I am always rooting for deaf people. Deaf projects, deaf books, deaf TV shows.
I want deaf people to succeed. Every success helps chip away at the harmful misconceptions that hearing people have about deaf people. These range from the silly to the life-threatening.
So what do we do when those two goals are in conflict? When wishing for success means wishing for the spread of harmful misconceptions?
One thing that any deaf project must grapple with is that hearing people will be part of anything that is widely viewed as a success. So it is difficult to avoid the conundrum of appealing to hearing people, and the misconceptions about deafness that they already hold, without reinforcing those harmful misconceptions.
Hearing people are far more likely to see a representation of a deaf person than they are to interact with one of us in real life. But deaf representation has long been, and remains, deeply flawed. As a result, hearing people often think they “understand” things that are out of date or were never true.
As an example, many hearing people think that they understand that deaf opposition to cochlear implants is because cochlear implants threaten the deaf way of life; cochlear implants make deaf people into hearing people, while deaf people’s culture should be honored and respected. This has been the center of many onscreen dramas.
However, this ain’t it. Cochlear implants do not make anyone hearing, for one. They are not glasses. They sometimes provide a good amount of sound and can be quite helpful. They sometimes do not provide nearly enough sound, though, and sometimes this has not become clear until after a child with cochlear implants has put in years of intensive effort, which is still not enough to have access to an inaccessible language. This is a point that deaf activists make over and over again, while emphasizing the need to teach ASL to deaf children with cochlear implants, just in case they don’t work well for that child. It’s all upside.
Over 90% of deaf kids have hearing parents, so this misrepresentation can have important knock-on effects. The college student watching an episode of House where a deaf teen is forcibly given cochlear implants, against his will, and ends up being grateful for them might become the parent of a deaf child, making this decision in turn. And far too many deaf children experience lifelong cognitive delays because of absolutely unnecessary language deprivation resulting from a lack of ASL.
Representation matters. It reaches into the everyday lives of deaf people in important ways.
So, what to make of CODA?
It does so much right. I absolutely love that it will be shown with open captions in theaters. Marlee Matlin deserves so much praise for standing her ground and insisting on deaf co-stars; all of the deaf roles are filled by deaf actors. Those performances are wonderful. There are many little details and nuances that are great to see on the screen. One minor moment that I loved was when Jackie, Marlee Matlin’s character, gets the attention of her son Leo (Daniel Durant) and husband Leo (Troy Kotsur) as her daughter Ruby (Emilia Jones) is about to take the stage. It reads as authentic, a quick and very deaf whapping of each of their shoulders, as they respond in very deaf ways.
But the movie is about, at its core, the terrible burden of deafness and the terrible burden of being born hearing to a deaf family. And the nice moments layered on top of that core are not enough to obscure it.
I took notes as I watched, and after trying for a while to shape them into something more cohesive, I’ve decided to just copy and paste and then add more explanation where necessary.
SPOILER ALERT AND COLORFUL LANGUAGE ALERT
Music is centered right at the beginning – the way it can transform a mood/ be a soundtrack to an unpleasant task.
Why is Ruby handling all of the haggling in the year of our lord 2021? The family has been doing it for longer than she’s been around or able to talk. The family wouldn’t have created some rudimentary communication system, at least? A lot of the communication is straightforward – whether something is $2 or $3, say. Highly unlikely that at least numerals wouldn’t be figured out.
Clearly non-native sign from Ruby. It sure would have been nice if they could have rounded out the authentic casting with an actual CODA for her role.
Sets up that the deaf family is overworking her – falling asleep in class, arriving late.
OH COME ON WHY IS RUBY INTERPRETING AT THE DOCTOR?!!! (And why is her mom at the same appt. as her dad? It seems to only be to set up Jackie and Frank saying that it will be so difficult to refrain from shagging for two weeks. It’s a cute joke. But this stuff matters – it’s not okay for a daughter to be pressed into interpreting duty in that situation. It’s a doctor’s office, they need to provide interpreters. Nobody seems very concerned. Terrible message.)
Life is soooooo hard as a CODA everyone is being noisy now just sad hard deprivation the worst (sarcasm).
Oh come on headphones on isn’t rude?? They are being so terrible!! This isn’t a deaf thing, it’s a terrible-family thing.
WHY IS THERE NO INFO IN THE CAPTIONS ABOUT HOW SHE’S SINGING ON THE ROCK!!? (I’ve seen “sings well” etc. before in captions). It’s pertinent!! Not access without that!
What the hell was that “don’t tell me tell them” moment? (Ruby is interpreting for her dad; a group of fishermen are discussing something.) How is Frank supposed to tell them? She’s acting as an interpreter. If she doesn’t want to be an interpreter, that’s a weird way/ time to say it. Ruby also does a really half-assed job of interpreting.
OH COME ON “IT’S AWKWARD TO TALK TO AN INTERPRETER”?!!!! (This was when Jackie asks Ruby to interpret for her on the phone, calling her own mom – Ruby’s grandma.) This is just so unrealistic for the present day. Even if Jackie doesn’t like talking via an interpreter, there are so many ways to contact her mother directly – text, email. There’s no indication that the family is uncomfortable with English-based text communication.
“Herpes” sign is not even close – it’s a joke pitched to non-signers.
Ruby’s leaving out Leo while talking to the fish dude. She does this a lot, just speaks without signing/ leaves out her deaf family.
Oh god Ruby’s attention-getting is so hearing.
Random thought: My kid (a CODA) sings constantly when it’s just the two of us at home. CONSTANTLY. She’s said specifically she appreciates being able to do that (not worried about bothering anyone or anyone hearing her noodling if she’s trying something new). Would love to see some of that deaf gain instead of just the tragedy of trying to make do in a loud deaf environment.
Parents are just rude. Like it’s not a deaf thing. Jackie especially is awful.
OH MAN I HATE “if I was blind would you want to paint.” This is not deaf, this is selfish!!!
Why is Ruby speaking at the same time? Why not just sign to her mom with nobody else around? (She may not be audibly voicing. It looks like she is.)
“You should get out in the world too” – where is their deaf community? Jackie’s friends that she sees once a month are mentioned once but never seen. Leo has no deaf friends? Frank? Why? They are thoroughly culturally deaf and that seems unrealistic.
Like that’s the first time he’s ever been disrespected by a hearing person? (Leo getting into a fight at the bar.)
After the parents have sex (and again it’s the whole peurile oh that’s how you sign a bad word thing) it’s again such an emphasis on how awful it is to be a CODA.
Ruby’s parents/ brother don’t voice, why does she talk like a deaf person? (Typically that’s because deaf parents voice and that’s what the kid picks up. If they are not voicing at all, no reason she would have picked that up.)
Do professional interpreters exist in this universe? (Meeting about quotas.)
“You gotta interpret, I’m lost.” Whhhh…? Why would Frank possibly think he could follow ahead of time? Why is this a surprise? Why didn’t he set something up, either with a professional interpreter or with Ruby?
Confirmation that Frank has been doing this for a long time. No reason he wouldn’t have set up some system of communication before Ruby was around to do it.
“And I have to protect them because they can’t hear but I can” UGH UGH UGH
What is “I can lipread” (from Leo) supposed to mean? It’s wrong on the face of it but also he hasn’t shown any skill in that so far.
ARE THERE NO PROFESSIONAL INTERPRETERS IN THIS UNIVERSE HOLY FUCK (news interview, now).
Family is so terrible and selfish. Just awful representation, and upsetting as a deaf parent of a CODA.
“Have you heard her” is such a false note from one deaf person to another. (Jackie to Frank, when Frank says that maybe Ruby is a good singer.) There are plenty of ways to gauge whether she’s actually good!!
Ughhhh I just hate that they’re setting up a situation where being deaf is such an issue as the dramatic high point.
Also flashing lights?! They’re really so oblivious? (The Coast Guard is trying to reach them, and there are flashing lights and then an approaching bright-red boat.) There’s plenty to see/ for them to notice. Being deaf is not just being hearing minus sound. They would have much more situational awareness.
“I know I drive you crazy” (from Jackie) and having that be just about clothes and makeup is such a trivialization of the serious problems portrayed.
“Let them figure out how to deal with deaf people” (from Leo) is the first thing I wholeheartedly agree with.
Really inconsistent if they are just doing their thing no matter what, or if they are trying to appear “respectable” (Jackie tugging Troy down when he’s standing “too long” at concert)
I hate “all sound disappears” from the concert. I have had this exact experience, being the deaf parent in the audience watching my hearing daughter sing. It’s not literally nothing! I can glean a lot, as a deaf person, from just watching. When I was hearing, if the sound cut out, that represented a loss of a much higher percentage of my total information. That shifted when I became deaf (after a while, and a lot of learning/ adjustments).
Oh my god Ruby keeps talking without including them (meeting the teacher).
Ruby’s control of communication is not cool (“I’ll just sign the first part”).
What is the throat-touching scene about exactly??! Like is Frank supposed to have a good sense of the song that way? He’s supposed to understand that she can sing well, now? That way? What is it supposed to connect to? It’s such a hearing frame!! If he was late-deafened, maybe. But nothing about his character suggests that he’s late-deafened.
Why was the concert necessary for the family to figure out that she’s skilled and should pursue singing? Why wouldn’t they be curious, ask? When my kid seemed to have promise as a singer I asked around and found out. (Email exists. Texting exists.)
“We roll deep” what?
GODDAMN IT IT HAPPENED
THE BIG EMOTIONAL “INTERPRETING THE SONG” MOMENT. (See above, note date.) Ruby starts to sign for her family, who are watching, when she sings her song at the Berklee audition.)
I can do a whole other essay on just this moment. It lands way too neatly in the whole fetishization of song interpreting that Sara Nović and others have written about really well. Hearing people love to ascribe meaning and emotional impact to sign interpretation of songs that is just not necessarily there. Give me a lyric sheet, I’m good.
This is exactly what hearing people are imagining when they do crap ASL “interpretations” of songs – deaf people being overwhelmed with gratitude for finally having access to music.
The interpretation itself is fine. It’s not great. The word choices make sense, the execution is not very good, and the musicality of the signing is really not there. I don’t get much of any sense of the music from watching. I personally, get essentially nothing further from the signs than I did from watching her sing + captions. (And I’ve held up lyric sheets to approximate captions in real life many a time.)
I get that it’s very difficult to sing and sign at the same time. This is also a movie, however. She could have done a lip-synching version and focus on the sign, and then dub in audio where she’s focusing on the singing.
(BACK TO RANDOM OBSERVATIONS NOW.)
Now that she’s leaving they suddenly figure out how to integrate with the hearing community.
They couldn’t before. This is another gift she’s giving them. The gift of self-reliance. She’s such a hero. They never could have figured it out without her leaving. (Ahem.)
Glad the family is happy for her anyway! (When she gets into Berklee.)
When I read The Hollywood Reporter article where Troy Kotsur says that he learned to speak one word – “go” – I predicted this exact moment; Ruby lingers at home before finally leaving, Frank tells her “go,” sternly but fondly. There is no reason for this; they are both fluent in ASL, and that’s how they communicate. It’s just to pluck hearing people’s heartstrings, while reinforcing really damaging biases about voicing vs. signing; it prioritizes voicing as more important and meaningful.
I don’t want to close this (VERY LONG) post without saying some more positive things about the movie. There is a lot to enjoy. It’s so great seeing all of that ASL onscreen, and the three deaf actors kill it. I expected to be blown away by Troy Kotsur, but Daniel Durant did a great job, as well.
And it’s so wonderful to have more deaf representation, and for it to get so much attention.
May CODA pave the way for the many talented deaf writers, directors, editors, cinematographers, and more to have their chance to tell stories that are even more authentic.