**SPOILER ALERT: The following contains some plot details about A Quiet Place.**
To start, let me say I am thrilled that A Quiet Place features the endearing young Deaf actress, Millicent Simmonds, in one of the lead roles. Too many Hollywood productions fail to cast Deaf actors for Deaf roles, so it is refreshing that producer and lead actor John Krasinski insisted on casting a Deaf actress in this movie. It is also wonderful to see ASL on the big screen. Even though I wasn’t able to watch an open-captioned showing of A Quiet Place, it is an easy movie to follow without much reliance on captioning devices.
If I didn’t want to think too deeply, I would agree with all of the positive reviews and comments about how novel and thrilling the movie is. It could be a blast to go and watch simply for the sake of getting scared. On a surface level, it is a fun horror movie.
I can’t in good conscience say nothing, however, about what I find problematic and exasperating about this movie.
Here are the six not-so-great messages found in A Quiet Place:
1. ASL is a last resort.
In the movie, ASL is portrayed as a last resort means of communication in a worst case scenario. ASL is not used by choice. It is a feature of the movie’s dystopian setting, the only option for survival in a very negative situation where people will get killed by terrifying creatures if they make noises. Luckily, the Abbott family already signs because their daughter is Deaf. In the framework of a dangerous and frightening world, ASL becomes a benefit to them.
Unfortunately, signing in a bad situation parallels the real life scenario that is all too common: ASL being presented as a communication option for Deaf babies and children only as a last resort. Medical professionals and so-called education experts usually discourage the use of ASL among Deaf babies and children. This is done out of the incorrect assumption that spoken language development will be impaired if ASL is used. Only when all other options fail, do many Deaf babies and children receive exposure to ASL. When they finally are allowed to sign, the effects of language deprivation have already made their mark.
The movie misses an opportunity to show ASL in a more positive light, as a chosen language with many benefits.
2. ASL is only good for basic communication.
The movie does not show ASL as a full language that is useful beyond crises. Most of the signing is limited to basic communication. Characters turn to speaking when their conversations become deeper. For instance, the father would sign “no”, “stay” or “be quiet” to his son, but they would speak to each other when discussing whether the father has told his daughter he loves her. Even if this difference in language usage may have been unintentional, it subtly links ASL with primitive needs and voice with more abstract conversations. In the movie, the siblings play a board game in silence, suggesting that ASL does not allow for the interesting conversations people typically have while playing games. In reality, Deaf people carry on full and animated conversations in ASL.
3. It is awfully scary to be Deaf, to use ASL, and to live in a silent world.
Most hearing people are understandably afraid of not being able to hear or use their voices and of having to use other communication methods instead. A Quiet Place becomes a successful horror movie by taking advantage of this fear, incorporating it with other scary elements to ramp up the fright factor. This perpetuates hearing people’s fear of being Deaf and using ASL when neither is as scary in reality.
4. Deaf people are vulnerable, dependent and dumb.
The Deaf character in this movie is a young girl who, due to being Deaf, is particularly susceptible to being eaten alive by the terrifying creatures who lurk in the shadows, ready to pounce on anyone who makes a noise. In one scary scene, the camera follows her as she walks through a field, unaware that a creature is stalking her. She has to rely on her hearing family members to alert her to the creatures’ presence. She is also the one who indirectly “caused” her younger brother’s death because she gave him the rocket toy that made noise and attracted one of the creatures who ate him. Even though she did not give him the batteries, had she not given him the toy in the first place, he would still be alive. Her brother might have contributed to his own death, but in the end she is still at fault.
The movie chose to focus on the Deaf girl’s missing sense completely and blow any perceived dangers out of proportion, while leaving out the unique benefits associated with being Deaf. Research shows that Deaf people have quicker reaction times to moving stimuli in the periphery and are more accurate when it comes to discriminating differences in angle of motion and direction than hearing people. These vision-related advantages could easily have translated into useful contributions made by the Deaf girl in helping her family outwit the creatures. Instead of making the whole movie about how the Deaf girl struggles to fit into a hearing-centric world, it would have been more enlightening to show the positive aspects of being Deaf.
The only time the Deaf girl actually makes a significant contribution is when she uses her squealing cochlear implant to outdo the creatures. In a bizarre twist, the cochlear implant functions as a miracle, even though it is defective. What a message: cochlear implants are great, whether they are broken or not. If the movie manages to pull off such an unrealistic presumption, it sure can do something similar to present the Deaf girl as a strong character who is more than capable of contributing to her family’s survival.
5. Deaf people need to be fixed.
Fixing the Deaf girl’s hearing with a cochlear implant is a huge theme throughout the movie. The father works in secret to repair broken implants for his daughter. These cochlear implants become a symbol of hope. Near the end of the story, the daughter finds her father’s workspace full of cochlear implant devices and tools, which illustrates how much he loved her. Of course, seeing the father’s love for his daughter is touching, but it comes at the expense of emphasizing the need to “cure” Deaf people.
It is important to acknowledge the fact that the Deaf girl’s parents sign also reflects their love for her through ensuring she acquires full language access. This, however, is not a point that is highlighted or used to evoke warm feelings from viewers like the cochlear implants succeed in doing. It is especially ironic, as language acquisition is a guarantee with ASL, and not so with cochlear implants.
6. Cochlear implants are instant lifesavers.
The movie implies cochlear implants save lives, whether through making Deaf people hear or acting as heroic destroyers of the creatures that are terrorizing the world. This romanticizes the idea of cochlear implants, framing them as quick, miraculous solutions to the perceived problem of being Deaf and the actual (in the movie) problem of fending off deadly creatures.
The reality is the opposite. Cochlear implants do not function as artificial ears that provide perfect hearing ability. They do not work like glasses do for most people who wear them. Deaf people who receive cochlear implants must endure long hours of auditory-verbal therapy and practice constantly before a minimal percentage finally benefit from them.
It is hard not to wonder why cochlear implants are portrayed in such a super-heroic way in this movie. The cochlear implant industry earns a great deal of money by exploiting hearing people’s, especially parents’, fears and ignorance about Deaf people. While the implants may work for some people, they most definitely do not work for many others. This movie, however, frames them otherwise.
The irony is that ASL is actually a valuable tool for early language acquisition, acting as a lifesaver for many Deaf individuals.
Now that you know these not-so-great messages in A Quiet Place, you may not think they are major issues. However, they do shape what hearing people think of Deaf people. Some viewers may go on to have Deaf babies in the future. When they find out their baby is Deaf, their negative reactions, thoughts, and feelings may be subconsciously influenced by this movie. Having a Deaf baby does not have to be as terrifying, but unfortunately movies like A Quiet Place perpetuate this nightmare. Remembering this movie and its misleading messages, parents may react out of fear and do everything to make their child not Deaf, such as opting for cochlear implants and no ASL. This is never the best option for their Deaf child though, since every Deaf baby should be provided full access to ASL, a visual language that comes naturally to Deaf people.
Yes, we can be happy that A Quiet Place cast a Deaf talent and made ASL visible on the big screen. At the same time, we need to consider the other messages, both subtle and loud, that the movie sends about Deaf people.
Addendum: Many people who reacted to this post mentioned how ironic it is that while the movie captioned all conversations in ASL for non-signers, it did not caption any conversations in spoken English for Deaf individuals. I thought this is another point worth considering and bringing up in this post.