“What class is this for?” the girl at the McCain reference desk asked me, looking pretty skeptical as she scanned my ID card.
I couldn’t blame her. I would’ve asked the same thing if I’d seen somebody check out a thirty-year-old DVD about Deaf people with a cover that looks a little like what I’d imagine pornos would look like in DVD form.
Plus, like who doesn’t capitalize the word “God” in a title? That’s just poor form.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg of things that pissed me off about this movie. Even understanding that it was made in 1986, when Sign Language was still banned in American schools and the 1988 Deaf President Now protest hadn’t changed the face of the Deaf rights movement, I was still ready to fight every single hearing person in this movie.
Quick summary: a special education teacher (aka an audiologist) named Dr. James Trying-To-Be-Mr.-Keating-But-For-Deaf-Kids played by William Hurt falls in love with a Deaf woman named Rachel Amazing-Hair-I-Aspire-To played by Marlee Matlin (yes, THE Marlee Matlin, the Deaf activist and the only Deaf actress to win an Academy Award, which she won for this movie). The movie navigates issues of Deafness and hearing society in the 80s. And that’s really all you need to know.
I’ve taken the liberty of ranking the most problematic elements and dialogue in this movie, with 1 out of 10 being what made me seethe with rage and 10/10 being what made me pause the movie to hyperventilate.
2/10: Like, C’mon.
MULTIPLE times during this movie, William Hurt turns away from the Deaf woman and speaks. And when he’s not doing that, he’s starting every sentence with, “Listen…”
“Reasons to Speak?”
Not even thirteen minutes and 46 seconds into the movie, William Hurt asks a group of eight kids, ranging between the hard-of-hearing and the profoundly and culturally Deaf, why they should learn to speak.
Now, again, I get that this is the 80s and that was a perfectly reasonable question to ask back then.
But also, I reject that notion out of hand. Just because it’s 1986 and not 2019 doesn’t mean you can ask a Deaf person, who can communicate fluently in Sign Language, to abandon a language that defines their culture and identity in favor of the language of the majority. That’s some paternalistic B.S. and I won’t stand for it.
The only saving grace of this scene is that the kids have an amazing and sassy response: “To pick up hearing girls.”
Thank God these kids have a sense of humor or I’d have returned this DVD to the reference desk faster than you can say “The audist establishment systematically oppresses the Deaf community.”
“She [Rachel] is quitting her job. She’s moving in with me.”
5/10: Let her sign for herself!!!
This line comes after William Hurt and Marlee fall in love. He tells the headmaster of the school where they both work that Marlee is quitting her job as a cleaning woman and moving in with him.
At this point in the movie, we haven’t seen what Marlee thinks of that–– she hasn’t mentioned anything about wanting to quit or move in with him.
So it sounds an awful lot like a hearing person is speaking for a Deaf person.
And I realize the irony of me pointing that out because that’s literally my entire research project, but at least I’m acknowledging that I’m speaking on behalf of a community to which I do not belong, and that my words should be taken with a grain of salt as a result. James/William Hurt doesn’t do any of that. Instead, he starts packing her suitcase for her.
He’s taking her away from her community! He’s taking away the work that makes her feel fulfilled and independent! This is a classic paternalist move, and it’s selfish and colonialist and I don’t care for it at all.
“Deaf people cheat like bandits.”
7/10: Um!!!! Excuse me?? She’s sitting right next to you!!!
Here, James/William Hurt takes Rachel/Marlee to a poker night at the hearing headmaster’s house.
They arrive, and everyone seems shocked that a Deaf woman would be joining them for a card game. Immediately, the headmaster separates Rachel and James because, in his words, “I know Deaf people cheat like bandits.”
And when Rachel beats them all, the hearing people are amazed.
“Wow, James, you’re doing amazing with her!”
“I had no idea she could play poker!”
“We all learned a lesson tonight.”
This woman is 25 years old and these hearing people are acting like they’ve just been beaten by a kindergartener. She’s Deaf, not an idiot, idiots.
“I don’t [want Deaf children].”
8/10: Audible Gasp
When asked what she wants, Marlee signs I want children.
William Hurt looks amazed at this. A Deaf person??? Wanting children?? His expression looks like what I imagine Alexander Graham Bell’s face was when he called Deafness a “social disease,” and advocated for legislation to euthanize Deaf people despite literally being married to a Deaf woman.
Wow. So you’re telling a Deaf woman that you don’t want children who are like her? You know what that says to me?
That says, “I don’t want more Deaf people in the world because deep down, I think Deafness is bad and nobody would want it.”
How dare you assume you know even a single iota about what it’s like to be Deaf, and to deny someone life because you misunderstand what their experience would be like. Disgusting.
[Grabbing and holding onto her wrists] “Read my lips! What am I saying?”
First of all. You never. EVER. Touch a Deaf person’s hands, just in general, unless they initiate.
Second of all. You might be thinking this is the equivalent of placing a hand over the mouth of a speaking person. And that’s not wrong.
But I’m gonna take it further than that. Because to equate this action to the hearing person’s experience really doesn’t cut it.
Because you have to understand, Sign Language is extremely precious to the Deaf community. It was such a threat to the hearing establishment that it was banned from schools and public places for a hundred years. And during the making of this movie, it was still banned.
If I weren’t hearing, I’d go so far as to say Sign Language is the most important part of the Deaf identity, but I won’t go that far cause I can’t speak (or sign) about the Deaf experience.
But it’s so, so important for us to understand what this action means, in its entirety. Grabbing a Deaf person’s wrists and demanding that they read lips is the manifestation of every single colonial action against the Deaf from the beginning of time. And I am not exaggerating, I mean that.
Grabbing a Deaf person’s wrists and demanding that they read lips reminds them of the oppression they are under. Of the murder of Deaf children in the Middle Ages, of the experimentation on Deaf students in the 18th and 19th centuries, of the legal discrimination against Deaf people in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Sure, that action reminds them of the suppression of Sign Language but it’s an invalidation of their identity, their culture, their history, their struggle, their ancestors, their entire community.
I’m gonna say something a little radical here and you can take it or leave it but I need you to understand what this action means.
Grabbing a Deaf person’s wrists and demanding that they read lips is almost (almost, but still not quite because nothing is) the equivalent of calling a black person the N-word.
That’s how heavy that historical connotation is.
And for James/William Hurt to do that to Rachel/Marlee is such a deep and terrible betrayal, I’m surprised she didn’t leave him right then and there.
Okay, we’ve gotten angry. Who cares?
Deaf people have been oppressed for centuries, and taking away one of the most significant parts of their identities is a profound and tragic reminder of the fact that that oppression is still happening.
Nyle DiMarco retweeted a CNN video of a Deaf newborn hearing for the first time and included a video of a Deaf child being signed to for the first time. This was one response:
“If someone can do something to not be deaf, why shouldn’t they?”
That wasn’t the only response like that; hundreds of hearing people replied in similar ways.
This question assumes Deafness is a bad thing. And it isn’t.
That’s not a radical thing to say, either.
Deafness is a blessing, their community is a family, their language is deeply profound, and their history is tragic and beautiful. The hearing experience is not the only exprience, nor is it the best. Children of a Lesser God doesn’t show that because it was made in the 1980s.
But we would do well to remember that. And if you want to help Deaf people without being problematic or paternalistic, consider getting involved with Nyle DiMarco’s foundation.
I’ll let Nyle have the last word.