Thirty-five years ago, the film Children of a Lesser God was released. The disability representation was flawed, showing a hearing audience that being deaf was tragic, but could be overcome through the charity of a hearing person. The film received strong reviews and won a number of awards.
Despite the glaring flaws in the film, it opened the doors for more disability representation. Perhaps more important than that, it showed filmmakers that the academy loves a story about disability.
This year is no different. With CODA’s win for best picture, the academy continues to make no secret of its affinity for movies about disability.
CODA, like any film about disability, has the potential to advance how our society talks about and frames disability through humanizing disabled characters and helping the audience understand the nature and experience of disability.
Unfortunately, the film focuses on the feelings and actions of the non-disabled protagonist, cementing itself as a movie for hearing audiences.
The academy and disability
Films focused on disabled characters, despite their infrequency, consistently earn best picture nominations.
In the past 20 years alone, we’ve seen best picture awards go to The Shape of Water in 2018, The King’s Speech in 2011 and Million Dollar Baby in 2005.
However, it would seem that for the academy to accept a disabled story, the disabled people must either be:
a real, successful figure (The Theory of Everything);
inspirational for the non-disabled audience (My Left Foot);
or explicitly portrayed as a burden for society or their family to righteously overcome (Me Before You).
Three 2019 films, The Peanut Butter Falcon, Motherless Brooklyn and Give Me Liberty, all highlight issues of disability without falling into the stereotypical representations the academy loves to reward. None of these films received Oscar nominations, despite being recognized with other awards.
Deaf community critiques
While film critics and audiences alike have shouted their praise for this year’s best picture win, CODA, they seem to be ignoring the voices of the Deaf community.
Some deaf viewers, like American deaf activist and writer Jenna Fischtrom Beacom, say that, at its core, the film is yet another instance of praising non-disabled creators for their contribution to telling stories about disability.
Despite its strides for real deaf representation — three of the leads are deaf actors — CODA still perpetuates the idea that for a story about disability to be noteworthy, it must put the needs and feelings of a non-disabled person at the centre.
Coming of age
Written and directed by Sian Heder, CODA focuses on Ruby (Emilia Jones), a 17-year-old high-school senior whose parents, Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and Frank (Troy Kotsur), are deaf, as is her older brother, Leo (Daniel Durant).
Ruby is a hearing person but fluent in American Sign Language, and her life revolves around the family business. She goes out on the boat each morning with Leo and their father, and, back on shore, negotiates the sale of their catch to a wholesaler who, they’re convinced, takes advantage of them as deaf people (and of Ruby as a child).
This family drama and comedy covers Ruby’s coming-of-age. She learns to navigate life on her terms and seek out experiences that speak to her own soul, even as she recognizes that her independent activities and her extended absence may threaten her family’s livelihood.
CODA is not without success. It’s refreshing to see disabled roles being filled by disabled actors. Matlin deserves praise for standing her ground and insisting on deaf co-stars.
Their performances are wonderful, and Kotsur more than deserved his best supporting actor win. It’s fantastic to finally have more deaf representation, and for it to get so much attention from the academy.
Yet while this film is a massive improvement on the harm perpetuated by Children of a Lesser God, the ways deafness is presented as a burden to the hearing community perpetuates harmful assumptions about disability.
The family’s inability to understand Ruby’s desires is characterized as a natural result of their deafness. The film naturalizes false stereotypes: that being deaf means that you can’t enjoy music or understand anyone else’s enjoyment.
The film reinforces ableism further to try and explain the family dynamic in a scene where Ruby is asked by her mother, after removing her headphones at the family dinner table: “If I was blind, would you want to paint?” The film relies on known stereotypes of disability to create a hostile family environment that Ruby will understandably want to escape.
The focus on hearing perspectives, for a movie that is about deafness, takes away from the touching story the film is trying to tell.
Deaf adult competency
When Ruby’s departure is imminent, we see the family finally learn to engage with the hearing community. Given that Ruby is 17 in the movie — even if she’s been interpreting since she was able to speak and sign — she could not have been her family’s interpreter for longer than 12 years. Frank has been in this town, with this job, his whole life, so what did he do before Ruby could interpret for him?
The dependence on their hearing daughter is not only unbelievable, but it’s impossible. Even within the movie they are shown as being able to function without her when forced to do so. Repeatedly, deaf competence is minimized for plot purposes.
The Americans with Disabilities Act was introduced in 1990. Among other implications for deaf people, it meant that hospitals or courts had to ensure people who are deaf have access to interpreters. While it’s true that this act only provides bare minimum requirements for compliance and often fails the disabled community, the fact that the film seems to simply forego this requirement depoliticizes this issue for hearing audiences.
Making sense of the world
People make sense of the world through film. It’s tempting to say it’s just fiction, it’s just one family, what does it matter?
But all representation matters, because “hearing people are so much more likely to encounter fictional deaf people than real ones.” What we see on screen and what we read on the page create an entire picture through which we make meaning. The more successful representation is, the more it will contribute to a hearing person’s conception of deafness and the Deaf community.
CODA’s win has the potential to open doors for even more talented disabled writers, directors, actors, editors and cinematographers to tell their own stories, in their own ways, to an even wider audience. If the academy truly cares about representation, this won’t be the last time we see a disabled story win the Oscar for best picture.