Sian Heder’s CODA, a movie about a Deaf family and their musically-inclined hearing daughter, sold for a festival-record $25 million to Apple at the Sundance Film Festival. If investor appeal equals success, then CODA represents a high point for Deaf culture on screen. But it replays a stereotype many films about the deaf share: that a fundamental antagonism exists between deafness and music. I support the deaf talents that films like CODA employ. But this narrative is egregious when these films aim to impart messages of inclusion, only to reinforce misguided ideas about the relationship between disability and art.
When CODA’s titular child of deaf adults, Ruby (Emilia Jones), applies to Berklee for vocal performance, her parents, Jackie and Frank, (Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur) and deaf brother Leo (Daniel Durant) perceive her desire as a threat to their family’s generational fishing business. By the end of the film, they reconcile after witnessing Ruby’s extraordinary talent, and allow her to attend her audition, a sea change that somehow lets them spontaneously integrate into the audist society that fails to accommodate them throughout the film.
Missing from this boilerplate plot are details fleshing out the film’s deaf characters. Deaf writer Jenna Fischtrom Beacom notes in her review of CODA that professional ASL interpreters are conspicuously absent from the film, emphasizing how dependent Ruby’s family is on her interpretation, and that choosing music means abandoning them. Lack of access to interpreters is a real issue CODAs face: event organizers often assume that a CODA can replace hiring an interpreter. But mining this systemic discrimination for interpersonal drama, while never depicting what institutional barriers prevent the family from accessing interpreters, or any attempt to request one, distorts how deaf people independently navigate a hearing world. In CODA, Deaf culture is portrayed as stubborn and provincial, and the Americans with Disabilities Act seemingly doesn’t exist.
While not all deaf people consider music important in their lives, deaf experiences of music are deeply personal, and as contingent on differing cultural and environmental factors as they are for the hearing. CODA flattens these diverse aural worlds into a simplistic model of sensory translation, done by the hearing for the deaf. In a scene that marks a turning point for the family’s attitude, Frank tearfully touches Ruby’s throat as she sings. I found this baffling – there’s no indication Frank can assess the quality of a singing voice from feeling throat vibrations. Was he overtaken by sheer emotion?
At her audition, Ruby sings and signs her performance of “Both Sides Now,” to her family’s delight. It’s a climax bridging the disparate halves of Ruby’s life, but it is as artificial as the divide between them. Signing while singing is a challenging feat of simultaneous communication (SimCom), using spoken and sign language simultaneously. Ruby begins signing midway through her performance as if she’d decided to do it spontaneously, and nails it, even though her interpreting throughout the film is not particularly accomplished. It’s perverse that the work done by the film’s ASL masters, Alexandria Wailes and Anne Tomasetti, and Deaf West Theatre artistic director, DJ Kurs, to enable a hearing actor to SimCom is turned into a seamless spectacle.
Audiences seeking a movie about musicians with deafness might turn to Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, starring Riz Ahmed as Ruben, a drummer who struggles to maintain his sobriety in a recovery home for the deaf after experiencing hearing loss. Sound of Metal hinges on a choice Ruben makes to receive cochlear implants, believing that they will let him resume his normal life. After the implantation procedure, Joe (Paul Raci), the recovery home’s director, asks Ruben to leave, since one of its tenets is that deafness is not something to be fixed. But when he reunites with his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), Ruben discovers that the implants distort his perception of music. He’s stranded between two communities that don’t fully accept him, wondering where he fits in.
Joe’s assertion that he is “Deaf not disabled” is well-discussed within Deaf and disability studies, and I don’t wish to rehash conversations better covered elsewhere. It suffices to say that Sound of Metal is a culture clash film, pitting Ruben’s medical understanding of deafness up against a Deaf cultural and linguistic identity that the recovery home aims to educate him about. In doing so, the film uses a cochlear implant (standing in for the pursuit of music) as a wedge between Ruben’s acceptance of his own disability, and his musical career.
Hard-of-hearing Letterboxd user Drew Edelstein, who uses a Cochlear implant, summarizes why this narrative is dishonest and exclusionary:
Sound of Metal uses its platform … to vilify a valid medical alternative for the sake of extending tragedy. Were the film to focus itself inwards, to expand upon the sequences regarding Ruben’s healing and to let him find his stillness in the world at his own pace, the procedure would have been entirely unnecessary, and the film would have felt focused. Instead, I was shamed by this movie, one I had placed my faith in to represent the underrepresented.
Letterboxd user Kristine Mar suggests that the film is made “for hearing audiences with little exposure to a disability justice framework or Deaf culture,” not the deaf. I would go further and say that the film deploys strategic essentialism to speak over the Deaf community, wringing out Deaf historical trauma for the sympathy of a hearing audience, and re-erecting barriers that deaf people have been breaking down through education. In Sound of Metal, there are two worlds that never intersect: one Deaf, and the other hearing (and musical). No amount of positive representation of the former makes up for what its premise erases.
In being critical of these films, I don’t intend to denigrate the steps taken by hearing directors to better understand and film deafness. But representation must always be scrutinized, and the impulse to set deafness and music at odds is a hang-up that must be done away with.