Facepalm: Deaf Choir on Glee

I was so pleased with Glee's portrayals of people with special needs in the episode Wheels ... and then last night's episode thread about a competing Glee club from a Deaf school dripped patronizing treacle. Blech.

Meloukhia already wrote what I would write so I'll just quote (big lift, but it's a long post citing multiple fails, and this is from the end):
"Glee is finally allowing us to see the Deaf choir performing, I may have to give them some points for trying even though they are doing it very badly.

"And then, to my shock and horror, someone from the glee club started interrupting the Deaf choir to sing. Ok, now, I have not sung in a choir, but I consulted a real live person who has performed in choirs, and I was informed that, no, it is not actually conventional or acceptable to interrupt a choir while they are performing.

"Why was it ok here? How was it inspiring to watch the Deaf choir’s performance being interrupted and co-opted by the glee club? Because the Deaf choir were doing it wrong? Because “the poor impaired folk need normal people to fill in their defects,” as Lauredhel said when we were chatting about this episode?

"I wasn’t inspired or moved by watching the two choirs perform together. I was PISSED. Because it was framed as perfectly acceptable for the glee club to just jump in on another performance. And for this to turn into a Special Learning Experience, look at how they can all sing together and be happy! Yes, folks, totally erasing people with disabilities and not allowing them to perform is Inspiring! [emphasis mine -SR]

"The Deaf choir has been a running joke in this series. (Because everyone knows that Deaf folks can’t sing, or dance!) And now, in the scene where we finally had a chance to see them performing, they were treated with complete disrespect and condescension. They were framed as a failure, until the nice glee club came in and rescued them. But, you know, nice try, Deaf choir!

"Incidentally, check out Gallaudet Dance if you want to see actual Deaf people actually performing and being amazing in the process."
Note: I copied this post - sans Double Facepalm magic - from a comment I made on my original BlogHer Glee post.


  1. This post has been included in a linkspam at Access-Fandom. Thank you!

  2. Huh. I actually disagree with the parts of Meloukhia's post that you quote here. Particularly this one:

    Yes, folks, totally erasing people with disabilities and not allowing them to perform is Inspiring!

    The hearing choir only erased the deaf choir if you don't see what the deaf people were doing as singing. If you sign, or if you just grasp that sign is a language, the dominant musical thread in that performance is the deaf choir. Their signing is stronger, they're all doing it even when only a few of the hearing people are voice-singing, and they continue to sign even when the hearing people join them. They don't surrender the stage, they control the scene, they teach the hearing people to sign, and the hearing people sign with them. This means that by the end of the performance, half the people on the stage are voice-singing, all of them are signing, and the deaf voice-singer's vocal performance forms a baseline for the song from beginning to end. How does this amount to erasing the deaf people? Again -- it only does that if you don't recognize the signing as singing.

    As far as getting up on the stage and singing with the deaf kids -- whatever. People join in with each other during performances in that show all the time; when two characters are at odds, one of them sings and the other one joins in dramatically at exactly the right moment to show that they've made amends. It's not even a metaphor. They literally raise their voices in song. I can't really bring myself to pretend that's a bad thing, even if it is sort of dramatically trite.

    And just as a further side-note; the ASL that the deaf choir was using was not a pure English translation. I'm too out of practice to know how deeply ASL the grammar was, but they definitely made some choices about phrasing and vocabulary that took it away from signed English and toward the linguistically distinct ASL. Insofar as ASL is the most valuable cultural artifact of Deaf culture, the fact that the deaf students use non-English signing is a nod to Deaf empowerment and a move away from tokenism.

    But that's just my take.

  3. The Emperor's opinion is always welcome in this space.

    I am extremely overprotective of my kid, because people too often assume they need to speak for or make decisions for him. So I am projecting, because I would be pissed if a bunch of kids interrupted and changed a performance his crew was giving, no matter how earnest or benign their intentions. They would be erasing my son's carefully planned performance by changing it and distracting from it -- that is certainly how Leo would see it. Of course, if other kids tried to change Leo's routine, there's a good chance my son would freak out and start screaming and/or beating the crap out of the interlopers.

    Thank you for opening up the discussion. And OMG is it great to hear from you. Next?

  4. Yay! I'm not the only one that thought this was incredibly rude and bizarre.
    Let's not even think about whether the other choir was deaf or not.
    You don't interrupt people while they're performing. Have you ever seen someone jump in and start acting in the middle of a Broadway play?
    Kanye was critized for interrupting Taylor Swift's VMA speech. Why should that be any different from a high school choir performance?

  5. 'Cause it's a TV show?

  6. Anonymous10:50 PM

    I am a hearing teacher of the deaf and foster father to a deaf boy (who happens to be an incredible performer).

    I found the aspects of the show dealing with the "deaf in one ear" director unfunny, playing on inaccurate stereotypes of what it means to be deaf or hard-of-hearing.

    However, I felt the deaf students and their choir were portrayed quite well. First, the deaf kids were shown as being wiser than the hearing folks who subscribed to "hairography." Second, the performance highlighted that some deaf folks do voice and enjoy things like singing (I have lotsa experience with deaf folks who enjoy singing, vocally). Third, it showed the majority of the deaf choir performing an ASL version of the song, designed to match the tempo of the lyrics.

    The complaints registered by Meloukhia, who you quoted, talked of the hearing choir interrupting and co-opting the performance. I disagree completely, and am with Joshua on this: the hearing singers joined in with the deaf choir, apparently inspired by the genuine joy and emotion of the performers, in contrast with their own calculated and shallow performance.

    Additionally, the deaf choir was practicing, not performing, and seemed very welcoming of the hearing singers joining with them.

  7. underscore9:27 AM

    Hi, I ran across your site looking for anyone who was talking about the deaf choir episode of Glee. I'm hearing, so I may not be the right person to be indignant about this, but it seriously pissed me off. The deaf choir WAS performing, it was set up that way at the beginning of the episode when Mr. Schuster invited the kids from Eve's school to a "scrimmage" and to let them use the stage, not coach them on their performance. The point of the whole show was that they DIDN'T need the Glee kids' help, they just didn't have a stage because of budget cuts to the arts.

    Same goes for the deaf choir. They were not framed as needing coaching or asking for Schuster and the Glee kids to rate them or anything, that's what the regionals are for, they are competing against each other. If the kids from Eve's school didn't need people jumping up on stage with them to enhance their performance, then the deaf choir didn't need it either.

  8. Thank you so much for posting this! I was so annoyed that the glee club had to interupt the deaf school's performance. And the deaf in one ear principal bit was annoying. You don't see Arnie talking about his wheelchair every time he opens his mouth.

    And thanks for including a link to the gallaudet dance troupe. I went to a show at Gallaudet last year which was an ariel theatre show half in sign language and half spoken language. It was very cool.

  9. I know that it was rude for the Glee kids to interrupt the deaf choir's performance, yet they needed that to happen to give the performance the full inspiration that it did.

    I have to say, I deeply enjoyed the deaf choir's performance. It brought me and many others to tears because it was inspirational.

    The performance was meant to be a barrier breaker. You might complain about this one incident, but Glee is constantly playing off stereotypes. Look at how the Asians are addressed. Yes, the deaf choir teacher was a stereotype but I feel like the performance was a slap in the face to all people who believe in those stereotypes. In a media perspective, the teacher was an instigator of the stereotyped feelings and the performance was to remind people of values and morals.

    Of course, that is just my opinion.

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  11. Also, if you listen to all the things the deaf choir teacher was saying (aside from him repeatedly saying he can't hear) the things he was talking about are real issues.

    He was talking about how hard it is to get funding for this club and how its hard to be taken seriously.

    Let's try not to harbor on the stereotyped actions teacher was doing because when you look at the big picture, the message is clearer.

    THIS WAS A MESSAGE THAT THE DEAF DO HAVE A VOICE, its just not how many people would expect a voice.

    Also, if you guys are gonna get so defensive about stereotypes, how about the other school? Pick pocketers, majority is black... Like I said, Glee is always playing off of stereotypes and it is meant to combat those stereotypes. They use this show in a way to show that these stereotypes are stupid.

  12. I am a Teacher of the Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing, and I also teach American Sign Language.

    I have to say that I have greatly enjoyed how Glee has used satire to torpedo stereotypes about a variety of marginalized groups. That being said, I think we need to take with a grain of salt that the writers of Glee chose to portray the ostensibly deaf or hard-of-hearing (we don't use hearing impaired anymore) choir director as an outdated stereotype. When everyone else on the show is portrayed as a caricature, why should they treat the choir director differently? To take a line from Sue Sylvester in the "Wheels" episode "you're treating someone differently when all they want is to be treated like everyone else". If every other group is satirized or stereotyped, why should Deaf be any different?

    And as for torpedo-ing that stereotype, I have to say as someone who has both performed in choirs and worked extensively with the Deaf Community, I felt it was the best inclusion of Deaf characters on television that we've seen in awhile. The fact that the Deaf students were shown as being more classy than the hearing students (dress & demeanor), as well as being capable of critical analysis (They are true biz crazy! AWFUL!) spoke well of the Glee writer's room. The fact that the Deaf rendition of "Imagine" started out as slightly more English-based sign and then segued into more ASL was genius, as I felt it represented the Deaf choir's attempt to connect with the majority (i.e. hearing) audience and then bring them into their world, if only for a brief time.

    As a teacher who has worked with students in both schools for the Deaf and mainstream programs, I can honestly tell you that it's fine for people to stand on soapboxes and spout philosophical about whether or not the Glee choir was preempting the Deaf choir's performance; but the kids I have worked with would be thrilled if their hearing peers took that kind of interest in them, that they would want to collaborate on something.

    I think this episode did a brilliant job of showing that voices don't always need to be relegated to our throats or our hands; sometimes they are loudest in our hearts.

    That's just my .02, for what it's worth.

  13. Anonymous11:09 PM

    I am new to the ASL community, but I think this is a wonderful message for a tremendously underrepresented group. Although etiquette was not followed, it was truly inspiring and my family and I understood that when you are moved to join in sometimes you just can't sit still. Song is for everyone. Instead of freaking out about who upstaged the other, make no mistake this episode will be watched on DVR a gazillion times and the Deaf community has been represented, while the hearing get a slight bit of enlightening.

  14. So, the impression I'm getting here is that, on balance, people who have experience with the Deaf community thought it was a positive message and those who don't think it was a negative message. Does that seem accurate?

  15. Anonymous12:42 PM

    I understand your point of view: it would be rude if the Glee choir just stepped in and sang with the Deaf choir, interrupting their performance. From what I saw, it was more like a mashup. They added two very different choirs and allowed them to harmonize together.

    What I think is stereotypical, however, is having the Deaf choir portrayed as inspirational figures. In many films, the "handicapped" character' role is to somehow wisen up the "regular" characters. I think it'd be more interesting if the Deaf choir were shown as real characters rather than archetypes.

  16. Anonymous5:43 PM

    I saw it like this: The Glee choir was really enjoying the Deaf choir's performance of "Imagine." Mercedes, swaying to the music with all the kids, could barely contain herself and burst out in song as she joined the deaf choir. One-by-one, the inspired Glee choir members walked up to the risers and, for that moment, it wasn't so hard to believe that the "World could live as one."

    Contrived, treacle, and yet I still cried because I'm obviously the target audience for such scenes.

    Not so bad...and yes, I have three kids with varying degrees of special needs (classic autism, ADHD, SID, CAD, severe anxiety, so on and so forth...)so I also can be defensive and understand your initial response.

  17. I'm late to this discussion, but still want to chime in...

    The interesting thing to me is that the stereotype-busing had to do with a spoken-word version of the song by a deaf student, backed by a sign-language choir. That would've been a great stereotype to bust several years ago, as sign language came into its own in the 1980's - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deaf_President_Now

    Since then cochlear implants have become available, and as the mom of a deaf son who plays piano beautifully (by benefit of cochlear implants & intensive early intervention) - and I would LOVE to see the stereotype busted that ALL deaf people are so inspirational because they talk/sing with their hands. My son is far from the only one who sings, talks on the cell phone, and overhears me from the other room - especially when I swear :-)

    If a group of kids like mine got together & sang or played music - you wouldn't even know they were deaf. But that wouldn't be very theatrical.


Respectful disagreement encouraged.