“I wanted a deaf James Dean,” said Lizzy Weiss, producer of ABC’s new series “Switched at Birth,” about casting for the role of Emmet.
The part eventually went to Sean Berdy, who is deaf and stars alongside two deaf actresses, Katie Leclerc and Marlee Matlin.
After two episodes, the series, which follows the lives of two teenage girls after they discover that they were switched at birth, is getting rave reviews from fans. It’s also been a hit among the deaf community for its realistic portrayal of individuals with hearing loss.
In a behind-the-scenes video on its website, producers talked candidly about what compelled them to use deaf actors.
“To make this show real and genuine, we really needed to find hard-of-hearing actors, said Paul Stupin, the executive producer.
Berdy, Lecler and Matlin have all stated that they believe the show is a step forward for the deaf community, and that it portrays deaf individuals in an accurate, respectful way.
There is undoubtedly much to commend about “Switched at Birth,” as deaf characters are not only rare, but they are typically played by non-deaf actors.
Here, the authenticity is unquestionable and the characters' deafness isn't a novelty, but simply one characteristic of a complex persona. Therefore, the show is not explicitly about deafness; it just features characters who happen to be deaf.
Yet, the success of a television show is not defined by its ability to roll back stereotypes, but by its ability to produce ratings.
There are moments in the behind-the-scenes videos, where the producers of "Switched at Birth” confess to have been primarily interested in giving the show an extra dimension or quirk.
"The network said, ‘Is there a way we could up the stakes, make one girl really different in a certain way?” Right then on that phone call I said, ‘What if one of them is deaf?’” - Lizzy Weiss
Such a statement clashes with Leclerc’s vision of the show. She said it emphasizes that deaf people are "normal," but is their normalcy what is really being conveyed?
What did it mean when Weiss said she was looking for a "deaf James Dean?"
Did it mean that a deaf person isn't capable of being a charismatic, rebellious star, that he or she will always be at best a "deaf" actor, and can never transcend deafness to simply be a "James Dean?"
What if she had used similar language to apply to someone with a physical disability? What if she had said, "I was just looking for James Dean in a wheelchair, James Dean on crutches or a paralyzed James Dean.” That language simply wouldn't fly.
What if Berdy improved his speech significantly with one of the many speech programs available today, would he then be able to lose the label of a “deaf actor” and just be an actor?
Here, lies the struggle of the deaf community’s relationship with the media.
In “Switched at Birth,” you have a show that provides the most realistic, politically-correct picture of the deaf community in the history of modern television. The characters that are played by deaf actors are charming, intelligent and interact seamlessly in a mainstream environment.
Yet, despite all its attributes, it’s hard to listen to the motivation of some of the producers and not wince about their use of labels, though it’s also difficult to fault a team of creative professionals who have been the brain trust behind such a positive step forward for the deaf community.
Nobody’s perfect. And in the case of “Switched at Birth,” I’m willing to cut the production team some slack—as long as they’re not looking for a “deaf Marilyn Monroe” the next time they cast.