Thursday, 30 June 2011
So Bones was on last night, with a Deaf character. Wohoo, more representation of those outside of the 'norm', breaking rigid TV boundaries, this is great. Well so I thought until I started watching the episode.
(Please forgive me I don't watch this show much so I don't know all the characters names)
So near the beginning a lady (a boss?) comes to Bones and Booth, and says they need to come, and she can't interview the suspect of a murder because shes..(dun dun dun)... Deaf Mute!! (cue evil sounding music.)
Ok wait up, wait up, surely most people know if you can't speak to someone, in a legal situation (especially a murder!), you would get an interpreter who uses their language...
Secondly, 'Deaf Mute' ?? This might have been said on purpose, so that Bones can explain the right term. So Bones explains to this lady that you don't use the term 'Deaf Mute', as its historically derogative. Instead you say Deaf (yay!) and uncommunicative (boo!! why did you have to add that last part, you were doing so well.)
Seriously... uncommunicative?? Maybe for someone who is both deaf and has a mental illness or some type of impediment that really means they can't communicate at all. But this is not a term to use for all Deaf people, who can communicate just fine. I would go as far as to say this label is just as derogative as Deaf Mute.
Anyway, on we go...
We meet the Deaf girl, who is covered in blood and being all shifty eyed. Meanwhile all the professional talk about her while shes there, not trying to include her... sound familiar anyone?
Actually the tone of all the professional is completely condescending towards the lawyer/support lady, so maybe their treatment of this Deaf girl isn't surprising.
The professionals then go onto ask the support lady (not an interpreter!) to 'ask the girl,' and 'tell the girl' (again completely ignoring her directly.) When she is asked this, she goes nuts trying to run away. Oh no! Stereotypical 'crazy disabled person' alert. Cos its real hard to be disabled and of sound mind on TV, doncha' know? (well except on Glee.)
Bones says 'Right now you have to see her as evidence, nothing more than a composite of bone and tissue that as yet have not yielded any usable clues.' Wow, I'm sure they are breaking several laws there, not to mention blatant breaking of human rights and discrimination (Deaf or not).
They try to get x-rays of her teeth, no wonder she is being uncooperative when there are about four adults standing over her, each holding some weird device, trying to put it in her mouth. If she doesn't understand whats happening, they you can't blame her for keeping her mouth tightly shut. Wheras Bones and the team treat her as a nuisance, and don't try to be compassionate or empathetic to her at all (which might get better results for them anyway!). Luckily another doctor tries to explain this to Bones, and they try something else, which to me looks equally frightening.
It does get cool after this. Somehow Bones is now a sign language expert (but couldn't communicate with her before...?) and knows what she is saying, and notices that the height of her hand in a certain sign comes from a rural dialect. (Flip... how does she know this?? from one sign??). Then they do some forensic linguistics with fancy computers and compare her signing to a corpus of (headless) signers to determine she is from Southern Pennsylvania. I like this section because it is showing people that sign languages do have dialects. Its showing a bit of forensic linguistics. If this technology actually exists, its amazing... but I have a feeling it still only exists in made for TV land.
Later we go onto Bones talking to the Deaf girl again. At this point the lawyer is interpreting for her, and I'm starting to wonder, who is this lady. A lawyer/interpreter/social worker/guardian?? If such a person exists with all these skills, well, applause to them. But by using this lady as an interpreter on this show, its making the assumption that anyone who knows sign can interpret, puts her in the role of the helper, and perpetrates the helper/victim myth. Oh well, at least the lawyer/interpreter/social worker/guardian/super woman speaks in first person for the girl. Its a start
We then find out that Amy (the Deaf girl) has Waardenburg syndrome, and her parents aren't actually her parents because their... noses don't match...?? Bones is a super woman, who knows everything, apparently!
Anyway thats enough analysis, but I wanna look at some general themes. There are character arcs - The Deaf girl starts as crazy, uncooperative and becomes an abuse victim who can hold a normal conversation. At the end she is helped through her issues by team members who were previously derogatory and rude towards her. She is so grateful towards her saviours.
This is a common theme when anyone with a disability is shown in the media- they are pitied, victims, who come through adversity with the help of the nice 'normal' people, they are so grateful to these people, and their lives are better forever and ever amen. (This doesn't always happen, but is very common in the stories of disability. This is why I like Glee, where the disabilities aren't highlighted at all, the kids are just treated as normal, not victims or amazing survivors.)
Towards the end, the way sign language is portrayed seems realistic and well done to me. Lots of screen shots of signing, used in a natural way with the super lady acting as interpreter. (Issues about her being in lots of roles aside, this lady portrays an interpreter pretty well). And her parents who haven't seen her for 12 years still know how to sign.
Its great that Deafness and sign language can be represented in such a popular tv show, but I think it needed a few tweaks to take it from stereotypical and potentially offensive to realistic and positive. It's better than nothing, but I think portrayals of minorities in the media need to be carefully evaluated and realistic. I dare the media industry to move away from cliches and stereotypes.
P.S the actress who plays this character is hearing.