After “CODA”, the study looks at the representation of the deaf on screen

In 2020, the National Research Group (NRG) released a comprehensive look at the representation of black people on screen. That study, which found that two out of three Black Americans don’t see their stories portrayed in movies and plays, resonated with DJ Kurs, the artistic director of Deaf West Theatre, a Los Angeles-based theater company behind Tony-nominated revivals Award of “Big River” and “Spring Awakening”. Jurs asked: Could NRG do similar research on how the entertainment industry treats the deaf community?

Kurs found enthusiastic collaborators in Cindi Smith, NRG’s VP of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and Fergus Navaratnam-Blair, director of research for the group. The two organizations have joined forces on a sprawling new report that charts the great strides being made in deaf representation, as well as the huge ground that has yet to be made up.

“It’s enlightening and I hope all readers will learn something from it and use it to create change,” Smith says.

The study found that movies like “CODA” and television shows like “Only Murders in the Building” offer more opportunities for deaf artists, but Hollywood continues to perpetuate harmful stereotypes about deaf people. About 79% of Deaf consumers believe there is more representation of their community in TV and movies now than there was a year ago. And 43% of hearing consumers, as well as 56% of deaf consumers report having watched at least one piece of media featuring a deaf character in the past six months. Some of that could be led by “CODA,” a drama about the only hearing member of a deaf family that won Best Picture at the 2022 Oscars. About 66% of Deaf consumers say the film’s awards success has increased public interest in community stories.

But some members of the deaf community believe they’ve seen this story unfold before, so they’re not optimistic that it will result in lasting change. They note that the success of 1986’s “Children of a Lesser God” and Marlee Matlin’s Oscar win sparked a wave of interest in stories about the deaf experience. It was, however, a short-lived renaissance.

“It’s a pendulum,” Kurs says. “The pendulum swings one way and we get a lot of good representations. Then the pendulum swings back and we have to wait another three or five years before we come back to the screen. I’m a little scared after seeing this happen in the past. Let’s hope we haven’t built a sand castle and a wave is coming to knock us down.”

Even the progress that is being made carries caveats. 63% of Deaf consumers say movies and shows that feature Deaf characters use negative images of the community. Approximately 82% of these respondents believe that the entertainment industry needs to offer more professional support to deaf professionals in order to create a more authentic on-screen representation. In movies and shows, 70% of Deaf consumers say Deaf characters are seen as objects of pity or in need of help. Additionally, 74% of deaf people surveyed said they “have a problem” with the fact that content about deaf people is often from be deaf. There is a real-world correlation. About 76% of deaf people believe that how their community is portrayed in fiction influences how they are perceived in daily life, shaping attitudes and calcifying prejudices.

“How they’re portrayed in the media is reflected in how they’re treated in the real world,” says Navaratnam-Blair. “This is a community where most people don’t interact with a deaf person on a regular basis, so a lot of their understanding of this community is driven by movies and TV.”

And many genres have proved difficult for deaf artists to penetrate. Deaf consumers say they are more likely to see deaf people in drama, documentary, reality show, romance or comedy. They’re not as likely to show up in action-adventures or animated titles, and 63 percent of hearing parents have never seen a children’s TV show or movie featuring their child that featured a deaf character.

There is also a certain uniformity in the types of deaf experiences portrayed on screen. In the United States, hearing consumers are more than twice as likely to have seen media featuring white deaf people as they have seen media featuring deaf people of color. Only 6% of these viewers have ever seen a deaf LGBTQ+ person portrayed in fiction. More than half of deaf consumers remain, around 56%, who say they “rarely” or “never” see their identity represented in films and on television.

‘CODA’ stands out as an example of a film that the majority of deaf viewers found relatable, with 79% feeling it was, on balance, a good example of representation of the deaf. Additionally, approximately four in 10 moviegoers described the film as “authentic” to their experience of deafness, while fewer than two in 10 felt it was an inauthentic representation of deafness. Some respondents criticized the film for focusing on how the only hearing member of the family was a musical prodigy, saying this emphasis on music as a pivotal plot element played into long-standing stereotypes about the deaf community. “CODA” was directed and written by a hearing person, Sian Heder, but made major casting of more deaf actors like Troy Kotsur and Matlin, and had 40% of the film’s dialogue in ASL.

The casting of deaf actors is regarded by deaf viewers as the basis for representation, with 69% of deaf consumers saying it is important to them that deaf roles are always filled by deaf actors. The study found that to improve on-screen representation, it’s not just about who plays the key roles. 68% of Deaf viewers say it is generally obvious to them when a deaf character has been written by a hearing person.

“You have to make sure that deaf people and deaf creators sit down and tell their stories,” says Navaratnam-Blair. “It’s not just the industry assigning roles to them. It actually allows deaf people to tell their own stories and build their own profiles.

To compose their report, NRG and Deaf West surveyed 1,000 members of the deaf community aged 18 to 64. They also looked at a comparison sample of hearing consumers from the same demographic. The authors augmented this information with interviews with Deaf entertainers and activists like “CODA” star Daniel Durant and director Jules Dameron to learn about their experiences.

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