Countless deaf people tuned in last night to watch the finale of Celebrity Apprentice for one reason: to find out if Marlee Matlin won.
Ah, Marlee. If she and the deaf community declared on Facebook that they were in a relationship, the status update would read, “and it’s complicated.”
On one hand, she is our emissary in Hollywood; far more successful than any other Deaf actor, she is the go-to person anytime a producer or agent needs a high-powered Deaf actor. Her filmography on IMDB is four screens long. Many of us will breathlessly tune in anytime she’s on television. The novelty doesn’t wear off, hasn’t worn off in 25 years.
Some of her roles have enabled us to fantasize, to imagine what we could be despite our deafness. A political operative. A lawyer. A lesbian artist. And we actually have all of these right now in our community.
Her other appearances, especially on reality television, permit us to empathize, to relate to her situation (since it’s also our situation). Not following the conversation. Pretending to understand by slapping a big grin on your face and laughing demurely. Obediently completing the little tasks.
Yet, we are somehow always disappointed by Marlee, and it’s in this respect that our relationship with her feels almost abusive. Because she is the most visible Deaf person in the world, we expect her to be also the most perfect Deaf person. For many Deaf people, that means being an ASL master; never using one’s voice; proselytizing a fully self-actualized Deafhood identity; breaking down the myths of silence and darkness and the lonely Deaf child; fighting for traditional Deaf institutions.
She falls short of the Socratic ideal form, of course. Her enthusiastic endorsements of the Starkey Hearing Foundation is the latest example. Last night on national television, while distributing hearing aids to deaf children in Africa, she boasted that Starkey was “bringing them out of the silence and into the light.” Despite the fact that a large number of deaf people wear hearing aids while hanging onto their Deaf identity, her support of hearing aids feels traitorous (and at the same time, we also conveniently forget that she also has supported NAD many, many times over).
Maybe that’s ultimately our beef with Marlee. That, deep down, we fear that Marlee, if she could, would choose to be hearing. Would choose to be brought out of the silence and into the light. Or the limelight.
As it is, she’s merely human. And as much as she’s an independent adult, she’s also the product of her parents’ communication, linguistic, and pedagogical decisions… and of our society’s judgments.
Jessica Thurber wrote, “When hearing parents in a hearing world with a deaf child go online for information on how to ‘fix’ their kid (and most of them are going to react this way initially), they’re going to stumble across Marlee sporting their ‘fix’ with hearing aids and speech WHILE signing. They’re going to see that using American Sign Language, alongside with practicing speech and listening, is OKAY. And encouraged. After all, this is a woman won an Oscar and came in second on Celebrity Apprentice.”
Ought we demand more from her? Our connection with Marlee is powerful. She takes all of our fantastic dreams and sober realities and imbues them into her character du jour. She is the Deaf community personified, with all its complexities of language and communication and accomplishments and barriers. Just as we have tortured relations with each other, we also feel the same about her.
On second thought, perhaps she’s doing just fine representing the Deaf community after all.