Opinion: ‘CODA’ didn’t change my life. It showed my life


Growing up, I had a joke that I was going to make a stack of note cards to carry with me all the time, printed with the four lines above.

I imagined being able to hand these cards out to everyone who interrogated me about my family and my background, tired of constantly explaining myself and my identity.

Decades later, the word that none of my friends had ever heard before was suddenly everywhere. The word “CODA” appeared on posters, billboards, and TV commercials. I watched the film by myself, in a dark room, a box of tissues on hand for the tears I knew would ensue.

“CODA,” which won Best Picture on Oscar night, didn’t change my life. It showed my life.

I was the older of two hearing children raised by a Deaf father and a hard-of-hearing mother in the 1980s and 1990s. When I was young, a teacher told me I “didn’t count” as bilingual because ASL “isn’t a real language,” TV captions were optional to provide and often inaccurate, and I never invited people over for dinner because I wanted to eat my food while it was hot instead of spending the whole night translating.

Yes, I am hearing. But I consider myself Deaf. The word, written with a capital D, represents our beautiful, eclectic and proud community. Like Ruby, the protagonist of “CODA,” I lived my childhood in an overlapping space between two identities, never fully at home in either.

Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin and Daniel Durant in "CODA."

When we’re having conversations about representation, people often say “I saw myself on screen.” I absolutely saw myself on screen in “CODA.” But I also saw so many other people from our community.

There were the Deaf parents who want to give their children the best possible life while realizing the “best possible life” may be one they aren’t able to have themselves.

There were the Deaf siblings who look on as their hearing brothers and sisters are treated differently by outsiders. There were the CODAs who have been roped into translating for their parents in awkward or unfair situations, aware of their privilege but also powerless to change the way the world sees their family.

If there was a Deaf version of the Bechdel test (perhaps we can call it the Kotsur Test?) “CODA” would pass it with flying colors. Two Deaf characters? Check. Played by Deaf actors? Check. Talking to each other in sign language? Check.

In his speech for winning Best Supporting Actor, Troy Kotsur said this moment didn’t just belong to him. It belonged to the Deaf community, to the CODA community, and to all disabled communities.

One of those community members was leading the crowd in “deaf clapping,” Marlee Matlin, who played Kotsur’s character’s wife in “CODA.” Matlin won the Oscar for Best Actress in 1987 for her role in “Children of a Lesser God.”
Troy Kotsur, left, accepts the actor in a supporting role award for "CODA" from Youn Yuh-jung onstage during the 94th Annual Academy Awards.

For the Deaf and CODA kids of my generation, she was not just a star, she was the sun. Matlin, a Deaf woman who is such an icon she has her own sign, spent years carrying the flag alone. But she has inspired and mentored a generation of Deaf performers.

To see a multitude of Deaf stories at one time in “CODA” is a reminder that plurality is important. What if Hollywood took a break from rebooting Spider-Man yet again and devoted the budget to films that depict disabled stories and identities?

It isn’t just about “CODA.” It’s about the scripted TV series “Switched at Birth,” the reality show “Deaf U,” the Broadway and Deaf West staging of “Spring Awakening” — which, by the way, featured Kotsur in a breakout performance — and more. More depictions create more chances to show our community as more than a monolith.

“CODA” is already more than a film. Like too many stories about marginalized communities, it must represent everything to everyone.

But can you imagine a world where hearing kids from hearing families learn a signed language just for fun? Where Deaf people don’t have to get in touch with an event venue and request an interpreter a month in advance just because they want to go see a show? Where Deafness is a way of life and not a tragedy?

Before this, I can honestly say that I couldn’t.

Now, though, a whole new crop of children will never have to explain what “CODA” means. They will never need note cards. And maybe, just maybe, they will never have to apologize for who they are.



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