The personal journal of author and photographer Jason Pettus

Those sexy deaf teens sure are courageous!

In which your humble narrator learns sign language for the first time, and accidentally discovers the smart, subversive pleasures of the Deaf-culture teen soap opera “Switched at Birth”

#Deaf #community #culture #history #anger #politics #StupidHearieTourist #Chicago #ASL #signlanguage #SwitchedAtBirth #DisneyFamily #TV #series #Netflix #LizzyWeiss #writinglesson #characterization #SeanBerdy #EbayShipper #EmmettAndBayForever

Switched at Birth

[WARNING: Spoilers abound today for the Disney Family TV show Switched at Birth. Put off reading this until later if you're in the middle of watching it yourself.]

So did you hear? At the age of 50, I'm in the middle of learning American Sign Language (ASL) for the very first time this year! Longtime readers will of course be familiar with the saga regarding my hearing: how I had my left eardrum surgically removed in the year 2000, due to an infection known as a cholesteatoma, effectively turning me completely deaf in one ear; and how the hearing in my right ear has been slowly degenerating in middle-age, mostly because of too much punk rock in my youth. Even with my cutting-edge $5,000 hearing aid system (four mics in my ears, an external fifth mic that the other person can wear, the whole thing Bluetooth-enabled), I'm still at the point now where I can essentially no longer hold a conversation inside a bar, and am getting closer and closer to no longer being able to do so even inside a coffeehouse.

When I did my annual big-picture overview of my life for my 50th birthday a few weeks ago, I realized with some alarm just how much my social life has shrank away in the last decade to almost nothing, which I lament because I used to love meeting and talking to random new strangers so much in my twenties and thirties. So for me, learning ASL is not some interesting new hobby or experiment, but literally an attempt to completely shift my life into a whole new group of friends and lovers, now among the estimated 20,000 people in the Chicago metro area who can converse in ASL, and by extension the approximate half a million who can do so nationally. And so in this regard, I'm not only learning the language right now, but also taking a deep dive into the culture and history of what's known as the “Deaf community” with a capital “D,” as opposed to lowercase “deaf” which simply indicates a person with hearing loss, but who hasn't made this hearing loss a core part of their identity as a human being.

It's a complicated subject that deserves its own journal entry later this year; but the most basic, fundamental tenet of the Deaf community is that they don't see their lack of hearing as a disability or handicap — that is, something that deserves pity and that permanently limits them from fully participating in human society — but rather the way that you and I might see, for example, high blood pressure — a simple imperfection that can be easily compensated for, using a combination of lifestyle, technology, and shifting social mores. This is just the start of the Deaf rabbithole, and please be aware that this simple recap doesn't do it justice — for one good example, most Deaf people don't just see their Deafness as a “lack of a problem,” but rather as an asset that provides benefits that hearing people don't have, the argument being that Deaf people's relationships are more powerful and intimate, that they have a greater sense of their surroundings than most hearing people do, better concentration, a bigger curiosity about the world, more tolerance and empathy, purer political beliefs, etc.

Or for a more troubling example, another hallmark of the Deaf community is that they're extremely quick to anger, and tend to lash out at hearing people for making mistakes no matter how innocuous. This can be baffling to hearing people at first, until you take a deep look at history and realize that Deaf people have been treated way more appallingly than you ever knew, and that this horrible behavior has lasted until way more recently than you would ever guess. For example, the Supreme Court didn't recognize ASL as an official language until all the way in 1989, which means that as recently as the George Bush administration, it was perfectly legal for police to arrest a deaf person then refuse to provide them with an ASL interpreter during interrogation, or for the court to provide one during their trial. So if you one day make a remark to a Deaf person that seems perfectly innocent to you (for example, “I think sign language is so beautiful!”), and that Deaf person jumps all over you (“IT ISN'T MY JOB TO ENTERTAIN YOU, HEARIE”), be aware that there's several centuries of human-rights abuses that justify that quick and seemingly irrational anger (in this case, for example, the fact that from the 1920s to '70s, the official position of the US government was that ASL was actually a form of theater but not language, beautiful to look at but that essentially forces deaf people to talk in caveman pantomime, and that will never be able to express nuanced and sophisticated intellectual thought like English does, a theory that was disproved only after being recognized as a legitimate language worthy of academic study).

Switched at Birth

So before I start attending my first Deaf social events beginning next month, I'm trying to learn as much as possible about the norms of the Deaf community, so that I don't make a bunch of beginner mistakes and get dismissed as some “stupid hearie tourist” before I can ever go deeper into the community. And that's where the Disney Family teen soap opera Switched at Birth comes in, created by TV veteran Lizzy Weiss (who you may know from her cultishly loved surfing movie Blue Crush), which ran for 103 episodes from 2011 to 2017 and can now be found in its entirety on Netflix, which is rapidly bringing it a whole new audience in reruns. The central gimmick behind the show is that two couples in Kansas City (one rich and white, the other poor and Latinx) have their babies accidentally switched at the hospital after birth, which the families don't learn about until the girls are 15, leading to all kinds of chaos and eventually the Latinx family moving into the poolhouse of the rich family's McMansion compound so that everyone can finally get to know everyone else better.

What's gotten it so much attention, though, is that Daphne, the red-headed white girl who grew up with a Latina single mom, got meningitis when she was an infant, and is now functionally deaf; and so not only does ASL play a huge role in this show, as everyone around her slowly learns to sign so that they can communicate with her, but an entire half of the show's milieu is set at the Deaf school that Daphne attends, and the producers made the unprecedented step of hiring actual Deaf actors to play all the roles. This then infuses the series with all kinds of trendy issues that come directly from Deaf culture, a way to enrich and deepen the world that surrounds the family mechanics that lay at the show's heart, and has turned out to be a fascinating way for those of us in the hearing world to understand many of the issues that the Deaf community grapple with, from discrimination in the workplace to the pleasures and pain of a Deaf person dating a hearing one, the controversy within that community over cochlear implants, the perils Deaf people face when, say, confronted by the police, dealing with the myth of lip-reading (that is, the myth that lip-reading is an actual realistic alternative for Deaf people), and a lot more.

This is why I started watching the show, to learn more about Deaf issues and to practice my ASL; so imagine my surprise when it also turned out to be one of the smarter, more subversive shows I've seen in a long time, with a much bigger embrace of darkness and sexuality than you would ever expect from a series endorsed by Disney. And I don't say this lightly, as a childless middle-ager who's spent his entire adult professional life in the indie arts, and whose usual viewing habits skew much more along the lines of shows like Mr. Robot and Black Mirror and Lodge 49. The secret here, and what makes Weiss such a brilliant showrunner, is that she started on day one with super-complex characters to populate her universe, which then over six years allowed her to take these characters in all kinds of unexpected directions and let them do all kinds of fascinating things, while still making it all feel organic and natural and unforced, turning the show into something riveting and at all times surprising.

Daphne and Bay from Switched at Birth

Take for example the teen girls at the center of the show, the aforementioned Daphne (played by Katie Leclerc) and also Bay (Vanessa Marano), the half-Puerto-Rican, half-French girl who grew up in the lily-white Kennish family. Weiss and company show that some of the girls' personality traits come from straight DNA — for example, Daphne's natural talent for sports (which mirrors her biological dad's time as a Major League Baseball player), or Bay's natural talent for art (which mirrors her biological mom's similar talent) — but they also demonstrate that some of the girls' traits come from their upbringing — Daphne is much more fiercely confrontational and unafraid of danger than she probably would've been if growing up in the posh suburbs, while Bay has an appreciation for refinement and talent for negotiation that clearly comes from her adopted family. It results in a delicious frisson between nature and nurture when it comes to the two, giving Weiss and co. ample opportunities to send either careening off in unexpected directions^, but in a way that it never feels forced or unnatural.

[^One of my favorite moments, for example, was when Daphne had a meltdown after the unexpected death of her adopted father near the end of season 3, and the notorious goodie-good ends up doing cocaine and having sex with a Latino gang leader from her old neighborhood, among other delightfully transgressive behavior. I tweeted about this at the time, and Weiss actually responded, reminding us that her behavior came from a place of grief and that there was a heavy price for her to pay for it in season 4, which I agree with; but still, I love the idea of Daphne in her forties, having too much to drink at a suburban dinner party one night and blabbing all about that summer she did cocaine and had sex with gangsters, which would instantly make her the coolest mom that suburb had ever known.]

Emmett and Bay from Switched at Birth

This can all be applied to the show overall as well, from Lea Thompson's mousy soccer mom who eventually becomes a bestselling author of steamy “herotica,” to Constance Marie's journey from a home-based hairdresser to the owner of an interior design firm. But perhaps my favorite aspect of all about Switched at Birth is the breakthrough performance by Sean Berdy, who might possibly go down in history as the world's very first deaf teenage heartthrob, a designation I'm sure he's grappling with now but that I bet he'll look back on with fond amusement when older. He plays the rebellious, motorcycle-driving Emmett, who starts the show as Daphne's best friend but then eventually gets into a tumultuous on-and-off epic romance with Bay, the details of which turned me for the very first time in my life into a non-ironic, unapologetic teen-girlesque 'shipper. (Goddamnit, Bay and Emmett, why can't the two of you just fucking love each other like you both know you want???!!!!?????!!!!11!!!1!!!)

Emmett serves as our stand-in for the Deaf community at large, personifying many of the political and social issues that that community grapples with (at one point he's beaten by the police for not being able to hear their demands to put down a wrench he's holding; he starts the show angrily declaring that he will never date a hearie or talk out loud, just to eventually do both; he emotionally grapples with his divorced dad's decision to get a cochlear implant), and Berdy brings a cool, firm finesse to it all, an impressive performance that hopefully bodes well for his future in Hollywood. (This is not to mention that he's hilarious in real life, away from the show — for example, to see one of the fastest and wittiest ASL conversations ever recorded, check out this improvised talk he once did with his TV mom Marlee Matlin, in which he riffs comedically on her 1987 Oscar win for Children of a Lesser God, and as a surprise whips out a cheesecake photo Matlin did in her twenties for a lad magazine.)

I'll undoubtedly have a lot more to say about my adventures this year into ASL and the Chicago Deaf community, and of course I hope you'll follow along for the latest (and also feel free to drop me a line at to let me know your own thoughts — this goes for you as well, Ms. Weiss, if you'd like to send along any corrections or clarifications to this essay). But for now, if you have Netflix and haven't watched Switched at Birth yet, I don't know what you're waiting for, a mind-expanding Peabody Award winner that just also happens to be one of the most entertaining shows you'll watch this year. I thank everyone involved for the care and consideration they put into making it, and I'm excited to see what Weiss and co. have in mind next.