Is Oscar winner ‘The Shape of Water’ spreading deaf awareness?

Oscar winner

At the recent 90th Academy Awards, two films addressing deaf-related issues were rewarded with Oscars. The result of their wins has led to an increase in deaf awareness, including the freedom of choice a deaf person has when choosing their method(s) of communication.
“The Silent Child” and “The Shape of Water” both surprised many with their achievements. The two films couldn’t be any more different, but what they do have in common is the use of sign language in both films.

Read more: Why this year’s Oscars was important for deaf culture

Communication and Sign Language

“The Shape of Water” scooped four Academy Awards including Best Picture. The film portrays a ‘mute’ cleaner who works in a secret US Government laboratory during the Cold War. One day she comes across a fish tank with a creature in it that she can communicate with using American Sign Language (ASL). The two use ASL to communicate and fall in love. After seeing many opinions on social media, it is clear that there are mixed reviews about sign language being used in the film. The conversations held on social media are creating questions about communication and inclusion. Although the main lead, Sally Hawkins, took American Sign Language (ASL) lessons to prepare for her role, there have been discussions as to whether the use of ASL in the film is shown in a positive light. There’s also a debate on whether the director, Guillermo del Toro, and Hawkins have helped or hindered the deaf community’s challenges through the film.   Some suggest the use of sign language has been given the Hollywood treatment, meaning it has been glamorized to some extent. Or even been used for the sole purpose of making the film different. 

“Some suggest the use of sign language has been given the Hollywood treatment and has been glamorized to some extent. Or even been used for the sole purpose of making the film different.”

Others, however, believe the film advocates the benefits and value of a beautiful language. Therefore, any exposure and publicity received from the Oscars play a part in spreading a positive message of sign language.

The beauty of Sign Language

The film highlights the realities and struggles of many people who are unable to communicate orally in our spoken word. Like the other Oscar-winning film, “The Silent Child”, both these films show the positive impact that sign language can have on a deaf person’s life. Both films, when looking closer, show the beauty of sign language. They both emphasize that communication barriers can be bridged by methods other than using words alone. Through the portrayal of the film, del Toro has suggested that the use of body language, facial expression, and gesture ‘speaks’ more than a thousand words. Hence that oral communication isn’t the only effective way of communicating. The film’s subject and content isn’t everyone’s ‘cup of tea’, but it is important to focus on the impact these films leave on society. If these cutting-edge films continue to push boundaries and increase discussions about Deafness, sign language, and #DeafTalent, that’s got to be a good thing surely?   Let us know what you thought of these films in the comments below!
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Ellie Parfitt
Ellie was born profoundly deaf, uses verbal communication, lipreads and wears Phonak hearing aids. She is currently learning British Sign Language. Ellie hasn’t let her disability stand in the way and embraces every new challenge. Her deafness didn't prevent her from achieving major accomplishments in her life, such as excelling in her education, working as a Marketing Executive for a Spa & Health Club, Events and Promotions Staff for a local newspaper as well as blogging for Hearing Like Me. She is passionate about deaf awareness, campaigning for equality and helping others through her personal blog as Deafie Blogger.

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