Thursday, May 30, 2024

‘Deaf U’ Is a Soapy Look at Deaf College Culture

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Deaf culture is a thing little talked about in mainstream reality. Then again when discussing visibility of disability of any kind in popular culture, more often than not, the discussion will be about how we need more of it. I’m just not sure if Deaf U is exactly what anyone in the deaf culture had in mind.

As some of you may know, I am myself, hard of hearing. I wear hearing aids and without them, it’s as if everyone else is underwater. In other words, I’m half deaf without hearing aids, hard of hearing with them. 

I also flunked out of Gallaudet University, which is where Deaf U takes place. But as much as I am all of these things I am also not a person who knows that much about deaf culture. Outside of Gallaudet, much of my life has been in the hearing world.

Deaf U is a trashy reality series about deaf college kids making questionable life choices while getting drunk and looking for love. I don’t say this as a criticism. Nyle DiMarco, one of the producers, and the show itself, wear this badge with great unabashed pride. 

Strangely, for a show that takes place at a university, we’re never given a glimpse of what the classes are like at Gallaudet. I only mention this since deaf culture is so alien to most hearing people, as are most disabilities, that it would have been nice to see the differences and similarities between a deaf classroom and a hearing classroom. The small class sizes for example and how the chairs are situated so everyone can see the teacher clearly as she signs.

However, Deaf U does find little ways in which the hearing world seems to ignore deaf people. Moments like when Cheyanne and Renate go out for dinner and the waiter places a vase in between them. The average hearing person wouldn’t see this as a problem but to deaf people, the vase obscures the sightline making signing difficult.

Renate even talks about how the seemingly banal act of cuddling with your girlfriend is different. Hearing people can whisper or talk while they are snuggled together in each other’s embrace. But deaf people and the hard of hearing have to break apart so their partner can see them sign.

I enjoyed the way the producers peppered in moments of hearing people asking the deaf and hard of hearing students if they could “read lips”. For some reason hearing people have convinced themselves that “lip reading” is a skill that all deaf or hard of hearing people have mastered. Mainly because for the hearing, it means we have to adjust to them instead of the other way around. After all, a hearing person would scoff if a deaf person would dare assume they knew ASL.

But that isn’t what DiMarco and the other producers are interested in. Deaf U is more in line with Real Housewives and that’s fine. It’s just that, even by reality show standards, Deaf U seems to take liberties with editing and sensationalizing certain aspects of campus life.

Deaf U is one of those shows that plays at being diverse as opposed to actually being diverse. For example, of the students DiMarco and the other producers talk to, there are two black men, Rodney Buford and Daequan Taylor. Both of whom are straight and both of whom are not completely deaf.

The last part, while seemingly not a huge deal, is because Deaf U itself highlights how in deaf culture deaf or hard of hearing people who grew up in the hearing world are looked down upon. This allows Deaf U to push back against the narrative floated by the “elites”. It also opens up the discussion for Rodney and Daequan to talk about their struggles.

But Rodney and Daequan are the only PoC student “leads” for this series. There is one other but he is not a regular. There are no WoC at all in the show and so the diversity aspect begins to run shallow. Even though Deaf U gives us a wlw couple in Renate Rose and her partner Tayla. Renate is bisexual and Tayla is a lesbian and while it was nice to see queer representation it comes off as limited as the rest of the show.

Deaf U episode is about twenty minutes long with 8 episodes in the season. This severely limits any kind of exploration within the community. The show is more concerned with the musical beds between the students more than anything else. Again, this is fine, but the show also seems to want to have aspirations to be about deaf culture writ large and it never quite carries that off.

Alexa Paulay-Simmons is part of the “elites”. A group of Gallaudet students who are essentially legacy students, meaning multiple generations of their family attended Gallaudet. The “elites” are also wealthy and snobbish about hearing loss and how people choose to utilize ASL (American Sign Language). Cheyanna Clearbrook, a deaf student, and Instagram influencer is mocked by the elites because she moves her mouth while she signs, an indication that she’s trying to reach out to hearing people.

I only attended Gallaudet for a little over half a semester before flunking out. But this aspect of Deaf U I related to severely. Deaf culture has an annoying habit of being the worst about gatekeeping when it comes to hearing loss and sign language usage. 

(We won’t even broach the other taboo within deaf culture, of hearing aids or corrective surgery.)

Alexa seems to be struggling with this aspect. For, while she thinks this is wrong, she has grown up with these girls and is having trouble trying to reconcile her feelings. She knows what they’re doing is wrong but struggles with whether to speak up or say nothing.

Deaf U is at its most absorbing when it’s focusing on clashes of class and culture like these rather than when it’s trying to be a soap opera. Every time the show would become engaging it would cut back, repeatedly, to a conversation between Alexa and Daequan about an abortion she had.

I found the show much more fascinating when the students discussed aspects of ASL, such as sign names. In the deaf culture, you have what is called a sign name, which is a sign having to do with a feature or personality trait, a nickname of sorts, as opposed to spelling out every letter.

The students use this moment as a subtle way to talk about Trump the fascist. “You can tell if someone is a Trump supporter by how they sign his name.” If they use his sign name, which basically translates into “hair” then they are a supporter or at the very least not against him. However, if they spell out his name, refusing to use his nickname, then are likely not a supporter.

The students themselves are interesting and multifaceted, such as Tessa Lewis and Dalton Taylor. Tessa being the de facto leader of the “elites” and Dalton being a down to earth college football player, along with Rodney and Daequan. The two, round out the cast.

Deaf U is at its worst when it’s trying to manufacture drama and fulfill all the tropes we expect from our beloved trashy schadenfreude viewing. That’s to be expected to some degree but it underlies the thrust of the issue with the series. It suffocates its material by trying to be both a look at the culture clashes and social hierarchies within Galluadet while also allowing us to be voyeurs to love triangles and romantic trysts. 

It doesn’t help that Deaf U was filmed a little over a year ago, which feels like decades ago in 2020 years. Watching it today makes it feel, not just dated, but almost obtuse to the world outside of the deaf bubble. This is no fault of the students and just another byproduct of a pandemic and social strife of our present day.

Black Lives Matter, COVID-19, and the Bloviating Ghoul make Deaf U seem almost quaint at times. Still, it was nice to see deaf people allowed to be just people who happen to be deaf while also educating the hearing world from time to time. It wasn’t my cup of tea, I would have rather just watched the interviews with the students than all the other stuff, but that’s me. For others, it’s a nice window to a world they would be shocked that exists just outside of their peripheral. 

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Image courtesy of Netflix

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