Although the central protagonist is a hearing teenager, it’s the film’s overall cast that sets Coda apart: the three actors who make up Ruby’s family are themselves deaf. The most recognizable of the three is Marlee Matlin: 35 years ago, she won the Oscar for Best Actress for Children of a Lesser God, about a young deaf woman’s tumultuous relationship with a speech therapy teacher. , and remains the only deaf performer to win such a prize. . In a recent Hollywood Reporter article on the film, Matlin herself reflected on the change that Coda was a marker of: “having an actor hearing put a character deaf as if it were a costume.” I think we are past that point now, ”she said. The film’s profile and the buzz surrounding it suggests that this is an important moment for both the deaf portrayal and the on-screen cast.
Until very recently, deaf people were granted little qualification in cinema; they rarely took center stage, as did their life, their identity or their cultural idiosyncrasies. Often they have been presented as victims. “Historically, deaf characters and characters with disabilities have often conformed to negative stereotypes,” says Annie Roberts, advocacy officer for the UK’s Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID). “Too many films ignore the richness of deaf culture, the feeling of belonging to a community, and often engage in the medical field where deafness is perceived as something to be cured. Often a deaf character is just a token, used to check off a box. , or is an object of ridicule. A particularly nauseous example from Hollywood’s golden age is that of Johnny Belinda in 1948, whose plot is based on the eponymous Belinda, a deaf-mute woman played by the hearing actress Jane Wyman, who was raped during a village ball; the emphasis is on his inability to cry out for help. Wyman would go on to win an Oscar for the role. Roberts says that even Children of a Lesser God, for all its award-worthy merits, perpetuated negative stereotypes: ” [Matlin’s character] is in a subordinate position without an agency, ”suggests Roberts.
When she was 14, film critic and access consultant Charlotte Little was diagnosed with a condition called Usher syndrome, “which meant I was losing my peripheral vision,” she says. “It is one of the main causes of deafblindness: I used to say that I am hard of hearing and visually impaired. I have, for example, tunnel vision.
In Little’s experience growing up, the deaf and hard of hearing characters were often marred by reductive tropes and stereotypes. “They were always very two-dimensional: either the end of the joke, for a few minutes, or portrayed in a very pitiful light. You’ve never seen complex, imperfect, beautiful, and strong deaf characters – you’ve just seen the nude, the bare minimum. “
More recently, she suggests, the portrayal of the deaf has been symbolic, with deaf characters written by Hollywood studios to tick the boxes of diversity and inclusion, as some sort of cynical marketing ploy. She cites Toy Story 4 as a relevant example. “I remember finding out that there had to be a character in the film with a hearing aid [an unnamed boy with a cochlear implant] – but they’re in it for a second, ”she said. So using a deaf character to generate interest, but not really honoring that portrayal. “
But what does representation really mean, which can seem rather nebulous on the surface? The late critic Roger Ebert described the films as “a machine[s] that generate empathy ”: the cinema can be a direct way to understand a little more the experiences different from ours, in particular those of marginalized groups. But also, as famous filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, of Birdman, Babel and The Revenant said in a 2016 interview, “cinema is a mirror through which we often see ourselves”. In this sense, a great movie can be a rich source of self-understanding. Little alludes to A Quiet Place, which she first saw when she was 20, as the first time she saw herself onscreen.