I have a challenge for you. Whenever you watch a movie or TV show this week, put subtitles on. The specifics are up to you: Maybe you’ll finally sit down and watch “Roma” with the aid of subtitles, or maybe you’ll have “The Office” playing quietly in the background with the captions on so you can glance over to catch the joke that you didn’t quite hear.
You might have noticed that I’m conflating subtitles (translations of foreign dialogue) with closed or open captions (descriptive text of all the audio for the d/Deaf and hard of hearing). I tend to do this because to me, they are the same thing. But let’s talk about subtitles first, and then I’ll explain.
There’s been a public debate about Americans’ use of subtitles this week. After ”Parasite” took home the golden statue for Best Picture at the Oscars last Sunday, Vox celebrated its unexpected (and unprecedented) win by pointing out, “Americans just don’t like reading subtitles.” This would appear to be true if you happened to glance at the trending #subtitles debate on Twitter. Some, like celebrity Draya Michele, confessed to finding it too “stressful” and complained about not being able to be on their phones while watching a movie.
Mother Jones writer Kevin Drum took this sentiment even further in an article titled, “It Should Come As No Surprise That Most Film Audiences Prefer Dubbing to Subtitles.” He writes: “My pet peeve is that of course no one likes subtitles. After all, they eliminate one of the key aspects of the acting craft: reading lines. It is faux sophistication of the highest order to pretend that this shouldn’t — or doesn’t — matter. … It’s only to say that spoken dialogue is a key part of the theatrical experience. Of course it matters.” I agree with Mr. Drum that it matters greatly, but not in the way that he seems to think.
It is true that with dubbing, you get to hear an actor read lines in a language that you can understand, but the voice, tone and intonation of the original actor’s line reading have been replaced by another’s voice and artistic choices. With subtitles, audiences get to simultaneously read the meaning of the dialogue and hear the original line reading the way it was meant to be experienced.
Secondly, Drum writes strongly about subtitles being a “pet peeve” for him. And that right there is the element of this debate that I personally find so interesting. I’m watching all of you squabbling over small words on the screen as if it’s a matter of personal preference, when it is in fact a matter of basic accessibility for more than 15% of Americans.
Approximately 37.5 million Americans over the age of 18 have at least some trouble hearing. I am one of them. Having been profoundly deaf for most of my life, I have a unique perspective on this topic.
Although we always had the closed captioning turned on at home, going to the movie theater was an exercise in frustration and disappointment. I loved movies: Just walking into the theater and inhaling the scent of buttered popcorn made my heart race. But for many years growing up, movies didn’t love me back. I distinctly remember going to see ”Shrek” around the age of 11, being bored to tears for two hours due to the lack of captions, and walking out of the theater feeling robbed as my family chatted about the movie’s jokes and plot twists.
By the time I was in my teens and early 20s, I was thrilled to find that most major theaters near me offered small but consistent showings of film releases with open captions on the screen. These showtimes were often at odd hours (never on the release date) and almost always empty of other moviegoers. It seemed that nobody else wanted captions on their movie screen, but I didn’t care. I luxuriated in having a whole row to myself.
Then, at some point a few years ago, there was a change. Under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, movie theaters are required to provide some form of captioning — but, with the exception of Hawaii, the captions are not required to be on the screen. Rather, most movie theaters now offer caption boxes designed to sit in the user’s armrest or glasses that display the captions to the wearer. As someone who already wears glasses, I was not about to double up on them to watch a movie (and we won’t even talk about the third pair of glasses required for 3D movies).
Thus, I’ve resigned to dealing with the caption box whenever I want to go see a movie. I can’t count how many times I’ve missed part or all of a movie because the caption box’s battery died mid-movie, or the connection was faulty, or the box wouldn’t sit in the armrest properly. Even if it works perfectly, I still have to work extra hard to enjoy the movie as I glance as quickly as I can from the movie screen to my little caption box. I put up with all this so that other Americans don’t have to see words on the bottom of their screen.
It’s not a matter of the technology not being available. Rather, movie theaters are afraid that open captions will drive away customers. But the market for open captioned movies is bigger than you might think. It’s not just the millions of d/Deaf and hard of hearing people who can benefit from captions: Consider the elderly, someone trying to learn English, those with ADD or ADHD, those with sensory processing disorders … The list goes on. Open captions can benefit millions of moviegoers.
But we’re debating subtitles, not captioning. So let’s forget about open captions for a moment and return to foreign movies. Say that moviegoers express their distaste in having to read subtitles enough so that dubbing becomes the norm. Suddenly I, along with millions of others, would no longer be able to enjoy the one kind of movie that has always been guaranteed to be accessible for me. Unfortunately this is already a reality for me, illustrated by the time I excitedly joined a showing of “Spirited Away” only to find that it was dubbed.
I will grant that there are rare occasions when dubbing is the superior choice: For example, subtitles can present a challenge for those with dyslexia. Overall, however, it’s time for the average American to embrace subtitles. In the case of foreign films, relying on subtitles forces you to pay attention and be fully immersed in the film — an experience that is all too rare in the age of the smartphone. I think you’ll also find that your reading speed and comprehension will become infinitely sharper.
Next, take it one step further and add captions to everything. You’ll find it helps with mumbling actors and unfamiliar accents, you’ll enjoy catching side remarks in your favorite shows that you never noticed before, and you’ll discover the hidden joys of surprisingly creative and humorous audio descriptions. Most importantly, you can crunch away on snacks as loudly as you want without fear of missing anything.
Finally, if you really want to earn some points for getting into “The Good Place,” be an advocate. Sign a petition requesting that legislators fight for open captions at theaters. Ask your favorite movie theater if it’ll consider providing a small selection of showtimes with open captions on the screen. And for heaven’s sake, stop watching dubbed versions of foreign films.
Bong Joon Ho famously quipped at the Golden Globes, “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” I posit that subtitles are not a barrier at all, but rather an open door that makes the theatrical experience accessible for all.