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My Little d deaf Take on “CODA” and Thoughts on “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”

A Q&A with Terry Galloway

The Oscar statue
Image credit: Bryan Carey Multimedia

We’re not here to gab about the slap. Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with deaf queer writer and performer Terry Galloway to chat about this year’s Oscar darling, CODA, and how it caves into Hollywood conventions to depict Deaf culture with ham-fisted broad strokes. Though there are some things to like about it. Galloway had a thing or two to say about The Eyes of Tammy Faye. She has a special place in her heart for the former televangelist.

Christian Coleman: CODA won big time at this year’s Oscars for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay. What was your reaction when it was announced as the winner of these awards?

Terry Galloway: It’s a Hallmark film of a movie and, as such, has every Deaf cliché you can think of, including how hot Deaf people are in bed—although I’m inclined to perpetuate that myth.

CODA, written by a hearing person and adapted by another hearing person, made the Deaf family the nominal villains: backwards, unthinking, unfeeling, selfish bumpkins. Until, of course, their hearing, singing savior of a child makes them see the error of their dumb ole Deaf ways. I wanted to rip the child’s throat out. And the screenwriter’s, too.

Deaf Culture does appreciate music. It has many ways and a long history of doing so. I was glad the girl finally broke down and Signed the song she was singing—something she could have done at her high-school music recital, which so obviously (painfully obviously) bored her long-suffering Deaf parents who, for the purposes of heavy-handed drama I have to guess, seemed more focused on dandruff than their daughter up on stage.

So no, I wouldn’t have voted for CODA for Best Picture or Best Screenplay, and I’m not even sure I would have for Best Supporting Actor. Troy Kotsur has a great face and a genial presence. But he was on screen for all of twelve minutes. But then, Judy Dench got her Best Supporting Oscar for five minutes of screentime. So maybe. I liked the guy.

CC: Are there aspects of Deaf representation that the film gets right?

TG: Here’s what I loved: seeing the intimacy of ASL on screen. ASL is a full-body language and gorgeous to behold. I loved seeing it during that film in all its intricate glory. I loved seeing the intimacy of Deaf family life portrayed as embracing and warm and enhanced, not diminished, by the sheer physicality of that beautiful language.

The physical intimacy of the CODA family is what I longed for as a little “d” child and got somewhat from my hearing family—a way of moving through life that is physically hands-on while being joyfully complex.

CC: Where does the film fall short?

TG: I knew from the opening credits what to expect. Hokey moments, sticky sentiment, conflicts and resolutions that were entirely predictable. 

And God forgive me, I hated the obvious hook: the hearing child who has a beautiful voice and is cursed with Deaf parents who are oblivious, even hostile, to her talents because they can’t readily share them. So much more could have been done with that relationship. 

There is a documentary that examines the tensions of Deaf vs hearing family members called Sound and Fury. Two young Deaf parents, who were both born into hearing families, renegotiate their relationship with their hearing parents when their own child, who was born Deaf, decides she wants to get a cochlear implant so she can hear again. It is a fraught and sometimes bitter renegotiation that is full of heartbreak and surprises. 

CODA has some of that heartbreak, some of that bitterness, but it is heartbreak and bitterness of the made-up sort. And there are absolutely no surprises.

CC: Unlike the original French film, La Famille Bélier, this remake cast actual Deaf actors in the roles of Deaf characters. Which is wonderful, though its reception from Deaf viewers and CODAs has been more mixed. What’s your take?

TG: CODA’s big win was taking a treacly French film and wrestling it away from the hearing people who, in an equivalent of blackface, performed the Deaf family; and then remaking it with Deaf actors. That’s a triumph. And a sad commentary on this day and age.  

In 1985, when the film adaptation of The Color Purple was released, it was criticized as being overly sentimental and, more damningly, not authentically depicting the Black experience. Alice Walker said, then, that the problem with the film was not that it was a sentimental and limited film depicting Black lives but that it was the only film out there depicting the lives of Black people. 

And that is the problem with CODA. At the moment, it is the only story about Deafness.

Popular culture regards the Deaf community as part of the larger Disability Community instead of a culture entirely unto itself. For the mainstream, CODA allows an emotional inroads toward a basic understanding of disability. Maybe it will blaze a larger trail. Maybe it won’t. 

Crip Camp, a genius film, would have been my choice as a trailblazer for disability complexity. But it was a documentary and didn’t win the Oscar.

CC: Jessica Chastain won Best Actress for playing Tammy Faye Baker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. You’ve played Tammy Faye, too. What did you think of Chastain’s interpretation of her?

TG: Jessica Chastain isn’t my favorite actress. I just don’t care for her. So it’s nice that she’s been rendered unrecognizable for The Eyes of Tammy Faye. I felt less inclined to automatically give her the stink eye. 

She does an admirable job for bringing forth all those bonkers eccentricities that made Tammy Faye who and what she was—that fearless sense of herself, that preternatural cheeriness, those war markings on her face otherwise known as permanent make-up. And the great, genuine goodness of her feisty little soul. Tammy Faye loved with all her heart. And she made a point of loving the unloved, especially the queers with AIDS. 

If I’d ever have had the pleasure to meet Tammy Faye, I would have kissed every single bejeweled finger on her hands. I’m that filled with admiration. And plain old liking.

Tammy took on the men and fought them and won on a lot of fronts. Until they played dirty and brought her down. Her twerp of a husband didn’t help any. 

So, the movie did a good job of showing all that male, pastoring posturing. And contrasting it with the force that was Tammy Faye. I liked it. I even liked Chastain, whom I have already made a point of noting, I am not prone to like. 

But the documentary, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, featuring the real deal, flayed my heart, made me weep and feel so angry that, of all the nut cases in that story of religious empire making, Tammy Faye was the one to die too young.

I love fiction. But when it’s a well-done documentary versus a well-done piece of fiction, the documentary will win me over every time. 

CC: How helpful was reading Tammy Faye’s biography when you played her?

TG: It is a total discombobulating hoot. Painful to read.

CC: What’s your favorite passage from it?

TG: My favorite of favorite moments from it is the one I adapted to perform—when Tammy tries to raise her dog Chi Chi from the dead. Its horrifying absurdity made me laugh harder at a dog’s death than I should have.


About Terry Galloway

Terry Galloway is the founder of the Actual Lives writing and performance programs; a founding member of Esther’s Follies, Austin, Texas’s legendary cabaret; and cofounder of the Mickee Faust Club in Tallahassee, Florida. She divides her time between Austin and Tallahassee. She is the author of Mean Little deaf Queer: A Memoir. Follow her on Twitter at @TerryLGalloway.