Charlie Swinbourne: We need to address cultural appropriation of deafness and BSL in the TV and film industry

Posted on October 5, 2017

Yesterday’s episode of the BBC series for Deaf people, See Hear (watch it here) featured an item about how an increasing number of films and music videos have been released with hearing actors playing Deaf, signing roles, discussing whether this is right or not.

This growing issue could be described as ‘cultural appropriation.’ If you’re wondering what that means, in an article in August for Metro about this issue, Rebecca Reid wrote:

Cultural appropriation is a relatively new concept. It hinges on the idea of a person taking a cultural touch stone and using it for their own benefit, without giving due credit or respect to the source.

Reid’s article discussed how the American singer Banks had posted a video of herself signing as part of a performance, which the Deaf model Nyle DiMarco had responded to, saying he hadn’t understood her signs.

So what you’ve got there is a situation where the singer potentially gains goodwill for being seen to be reaching out to Deaf audiences, when Deaf people can’t actually understand them.

We saw various clips in the See Hear programme of non-Deaf actors and performers in Deaf roles. Many of them – such as the move Hush – looked truly wrong, fake. Others, such as from music videos, were assessed by a Deaf sign language expert, who correctly picked out authentic signers, and those who had never signed before in their lives.

Following this, there was a moment in the programme that really bothered me, when an experienced Deaf director, who had said earlier on that he didn’t have the budget to train Deaf actors, went on to say that he could train hearing actors in how to act deaf (he said other things as well, and to be fair, it’s worth watching his interview in full to get a sense of his quotes in context).

For me, this is something that is just plain wrong. I believe that Deaf actors should play Deaf parts, for a number of reasons, above all, authenticity.

Although performances vary, I haven’t seen a hearing actor convincingly play a Deaf part, and as the BSL expert showed on See Hear, it often takes Deaf eyes to know the difference. A performance that looks fine to a hearing audience may not look right to a Deaf one.

I remember complaining to someone who works at the BBC about a drama they made which showed really poor signing from a deaf character, and being told that ‘it was still good for deaf awareness because the hearing audience didn’t realise and thought it was great.’

But as I told him in reply, it matters deeply. Think about it from a Deaf audience point of view. There is so little representation of deafness on screen, then when a Deaf character pops up, they’re speaking in gibberish, their facial expressions are wrong, their signs are stunted. You can’t believe in the performance, so how can you enjoy watching it? You wouldn’t accept it if an actor messed up their spoken lines, so why is it ok to do so if you’re signing?

One example is the short film Dawn of the Deaf. This is a short film that has won awards across the world, that is otherwise well made, with a catchy title and concept. Yet it features a number of hearing actors playing Deaf roles. From a Deaf perspective, their signed performances don’t look right, and it spoiled my enjoyment of that film because it stopped me believing in it.

It’s important to say here that the makers of Dawn of the Deaf have committed to using Deaf actors if the film becomes a feature film. Where ‘cultural appropriation’ comes into it, for me, is that I feel the film potentially got a lot of goodwill and plaudits from mainstream audiences who didn’t know that what they were watching, in terms of the Deaf element and sign language, was not authentic. (Check out the film for yourself on Vimeo by clicking here). On a low-budget short, I couldn’t understand why Deaf actors hadn’t been used.

After I watched See Hear, there was a Facebook discussion about the issue, with opinions divided. It’s clear that while many Deaf people believe strongly that Deaf actors should play Deaf parts, there are also, admittedly, a few Deaf people who don’t see it as being that important.

One experienced deaf filmmaker pointed out that the film industry is often profit-driven, with directors having to cast big stars (who aren’t Deaf), and saying that the responsibility lies with the film industry, who could do much more.

I agree that the industry should look at itself, but I also feel that Deaf people – in particular, Deaf  filmmakers – have a responsibility on this. We need to determine where the line is drawn on what is right and wrong when it comes to casting Deaf characters.

How can we expect the film industry to be stronger on this issue than we are prepared to be ourselves? If Deaf filmmakers are saying that using hearing actors to play Deaf parts is ok, then the industry will think that it is ok.

And if Deaf filmmakers facilitate hearing actors playing Deaf roles in other people’s projects, then it could be argued that they are directly enabling the practice, and helping non-Deaf filmmakers to justify what they’ve done.

We should also recognise the power of making strong casting choices in favour of Deaf actors. Take the film Children of a Lesser God. Whatever people think of that film, a Deaf actor, Marlee Matlin came from nowhere to win an Oscar for that role. Look at what she’s done since. That part could easily have gone to a more marketable hearing actor. But that part lifted Matlin’s whole career. What she gave it was something real. She’d lived in a Deaf person’s shoes and we could all see that. That’s the example that I think we should all be following.

As Nyle DiMarco said when responding to the video posted by the singer Banks: “We rise by lifting others.”

Read more of Charlie’s articles here.

Charlie Swinbourne is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being a journalist and award-winning scriptwriter and filmmaker. Both episodes of his new sketch comedy in BSL, Deaf Funny, can be seen on the BSL Zone website


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