THANK YOU, NEXT
Full disclosure: I am gleefully out of touch with pop music. In fact, I decided to swear it off forever when that whole autotune phenomenon made Cher unlistenable. When all those queens lifted up their index fingers and pranced towards the center of the dance floor as Cher’s autotuned voice screeched “Do you beee-leeeive!!” I retreated to the bar, ordered my vodka tonic, and panicked over what I had just witnessed. Before long, autotuning became the standard, and I could no longer put my finger up in the air like those other queens and dance. Yes, I know that pop music has always had some degree of fine tuning and sweetening in production, but autotune is just horrible. And gay pop music went right along with it! This is what we fought for? The autotuned masses took over and became homogenized, especially because of RuPaul’s Drag Race and LOGO TV. And let’s be honest, folks: RuPaul now owns Gay Culture. Of course, every now and again, a song or two piques my interest: For the most part, though, if it’s not Donna Summer spinning under disco lights, I’ll pass, thank you.
It came as some surprise, then, when a colleague sent me a music video starring Deaf pop star and activist Nyle DiMarco. Well, this is interesting! There have been rumblings for some time within the Deaf community regarding captioning for online videos, even for music videos! Ariana Grande’s video “Thank You, Next” received some criticism from members of the Deaf community for not providing accessibility to them for a piece of pop culture. Leila Hanaum expressed a common sentiment in her comments to Grande:
“I felt defeated, it was a really frustrating experience. I feel like I’m struggling to get access to your music video, which is a part of pop culture now, people are talking about it, and I can’t be a part of that conversation.”
She challenged Grande and other artists to be more mindful of their audience:
“Do they care about accessibility? If yes, then really I think it’s your responsibility to make sure captions are part of your checklist of posting requirements. It’s like when you upload a video, do you let YouTube choose a frame for the thumbnail cover? Of course not, you’d rather have your own custom cover. It’s the same idea with captioning.”
Now, don’t ask me who Ariana Grande is. In preparation for writing this essay, I had to constantly re-check her name. Shame on me, right! Yes, I did see all that buzz about her BBQ tattoo, and all that buzz regarding her actual ethnicity (thank goodness there is no remaining evidence of me at that age considering a tattoo and living in a tanning bed!). Yes, I immediately spotted that awful autotune in her music (tired old queen sighing!). What struck me, though, was her willingness to go the extra mile and have Nyle–and moreover, American Sign Language (ASL)–take center stage in a reshot video for “7 Rings.” Not at the margins, not as appropriated, and definitely not as a source of ridicule, but at center stage. Talk about a double-take!
Full disclosure, Filthy Dreamers: I am a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults). I grew up in the Deaf Community. Half of the people in the above photo are Deaf (imagine the annual family Hearing/Deaf tug-of-war!). I work full-time as a High School teacher at a school for the Deaf (moonlighting, of course, as a Filthy Dreams writer). I also produce theater at my school, and our shows most definitely have a hint of Filthy Dreams in the air.
Why you don’t see me writing for Filthy Dreams as much as I’d like (more than once every few years) is because I am immersed into the Deaf community. My family jokes that I learned how to read English through the closed-captioning that was always on, and I believe them. I still have closed-captioning on at all times! It’s like comfort food!
I have seen how Hearing (caps intentional) people marginalize Deaf people–intentionally or not–from their panic/frustration over how to communicate with them to overt mocking of their signing and their expressions. Deaf people are typically labeled annoying, a nuisance, trouble-making, easily confused, incapable, idiotic, low-functioning, lousy. In fact, when I was young, the nuns in my school were so worried about my progress in reading development (even though closed captioning! And my constant Encyclopedia reading!) that they asked my Deaf parents to consider giving me up for adoption to Hearing people so I could learn to read.
The stigma of being Deaf (meaning DUMB) is a direct product of the colonization of the Deaf by Hearing people for way too long, and only recently has the Deaf community taken back their language and their identity–at some cost, perhaps. Now, it’s hip to take ASL courses in school! Video after video highlights song translations in ASL! Interpreters are stealing the show (literally!) through their performances at rock concerts and government-issued national emergencies. Mind you, it’s Hearing people getting all of this attention. Hearing people putting their stamp on ASL. Hearing people appropriating it…for music! Hearing people continuing the work of colonization, assimilation, appropriation, ignorance. Where are the Deaf people taking center stage?
DEAF = NOT HEARING
OK, kiddos, take your seats for Deaf Studies 101: why capitalize Hearing? It’s very much an identity. Just as White people didn’t locate their Whiteness, just like Straight people didn’t see their Straightness, Hearing people don’t see their Hearingness until placed in conjunction with Deafness. Likewise, Deaf people don’t see their Deafness until seeing themselves as “NOT HEARING.” In their book, Deaf in America (1988), Carol Padden and Tom Humphries describes this etiological formation of Deaf culture as being formed out of “a different center” than that of the dominant Hearing world: this center is formed out of Deaf identity, and anything that contains aspects of Hearing identity become deviations from it. Therefore, depending on their degree of hearing loss, hard-of-hearing persons deviate from the center, whereas Hearing persons themselves are pushed all the way to the outskirts. As they describe it, “HEARING means the opposite of what we are” (41). These two ways of being in the world, either Deaf or Hearing, present two lenses through which to see the world.
It’s too simple to frame the world-experience for Deaf people in terms of a binary split between Deaf and Hearing; however, this split is the reality for the dominant majority in Deaf culture. Notions of race, class, gender, sexuality, and global identities have only recently begun to be explored through Intersectionality and through the visibility of Deaf people like Nyle DiMarco. The dominant narrative in Deaf culture though remains its efforts to shake off decades of colonization and oppression by Hearing people who not only sought to “cure” them of their deafness but who also denied them from having a language and a culture. The focus of Deaf literature and art has been on the overcoming of this colonial practice, with artists in the De’Via Deaf arts movement like Nancy Rourke, (herself a White Deaf Female) portraying deaf colonized bodies and messages of resistance, affirmation, and liberation through red, yellow, and blue colors; and Chuck Baird (himself a White Deaf Male) celebrating the perseverance of ASL through portraits of hands, eyes, and movement; likewise, ASL poets like Clayton Valli (himself a White Gay Deaf Male) proclaim the resistance of colonization and the preservation of ASL and Deaf culture through poems about weed-like dandelions.
Additionally, Deaf studies departments, Deaf history courses, and Deaf education philosophies follow the dominant colonization narrative by stressing the tense history of Oralism (the rejection of Deaf culture and ASL in favor of learning how to speak, lip-read, and assimilate into the Hearing world), and the “(ASL) language-as-right” model that preserves and empowers Deaf cultural identity and the importance for Deaf culture to be both preserved and empowered. Rightfully so, in fact, because this identity remains fragile. Deaf culture has only recently liberated itself from the Dark Ages of oppression: 30 years of liberation as opposed to over 100 years of Oralist colonization. Oralism is far from dead, and its organizations continue to fight for medical interventions for deafness (i.e., cochlear implants) and for reduced government funding for, or a complete shutdown of Deaf schools and programs. So, there’s a lot going on in general within the Deaf community, which is why there hasn’t been a tremendous focus on the Intersectionality of Deaf cultural identity with other identities like Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality, which is startling to me because Robert McRuer’s Crip theory perfectly illustrates what the Intersectionality of Deaf and Queer identities could produce (more on this below). While there is a two-volume anthology on Deaf LGBTQ lives, Raymond Luczak’s Eyes of Desire: A Gay and Lesbian Reader (1993; 2007), and a memoir about growing up Deaf and Queer, Terry Galloway’s Mean Little deaf Queer: A Memoir (2009), there remains a lack of solid academic work, besides a few articles here and there, that build on Crip theory or on the Intersectionality of Deaf and Queer studies. With Nyle DiMarco achieving Deaf cultural identity goals of visibility and access specifically by queering Ariana Grande’s music video, the time is as ripe as any to see what new connections, what new understandings, what new energies, and what new possibilities emerge from the Intersection of Deaf and Queer.
Disidentifying to Belong; Disidentifying to Transform
To break free, Deaf people had to validate not just their language but also their identity. First, they and their allies contributed volumes upon volumes of solid research proving that ASL is not meaningless gestures or primitive language but an actual language itself. Check! With that out of the way, Deaf people still had to establish their place within the larger context of the Hearing world, which privileges English, and who still has a long way to go towards accepting ASL as a legitimate form of communication and towards accepting Deaf people as its fully-functioning members, so culturally Deaf people began shaping their identity as bicultural and bilingual, meaning that they incorporate both Hearing and Deaf cultures into their identity, and that they aim to be fluent in both ASL and English. This reframing of Deaf cultural identity is arguably more grounded in political strategizing, though, than in actual desire to be bicultural-bilingual: to put it very simply, in order for the Hearing world to accept them, Deaf people had to incorporate their culture and language into their own identity so Hearing people wouldn’t see them as something “Other” than a marginalized cultural identity that is both willing and able to adapt to the dominant culture. Therefore, Deaf people are situationally bicultural: for those Deaf people who see themselves as fully integrated into American Deaf culture, with its singular narrative and Deaf cultural identity, biculturalism is merely a negotiation strategy for them to live and work as a marginalized population among the dominant majority Hearing world. For access. For having a place at the table. Also, for having an opportunity to get a job that is not limited to washing dishes or factory work that requires little communication among workers. You know, so Deaf people can move up the economic ladder, make a decent living, that whole American Dream and such. No big whoop! Apart from living in Deaf communities and from working in Deaf environments (like Deaf schools), they don’t have the option to separate from the Hearing world. Despite some efforts, there is no Deaf island, no Deaf city for everyone to populate; despite their best efforts to celebrate a culture and history equipped with particular features, rules, and narratives, Deaf people must still reside in a country whose particular features, rules, and narratives have been enacted and enforced by Hearing people (to say nothing of the other discourses at work there). For these Deaf people, bicultural identity gives them strategies to negotiate this difference: “this is how we behave in the Deaf world; this is how we behave in the Hearing world.” For these Deaf people, identifying as bicultural is less a matter of pride and more as a matter-of-fact.
In considering situational biculturalism and Deaf cultural identity, I turn to queer theorist José Munoz, whose theory of “disidentifications” seems poignant. Drawing upon the philosophical, political, and socio-cultural work of Michel Pêcheux, William E. Connolly, and Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherrié Moraga, Munoz theorizes a model of “identities-in-difference” through the negotiation process of disidentifications: “[it] neither opts to assimilate within a structure nor strictly opposes it; rather, disidentification is a strategy that works on and against dominant ideology…[it] tries to transform a cultural logic from within, always laboring to enact permanent structural change while at the same time valuing the importance of local or everyday struggles of resistance.” (11-12). Munoz expands further on this process of disidentification and identity formation:
To disidentify is to read oneself and one’s own life narrative in a moment, object, or subject that is not culturally coded to “connect” with the disidentifying subject. It is not to pick and choose what one takes out of an identification. It is not to willfully evacuate the politically dubious or shameful components within an identificatory locus. Rather, it is the reworking of these energies that do not elide the “harmful” or contradictory components of any identity. It is an acceptance of the necessary interjection that has occurred in such situations. (12).
Munoz concentrated on the intersections of gay and lesbian identities with those of people of color to investigate how those who do not easily fit within the predominantly White LGBTQ community negotiate their, at points, conflicting identities.
A similar case ought to be made for the use of disidentifications for those members of the Deaf community who are not part of its dominant White, middle-class, Deaf-of-Deaf, and educated identity; and a case ought to be made also for those who are part of the above dominant Deaf cultural identity and including virtually everyone else in the Deaf community for their bicultural strategies of being part of the dominant Hearing world.
The image I have here is of a paper that’s been folded again and again: each fold unveils levels of identity, power, and difference in the Deaf world, but the paper becomes unfolded to reveal that all live in a Hearing world. Deaf people cannot simply pick and choose which aspects of the Hearing world to include in their identity, nor can they ignore the more shameful aspects of Hearing culture, such as Audism: they must deal with it within certain contexts, certain interactions, and certain situations, such as by interacting in public spaces like shopping malls and restaurants, obtaining services like health care and police protection, applying for and making careers out of certain job environments such computer work, in factories, and in medical fields, and in major life events like weddings, births, and deaths. They must accept their American Deaf culture as being woven into the fabric of (Hearing) American Deaf culture, their education as part of the larger (Hearing mainstreamed) American educational system, and so on. Disidentification strategies for Deaf people allow them to transform the cultural logic from within: they raise awareness about Audism, Deaf culture, and ASL among members of the Hearing world through social media, through movies like Marlee Matlin’s Children of a Lesser God, and more recent films like A Quiet Place and The Silent Child; through television shows like Sean Berdy’s emotionally affecting role in Switched At Birth, Dancing with the Stars, and America’s Top Model–the latter two starring Nyle himself–and through ASL translated pop-music videos such as Camp Mark 7 students’ genuinely touching take on Phillip Phillips’ “Home”and Jason Listman’s gorgeous rendering of Katy Perry’s “Firework.”
Disidentifying allows Deaf people to simultaneously see themselves as both “culturally Deaf” and “Deaf in a Hearing world,” which also simultaneously provides them with strategies to chip away at the the Hearing/Deaf colonialist narrative while not rejecting Hearing people altogether (well, they can’t, anyways). This strategy is not without some limits, it seems: while visibility has grown exponentially, access–moreover, validation–is very much still an issue: Deaf people continue to struggle to obtain access to job opportunities because employers remain dumbstruck as to how they can communicate; health care and policing are hampered by a lack of (or refusal to provide) ASL interpreting services; Deaf schools consistently struggle both with funding and with outside efforts to mainstream students in Hearing public schools; and perhaps most disturbing of all, when encountering a Deaf person, so many Hearing people continue to react with shock, with fear, with pity, or with an outright refusal to interact with them. It is not enough, then, to find ways to connect biculturally from within the cultural framework of the Hearing world; for Deaf people to gain cultural validation as both distinct from but standing alongside their Hearing peers, they have to unearth ways to stand out.
Queering Deaf Utopia: Crip Theory and Nyle’s “7 Rings”
Wanna stand out? Any Filthy Dreams readers should know that we stand by shock value as the first step! Indeed, shock value is a good start because shocking your audience causes disorientation–a feeling I always go for! Disorientation pulls out that rug from below, which then destroys whatever preconceived notions they had of, say, Deaf people, and then allows them to rebuild anew. Man! Deaf people really are something! This, friends, is where Nyle DiMarco finally comes back into the conversation. Nyle’s performance in Grande’s “7 Rings” is both shocking and disorienting. It’s queer in so many ways. Not only is a Deaf person taking center stage in a viral pop music video, but he’s also surrounded by a diverse group of signing male backup dancers who, when are not dancing, are fawning over Nyle through an orgy of touch and gaze.
I want it, I got it, I want it, I got it.
Robert McRuer’s Crip theory provides the space for Nyle to take center stage. (Was he reading through the text prior to clasping his lip ring? Hopefully, he paired his outfits with some selections from Heather Love’s Feeling Backward.) Whereas before, Deafness was shown, through Audism, in a debilitating light, Crip theory validates it as yet another form of being. Yet another form of being is a good thing because it refuses an essential form of being: in other words, Deafness is a new way of being in the world. According to Crip theory, disability is reconfigured as a cultural identity, and not some deviation from a norm. Crip theory partners with Queer theory in the sense that it calls into question our notions of normality–with regards to ability and not through Crip, and with regards to normalcy / morality and not with through Queer. Queerness makes Cripness tangible, powerful, and desirable. Separation? Illogical. Consider McRuer’s development of Crip theory:
- Crip theory owns disability as its identity politics: in this case, Deafness. Crip theory calls into question our understanding of disability as “lacking” or as not quite 100 percent human; instead, Crip theory reframes human dis/ability as yet another way of being-in-the-world.
- Crip theory partners with Queer theory in the sense that both fields recognize a kind of coming out process towards identity formation and cultural initiation; a history, a community, a culture, and a necessity to preserve these marginalized communities.
- Demanding access to everything happening as its central strategy.
- Developing an understanding that disability is both possible and desirable.
In “7 Rings,” Nyle displays Deafness–and Queerness–as a desirable way of being-in-the-world. Everyone in the video wants a piece of him. No one dares take him down. Nyle is surrounded by an eclectic group of males that could easily pass for straight, though they all want him. They could be Hearing for all I know! Each member of his posse refuses to speak for themselves; instead, they mimic Nyle’s dance moves, and they enact a call-and-response to his signs. Throughout the video, Nyle presents his Deaf / Queerness as a desirable way of being: both strands empower each other; whereas once upon a time, queerness and deafness were both sources of scorn, now both strands create an object to be desired!
Nyle is an object of desire but also one of admiration…you know, like a real star! It’s also quite campy! Consider Nyle’s outfits: the queeny chainmail shirt, booty shorts, lip ring, and lip gloss could belong in a Perfume Genius video; and the Hip-Hop’esque bubble jacket Nyle wears in another scene is so oversized that when he whips it open to strut across the front lawn, he looks like Liberace about to take flight over Las Vegas.
I want it, I got it, I want it, I got it.
Nyle is unabashedly queer, taking center stage, and loving it, which might cause some eyebrows to furrow; yet the opposite is happening: the video has gone viral with over a million views, and it has been received extremely positively by both Deaf and Hearing communities.
Nyle’s performance does not seek to imitate Ariana Grande but to own Nyle DiMarco (and Deaf cultural identity) by taking Disidentifying one step further: rather than providing some ASL translation of a song to gain some degree of visibility, Nyle projects Deafness onto the screen and pulls out the rug from below the reader, disorienting them with hair, eyes, and teeth, with shiny shirts and half-naked squirming bodies, with swagger and a posse, and with signs that are so confident, quick, and strong that they could shatter walls. Nyle’s performance does not ask you to validate him; instead, it demands that you stand back as he declares
I want it, I got it, I want it, I got it.
Queering this demand is what gives it such strength: Nyle constructs a world that is completely strange, bathed in blue, and Deaf-centered (but not narrow). The dancers around him may be hearing but not Hearing. Nyle is not a figure of disability but one of worship, a god. This form of queering is distinct though not alienating, and Nyle works hard to keep himself centered despite him flying all over us with his dancers and his various forms of chains. This queering stems from, back to Jose Munuz, Queer Utopia, that does not seek to estrange but unite; it does not marginalize but rather celebrates; it does not find complacency in undesirable circumstances but seeks to imagine brighter tomorrows. In other words, Nyle’s queering of Deaf cultural identity opens up possibilities. Consider Munoz’s formulation in Cruising Utopia of queerness as utopic:
“Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s domain.” (1)
Queerness as untouchable but not out of our range of reach; queerness as not yet here but soon; queerness as always something better–no, GREATER; queerness as a constant becoming, a reaching towards… combine that with Deaf cultural identity, and you have, with an open mind, endless possibilities. Queerness makes Deafness utopic in the sense that Deaf cultural identity is to be cherished, not negotiated; is to be distinct, not akin, though not alienating. To contribute to the greater cause, to be humane.
We, here at Filthy Dreams, have indulged in plenty of nihilism, but queerness eludes us. It continues to glitter in the dark; it refuses distillation, more so, solidification. In its purest sense, queerness gives us strength to take center stage, to push forward, and to celebrate that which makes us unique. It goes hand-in-hand with Deaf cultural identity. Nyle found a way to advance Deaf culture into the mainstream with his queer ownership of Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings”; one wonders what could happen if more Deaf people took the reigns towards center stage. Suddenly, queering has the ability to reach utopic visions. Artists like Nyle, Chella Man, and others force us to place Deafness in conjunction with gender, sexuality, race, and class as a distinct cultural identity with intricate ties both around and within other strands of identity. Queering makes all of these strands, once marginalized (stigmatized) visible (and validated); and queering empowers these strands to become viable proponents towards better tomorrows. So much for nihilism. Hello, tomorrow!