Tag Archives: deafness

A Series of Unfortunate Events: Or “The Big Bang Theory” Does Deafness

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For those of you unfamiliar with the show The Big Bang Theory, here’s the skinny: the show revolves around Sheldon and Lenard who are roommates, their across-the-hall neighbor Penny, and their two close friends Howard and Raj. Basically, everyone’s trying to find someone else to be with and have their quirks that prevent them from succeeding at this endeavor. Season 5, episode 4, “The Wiggly Finger Catalyst” focuses on Raj’s inability to speak to women unless he’s drunk, by introducing a woman to whom he can speak to. The catch? She’s deaf. When Raj first meets Emily he stays mute, but once he knows that she can’t hear him speak and their friend Howard mediates their conversations by interpreting spoken English to American Sign Language (ASL) and vice versa, all seems to be working out well… except for a few little things.

The way that Emily is portrayed and discussed by the other characters on the show is woefully trite. To start with, her hearing loss is apparently total; as in, she can’t hear any frequencies on the show at all, which is incredibly rare in American society, but is a common misconception of deaf/hard of hearing individuals. Raj clearly emphasizes her deafness (and acts like a complete idiot on their date) by trying to make jokes about her deafness—“did you hear that joke about___? Oh no, I bet you didn’t…” Eek.—which Howard decides to interpret as something completely different such as “it’s so good to see you again.” Also, after Raj and Emily’s first date (during which Raj acts like a complete skeez) Emily kisses Raj before departing, despite the fact that Raj has done absolutely nothing to warrant such a behavior… further contributing to the hypersexual portrayal of deaf/hard of hearing individuals in pop culture. (It may also be worth noting that it is Emily who gives Raj her phone number and tells him to text her for a date after a very awkward introduction from Penny and Howard.) A number of inaccurate stereotypes are also employed, such as Emily not being able to engage with music (everyone can at least feel the vibrations that a good speaker can provide and many people can hear specific frequencies).

But here’s where I really have an issue with Emily’s character and subsequent storyline development: she’s portrayed as a gold-digging whore. After dating each other for a month Raj has given her a pair of diamond earrings and leased her a car. When the gang asks Penny if Emily could be taking advantage of Raj, she innocently responds, “of course not, she’s deaf.” When Lenard asks, “Deaf people can’t be gold-diggers?” Penny responds, “handicapped people are nice, Lenard, everyone knows that.” Sigh. But as a gold-digger is exactly how Emily’s character continues to develop. Raj’s parents threaten to cut him off if he doesn’t start dating an Indian girl, he tells Emily he has to return the car and the jewelry, but that they’ll still be able to have a great life together. She dumps him. Ouch. So deaf people are super sexual, only look out for themselves, are selfish, and can develop no forms of human intimacy beyond what the other person can materially provide for them? Seems so in this episode.

Big Bang Theory, you might be a comedy, but you also help to shape peoples’ understandings of those whom the average viewer may not be familiar with. Take Sheldon for example. His character is oftentimes described as having many Asperger’s-like traits. If someone didn’t know anyone in real life who was labeled somewhere on the autistic/Asperger’s spectrum, they might come to form certain opinions about that group of individuals based on the singular representation that they receive from television. So too with Emily. Someone would have to have a background in disability studies or a close deaf friend or family member in order to really pick out all of the stereotypes presented (which I have truncated in this blog post… there are actually more present) and identify the flaws in Emily’s character as personal character flaws and not Deaf character flaws. Again, many people will likely be unmotivated to engage in such an endeavor because it is not the way we are encouraged to engage with pop culture. It’s also frustrating that the one character who has an apparent disability (Sheldon’s is contested) also has to be one of the only seriously morally flawed characters introduced.

Perhaps it’s redundant to say, but I was certainly disappointed by the construction and portrayal of Emily’s character and sincerely encourage the writers of all shows to consult with some type of diversity specialist who can talk with them about their portrayals of certain types of people in order to ensure comedic integrity—equitable representations of all types of people, while still enjoying a good laugh.

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Disability: Lost in the Translation of The Hunger Games?

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Yes folks, there’s now a Katniss Barbie.

Ok, I’m a Hunger Games fan. I was late to catch onto the trend, but once I did there was no stopping me. This past December a friend of mine briefly explained the plot to me and I was immediately enamored — I’m all for post-apocalyptic, survival stories. So, as with most “pleasure” books that I “read” during the school year, I got the audiobook versions and listened to them during every waking moment that was not spent doing work for my classes (which includes jogging, showering, driving, cooking, etc.).

I was out of town when the film version of the first installment came out, so most of my friends had already seen the movie by the time I got back and was ready to watch. Thankfully, one of my friends was even later coming to the series than myself and was waiting to see the movie until she had finished the last book — my movie buddy!

So, we went and saw it today and it was pretty good. My main cinematic objection was the extremely shaky camera style because it made me a bit woozy at times, but overall it was well done and lived up to the high expectations that I had for it. Except for one little aspect.

What happened to the elements of disability that existed in the book? They appear to have simply vanished. How is it possible that Katniss and Peeta could emerge from an arena, where the sole purpose is to kill or be killed, with nary a scratch on them? The book went into pretty good detail about the physical toll The Games took on the contestants (even relatively unglamorous physical effects, such as dehydration). At one point in the story, Katniss cleverly destroys the food and supply stockpile of the wile Careers by triggering some landmines they had rigged. The explosion in both the book and the movie is massive. So massive, in fact, that in the book Katniss looses her hearing in her left ear, the ear that was directed toward the explosion (223). For the rest of The Games she struggles to come to terms with her hearing loss (not wanting to appear “weak” in front of the cameras or her fellow tributes), while assessing how her deafness will affect her success in The Games because it makes her feel “off-balance and defenseless to [her] left… with her right ear trying to compensate” (229). In the film, however, there is some ringing onscreen, but her hearing appears to come back as good as new a few minutes later. This hearing loss (which is later remedied by The Capitol in the book) is a subject revisited in Catching Fire, so one wonders how the films will grapple with this issue in the next cinematic installment.

Katniss isn’t the only one to incur a disability after emerging victorious from the arena. In the book Peeta’s leg is so mauled by the mutated wolf-like animals, that it is later amputated. It is Katniss who decides to tie a tight tourniquet around his injured calf, even thought she knows “it’s risky business –[because] Peeta may end up losing his leg” (338). Indeed, after victory, the The Capitol amputates it and replaces it with a high-tech steel one, much to her chagrin. Again, the subject of his prosthetic leg emerges in the subsequent books (particularly when a group is trying to outrun some foes and he struggles to keep up), so one wonders how that will be dealt with cinematicly. Like the film’s portrayal of Katniss’ hearing loss, Peeta’s leg injury is shown on screen. Due to an earlier leg injury, he is unable to outrun the mutts as easily as Katniss and can’t climb to safety as smoothly as she can. As Katniss pulls him to safety, the mutts bite and claw at his leg… but miraculously his clothing isn’t even torn in the next shot.

It’s not that the erasure of these plot points drastically changes the entire tone of the film, but it does contribute to the general way that society views adversity, ability, and victory. In all seriousness, how is it possible that both Katniss and Peeta have left the Hunger Games without any major injury or long-lasting bodily effects? By glossing over the physical tolls that are oftentimes the result of conflict and war, the “reality” of the situation is lost. If the point of the book/film is to encourage us to think critically about our willingness to mindlessly follow authority to the point that the most innocent members of society become victims, how is this message upheld by allowing for Katniss and Peeta to barely emerge from the games with their lives, but with no physical demarcation of the emotional alterations that they have sustained? It’s not that I think disability needs to be utilized in the film as some sort of metaphor for the ways that they have been “changed” by the games, but I do think that by allowing them to have the physical alterations that they have in the book, we would be able to more accurately appreciate the gravity of the message of The Games.

The victors of previous games are introduced to us in books two and three – all of which deal with some sort of resulting physical or mental trauma (Haymitch become an alcoholic because it is the only way he can conceive of to dull the pain of The Games, Annie is in some sort of perpetual post-traumatic stress disorder, Wiress can communicate coherently only with the male victor of her District, etc.) So what makes Katniss and Peeta so special? Perhaps nothing really. As Nancy Mairs (and quite a few other disability scholars/theorists) points out, “when it comes to sexuality in the disabled, dismissal is apt to turn into outright repression. Made uncomfortable, even to the point of excruciation, by the thought of maimed bodies engaged in erotic fantasy or action, many deny the very possibility” (235). Perhaps, then, it is not that the producers of the film didn’t want to show the physical realities of battle, but felt that they had to choose between the romantic plot line between Katniss and Peeta or their experiences with disability. As Maris says, “this repulsion [stemming from the idea of people with disability’s sexuality] lies buried so deeply in consciousness as to seem natural rather than constructed” (236).

Right before the release of the film (and during its first few weeks in the theater) there was a lot of controversy surrounding the “violent” premise of the film – children “fighting to the death” – and the intended audience – teens/young adults. While Collins likely felt that she could go into some detail, however brief, regarding the deaths of tributes and the physical toll The Games have on Katniss and Peeta, the producers of the film likely anticipated some of the “backlash” – largely from those who self-proclaim not to have read the books, but who disagree with them on principle – and attempted to mitigate it. While minimizing the physical dangers of The Games may theoretically broaden the appeal of the film to a larger audience, it ultimately seems to diminish the value of people with disabilities, their involvement in all aspects of society (post-apocalyptic or contemporary) and their potential for future contributions (hint, hint, nudge, nudge, Catching Fire and Mocking Jay).

In any case, I’ll be eagerly awaiting the release of Catching Fire and Mocking Jay to see the further development of this interesting cinematic move.

For a little Hunger Games fun check out these comics. They’re just so cleverly done!

Of course, I absolutely love how Saturday Night Live has re-envisioned the stories!

And, finally, The Muppets are always my favorite.

‘Till next time, Happy Hunger Games; may the odds be ever in your favor.

Citations:

  • Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic Press, 2008. Print.
  • Mairs, Nancy. “From Sex and Death and the Crippled Body: A Mediation.” Disability and the Teaching of Writing. Eds. Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and Brenda Jo Brueggemann. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin, 2008. Print.