is the sister of one of the main hearing characters.  In these episodes though some of realities about Deaf people’s lives are touched on as they relate to the hearing characters, the reality of signing Deaf people’s social lives in the Deaf community is left absent and they are depicted primarily interacting with hearing people.

The two episodes, from CSI: New York, and Law and Order: Criminal Intent, focus on the controversial theme of cochlear implants in the Deaf community.  Though it is true that generally the signing Deaf community in the U.S.A. sees cochlear implants as a threat to their community, there is no record of this controversy ever motivating violent criminal acts or murder as portrayed in these episodes.

In the episode of CSI: New York entitled “Silent Night” a conflict between a young Deaf man and Deaf woman who were formerly romantically involved is portrayed. The murdered young woman who comes from a Deaf family does not want her Deaf baby to have a cochlear implant while the killer ex-boyfriend who has a cochlear implant believes that it is the best option for his child.  The woman’s Deaf parents are involved in the investigation.

The episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent, entitled “Silencer,” is also ultimately about a conflict between a Deaf man and a Deaf woman over cochlear implants.  In the end, it is revealed that the Deaf woman is exploring the possibility of a cochlear implant.  Her boyfriend projecting the past hurt of his hearing sister leaving him behind to go off and live her own life, doesn’t want his girlfriend to leave him once she gains more hearing.  So he shoots the cochlear implant surgeon in the hand to prevent him from being able to perform the surgery. Then he accidentally kills him by crushing his voice box to prevent him from screaming.

Analyzing Two Crime Dramas

In both television dramas, the filmmakers use both sound and video editing techniques to mark the experiential difference between hearing and Deaf characters.  In comparing the two dramas two techniques are evident : muting/distorting sounds and extreme close-ups on lips talking or hands signing.  Though these techniques may heighten awareness of deaf experience to a non-signing audience they also point to a disabling stereotyping of the experience of being Deaf as lacking — framing their experience as hearing loss rather than Deaf gain (Bauman & Murray; Shakespeare 199).  By objectifying sign language through extreme close ups American Sign Language is portrayed as something strange and unusual that separates Deaf signers from hearing speakers.   The auditory silences can either jolt the hearing non-signer into awareness of the sensory aspect of sound that is missing or it can jolt them into awareness of the visual world that they often don’t really see. 

In the opening few scenes of the episodes both CSI: New York and Law and Order: Criminal Intent use sound editing alternately muting or distorting sounds as they cut between a ‘deaf’ auditory perspective and a ‘hearing’ perspective on the action as it unfolds.  Even though the sound editing does play a part in the portrayal of Deaf people’s experience as lacking sound, the more important aspects of film production to attend to are the visual aspects where Deaf people are seen authentically signing in their own language.

Scene Analysis Methodology

In taking a closer look at a scene from each episode we can see exactly how the filming and editing techniques work to create an image of sign language.  I have chosen comparable scenes where a Deaf individual is interviewed or interrogated by the police using a sign language interpreter.  In each scene it can be assumed that all the communication is happening in both English and ASL through an interpreter, so at all times some signing should be occurring.  In transcribing the scenes, I noted each point when the editor spliced different camera shots adjacent to each other.  Because of the different visual aesthetics in each program where one relied heavily on continuous panning shots, I also noted where the camera shifted focus from one character to another marking the duration of screen time for each character.  This allowed for a better comparison between the two programs.  In my transcripts, I included both glosses of the ASL signs visible on the screen as well as the flow of the spoken English on the audio track.  This enabled me to count how many separate shifts in character screen time segments contained signing and how much of these contained completely visible signing in medium shots.

CSI:NY Witness Interview Scene

In the first signing scene, Gina (played by Marlee Matlin) is brought in for an interview with Detective Taylor and a uniformed officer interpreter.   The scene opens with a medium shot on Detective Taylor as he asks her, “What do you think woke you up?”  The shot cuts to an extreme close up of her face and hands and pans to only the hands as she signs FOOTSTEPS.  Then the scene shifts to an over the shoulder medium shot of the interpreter where we can still see her signing VIBRATIONS and it cuts to a close up of her face as she signs ALISON NOISE.  Though these signs are cropped, they are still decipherable as they happen near the face.  Throughout this sequence the interpreter voices “Footsteps, I felt vibrations.  I thought maybe it was Alison.” 

Next we have a close-up on Detective Taylor’s face as he asks her why her family moved and whether she had family in the area. During his question the camera shifts to a close up reaction of Gina listening and then back to a close up on Taylor’s face, and then to a medium shot of the interpreter translating the last part of the question. Next, while Gina responds the camera quickly cuts from a medium shot to a close-up side view of the hands to a close-up bird’s eye view of the hands to a close up of Gina’s face with most of the signs outside of the frame.  See the transcript below:

[medium shot] NOT PLAN HAVE MORE CHILDREN,
[close-up side view of hands] PREGNANT,
[close-up from bird’s eye view] DECIDE RAISE ELIZABETH
[close-up Gina’s face signs out of frame] SAFE

While this sequence plays out the interpreter voices, “My husband and I weren’t planning on having any more children.  When I got pregnant my husband and I decided to raise Elizabeth outside of the city where it’s safe.” 

The kind of quick cuts between close-ups, medium shots and reaction shots of other characters sets the visual aesthetic for this episode of CSI: NY.  In this particular clip, the camera shifts shot angles no less than 50 times in the space of one minute and 34 seconds.  Yet there are only 12 conversational turns back and forth between the two characters.  This makes for a number of intercut reaction shots, interpreter shots as well as close-ups and other angles on the same character.  If only counting shifts in screen time on a particular character, there are still 37 shifts in focus between different characters during the scene.  Out of the 22 shots that contain some element of signing — we only see a medium shot with all of the signing space visible 4 times for approximately 2 seconds each.  Even though signing is occurring during every communication via the interpreter or Gina, less than half of the shots contain signs and 18 of these are close ups from various angles.

The close ups in this clip varied from close-ups on the face, which cut out part of the signs, to close ups on the hands caught in different perspectives from a front, side, top or even table top reflected upside-down view.  Some of the other shots were over the back shoulder of Gina catching a rear view of the signs as the camera is aimed in a medium shot of the detective and interpreter.  The overall result from a signing perspective is a disjointed jumble of signs leaving the impression of chaos and heightened emotion.

In some ways this can be seen as an exoticisation of the signs making them look surreal, drawing attention to the body parts displaying the signs and objectifying them.  Such objectification may seem harmless to a non-signing hearing audience or media producer as a mere materializing of the felt amazement at signed communication moving at such a pace.  But if we were to propose a hypothetical parallel situation where a Korean character is speaking in her native tongue and we are shown extreme close ups and quick cuts jumping from an image of the lips moving to the tongue tapping the teeth to a side close up of the mouth to an overhead image from the top of the head – this type of portrayal would immediately be felt to be a de-humanization of Korean people and likely labeled racist.  In the case of sign language, is it merely thought of as visual artistry?

Law & Order: Suspect Interrogation Scene

Law & Order: Criminal Intent has a different film aesthetic.  The scene selected is an interview with a potential suspect in the murder of a cochlear implant surgeon.   The Deaf man, Larry is an activist and playwright.  He is sitting at a table with his lawyer across from the male detective, Goren, and the interpreter with the female detective, Eames, standing to the side.  Unlike the CSI: NY scene there are no quick cuts between shots.  Instead the camera takes longer shots panning around the table.  Even when there are cuts to slightly different angles, the camera continues to pan in the same direction as the previous shot giving the illusion that almost the entire scene is one shot.  In this 45-second scene, there are only five cuts to different camera angles.  However, the act of panning the camera around the room even in a continuous shot serves to break up the scene further as the camera pulls focus zooming in on different characters while it pans. 

For the purposes of this analysis, in addition to dividing the scene at shifts in camera angles performed through editing, I also divide the scenes at shifts in camera angles focusing on different characters.  As the camera moves to focus on a different interlocutor (serving the same purpose as a shift done through editing), this brings the total shifts in camera angles to ten. 

At several points throughout this Law & Order: CI episode, the cinematographer uses the technique of zooming into an extreme close-up on the hands and then pulling out to see the signer.  But in this particular scene all of the visible signed sequences are filmed in medium shots.  While this is positive because we can actually see the whole message including hand and face, the act of panning behind the backs of seated characters while Larry is signing blocks some of his message just as much as shifting the edit to a reaction shot would do.  Of the ten shots, only one shot does not contain any signing: when Detective Eames reacts to Larry’s demands and incredulously says, “A Deaf cop?”   While all of the other shots contain some signing, there are only two signed interchanges that are not interrupted by some sort of body block.  Ironically, both of these shots are when the hearing detective is speaking.  The first is the opening shot.  The camera, in a wide shot on 5 characters, opens on their reflections in the mirrored window located in the interview room. As the camera pulls back into the room, it spins around and pans across Detective Eames’ face to settle on Detective Goran.  While Goran begins talking the shot widens out to include the interpreter sitting next to him and catch the signed translation.  Goran says,  “Larry?  There’s a lot of people pointing their finger at you.”  With a bit of lag time the interpreter signs: A-LOT PEOPLE THINK YOU GUILTY.

Overall Comparison of the Two Scenes

For both scenes there were only four segments with unobstructed medium shots of signers in the act of signing.  In the case of Law & Order: CI this might be considered a good showing as there were only nine segments in the entire scene and 8 contained signing.  Thus potentially yielding 50% visibility of the signs during the entire stream of the conversation (however not all signs were actually fully visible).  In the case of CSI: NY, with its higher ratio of segments split by different camera shots, 22 segments contained signing, yielding a ratio of 18% visibility of signs. Though this analysis is limited to only one scene for comparison it does reveal that both episodes prioritize the spoken language stream of information over the sign language stream of information. 

 

CSI: New York

Law & Order: CI

Time duration of the clip

1 min 34 sec

45 sec

# shifts in character conversational turns

12 times

10 times

# edited camera shots to different angle

50

5

#shifts in screen time of the characters (edited or panned)

37

9

Total # screen time segments with signing

22

8

# medium shot segments with signing

fully visible

4

4

# segments containing close ups of signs, cropped off signs or blocked

18

4

Table 3. Count comparison between the two scenes

 

Filmmakers come from a hearing framework of film production where language equals sound on an audio track.  Within that framework sound editing is separate from video editing and can provide continuity between disjointed visual shots.  But this kind of reliance on sound to provide the linguistic continuity fails when confronted with representing American Sign Language on the screen.  The sound stream of translated English words may provide continuity for the hearing audience, but if left to rely on what is available in the visual modality Deaf viewers may have to rely on closed captioning to understand the dialog even when it is portrayed in their own language.  Disjointed scenes showing quick cuts between different angles on a signed dialog and flashing between reacting interlocutors leaves the signing audience with a view on a silenced protagonist. 

Recommendations

How can media producers give voice to sign language on the screen?  First there needs to be an awareness and concern amongst these same media producers that there is actually value in taking the care required to make sign language visible and accessible to the signing Deaf audience and perhaps raise more awareness among the non-signing hearing audience.  It may be entirely possible to maintain a similar visual aesthetic to the programs and still make sign language visible.  Hearing producers could learn from Deaf cinema and the techniques being developed there by emerging Deaf film producers (Christie, Durr, and Wilkins).

In both examples used above careful planning and choreography of the filming and editing of the scenes would make this possible.  With the quick cutting style of frequent close up shots found in CSI: NY, it would be necessary to reduce the number of close ups or make sure they were wide enough to include enough of the signs to maintain intelligibility as with signs that are made near the face.  In addition, medium shots of the interpreter or the interpreter and the hearing speaker would have to become the norm in order to make the interpreted spoken language accessible as well.  Over the shoulder shots of signers are possible as well, as long as the back of the signer does not obscure understanding of the signs.   In order to avoid objectification of sign language, extreme close-ups of the hands should be avoided as it de-humanizes sign languages and reduces language to animalistic hand gestures.  In addition, with adopting the visual aesthetic of panning continuous shots such as those found in Law and Order: CI, care would need to be taken not to obstruct the signs while circling behind other participants.  Other possibilities remain such as adapting the visual aesthetic of 24 (another United States crime drama) where multiple shots taking place simultaneously are projected onto the screen.  In this manner reaction shots and full shots of the signing can both be visible simultaneously.

Aside from careful choreography, as suggested in previous work by scholars of Deaf cinema, (Schuchman, Hollywood; Jane Norman qtd. in Hartzell), hearing media producers would need to rely on excellent ASL/Deaf culture informants during all stages of the production; typically, cinematographers, directors and editors likely will not know how to make sure that signs are not obscured.  Simultaneous signing and talking by Deaf and hearing characters should be avoided as this method of communication only confirms in the minds of hearing signers that sign language is merely a code for spoken language and not a language in and of itself.  Instead, hearing media producers can more creatively rely on interpreters in mixed settings or subtitling when conversations occur between Deaf characters.  Subtitling is already a marker for foreign language and may alert non-signing hearing audiences to the fact that sign language is a full language not merely a code for English.  Using these kinds of techniques as a matter of policy when filming signing Deaf people will enable the signing voice some of the visibility that the Deaf community desires.

Acknowledgements

This article is based on work originally presented at the conference “Deaf Studies Today!”, April 2008, at Utah Valley State University in Orem, Utah, USA.  I am grateful for feedback that I received from participants at this presentation.  An earlier version of this article is published as part of the conference proceedings Deaf Studies Today! Mosaic edited by Brian K. Eldredge, Flavia Fleischer, and Douglas Stringham.  

References

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O'Shea, M. (writer), D. White (director), M.R. Thewlis (producer). "Silencer." Law and Order Criminal Intent. Television series episode. Season 6, Episode 18. New York: Universal, 3 April 2007.

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———. “The Silent Film Era: Silent Films, NAD Films, and the Deaf Community's Response.” Sign Language Studies 4.3 (2004):  231-238.

Keywords


american sign language; deaf; television crime series;

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Copyright (c) 2010 Jennifer Rayman

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