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Since the beginning of the motion picture, film and television have played a significant role in our lives. Every day, people gather into cinemas to watch the latest movies or settle down with their friends to binge watch their favorite television shows. Many people even describe their favorite movies or shows as a defining characteristic of themselves. Therefore, film and television can ultimately claim a spot as a centerpiece in our culture.
As the presence of media has grown larger, much of what is delivered on the screen influences other parts of our society. In fact, these forms of entertainment are no longer simply for our entertainment. Movies and shows alike shape their community through their underlying themes and the ideas they explore.
For example, they may relay deep or controversial messages, ask audiences big questions, or comment on human conditions. This mechanism not only delivers stories with strength and depth, but it stimulates awareness and discussion among viewers. Essentially, films and shows depict themselves as a reflection of life.
Considering the significant effect the film and television industry can have within people’s lives and society at large, it makes sense why people call on these industries, specifically Hollywood, to focus on incorporating more diversity in their stories.
If people are to believe that the movies and shows they watch are a depiction of society in some way, then it’s important they see accurate depictions of society.
A major aspect of this is having believable characters. Characters are the essence of the story, and it’s important that viewers are able to connect with the characters they see on screen. Since Hollywood has an influence on society, it’s also important that these characters help represent the issues and people revolving around it. That’s why, as time goes by, audiences have seen more representation through the presence of characters of different genders, races, sexualities, etc. Not only is there more diversity seen on screen, but there is more inclusion of these underrepresented characters assuming main roles in the stories.
That said, there are many different communities that call for more representation. In addition to including actors from the minority groups mentioned previously, television and film have also included characters with disabilities. In particular, the entertainment industry has begun to represent those who are deaf or hard of hearing in their stories, embracing the community in a more impactful way. By observing these different movies and shows, we can understand how Hollywood has portrayed this community through its casting and storytelling, as well as the importance of these roles in society.
Film and television’s representation of deaf or hard of hearing characters is not a recent development. The Academy award winning 1962 film, The Miracle Worker, for example, portrayed the story of Helen Keller, who was deaf, blind, and mute in real life. This served as a moment of exposure for those belonging to the community within a well-known spotlight, considering the popularity of the movie. It certainly wasn’t the last instance, however, as it was succeeded on screen with several films and shows that focused on stories and characters within the deaf community.
In the last couple of years, more deaf and hard of hearing characters have entered into popular media. An example of one of these films is Baby Driver (2017), which features CJ Jones, an American actor, as the main character’s foster father. Jones is also deaf in real life. His character, although not in the main ensemble, still plays an important role in the film and in relation to the main character.
Jones’ character also helps create wider exposure for American Sign Language (ASL) to audience members. The casting was significant for those who are deaf or hard of hearing since it acted as a stepping stone for representation in mainstream media; CJ Jones is the first African-American deaf actor to be featured in a major film.
Moreover, some television shows and movies feature characters with hearing impairment as main cast members who play essential roles in the story. The ABC Family drama Switched at Birth (2011-2017) features Katie Leclerc as one of the leads named Daphne Paloma Vasquez. Both Leclerc and the character she portrays suffer from hearing impairment.
The experience of Leclerc’s character being hard of hearing is incorporated in the story while also developing the character outside of her disability. The show displays the strength of her character and allows Daphne to carry the plot not only through her disability but also through her other character traits. Casting an actress who has Meniere’s disease, which causes intermittent hearing loss, adds weight to the role and allows for better representation for people who are hard of hearing.
One of the more recent films, A Quiet Place (2018), also features deaf actress Millicent Simmonds in a prominent role. The movie is about a family who must live in silence in order to survive mysterious creatures who hunt using sound. The movie has an advantage in utilizing silence as a plot device. Simmonds plays the role of the eldest daughter of the family, who is also deaf.
Not only does the film show Simmonds’ character as a fully developed and active character in the story alongside her experience as a deaf person, but it also aims to showcase an accurate portrayal of a deaf person. Also, the movie shows all the characters using ASL to interact with each other, which creates more visibility for the deaf community and their everyday lives.
One of the biggest requests, in terms of representation, from the deaf community was casting for well-developed characters with actors from the actual community. While many movies may have written about characters who are deaf or hard of hearing, they often lacked authentic performers.
This ultimately was a disservice to both the deaf community—by excluding them from the narrative—and the audience due to an inauthentic representation of the characters being portrayed. Casting actual deaf and hard of hearing performers not only allows for true representation within entertainment media but also allows for accuracy in the storytelling of these characters and their experiences.
In recent years, the biggest change in representation is the inclusion of actual deaf and hard of hearing actors for the roles. With an increased representation of deaf and hard of hearing actors, the deaf community gains a larger voice for themselves and more visibility in society. Hollywood still has a long way to go, but these movies and shows help carve a path for true representation in the future for the deaf community.
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