Accessing new deaf representations on TV:
A case study of Marlee Matlin on ‘The L Word’
By Lillie Ransom, Gallaudet University
& Beth Haller, Towson University
Paper presented at the National Communication Association conference,
San Diego, Calif., November 2009. (Conclusion added August 2011.)
The premium cable channel, Showtime, launched “The L Word” in 2004. It was the first American TV show to explore the life experiences of lesbians. The show followed on the heels of another gay-themed show on Showtime, the remake of the same-named British show “Queer as Folk,” which ran in the USA from 2000-2005 (imdb, 2011). That show primarily focused on gay men, but had two main characters who were a lesbian couple.
It’s ironic that Showtime launched “The L Word” in 2004 when, according to one network TV show producer, that same year, their show wasn’t allowed to show two women kissing. The show, which lasted four episodes, was the critically acclaimed Wonderfalls on FOX, which had a main character who was a closeted lesbian (Holland & Fuller, Wonderfalls DVD, 2004).
“The L Word” opened as a hit and was the quickest renewal of a Showtime series ever (Showtime, 2004). The show became much discussed and debated in the LGBT community and in the LGBT media. But only a few scholars have turned their attention to it. In 2006 British scholars published the book, Reading “The L Word” (Akass & McCabe, 2006), which is part of the Reading Contemporary TV series that had other books focused on shows like “Six Feet Under” and “Sex and the City.” TV scholar Candace Moore also turned her attention to “The L Word” in an article for Cinema Journal in 2007.
It’s Moore’s work that informs our thoughts about the inclusion of a deaf character into “The L Word,” played by Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin. Moore, in her analysis of the first two seasons, which doesn’t include Matlin’s character, argues that “The L Word” provides a kind of tourist pass into the lesbian community for straight audience members. And she, and members from the LGBT community, believe that has informed the relatively monolithic presentation of West Hollywood lesbians in the beginning of the show’s run.
Moore says “The L Word” “slowly worked to acculturate its straight viewership” to the world of lesbians (2007, p.5). She posits that’s why the first season focuses on a straight woman, Jenny, who begins to question her own sexuality after her and her boyfriend move into a lesbian neighborhood in LA. Moore calls that character an insider-outsider, who provides a non-threatening guide to the community for straight audience members.
Interestingly, many of the criticisms of “The L Word” from the lesbian community focused on the Jenny character’s lying and confusion and on the lack of diversity among the lesbian characters. (In the first seasons, all the characters are white, except for the Jennifer Beals’ character, who is bi-racial like the actress.) As the show added to its diversity, we believe that adding a deaf character was part of that initiative.
Many of the people involved with “The L Word’s” production, creator, writers, producers, etc., are lesbians and they have been responsive to the LGBT community’s complaints about the show. In the second season, Jenny began living her life as a lesbian and they added a Hispanic main character Carmen, played by Sarah Shahi (who has a Mexican and Middle Eastern background). In season 3, Carmen remained and the season explored the issue of breast cancer and introduced a character, Moira, who was transitioning to become a man named Max. (There had also been complaints that all the characters were very feminine and few could claim a butch identity.)
In Season 4, Marlee Matlin’s character, Jodi Lerner, joins the group. She is a sculptor who teaches in the university art dept where Jennifer Beals’ character, Bette, is the dean. They begin a relationship.
Our research doesn’t reveal specifically why “The L Word” added a deaf character, but Marlee Matlin has been a guest star on numerous TV shows since the TV show created for her, “Reasonable Doubts,” was cancelled in 1993. Signing onto “The L Word” posed no concern for Matlin, who has long been seen as a friend to the gay community. She says she sees similarities between homophobia and discrimination against deaf people (Penn, 2007). She has been vocal in her support of gay rights and her brother is gay. In her interviews about joining the show, she said: “The discriminatory practices against the GLBT community parallel almost exactly those against deaf and hard of hearing individuals. Misunderstanding, stereotyping and discrimination – of these things which have happened to the GLBT have been routinely happening to deaf people for years” (Esther, 2008, p. 37). She has appeared in other TV shows with LGBT themes: Matlin’s role as the mayor in several years of the show “Picket Fences” included a scenario in which she carried a baby for her character’s brother and his partner (TV.com, 2007).
With the inclusion of a deaf woman, season 4 became “The L Word’s” most diverse ever. It added an older lesbian, Phyllis, played by Cybill Shepard, and an African American lesbian, Tasha, played by Rose Rollins. This research project focuses primarily on the Marlee Matlin character in Season 4, because even though the Jodi character remained in Season 5, that season was not available on DVD until Oct. 2008 (after this presentation was written).
Marlee Matlin says that after she won the Academy Award at such a young age, naysayers said she’d never work again – because she is a deaf person who wanted a traditional acting career (McQueen, 2006). But she has proved them wrong. She has appeared in many more movies and has become a go-to actress for guest spots. In addition to these numerous guest star roles, she played other long-term characters on shows such as “The West Wing,” 2000-06. We argue that her appearance all over TV in the past 20+ years has revolutionized representations of deaf people on TV.
And “The L Word” is significant because it is the first time TV has acknowledged the intersection of a “disability” and the LGBT community. (The reason disability is in quotes is because the deaf community usually resists the association of deafness and disability.) But in terms of audience reaction to a deaf TV character, we believe the average non-disabled person doesn’t know the difference between disability and deafness. Matlin herself makes the connection between deafness and disability in her role as a spokesperson for the International Labor Organization (ILOTV, 2007).
So “The L Word” gives us a rich text in which to examine a complex deaf character on TV. Too often deaf characters on TV are only in one episode and the plot revolves around some image of deafness as a deficiency. Whereas in “The L Word,” the Jodi character is on equal footing with the other characters and brings some aspects of deaf culture into the show. She is in a romantic relationship with a hearing person, she is a famous artist, she is a friend and teacher and she interacts in the world using both sign language and spoken English. The "L Word" writers also show us that at least one of Jodi’s former partners was a deaf woman who not only is frustrated that Jodi has moved on but implies she is resentful that she may be leaving the deaf community. And it is possible that by speaking so much in the role, Jodi (Marlee Matlin) is single handedly making hearing people more comfortable hearing deaf speech on TV. She is quite brave to use her voice because she has often talked about how she was taunted as a child for her deaf speech (Lofaro, 2006) and faced backlash in the deaf community when she spoke, instead of signing, during the Academy Awards.
Another significant aspect to Matlin’s representation on “The L Word” is the prominent role of her sign language interpreter. In another radical move, the Jodi character’s interpreter, Tom (played by Jon Wolfe Nelson), becomes a supporting character in the show in season 4 and 5 (Advocate, 2008). Nelson is an actor and sign language interpreter, who built a career doing both; he interprets Broadway theatre for deaf audiences and had played Matlin’s interpreter on “The West Wing,” so she requested him for “The L Word” (Eng, 2008). The Tom character also addresses another diversity complaint about the show – that there were no prominent gay male characters on the show, so Tom filled that spot and in season 5 begins a relationship with the transgendered character, Max.
This interpreter-deaf person relationship is somewhat unusual in the show. For all the important information Marlee Matlin’s character is “teaching” audiences about deaf people, the Jodi character is modeling something that rarely exists in sign language interpreting.
Interpreter/Jodi relationship 1
The Jodi character is a professional, and like most of the other characters on “The L Word,” is upper middle class, a well-respected artist and has a great deal of control over her professional and personal life. Jodi holds her own with the others on the show, primarily because she is like them in most ways—well-educated, gainfully employed, white, feminine, and attractive.
Based on conversations with Gallaudet undergraduate students during Season 4, Jodi’s propensity to talk and interact with hearing people as much or more than with deaf people is tolerated because of their pride at having a deaf character included in the first place. These students are so thrilled to have some deaf and ASL representation on this popular show, that they are less critical about how realistic the representation is, or even about whether the representation matches “their deaf culture centric” view of the preferred communication method for social interactions – signing with others who are fluent in sign.
This analysis of the Jodi/Tom interactions is based primarily upon Ransom’s own experiences as an interpreter and as a member of the U.S. Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID). This organization, along with the U.S. National Association for the Deaf (NAD), trains and certifies American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters in the United States. RID was established in 1964.
In the real world, most deaf people do not have their own “personal interpreters” at their beck and call in all situations and circumstances. In some ways, the Tom character harkens back to an older model of interpreting for deaf people. A few decades ago, most ASL interpreters were family members and/or friends of deaf people. These hearing people became interpreters because their ability to understand and use both American Sign Language and spoken English. As such, they made little effort to distinguish between their roles as interpreters between the deaf and hearing communities and their roles as siblings, parents, or friends.
Another model that could be used to examine Jodi and Tom’s relationship is called “diplomatic interpreting.” Cook (2004) describes diplomatic interpreting as “an association built on a foundation of mutual trust characterized by the interpreter’s intense interest in and commitment to the work of the Deaf professional. There is a degree of connection found between the two individuals that frequently results in a seamless presentation” (pp. 58-59). Cook reports that precedents for diplomatic interpreting are found among spoken language interpreters. According to Cook, these types of close knit relationships are most often seen when there is a Deaf professional working among hearing colleagues.
There have been extensive efforts by RID and NAD to increase the professional nature of interpreting during the past 20 to 30 years, including allegiance to a Professional Code of Conduct. Interpreters are required to get training and abide by a Code of Ethics. Interpreters are required to participate in continuing education activities in order to maintain certification.
As a result of the increased professionalization of interpreting, the more common contemporary interpreting scenario involves requesting and securing interpreters on an “as needed” basis. Many interpreters are hired through agencies and services; their fees are paid by businesses or government agencies to provide interpreting services for specific occasions, for instance during employment interviews, training activities, and medical appointments and during medical procedures.
While the Tom interpreter character reflects an older model of interpreting, or perhaps the diplomatic interpreter model, we believe he may also be modeled after Marlee Matlin’s actual interpreter, Jack Jason, who is her business partner and almost always accompanies her during professional interactions (Rojas, 2011). Jason is a CODA (child of deaf adults) who considers sign language his first language. He met Matlin in New York City at the time of the promotion of the film, “Children of a Lesser God,” when Matlin needed someone fluent in sign to show her around the city. However, the Matlin-Jason relationship is unique; most deaf people, even well-to- do deaf people, do not hire full-time personal interpreters.
Perhaps “The L Word” writers while responding to some of the criticisms from the LGBT community for portraying West Hollywood, upper middle class lesbians with little diversity and little relationship to the lives that many working class lesbians live, the producers and writers have unwittingly extended their original biases to the Jodi character, and thus creating an unrealistic interpreter/friend character. It has never been made clear on “The L Word” who pays Tom’s salary. Does he work for the university, the art department, or Jodi personally?
Tom is seen interpreting in professional meetings, at parties, and even in intimate face-to-face conversations between Jodi and Bette. Tom even interjects his own opinions into some of the conversations he interprets, when, for instance, he implores Jodi to give Bette a break, after Bette and Jodi have had a serious falling out and Bette attempts to reach out to Jodi (Episode 4.12, “Long Time Coming”). There are several other episodes where he interjects his thoughts on the Bette-Jodi relationship or Jodi’s exes.
For example, Episode 4.5 “Lez Girls” includes an intimate scene between Jodi and Bette as they hang outside while others are partying inside Phyllis’ house. Jodi gives Bette a sensual “shot gun” hit of marijuana and Tom is there looking on. This is rather jarring for viewers, who said in Afterellen.com recap comments that they wouldn’t want Tom there for their intimate moments (Afterellen.com, 2004), and for those who know about the ethics guidelines for interpreters.
By way of contrast, notice how a real life Interpreter Coordinator in an August 2008 email reminds interpreters to be very careful about how they conduct themselves:
Due to a few recent incidents, I’m compelled to send out a reminder about professional demeanor while on assignments. None of this is new information as you’ve all learned it in your ITPS [Interpreter Training Programs] or in the school of common sense. However, it seems some folks have become overly comfortable working for us at ____and have let adherence to these principles lapse.
The coordinator cites specifics including dress code, personal conversations, partaking in food being served, and first and foremost reminds interpreters NOT TO INTERJECT THEIR OPINIONS into conversations they are observing or interpreting. On a related note, Rodriguez and Reguera (2002) examined the codes of ethics for sign language interpreters in 12 countries. There were several variations among all countries represented; however, they found there were two codes all countries have inscribed in their code of ethics: The first is impartiality and neutrality and the second shared code is confidentiality.
And even though the title of Cook’s 2004 article begins, “Neutrality, no thanks,” she seems like she is challenging the impartiality and neutrality ethic, but a close reading indicates she is not. Cook instead examines the unique closeness between the deaf client and his/her interpreter in the diplomatic interpreting role. She does not advocate for or cite any instances where this closeness was used or should be used as an excuse to advise the deaf person or gossip about shared experiences during an interpreted setting.
Tying these observations to the question of whether “The L Word” has improved or moved forward the representation of deaf people on American TV or has the show taken representations backward? Not surprisingly, there is no clear answer to this question. “The L Word” writers and producers should be commended for including a deaf person as a regular for two seasons. It is never possible to adequately convey any group of people through one character. Certainly, as a result of “The L Word,” its audience is learning more about sign language, deaf speech, and the unlimited abilities, versatility, and complexities of deaf people. To use Moore’s term, the audience is given a “tourist pass” to enter the world of one deaf lesbian. But, at the same time, people are inappropriately learning that communication and access is always seamless, easy, and that having an interpreter always present is a realistic option for most deaf people.
Since “The L Word” went off the air, Matlin has continued in a variety of TV roles, and one type of TV role – as reality show contestant - may have inadvertently explained the Jodi-Tom relationship. With reality TV growing in popularity, Marlee Matlin joined the fray. She became a contestant on “Dancing with the Stars” in 2008 and on “The Celebrity Apprentice” in 2011. Because reality TV doesn’t employ Matlin as an actor, her interpreter Jack Jason was no long behind the scenes on a sound stage but became visible to large TV audiences as he interpreted for her on-camera.
His name became known and he was profiled in The Los Angeles Times in May 2011, where he discussed how he became more than an interpreter to Matlin (similar to “The L Word’s” Tom character). “He's not simply an interpreter for hire. He's a confidant, a business advisor and, in a sense, serves as the voice for Matlin, whom he calls the ‘most visible deaf person in the world’" (Rojas, 2011). Jason explains how he jumped out of the interpreter role in a business meeting to take on a role as adviser and business partner to Matlin:
For more than 20 years, Jason has served as Matlin's conduit to an industry and a viewing public that sometimes doesn't grasp the concept of a deaf actress. Behind the scenes, he pitches her to casting directors and tweaks roles built for a hearing actor so that she can be a contender. Jason remembers the moment when the balance between being an interpreter and advisor shifted. It was in a long-ago meeting with movie executives in which he blurted out an idea for a version of ‘Wait Until Dark’ with a deaf character. That moment, Jason says, was when ‘I broke the mold. I stepped out of my interpreter role’ (Rojas, 2011).
What he doesn’t mention is that he is violating the guidelines for proper interpreter behavior. But the story of how he became Matlin’s interpreter shows that his relationship with Matlin seems to be more like what Cook (2004) calls “diplomatic interpreting,” in which the interpreter has a strong interest in the work of the deaf professional and based on their mutual trust, they move past an “interpreter for hire” only relationship. Jason met Matlin when he was a NYU graduate student in film, and he says he has always had an intense interest in the entertainment industry because he taught himself spoken English through watching television as a child.
So the kind of relationship Jack Jason and Marlee Matlin built for themselves is outside the bounds of what sign language interpreters usually provide for deaf clients. But that unique relationship has been seen in one place – in “The L Word’s” Tom and Jodi. So even though the Tom-Jodi relationship reflected few real experiences of the average deaf person, it did accurately mirror the interpreter-deaf client relationship of an Academy Award-winning actress and her interpreter turned business partner.
Advocate. (2008, Jan. 29). The L Word 5.0. p. 56.
Afterellen.com. (2007). The L Word recaps, Lez Girls. http://www.afterellen.com/thelword/recaps/4/5.
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Eng, J. (2008, Dec. 30). Jon Wolfe Nelson Readies for L Word's Final Sign-off. TVGuide.com. http://www.tvguide.com/News/Jon-Wolfe-Nelson-1001200.aspx.
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Penn, D. (2007, January). New season – new faces on The L Word. Lesbian News Magazine, pp. 28-32.
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Rojas, R. (2011, May 21). Jack Jason gives voice to, but doesn't talk over, Marlee Matlin. Los Angeles Times. http://articles.latimes.com/2011/may/21/entertainment/la-et-matlin-interpreter-20110521.
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1. An expanded version of this section later appeared in the article: Ransom, L. (2009). Representing us at any cost? RID Views, Vol. 26, Issue 4, pp. 54-55.