This is a post about “Deaf stars”, those prominent few Deaf individuals who gain some measure of public recognition. And more importantly, it’s about the mixed reception of these individuals both within the minority community and throughout larger society.
I was walking down Hollywood Boulevard today with family and glancing with only partial interest at the stars on the sidewalk. Then I just happened to see Marlee Matlin’s star. It wouldn’t have been so odd except that I had just been thinking about Marlee and Jason and stardom and all that the other day. When I got back to the apartment, I found out that she just got the star four years ago in 2009, and a video to go along with it below.
Seeing Marlee’s star alongside so many others reminded me of the importance of representational politics in TV and movies for minorities. By “representational politics” I mean the way that media “firsts” are important to advance public visibility of minorities. Yet at the same time these firsts are also viewed with great trepidation by people within the minority community. Take, for example, Sidney Poitier, the first black actor to win an academy award. He set the stage for a generation of black actors. But at the time, he was also viewed skeptically by African-Americans for “pandering to white Americans”. It’s not an entirely empty charge, given that Poitier’s fame in the 1960’s coincided with (and juxtaposed against) the hight of black nationalism of Malcom X and the Southern anti-racist movement involving Dr. King.
Marlee Matlin’s own Oscar and Golden Globe wins brought with it mixed reception from the Deaf community. The “mixed reception” stems from her use of spoken English not during her acceptance speech (which she clearly signs below), but when she later presented at the Oscars. It remains a footnote of Deaf history which shows up in conversation from time to time. But like most touchstone moments in Deaf history, it is often mentioned with enthusiasm and then quickly ignored.
We should reject the tendency to view this event through a strictly “Deaf culture” lens, and instead view it as a specific event within a more general politics of representation that effects many minorities. If we do this, we can see the similarities with other minorities and expand our framework for understanding power and the Deaf community. It doesn’t change the real feelings of pride and disappointment that will inevitably flow from seeing Deaf stars navigate their complex identity in public. But it might help us to look beyond Deaf stars themselves, and realize that they, too, are caught in the powerful politics of representation that are often beyond their control.
Marlee’s Star Ceremony Link Here (video wouldn’t embed properly).