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Being CODA Is More Complex and Nuanced Than “CODA” Film Lets On

By Lennard Davis

Leo (Daniel Durant), Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and Ruby (Emilia Jones) swipe left on Tinder profiles in the movie “CODA.”
Leo (Daniel Durant), Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and Ruby (Emilia Jones) swipe left on Tinder profiles in the movie “CODA.”

Like many Children of Deaf Adults [CODAs], I was heartened to see that the film CODA had won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It is very exciting that Troy Kotsur, who plays the Deaf father of the hearing child in the film, was the first Deaf male actor who won for Best Supporting Male Performance. It is also encouraging to see a movie in which all the roles of the Deaf characters were actually played by Deaf actors. Hurray! All a major step forward in the fight against audism. But as a CODA, I should step back from the cheering crowds of appreciative hearing and Deaf fans to express some serious regrets. 

All the recent publicity has been about Deafness and very little about being a CODA. When we look at the interviews, they are largely with Marlee Maitlin, a wonderful Deaf actress and the first and only Deaf actress to receive an Academy Award for her starring role in Children of a Lesser God. The publicity material for the film stresses how Deaf-centric the film is. Hurray for that too! But where is the publicity around the actual experience the film professes to portray—being a CODA? 

The director and writer, Siân Heder, is neither Deaf nor a CODA. CODA is a remake of the French film La Famille Bélier, written, acted, and directed by hearing people without any significant input from CODAs. I think it is important to note that Heder had no previous experience with Deafness nor being a CODA when she was approached by the producers of the French film who wanted to make an American version of it.

She gets kudos for doing a lot of research and consulting with some CODAs as she rewrote and revised the original film script. But most of her interactions with CODAs were with a few sign language interpreters who were CODAs on set. It’s disingenuous to claim that CODAs seriously were part of the creative process when they were essentially hired for a different task—that of interpreting sign language. Isn’t it also ironic that the film’s central story is about CODAs having to do interpretation instead of following their dreams, yet the involvement of CODAs in the production entailed interpreting rather than being hired to be part of the creative team? It’s a little hard, though, to make last-minute adjustments when you are shooting a film since time and money dictate moving quickly at that point. Also important is that Emilia Jones, the actress who plays the CODA Ruby Rossi, was likewise unfamiliar with Deafness and the CODA experience. Of course, you don’t have to be “something” to write about it and act it. After all, that is what creativity is about—making something up. But given the general feeling about identity and representation in our time, it is a bit disappointing that CODAs were not more centrally involved in crafting the story.

And the results of that lack of involvement showed, at least for me, in the final version of the film. According to Heder, “In the French film, I felt that it was much more focused on Ruby, the hearing character. There was an opportunity to build out the rest of the family—to make those characters really three dimensional, and not defined by their deafness.” But one wonders if the shift from the CODA to the Deaf family distorted the purpose of the film, which is called CODA, not A Deaf Family.

In the film, Ruby seems like an average American teenager. She has two main problems—her parents rely on her to interpret for their fishing business, medical visits, and other public interactions and therefore do not want her to have extracurricular activities and to go to college. And she wants to pursue a career in music, which her Deaf parents foil because music isn’t important to them. The film focused on those two issues, which are both red herrings for most CODAs. The Americans with Disabilities Act and other legislation mandate that in most situations, like legal proceedings and medical encounters, sign language interpretation is a required accommodation. It makes sense that for the earlier French film, these might have been issues since they did not have the ADA. But that issue makes less sense in the present moment. And as for Deaf parents being unsupportive of musical endeavors, I haven’t met a single CODA who ever brought up the subject. So, in essence, the problems that the film’s plot revolves around are non-problems. And certainly not main concerns for CODAs. 

Ruby, as a teenager, does have to field some peer-pressure embarrassment for having Deaf parents, and this is something that some CODAs have had to deal with, but so many kids in teen movies face the same bullying for one thing or another. What the film misses is the vast psychological and emotional turmoil that can sometimes come with being the hearing child of Deaf parents. I have attended numerous CODA conferences and have watched as my CODA “siblings” have run the gamut of emotion from deep pain and sadness to joy and love. The road CODAs must travel is not a simple one of working out the logistics of interpreting and the cultivation of music appreciation. Their issues run much deeper.

Let me give you some examples. An only hearing child in an otherwise Deaf family, much like the Rossi’s who have another Deaf son, was so distraught about not being Deaf that they considered taking the point of a drawing compass and putting a hole in their eardrums so that they could better fit in with their Deaf family. Another was furious and depressed to the point of considering divorce because their partner did not bother to learn sign language so that he could communicate with her parents. Many others, including myself, have spent years in therapy trying to work out the fundamental problem of being an infant and not having one’s cries and calls for help heard from the very first day of birth onwards. Child monitors and other technology can ameliorate this issue to some degree, but these are not fool-proof solutions. Many of us are hypervigilant because we knew, growing up, that our parents couldn’t protect us from dangers that involved hearing warnings like fire alarms and those made by intruders. Most CODAs deal with the results of this structural problem by becoming fiercely independent and find it difficult to ask for help because we learned at a very early age that you very often weren’t going to get help.

Let me make it clear that I am not saying that Deaf people should not have children nor that Deaf people do not make wonderful loving parents. And never should social services remove children from Deaf parents, saying that they are not competent to raise their children. We CODAs love and admire our Deaf parents. But that does not mean there aren’t issues we have to deal with and that have shaped our lives.  

You would never know from this film that there are CODA organizations around the world made up of thousands of Ruby’s. There are KODA camps for “kids of deaf adults” run by other CODAs who are dealing with the complex issue of being a CODA. Indeed, it is sad that the filmmakers never seriously reached out to these groups to get some input from experts as the script developed. It is a well-used phrase within the disability community—“Nothing About Us Without Us.” But clearly, that idea did not catch on.

One of the comforts of being part of this organization is that being a CODA, like being gay or Deaf, is an identity in which you are only “one generation thick.” This means that you probably don’t have any members of your own family who are of that identity. You fall “far from the tree” as Andrew Solomon has pointed out in his well-received book of the same name. Because of this, Deaf people tend to form communities of their own to replace their largely hearing families. The isolation of the Rossi’s is a distorted fiction of the film. And if Ruby were actually like most of us CODAs, she would have been playing with children like herself and sharing her problems with the hearing children of her parents’ Deaf friends.   

But the Rossi’s and Ruby live in a Deaf desert created by the filmmaker and crew, although the town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, has a thriving Deaf community. How different would have been the outcome of this movie if Ruby had a CODA friend (think “Bechdel Test” applied in this case). How amazing would the film have been if an active Deaf community, and the regulations and laws of the ADA, had come to bear. Of course, if that were the case, the film’s flimsy and contrived plot would have dissolved and what we would have been left with was the actual emotional and psychological issues facing CODAs. How much better would that have been?


About the Author 

An award-winning author of eleven books, including My Sense of Silence and Enabling ActsLennard J. Davis is Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts in the departments of Disability Studies and English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has written for the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Nation, and Chronicle of Higher Education, among other publications. He lives in New York City. Follow him on Twitter at @lendavis.