“The Prom”: What this movie remake gets right and wrong
22 December 2020
Careful! There are a few spoilers in this post. Read on only if you don’t care or have already seen the musical or movie.
“The Prom,” a 2020 film adaptation of the 2016 musical, brings attention to the issue of fake activism, or activism rooted in some cause other than actually making the world a better, more just place. This is timely since there have been a lot of recent issues with the wrong kind of activism. There was the black square thing on Instagram as well as other acts of performative allyship that do more harm than good. And this was a recurring theme in “The Prom.”
Barry Glickman (James Corden) and Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) are narcissistic Broadway actors who can’t seem to get another Broadway win and really, really want one. They, along with Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman) and Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells) are looking to champion a cause to try to get back in show-biz good graces. And that right there is the key ingredient for performative allyship; they’re not doing what they believe in -- to genuinely right some wrong -- they’re doing it because they’re Broadway hasbeens who haven’t realized they’re past their prime.
So, for the purpose of getting their careers back on course, they decide to become champions to Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman), an Indiana teen lesbian who stirred up feelings at her small town high school by asking her girlfriend to the prom. We also learn at this time that the chair of the PTA, Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington), is quite the homophobe. But also, spoiler alert, the mother of the other town lesbian!
Mrs. Greene is one of, or perhaps the most vocal about not allowing young Emma (and her own daughter) from enjoying prom. This calls to attention the fact that one can be both marginalized (Black woman who likely experienced racialized sexism) and marginalize others. This reaffirms the importance of intersectional approaches to activism.
So all of this is good. We’re using art to bring attention to a real societal problem and we’re showing why fake activism is problematic and we’re, maybe unintentionally, reiterating that being subject to one form of systemic oppression does not entail that one is sympathetic to, or incapable of subjecting others to oppressive forces. But now enter the biggest issue with this film: ableism.
In Meryl Streep’s dramatic and ironic song “It’s not About Me” introducing why she and her troop had come to Indiana, she says she “won’t play blind, deaf, and dumb…” to issues of intolerance. But this is a horribly ableist retort. I get that Dee Dee, Streep’s character, is an actor and she’s referring specifically to the play The Miracle Worker about Helen Keller, but that’s no excuse 1) reinforcing outdated terminology like “dumb” to refer to deaf people and 2) suggest that blind and deaf people are complicit in intolerance because of their disability or worse, that they’re intolerant because of their disability.
These lyrics are a cheap shot and the creators should have known that back in 2016 when the musical debuted but even if they didn’t, the film adaptation should have changed this line to make it not oppressive.
The second instance of ableism comes at the end of the film in the song “It’s Time to Dance.” Several times in the song there’s a line about building “a prom for everyone.” So as folks are streaming into the all inclusive prom, I found myself expecting to see disabled people. After all, a prom for everyone also includes disabled people. But by the time everyone was on the dance floor, I gave up hope of authentic representation in this too-frequently overlooked demographic. It’s impossible to say for certain that there were no disabled people, because sometimes disabilities are invisible, but there certainly were no intentionally placed disabled people, despite ample opportunity to do that in the final song.
To recap: Using art to call attention to societal problems can be effective. Also normalizing lived experiences that somehow are not considered normal (like lesbians wanting to go to prom) is a good thing. But using ableist tropes to make your point is problematic. A final issue for the road: authentic casting. I love James Corden as much as the next person but there are plenty of gay actors who could have played Barry! Come on!
8 December 2020
This post is unlike my previous ones in that it’s related to a personal issue. I’m sharing it on my academically focused blog in an attempt to humanize the professoriate. Faculty are not machines churning out lecture after lecture. We’re people. That has never been more salient to me than now.
I’ve always been an active person. Swimming, running , biking, all three together, and starting in 2016, I became quite the OrangeTheory enthusiast. But I haven’t been able to exercise since the end of January 2019. I never imagined myself as a person living with chronic pain. I’ve had sports related injuries, too many to list. But somehow I never considered having an injury that would not let up. I also never imagined being in a position of illness or injury constantly interfering with my ability to do my job. But that’s where I’ve been for the past 11 months of my life. This is my story.
In January 2020 I started experiencing pain in my tailbone. At first, it only bothered me if I sat for a long time and mostly not even while I was sitting but typically as I stood up. By February the pain had become constant. I couldn’t sit comfortably. Ever. I got a fancy coccyx cushion. It did nothing to ease my pain. I got in with my PCP who promptly decided there was nothing she could do about and referred me to a pain specialist. I got in literally the week the US shut down for covid. But because numbers were already surging in the area — just the day before the first person in the region died of covid — there wasn’t much he could do for me either. He prescribed oral steroids because coccyx injections are considered “elective procedures”. The prednisone helped for a few days but as the dosage waned, my pain returned with a vengeance.
All the while I was trying to put on a brave face for my students as we transitioned to virtual learning. But it was also becoming increasingly difficult for me to do my job because I couldn’t sit. So I stood. I got a standing desk and a special standing mat. After 4-5 or even 6-7 hours on my feet my heels were just killing me.
Eventually I developed horrible plantar fasciitis from excessive standing. I would learn later that all the standing was probably also exacerbating my tailbone symptoms. The most comfortable position was lying on my side but after a while I also developed bursitis in my hip. I felt like I was falling apart at the seams and nothing was helping.
All the while I was trying to make the most of my summer. I had a few writing projects I was working on and I was also trying to prep for summer school -- a class I hadn’t taught in years and one for which the curriculum had changed since the last time I taught it. And it was all online!
I had to carefully budget my standing time. At this point, standing for even minutes was incredibly painful. I worked (and continue to as I share this) lying on my back on the couch. Not only is that position not ergonomic in any way -- it aggravates another injury I've battled on and off in my wrists -- it also meant I couldn’t use my second monitor, which helps with my workflow and increases efficiency. I’d do as much as possible from the supine position, including planning out what needed to be done from my actual work station, then go film or do other things for as long as I could stand the pain. This means work which might have taken a couple hours before, now takes much longer and I’m in pain throughout it all.
Our second covid semester is now coming to a close. This also represents my second semester grappling with and figuring out how to balance life with chronic pain. (And to be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t have been able to work at all if it weren’t for our virtual status.) I’ve had to come up with creative ways to teach effectively and also not have too much time on my feet. Slack has been effective for some class discussions but in a class that should be predominantly in ASL, the shift to English dominance weighs on me and I question if this approach is in the best interest of my course learning outcomes. At the same time, I physically could not handle being on my feet any more than I already am. My options are “teach in a potentially suboptimal way temporarily, or until I get a better handle on how to manage my work responsibilities with physical self-care” or “be in agonizing pain until my body or mind shut down and I can’t teach at all.”
My teaching has changed considerably since March, in part because of covid and in part because of my injury. I am constantly reflecting on how I could improve my virtual teaching and balance my physical limitations with my course learning outcomes. I don’t have it all worked out yet. What this makes me realize is that I am not the first, nor will I be the last, faculty member to experience this predicament. If it’s not physical injury/chronic pain, it might be persistent mental health struggles, managing care for children or parents, or other family members. Going forward, I hope to be more mindful of this balancing act.
Lastly, and why I’m sharing this now, there has to be space for faculty to talk about this and it has to be destigmatized. That’s the only way to humanely shift the academe’s culture of constant productivity in the face of challenges that make that level of productivity unrealistic and unhealthy.
Critically examining "accessibility": Interpreters are part of the solution (but also part of the problem)
4 December 2020
This blog post is based on a Twitter thread in which I revisit a thread from the 2019 Multicultural Education Conference. What I noted at the time was that one Keynote presenter spoke so fast that the interpreter and captioner couldn’t keep up, meaning deaf people, and anyone else using captions, didn’t have access to the talk. But hearing people also noted struggling to follow this presentation. Coincidentally, one of the other conference presenters noted that it’s important to critically examine inclusive practices to make sure they’re actually inclusive. This sentiment is echoed in a question I posed in one of my Tweets: “who does that kind of presentation (with a presenter speaking so fast most people can’t keep up) benefit?”
A situation came up yesterday which reminded me of that particular presentation and my (unpopular) thread, so I wanted to revisit this issue in a place that hopefully will get a little more visibility. My goal is to generate discussion and ultimately, solutions to these barriers to access.
Yesterday a faculty member was giving a short research talk for our college-wide meeting. Given the time constraints of the talk, they said they would “speak fast” to make sure to get through everything. Immediately, a deaf person commented in the chat “please don’t speak fast” and then added that having slides but not giving time to read them is inaccessible. Several minutes into the talk, an administrator jumped in to say “please slow down for the interpreters.”
There are two things I want to hit on to relate the situation at MCE in 2019 and again yesterday:
Speaking rate impacts everyone;
Framing speaking rate as being about the presence interpreters is damaging.
To the first point: Some hearing people may be able to keep up with fast talkers but might they not also benefit from slowing down a bit so they have time to process what they’re hearing? Probably. There were lots of Tweets after that quickly read MCE Keynote in 2019 raving about it, so clearly some people followed it. But there were also a number of hearing people in the audience who said it went over their heads. Slowing down and not trying to force an hour’s worth of information into a 20 minute talk will benefit everyone in the audience.
To the second point: That particular access barrier reminds me of a presentation and paper by Drs. Maartje de Meulder and Hilde Haualand “A Band-aid on a Gunshot Wound: Sign Language Interpreting and the Illusion of Inclusion.” (Click for slides from their WFD 2019 Keynote and Acadeafic blog post in International Sign and English.)
De Meulder and Hauland note that “despite the provision of sign language interpreters in different settings, deaf people continue to experience barriers.” One such barrier -- considering the situation at the MCE and in my own college yesterday -- is speaking rate. Despite having interpreters, if a speaker is speaking excessively fast, the interpreters/captioners cannot, regardless of their skill, faithfully render the message faithfully. This is not access.
De Meulder and Hauland further note that “[t]his means broadening the discussion about what ‘accessibility’ means.” My suggestion in this particular case is to shift the culture of how hearing people give presentations. They shouldn’t slow down “for the interpreter.” They should slow down to make what they’re saying accessible to their whole audience. This reframing shifts the focus from deaf people (and “uggg how we always have to be so accommodating and slow down for them”) to the community as a whole.
The purpose of presentations is to share ideas and to engage in discussion about ideas through discussion and answering questions. If the presentation is not accessible to everyone, the presentation itself suffers because it cannot benefit from everyone’s input.
"The Book is Better Than The Movie"
28 August 2020
How many times in your life has your favorite book become a movie? And how many times did you show up to the movie, incredibly excited (maybe even for a midnight showing, and maybe even in costume, and maybe you snuck in themed snacks) only to be let down because they left your favorite part of the book out of the movie or they changed a few details for some reason you can’t describe.
I used to be that person, enumerating each of the places in which the movie deviated from, and possibly ruined, the book. Until one day, when a good friend of a friend said, “You can’t compare books and movies. They’re just different.” She went on to explain how they can be loosely based on the same content but one is intended to be read, possibly with no visuals, and the other, a motion picture. These different media necessitate different ways to present the content. They can’t be compared. They have to be appreciated (or not) for their artistry in their own format.
As I go into this Fall 2020, virtual semester, it occurred to me, this is the same issue with face-to-face classes versus those delivered virtually. They can’t be compared. They’re just different. So as we prepare for this semester, I want to encourage my fellow teachers to not strive to make your online class just like your face-to-face class. You can’t. Just like a movie will never be the same as the book. Instead, think about your course outcomes and use all your creative wiles to figure out how to achieve them in this new platform.
Instead of lamenting “My online course doesn’t do x, y, and z, like my face-to-face class does,” accept the artistry of designing amazing virtual courses that achieve your desired outcomes in a new way.
First Day of Fall 2020
26 August 2020
Today is the first day of the semester. While we don’t welcome students back to our (virtual) classrooms until Monday, today the faculty gathered for the first time since May to talk about the upcoming year. Also, in light of the events that unfolded over the summer, we had an anti-racist framework workshop and discussion. Such a workshop is long overdue but it took the murders of far too many Black people to catalyze this action.
Doing the work of becoming anti-racist, for those of us who have had the privilege to not pay close enough attention until now, is not supposed to be easy or comfortable. But as I reflect on today’s workshop, I’m sitting with a lot of discomfort that’s unrelated to examining my own white privilege and, to be frank, the way I’ve hid behind my Mexican heritage as a way to avoid taking responsibility for my own racist behaviors.
Instead, I’m sitting with the discomfort of acknowledging that all of our full time Deaf Studies faculty are white and the vast majority of our adjunct faculty are as well. This is a problem. I’m sitting with the fact that Black students have come to my office in tears saying “I don’t want to go back to DEAF XX class, not because I don’t enjoy learning about the topic but because my teacher makes racist comments and I feel uncomfortable.” I’m sitting with the fact that I know we as a program desperately need to engage in conversations about racism and the ways in which our mostly whiteness may push out Black students and other students of color.
I’m sitting with all of this but I’m also sitting with the fact that the workshop was inaccessible in many ways. The presenters designed a beautiful website that would be a great resource to consume on one’s own, but over Zoom, with screenshare, with interpreters, it wasn’t possible to read the information on the screen, and pay attention to the interpreter, and pay attention to the constant stream of messages in the chat box. Some of the presentation involved showing music videos or playing songs that were uncaptioned. And some of the presentation involved showing pre-recorded videos that were, to use the popular internet word, “autocraptioned”. Not only are there errors in autocaptioning, but it’s also an unpunctuated stream of text, which makes it difficult (or sometimes impossible) to parse. This also contributes to Zoom fatigue, which I discussed in a vlog last spring.
So while I should be reflecting on how to be anti-racist, instead I’m lamenting the fact that what was a thought provoking dialogue starter for many of our faculty, I’m wondering how we can make Zoom more equitable so that deaf participants can also have full access to this important content. Because we need to do the work too.