Jack Bauer was saving the world again. He was hunched over a ledge at the top of a 200 story apartment. He was dressed totally in black and with the mandatory black beanie. An automatic machine gun was slung over his left shoulder. His gun and his trusty binoculars were all that stood between survival and annihilation of the entire world. From his restrained position on the ledge he could see Manhattan. It was a beautiful sight, neon lights flashed endlessly and Liberty raised her arm up high reminding Jack exactly why he was there.
Jack raised his binoculars to his eyes. He focused them on the window where his Russian nemesis, Rudolph Shutyah, was talking with the beautiful double agent, Dawn French. She was wired and Jack listened intently. Dawn’s job was to find out where the button was hidden. One press of that button and the Earth would be destroyed. Jack listened with his eyes narrowed into slits as he strained to hear them, but no sound came through. The wire had failed. Jack broke into a cold sweat, he had just thirty minutes the save the world! HE NEEDED TO KNOW WHAT THEY WERE SAYING.
Jack whipped out his Blackberry. In a split second Jack had sent a text to Agent Philip Deb. It had to be a text because Deb was deaf. Phillip Deb was also an astonishing lip-reader. His accuracy was 99.5% in nearly every language of the world. It would have been a 100% but Phillip found it impossible to lip-read Indian accents.
Within minutes Phillip was on the ledge with Jack. Jack spoke to Phillip soundlessly; extremely handy when one did not want to be detected. Phillip lip-read Jack with ease. Jack told Phillip to focus the binoculars on the window and tell Jack what Shutyah and French are saying. HE NEEDED TO KNOW THE LOCATION OF THAT BUTTON. Jack looked at Phillip in awe; he was the last hope for the world. Jack handed the binoculars to Phillip. As he did so he placed his free hand gently on Phillips shoulder. “Go do your stuff” he mouthed, “ Save the world.” …… Jack had a tear in his eye; it was wonderful that someone like Phillip could save the world!
I apologise for such drivel. The sad thing is that deafness is so often portrayed unrealistically like this in the movies and on television. Not always, but often. Just for fun I thought I would take a trip down memory lane and examine some famous DEAF characters on TV and the Movies.
Who can ever forget VJ. VJ is of course the off-spring of Vinny and Leah. Vinny has long since departed Home and Away and can now be found running around naked in the True Blood series. But anyway VJ was born deaf. OH NO! And of course he had to be fixed. Not just once BUT TWICE! Firstly VJ was given a COCHLEAR IMPLANT. Wasn’t that a tearjerker when they brought him home from hospital and he could hear EVERYTHING! One can imagine after having written in the cochlear implant scenario that the writers were shocked to discover that to make it realistic VJ would have to actually wear a Cochlear Implant for the rest of his natural life in the series. No matter, they fixed him again! They sent him off to America where some miracle Doctor restored his hearing. So good were the Doctors in America that VJ didn’t need a Cochlear Implant ever again. HE WAS CURED! I want the name of that Doctor!
Not all portrayals of deafness are so bad though. Some are actually quite good. The first movie I ever saw on deafness was the Miracle Worker, which was the story of Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan. Some may think this movie is over the top, and it is, but it had a powerful message about institutionalisation of people with disabilities. The scenes that show institutions as dark, creepy, rat infested places full of cruel support people have remained in my psyche until this day. Apart from that it was an interesting recount of Helen Keller’s childhood. But even in this movie there are scenes that make many of us cringe. The scene at the end where Keller runs her hands under a flowing tap and utters WWWAAA – WWWEEEEER, after not having spoken for five years, is a point in case. Why? Because one can imagine watchers the world over getting all teary because she SPOKE! That will be the message that they take away, that speech is everything, communication is secondary. It’s the wrong message entirely.
The beautiful and deaf Marlee Matlin always portrays deafness in a positive light. Most famous for her role in Children of a Lesser God, Matlin’s characters are all high achieving movers and shakers. We all loved her in Reasonable Doubts where she played a lawyer, even if the series was typical American clap-trap. You can forgive this because Matlin, as a Lawyer, shows the world that the sky is the limit for deaf people. I googled Reasonable Doubts and loved the fact that the interpreter in the series was described as “her faithful translator.” As if interpreters are some kind of guide dog that follow you around wherever you go.
While Matlin’s most famous movie, Children of a Lesser God, rightly received much acclaim it is still a movie that I am not entirely comfortable with. I might be in the minority here but for me too much of the movie painted a picture of Deaf people and hearing values. Take the scene where Matlin dances and moves sensually as she feels the music. Isn’t this sending a message that Deaf people can enjoy music just like HEARING people? Or where the teacher prepares the deaf students for a musical performance “BOOOMMMER –RAAANG __ RAAAAANNNG – RANNNNNGG.” was what they were singing or something like that. Again one can imagine less informed watchers taking away a message along the lines of , “Isn’t that lovely, deaf people can enjoy music too.” Could the movie not have given more emphasis to what Deaf culture really is and how Deaf people experience it?. To the credit of the movie it does explore conflict between hearing and deaf values. It also challenges some traditional hearing perceptions of deafness. Perhaps I am just being a wee bit too cynical but I was not entirely comfortable with some of the messages that came from the movie.
And there is one of my all time favourite movies, Mr Holland’s Opus. Holland is the music teacher who is devastated to discover his child is deaf. I am ashamed to say that this movie turns me into a blubber puss every time. It is the scene in the kitchen that sets me off. Cole is in the Kitchen with his mother. He is trying to point out that he wants a drink of something. Problem is that his mother cant work out what he wants. Cole cant make himself understood and his mother tries guessing what he wants. The mother lacks the ability to clarify with Cole what he wants, she can’t sign and he can’t lip-read. Cole lets fly with an almighty tantrum because he can’t make himself understood and his mother breaks down in a blubbering mess. Having worked with families of deaf kids I know that this scene is all too common in the real world. Every time I watch it I end up weepy, much to my wife’s disgust. Don’t get me started about the scene where Mr Holland signs a song to Cole that he has specially written for him. “BEAUTIFUL BEAUTIFUL BEAUTIFUL COOOOLLLLE’. By that time I am a complete mess. LOOK I know the movie is rubbish but it hits a chord in me ALL RIGHT! I am not made of stone. (Tongue firmly in cheek ;-D)
My all time favourite deaf character is David in Four Weddings and a Funeral. David is great because he is not portrayed as a poor soul or an inspiring character. He is just David with a quirky sense of humour and with deep wisdom. I love the fact that David and Charles, played by Hugh Grant, have private conversations in sign language about people that might be standing right next to them. I love it at the end when Charles is just about to get married and David gets up and reminds him where his heart truly lies leading to Charles jilting the bride. David is everything you want to be as a deaf person – smart, quirky, friendly and funny … He is just David!
I started this article in a rather cynical mood intending to lambast the establishment for its unrealistic portrayal of deafness in movies and on TV. Surprisingly I have discovered that it is not all that bad. But still one wishes there could be more characters like David. Not poor souls in a constant state of drama. Just every day characters living life deaf and having a jolly good time of it.
Oh yes, Agent Phillip Deb. What’s happening with Agent Phillip you say? Does he save the world? Does he lip-read Shutyah and French and discover the location of the BUTTON? Dunno! I’ll sleep on it. 😀