Netflix’s reality show format has been highly successful of late and, in a way, feels like a return to the golden age of the medium. There are moments in watching its latest series, the Nyle DiMarco-produced “Deaf U,” that will make you feel like you’re watching “The Hills.” It’s an important comparison to make, particularly when one is making something about disability or deafness. You want to draw in people from outside the community — and the best way to do that is giving them something familiar, relatable, and compelling.
“Deaf U” focuses on the students of Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., a college predominately for the deaf and hard of hearing. The stories of the individual students aren’t unique — ranging from discussions of sex and dating to issues with parents — but to see it through a deaf lens with such a frankness makes it unique.
Almost immediately audiences are thrust into a world of ASL, where hands furiously fly with sign language. To be dropped into this community, whether you’re disabled or not, is a rush of emotions. As various students say throughout the eight-episode series, Gallaudet, and the deaf community as a whole, is very small and insular. So it isn’t enough that stories of your abortion or who you hooked up with will end up being told to everyone, but also all your friends and lovers will be confined to the same place. Ordinarily, and especially for the able-bodied, this might feel claustrophobic; the equivalent of the smallest small town atmosphere one can imagine. But there’s a sense of belonging and understanding here that’s remarkable to see.
What “Deaf U” does so skillfully is lift the veil and dispel notions about the deaf community that can often extend to all disabled communities out there. One element that might surprise people is the hierarchy that is created in the community with the “elites,” a group where deafness has been in their family for generations. Several young women in this group are featured, especially with regards to how they treat fellow student Cheyenna Clearbrooke, a burgeoning fashion influencer who has lived in both the “hearing world” and the deaf community. The group watches Cheyenna’s YouTube videos, dissecting how often she mouths the words to appeal to those who can hear.
The audience is certainly meant to be upset by how Cheyenna is treated, and how it eventually pulls her away from college, but it touches on so many things that aren’t discussed about disability. What “Deaf U” ultimately exposes — if that word can be applied — is the humanity of the disabled community. Not everyone is good; some people are catty. To watch “Deaf U” isn’t to make the experience comfortable for hearing or able-bodied audiences. It’s to show the mess, the authenticity, the cliche fact that people with disabilities are no different than anyone else.
And those conversations crop up regularly throughout the series. It examines the way deaf people speak, and how the hierarchy changes if you can speak. Alexa Paulay-Simmons, a member of the “elites,” is the closest thing the series has to a villain, routinely toying with men’s hearts. The series doesn’t have storylines so much as following these young adults during their day, and that can certainly lead to a lot of fun — nearly all eight episodes discuss partying, drinking, sex and romance with very little schooling happening — but it’s really about the experience of seeing deafness so normalized.
The biggest issue that can be found with “Deaf U” is almost the complete absence of a racial discussion. A significant portion of Gallaudet’s student body is Black and students Daequan Taylor and Rodney Burford routinely bring up how they feel othered by their white classmates. Rodney is seen going out to a club with Cheyenna and being upset he can’t dance since the club is heavily made up of white people. Later he gets upset when he learns fellow football player Dalton flushed his expensive hearing aides as an act of rebellion. These moments stand out as do the cringeworthy moments of white girls like Alexa asking a Black student how “ratchet” her hair is, or another white female student telling Daequan that he taught her about “the hood.”
Disability representation in media is still heavily a white man’s world, and while “Deaf U” gives us far more of a Black deaf experience here than I’ve ever seen, the fact that none of them are asked about racism at school is troubling. Furthermore, there are absolutely no Black female students included, almost as if they don’t exist at all. The same can be said with any discernible Latino population. Again, it’s fantastic that a show like this exists, but it’s important not to cast the communities into literal Black and white with nothing in-between.
“Deaf U” entertains on its own merits but also represents a serious step forward in representing deafness and disability. Not every show about the subject needs to be a masterpiece, and “Deaf U” isn’t, but the fact that it can exist and just be fun is more than enough.
“Deaf U” is available on Netflix October 9.
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