In an attempt to frame Deaf U as a ground-breaking take on the normal university documentary, advocate Nyle DiMarco’s docuseries fails to capture the complexities of the deaf community which makes it so intriguing.
“One of the first things we learn in this eight-episode series is that the deaf and hard of hearing students at Gallaudet University are as obsessed with sex as any other college-age human beings,” writes Mike Hale of the New York Times ahead of the Netflix drama’s release earlier this month. The reaction was rightly criticised by deaf individuals on Twitter for stating the bleeding obvious.
Yet as I make my way through Deaf U on Saturday afternoon, executive produced by a personality who is no stranger to the world of reality television, I can’t help but wonder whether a sense of normality is what DiMarco – and the rest of the creative team – were aiming for. For a programme centred around the US’ leading university for deaf and hard of hearing people, it is rather baffling that it focusses more on sex, love and nightclubs than deaf education.
In doing so, Deaf U fits comfortably into the typical American reality set-up of young lovers, complex love triangles and more. Yet, with that poses the problem of authenticity versus drama – especially when it’s also aiming to represent the deaf community.
“In doing so, Deaf U fits comfortably into the typical American reality set-up of young lovers, complex love triangles and more. Yet, with that poses the problem of authenticity versus drama – especially when it’s also aiming to represent the deaf community.”
By positioning itself in this way, the programme makes it difficult to ‘live your truth’ (to use its tagline), without adding a sprinkling of drama or hyperbole. It’s perhaps symptomatic of a certain apathy amongst hearing audiences – which the show indisputably gears itself towards with its gossip narrative – that Deaf U was framed more through the lens of exaggerative drama rather than a down-to-earth exploration of individual identities and their educational experiences. As I note, we don’t see any of the cast members in a classroom setting across the eight, 20-minute episodes.
It is a structure which is as frivolous as the cast members’ hurried attempts to find love in such a short period of time. We flicker between several students in each episode in a way which makes it hard to remember the names of certain individuals – their love triangles becoming entangled in each other in a way which is sadly devoid of clarity.
If I were an optimist in this situation, then I would say that Deaf U’s emphasis on relationships, with educational segments on deafness being secondary to the main narrative, is an attempt at showing an instance whereby someone’s deaf identity is just one of many aspects to an individual’s personality.
The reality, however, is an issue of severe directorial and creative oversight. Not only is the show devoid of representation in terms of black deaf women, but in striking an informal tone around social lives and relationships, shifts towards sensitive subject matters such as abortions and childhood trauma are stilted at best, and outright offensive at worst. On several occasions, an individual’s raw conversations with others – be it with the off-camera interviewer or with another cast member – are trivialised through gossip or turned into senseless cliffhangers, such as Alexa and Daequan’s conversation about their relationship at the end of episode one.
“The reality, however, is an issue of severe directorial and creative oversight. Not only is the show devoid of representation in terms of black deaf women, but in striking an informal tone around social lives and relationships, shifts towards sensitive subject matters such as abortions and childhood trauma are stilted at best, and outright offensive at worst.”
These delicate issues are simply not given the care or space they need to breathe in a programme which moves so frequently between different people. Instead, there are surface level explanations, with limited exceptions. YouTube content creator Cheyenne’s discussion with Rodney over asexuality is no more than a passing comment, while Renate and Tayla’s relationship lacks any real progression other than a continued acceptance for each other (Renate’s poetry performance for Tayla is one of many clearly framed with the intention to shock).
Meanwhile, the explanation of the ‘deaf elite’ – predominantly through Cheyenne’s narrative around other people’s reactions to her online videos – comes across as gatekeeping, cliques and correcting others’ sign language, when the conversation around deaf elites is far more detailed.
In a thread on Twitter, Deaf activist Elena Ruiz writes about the need for discussions around “how projected pain and trauma, coupled with internalized dominance, often create gaslighting conversations and misdirected, mislabelled experiences of ‘bullying’ & ‘exclusion’ that uphold a hyper-specific definition of ‘Deaf elitism’.” Deaf U could have discussions, and made it far more central to the narrative of the programme, but it chose not to.
“The term ‘elite’ refers to someone’s access to language and education at an early age,” says DiMarco, in an interview with the entertainment news site, The Wrap. “It’s incredibly rare in our community to be afforded that.
“95% of Deaf kids come from hearing families. Often they have no knowledge of a language or a culture,” he continues. If education plays a part in this form of elitism, then it is incredibly unfortunate that that type of access isn’t explored in a programme which is actually set in a well-known university.
The theme of ‘deaf elitism’ only really comes to a head towards the end of the series, specifically in the final episode, which appears to centre more on Cheyenne rather than a number of students all on equal footing.
After several episodes of having her YouTube content – specifically elements of her lip patterns and signing – criticised by other students, Cheyenne questions the validity of her deaf identity and her place within the deaf community. Of the many aspects of deaf culture which the programme aims to cover, the complexity of navigating both the deaf and hearing worlds – and indeed, any subcultures within these – is investigated in a lot more detail than everything else.
In Cheyenne’s case, we can see the impact that comes from being isolated from the hearing world because of inaccessibility, and from the deaf community because of politics, language and more. As Tessa says in one episode, “the [deaf] community is so small that when you shun a person, they have nowhere else to go.”
As I think about it more, it perhaps hints at a version of Deaf U which could have been, which focussed on individual students each episode, rather than a communal approach that fails to home in on the issues it unearths.
In pursuing that angle, not only would it have led to a more sensitive exploration of personal issues, but allowed for further space to explain complex issues in deaf culture. It could also have led to the show being a whole lot more representative.
The deaf community is shaped by – and has an impact on – individual members in many different ways. While I’m inclined to believe that this representation does have some positives, it is a shame that Deaf U fell into the ‘reality trap’ of looking at sex and relationships, rather than conveying something a lot more informative.
Deaf U is available to watch now on Netflix.
Featured image: Netflix.