“Sex and the City” was one of my favorite shows when it first came out, so I eagerly awaited its revival series “And Just Like That...” It has been an incredible disappointment in many ways, including its stereotypical and negative portrayal of hearing aids and hearing loss.
I’m referring, of course, to Steve, a lovable character on the original show whose entire personality seems to have been reduced to an outdated punchline about his inability to hear what’s going on around him. For a show that aims to celebrate the lives of people in their 50s, this was a huge misstep.
Here’s the dialogue from the first time we see hearing-aid-wearer Steve on screen:
“Steve-o, long time, no see. What’s new?”
“Hey, I got hearing aids. I’m an old-timer now.”
Later in the scene, Stanford turns to Steve and says, “Steve, would you ever just leave Miranda? Oh, boy.”
“What? What he say?” is Steve’s reply.
And later, Miranda whispers to him during a performance, “Tell your son to stop.”
I guess it didn’t take the actor long to learn his lines.
As a hearing aid wearer, I am angry. It took me decades to make peace with my own pair. I would hate for this unattractive and inaccurate portrayal of life with hearing aids to prevent anyone from embracing these life-enhancing devices.
I started using hearing aids in my mid-20s, but my negative view of them began in childhood, watching my father do everything he could to hide his own pair under the hair he grew long over his ears for that purpose. Society and its portrayal of people with hearing loss as foolish and inept had taught him to be ashamed of his hearing loss. He did everything he could to hide it.
I remember family parties where he would retreat to the corner, sitting by himself. As a child I didn’t think much about it, but once I developed hearing loss, I understood why. He was probably having trouble hearing in the reverberant space and mishearing or needing to ask for a repeat just wasn’t worth the risk of someone discovering his closely guarded secret.
My father passed on his stigma to me, so when it was my turn to get hearing aids, I was terrified. Would my views now be taken less seriously at work? Would my friends reject the adjustments they needed to make to communicate with me? Would I now be the one in the corner at parties hiding my devices behind my long hair?
For many years I was, until I met other people with hearing loss and learned it did not need to be that way. So many of the people I met were successful business people, entrepreneurs, musicians, teachers ― all living vibrant lives because of their hearing aids. This new worldview changed my life.
Soon I was wearing my hearing aids with pride, asking for repeats when needed and living my hearing loss life out loud. It isn’t always easy ― hearing loss does make it difficult to communicate and hearing aids don’t solve all hearing problems ― but I live better because of my hearing devices. They help me stay connected to and engaged with the people and activities that I love. I am very grateful for them.
“And Just Like That...” is updated in many ways. Recent episodes have celebrated Miranda’s gray hair, Charlotte’s daughter’s fluid gender identity, and new friendships for the main characters with a plethora of diverse characters. Why not a modern treatment of Steve’s hearing loss and hearing aids? Why must hearing loss remain the punchline of the joke?
Propagating a negative view of hearing aids could dissuade viewers (many of whom are likely in the soon-to-need-hearing-aids age range) from treating their hearing loss, in fears of looking as dopey and out of touch as Steve does with his.
This week, major entertainment publications reported that the idea of giving Steve’s character hearing aids was inspired by the actor, David Eigenberg, who recently began using hearing aids in real life.
Great idea — art imitating life — but why did the writers do it in an inauthentic and stereotypical way? By all accounts, the actor is very pleased with his hearing aids. Why doesn’t Steve seem to get the same benefit?
Perhaps it has to do with the lingering stigma that still surrounds hearing loss. Stereotypes for people with hearing loss include being seen as “old” or “slow” or “rude” or “out of touch” and “not worth the time it takes to communicate with them.”
In ”And Just Like That...,” Steve embodies all these qualities. Not hearing the question — check. Looking befuddled and out of it — check. Being dismissed when he is not able to participate — check. Steve personifies everything we hope not to be.
It is this stereotyped treatment of hearing loss that prevented my father from asking for the assistance he needed and kept me hiding in my own hearing loss closet for years. It prevents people from accepting their hearing loss and from doing something about it.
Shame on the writers for propagating this negative and unrealistic view of people with hearing loss.
And just like that, I changed the channel.
Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of Living with Hearing Loss, a popular blog and online community for people with hearing loss, and an executive producer of We Hear You, an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Her book, Hear & Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss, (co-authored with Gael Hannan) is the ultimate survival guide to living well with hearing loss.