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Hearing-washing – Hollywood’s Problem with Deaf Portrayal

That Hollywood has had a diversity problem is nothing new. From racial make-ups to whitewashing to pay gaps, popular media never seems to learn its lesson. What’s important to remember is that these issues aren’t solely focused on race and gender; the Deaf community has a similar problem.

For lack of a better word, I shall call this issue “Hearing-washing” – the casting of a Hearing person in a Deaf role.

But don’t Deaf and Hearing look alike? What’s the problem with someone representing them, if they do so respectfully? Aren’t most movies involving Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing characters good for public exposure?

Not really, at least not this way.

What Did He Say (Sign)?

First, let’s talk about accurate representation, and this is something most Hearing people might miss. They watch a movie with someone using sign language and think, “Isn’t that wonderful? A Deaf character is exposing the world to sign!”

That thought isn’t wrong – exposure to sign is an amazing thing! If only they were using the language correctly.

The problem is, most Hearing actors only have months of training in a language so complex that it takes interpreters years to become fluent. It’s like trying to portray a martial artist with minimal training or preparation. Often, what these actors are signing is not American Sign Language (or any other official language), but just English with signed words.

ASL is not English; it’s a different language, with facial expressions, body movements, and its own grammar. An actor incorrectly signing is no different than one speaking another language but butchering its accent and grammar.

Therefore, what’s on screen is not an incredible exposure to sign language, but a bad representation of Deaf culture. Given the visual, physical nature of sign language, this portrayal could even be considered a linguistic version of blackface – donning another’s physical characteristics to pretend to be them.

For a better understanding, Nyle DiMarco shows direct comparisons between the screen depiction and real-world ASL:

I’m Just the Token Deaf Person

Speaking of Deaf culture, there’s more to representation than just language. Another thing these (supposedly positive) Deaf roles fail at is depicting the vibrancy and issues of the Deaf community.

Think about all the Deaf characters in major films. How many of them are alone, the only Deaf person in the entire setting? How many mainstream movies show a Deaf person in a Hearing world, rather than among the Deaf community or at Deaf schools? How many films present Deaf sports, poetry, parties, etc.?

Ask yourself – how many use deafness as a character aspect rather than a focus that explores the larger issues of the Deaf world?

For movies that proclaim to support the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing and offer positive exposure, they certainly seem to miss the mark. What makes these inaccurate (and unintentionally disrespectful) castings worse, is that they do so at the expense of Deaf actors.

Another Struggling Deaf Actor

How many Deaf actors can you name beyond Marlee Matlin and Nyle DiMarco? You would think there are only a handful of Deaf people available to fill roles, but you’d be wrong. There’s just as much chance to find that next award-winner among the Deaf as there is among the Hearing population if given the opportunity.

Every time producers cast a Hearing actor in a Deaf role they’ve taken that opportunity away from the Deaf community. Despite the inspiring tag lines and plots of these movies, they’re not helping anyone by casting mainstream actors. Well, except maybe their profit and investors…

Does this sound familiar? This idea is the same reason behind whitewashing roles, using names like Tilda Swinton and Johnny Depp to put butts in the seat, despite the availability of PoC actors. Money trumps ethics like most businesses, even in “liberal” Hollywood.

Please Stop “Hearing-washing”

We’ve heard about the problems faced by racial minorities, women, etc. Yet, Hearing people (of all backgrounds) often remain clueless to Deaf issues. While we’re trying to break down barriers in Hollywood, let’s not forget less familiar experiences and struggles.

The Deaf require accurate and respectful representation in popular media. “Hearing-washing” is like blackface and whitewashing combined – the casting of Hearing people in roles meant for the Deaf and with careless and disrespectful portrayals.

Besides, if you thought the Hearing performances of Deaf protagonists were inspiring? Wait until you’re exposed to real Deaf language and culture.

About Brook H. (269 Articles)
Generalist, polymath, jack-of-all-trades... Brook has degrees in Human Behavior and Psychology and has majored in everything from computers to business. He's worked a variety of jobs, including theater, security, emergency communications, and human services. He currently resides outside Baltimore where he tries to balance children, local politics, hobbies, and work. Brook is HoH and a major Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing advocate, a lifelong gamer (from table-top to computer), loves everything paranormal, and is a Horror-movie buff.

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