(This piece contains spoilers.)
In the not-so-distant future of “A Quiet Place,” sound kills. Earth, it seems, has become besieged by huge, blind, clicking, crepuscular creatures with nasty Venus-flytrap-Stranger-Thing-demidog-like heads. They are basically big, pulsating ears out to instantly slay anything that squeaks.
We find out all of this after meeting a family, the Abbotts, who have survived 89 days of this invasion partly because they live in the quiet of the country, partly because they somehow found enough sand to cover miles of trails, but also in large part because their eldest, daughter Regan, is deaf.
Because of her, they are at an enormous advantage in that they do not need to speak out loud in order to communicate. And, as we all know from watching our “Walking Dead,” quick, quiet communication is a key component to post-apocalyptic survival. If you make too much noise, you’re toast.
Director and actor John Krasinski told CBS News in a recent interview that his sci-fi thriller is “all about parenthood”; it is about parents having to protect their children, and this is, on one level, what the movie is ultimately about. But since it comes on the heels of a spate of diverse media representations, specifically American Sign Language and deaf diversity (“The Tribe,” “The Shape of Water,” “Baby Driver,” “The Silent Child”), it’s also worth examining it from that perspective.
Many people in the deaf community (myself included) are cheering the film on, because it provides the hearing mainstream with even more exposure to what psychologist Harlan Lane calls the “Deaf-World” and because it signals yet another media victory for the deaf community as it continues to try to re-center deaf identity with the idea of “Deaf Gain.”
Briefly, “Deaf Gain,” a term coined by Dirksen Bauman and Joseph J. Murray, encompasses “the myriad ways in which both deaf people and society at large have benefited from the existence of deaf people and sign language throughout recorded human history.” An example of Deaf Gain in “A Quiet Place” is the fact that ASL is such a great advantage, such a valuable skill, that the hearing people in the family have adjusted to a new “deaf” way of being in order to survive.
In flipping the ontological dynamic in this way ― especially in frequently placing the hearing audience “between the ears” of a deaf character, or into a position of silence ― the film appears to be one of the first truly consistent “deaf-centric” movies ever made. On that level, the film is indeed great PR for the deaf community. It will possibly make wearing a cochlear implant “cool” (which my deaf son will love), and it might make using ASL even cooler than it already is.
But after watching the movie, I had to ask, Is the film really resoundingly pro-deaf? Is it really empowering? What message is it disseminating, how are people who are deaf being represented and what is it saying about people who sign? For that matter, what is it saying about all people who have to live in silence?
“Silence, especially the inability to speak, is depicted as tragic.”
After I came down from the high of seeing beautiful ASL fly across the big screen again, I realized that some moments in the film troubled me. For instance, silence, especially the inability to speak, is depicted as tragic. Without sound, the characters apparently can’t fully express their love for one another (the parents have to resort to sharing an iPod and dancing), nor can they fully express pain (loss, stepping on nails, childbirth).
Though they can communicate well through their signing, the moments when the hearing characters can “really” speak to one another stand out in high relief and indeed serve as relief (to a hearing audience). Deafness remains a disadvantage, too, as we see in the scene where Regan crouches in the cornfield, looking for her brother Marcus while a stridulating monster, unheard, stalks her from behind.
In the end, to my dismay, I found “A Quiet Place” is actually yet another purveyor of the trope of disability being inextricably yoked to and dependent on technology, part of what disabilities scholars call “the medical model.” It instantiates the belief that technology providing a scientific and/or medical means of “curing” or normalizing people who are not “species-typical” is to be lauded.
“Sure,” the film seems to say, “ASL provides a good short-term ‘fix’ ― it can give you a way to communicate, and you can get by. But like the father’s ham radio signals, its reach is sadly limited; signing will only get you so far. You still remain silenced, imprisoned, forced into the margins. The only thing that will truly banish the ‘monster’ ― the only thing that will get things back to ‘normal’ ― is that screech of technological feedback.” Being deaf and signing is not enough. Regan needs her implant to restore the world to normalcy.
This is not a truly deaf-centric world. In this film, silence is scary ― at least it is for hearing people. The deaf people I talked to don’t seem to find this film all that frightening, because for them it’s not an unknown, it’s not a loss, it’s business as usual.
“Being deaf and signing is not enough. Regan needs her implant to restore the world to normalcy.”
But being in “A Quiet Place,” that is, a place of deafness and silence, is not to be desired, according to the film. It is nightmarish. Sound is still “something” ― it is still the center from which the characters operate and it is the center from which the film’s entire M.O. (suspense) operates. Ultimately, sound, in the form of technology, helps kill off the monsters, and it is technology that restores the “normalcy” that will save the human species.
In the end, it is not the ability to speak silently through ASL that saves the Abbotts (well, some of them) from the evil ears. It is that other symbolic piece, the cochlear implant, that saves the day. It is one of the very first things we see in the movie; we see it even before we clearly see Regan, or any of the other characters. It is the implant, not the signing deaf person, that is heroic.
Thanks to Regan’s implant, humans may be able to return to a “normal” world filled with sound, a world where everyone can hear and where everyone can talk ― a world in which there are no silent, signing people at all. And, in the end, if not for the cochlear implant, if not for technology, if not for sound, the implication is that “the rest,” as they say, “is silence.”
Clarification: A previous version of this story listed a series of recent movies as including portrayals of deafness. The description has been amended to reflect that some portray ASL but not deafness.
Pamela J. Kincheloe is an associate professor who writes and teaches in the fields of deaf literature, writing, and science, technology and values at the Rochester Institute of Technology/National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, New York.