Wonderstruck Splits The Deaf Baby

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Image of Millicent Simmonds, a caucasian young girl with short, thick hair and in period costume.

by Danny McDougall, CSC

You might know the bible story where two women are fighting over an infant. They appeal to King Solomon, who suggests cutting the baby in half, and giving one-half to each mother. Naturally, this seems like an unlikely “solution” that would ultimately satisfy no-one.

Deaf characters in mainstream films are not as easy to come by as are babies. There is scant representation of Deaf people in Hollywood, which makes the upcoming film Wonderstruck remarkable: There are two prominent Deaf roles in the film. One is a young Deaf girl in search of her idol, and the other is the adult version of the same girl, “Rose”.

Director, Todd Haynes, cast Juliane Moore as the older Rose. Moore is a renowned hearing actress, who has no personal experience of hearing loss and who has no prior experience communicating in American Sign Language. After the original announcement that Moore was cast in the role, members of the Deaf community responded with appeals to the director to re-cast the role with a Deaf actor, noting that while #deaftalent is plentiful, opportunities for Deaf actors to ply their craft are few and far between. In a recent interview in Vanity Fair, Moore acknowledges that she cannot possibly understand the experiences of Deaf people, and says that it is an “incredible privilege” to play a Deaf character.

“Privileged” is more like it. Many Deaf actors would have been honored to have played the role—but, they do not enjoy Moore’s Hollywood clout, nor her ongoing status as the director’s muse (my words, not his). This is not the first time that a hearing actor has been cast as a Deaf character. In a form of “black face”—shall we call it “Deaf face”?—directors routinely cast hearing people in Deaf roles, making specious claims about ease of communication, and even safety. The result is often a skewed characterization of Deaf people, with abysmal representation of American Sign Language (“abysmal” is, perhaps, too generous).

The role of young Rose was cast with a Deaf actress, 13 year-old Utah native, Millicent Simmonds. In early screenings of Wonderstruck, Simmonds is hailed as a remarkable talent. There is already talk of awards for both the movie, and for Simmonds’ work (the film premieres in October 2017). The audience is given “the silent treatment” during young Rose’s scenes, which have been described as akin to a silent movie. These sequences in the film also employ other Deaf actors: Apparently portraying both hearing and Deaf characters.

In his brilliant treatise on the representation of Deaf people in media, Ryan Commerson deconstructs how societal ideologies influence the ways in which Deaf people’s lives are reduced to simplified troupes of disability, hyper-sexuality, mental illness, and reliance on hearing people. Ultimately, he makes the case for authentic representations of Deaf people, crafted by Deaf people with a perspective that is informed from within the Deaf community.

Re-Defining D-E-A-F from Ryan Commerson on Vimeo.

Moore and director Todd Haynes may be able to claim they were ignorant of the Deaf community at the onset of the Wonderstruck production; but, the growing outcry about “Deaf face” in this and other films can no longer be ignored. Mis-casting hearing people as Deaf characters in today’s Hollywood—or on Broadway—is no longer a mistake made by un-knowing and innocent directors. It is a purposeful disregard for the Deaf community, for authentic use of American Sign Language, and for the Deaf artists who seek to enrich the lives of us all through their work.

By casting a Deaf person as the young Rose, and a hearing person as an adult Rose, Haynes has made a shrewd move: In order to support the Deaf actor, we will have to suffer through the hearing actor. The baby has been split.

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More On Wonderstruck

Juliane Moore Interview
About Millicent Simmonds

The Daily Moth, on Wonderstruck

Note: “Deaf face” is a term I’ve used in this editorial, but is not a widely-used term in the Deaf community.