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At the time of the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo – back before the world started wheezing and Star Trek: Discovery was still on Netflix – the British broadcaster of the games, Channel 4, received some criticism for its bombastic ad campaign Super. Human that showed various Paralympians smash-cutting their way to glory against a soundtrack of breathless determination.
It was undeniably a huge success, transforming the perception of the games in the UK and affixing it to the public’s sporting calendar, but the campaign’s central conceit raised hackles for its repetition of a patronizing trope. Professor Colin Barnes of the Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Leeds wrote in Disabling Imagery and the Media (1992) of the 11 stereotypes that defined disability narratives.
Amongst them – and I apologize for using this word, it makes my skin crawl – was what he called the ‘Super Cripple’:
“This is similar to the stereotype portrayal of black people as having ‘super’ qualities in order to elicit respect from white people. Black people are often depicted as having ‘a wonderful sense of rhythm’, or as exceptional athletes. With disability. however, the disabled person is assigned super human almost magical abilities. Blind people are portrayed as visionaries with a sixth sense or extremely sensitive hearing. Alternatively, disabled individuals, especially children, are praised excessively for relatively ordinary achievements.”Professor Colin Barnes, Disabling Imagery and the Media (1992)
There’s no escaping the fact that this reads as a log-line for Daredevil. Although a product of the well-meaning, but not particularly nuanced worldview at Marvel in the 1960s, I’m not coming out swinging for Daredevil. He’s one of my favorite superheroes on paper and on-screen, and the sensitivity of his treatment in the cruelly curtailed Netflix series is worthy of praise. Rather neatly, this brings us to Maya Lopez, aka Echo, first introduced in Marvel Knights’ Daredevil #9 (1999) and created by Joe Quesada and David W. Mack.
See also: Marvel | Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Platonic Love in the MCU by Soma Ghosh
A deaf Native American antagonist-turned-ally, Maya Lopez appears in the ongoing Disney+ Hawkeye series played by Alaqua Cox – a deaf Menominee and Mohican woman – and is set to receive her own spin-off series. Although beaten to the claim of ‘First Deaf Superhero in the MCU’ by Makkari (Laren Ridloff) in Eternals (2021) only a couple of weeks earlier, the depth to Maya’s depiction is far more consequential.
She first appears at the end of Episode 2, ‘Hide and Seek’, but it’s in Episode 3, ‘Echoes’, that we really get to see who Maya is. Almost immediately we’re able to contrast her profound deafness (defined as being unable to hear any speech and only very loud sounds) with Clint’s moderate deafness (define as hearing almost no speech when a person is talking at a normal level).
Seeing the Signs
The show begins with Clint, weary and semi-retired, just trying to get through a truly tedious Steve Rogers musical by flicking off his in-ear hearing aid and gazing wistfully at the prancing facsimile of Black Widow. Having taken one too many blows to the melon in the defense of Earth, he’s apparently burdened with post-traumatic hearing loss to go with the obvious post-traumatic stress of watching his bestie take her own life in Avengers: Endgame.
For the first two episodes, this is merely backgrounding to the larger story, but Clint’s cochlea compromise becomes a major part of the story when we meet Echo in earnest. The bowsome twosome, Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld) and her reluctant mentor, are held prisoner by the Tracksuit Mafia, a 60s Batman-style theme gang seemingly modeled on the Slav Squat meme. (The extent to which this is problematic might have to wait for a different article).
Speaking through her American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter Kazi (Fra Fee), the implacable Maya draws out the contrast between her response to deafness and her prisoner’s:
Kazi: “You rely too much on technology.”‘Echoes’ – S1, Ep3.
Clint: “Well, my go-to weapon is two sticks and a string, so.”
Kazi: “No, she means your hearing aid. You might find you’re better off without it.”
The flashback shows the young Maya (Darnell Besaw) and her father, crime boss William Lopez (Fargo and Reservation Dogs’ brilliant Zahn McClarnon), communicating through ASL. Unable to afford specialist education, she has to enter the unprepared school system with her father’s advice as her only armor:
“You have to learn to jump between two worlds. Just by watching.”William Lopez, ‘Echoes’ – S1, Ep3.
That line, the understated payoff to the conversation above, hit me with unexpected force.
See also: Guardians of the Galaxy | Gamora and Nebula – Sisterhood in the Shadow of Abuse by Lewis Smyth
Speaking to The Guardian newspaper in 2010 about the creation of Maya Lopez, David W. Mack described her as “visually piecing the information of her world together to make sense of the mysterious audible world that she was not a part of.”
Though not deaf, Mack read first-person accounts from a deaf perspective to center Echo’s own voice in the story. It’s obviously fantasy, but you can see the reality underpinning it – it’s not Daredevil’s radioactive echo-location:
“Maya grew up deciphering details from visual cues. She learned to make sense of body language, facial expressions, lip movements, piano playing, in such detail that she developed a pattern recognition in which she can decipher the pattern in just about anything visual.”David W. Mack
I’m partially deaf – mild deafness by the criteria referenced above. I have been since childhood and my hearing will only degenerate over time, but for the bulk of my life, I avoided wearing hearing aids. Not only did hearing aids mark me out as different at a point in my life when I was switching schools and already struggling to fit in, but hearing aids in the mid-’90s were horrible analog affairs cast in ugly hospital beige. There was no sophistication to their settings – either everything went louder or everything went quieter.
That might sound fine, but hearing loss isn’t always a uniform plunging of the levels towards silence. Noises at the higher end of the spectrum – birdsong, footsteps behind me, whispering – are impossible for me hear whilst lower noises are for the most part just as loud. Enduring school with these neolithic little gadgets in my ears was suddenly even more chaotic and confusing because it didn’t distinguish. The things it was supposed to render audible were now being drowned out by the things that were already loud. I felt panicked. It was easier to keep them in only for the classroom, and then eventually, just leave them at home and do my best without.
I can’t put a date on it, but roughly between the ages of about 12 and 30, I tried my hardest to navigate the world as if my hearing wasn’t an issue. My deafness was something that I was trying to thrive in spite of and by ignoring it, I was convinced I could take away its power to affect my life. Except it quite obviously did, because I misheard things and therefore misunderstood, missed flights and trains in abundance, ignored phone calls because they made me deeply anxious, and came across rude and abrupt when I failed to answer a softly-spoken query. I began to avoid social situations because they increased the likelihood of me getting left behind, so to deny my deafness the opportunity to ruin a night out (loud music, disorientating crosstalk, low light), I embarked on what was effectively scorched earth campaign to ruin every night out by not showing up.
Despite all of the awkwardness, anxiety, and missed opportunities, I learned to compensate “just by watching.” I compulsively read every surface and piece of information to avoid being ambushed by an announcement that “Mumble mumble is in the mumble.” I can read very fast and I can read upside down. I rely on both lip-reading and interpreting body language more than I do aural cues. Not to a ‘Super Cripple’ degree obviously, but I somehow made it through school, college, and university – albeit it not as smoothly as I could have done if I had actually taken ownership of my deafness – despite having at least one college tutor and two university lecturers that I couldn’t hear at all.
That’s a whole lot of leaning on the handouts and answering questions with a terrified “I’m not sure,” so I get it. I relate. I’m not an MCU gangland ninja or anything, but I lived with Maya’s childhood mantra “You have to learn to jump between two worlds. Just by watching.”
A fight scene breaks out and Maya crushes Clint’s hearing aid beneath her boot.
I do wear hearing aids now, by the way. They’re so much better than they used to be, I can use them like AirPods to take calls and listen to music, and I’m a lot better about going “Sorry, can you repeat that please?” and explaining why. I’m still jumping between two worlds out of habit, but I know the clock is ticking on that. One day I might be profoundly deaf and I should really start learning sign language whilst I still have the benefit of talking about it.
Maya was forced to jump between two worlds because she lacked the resources to be in the one that would have given her the support she needed. I was given the support I needed, but I forced myself to jump between two worlds because I was – and probably still am – a self-destructive combination of scared and stubborn. We both found other ways to close the gap between those worlds, although one of us used significantly fewer martial arts and less reliance on organized crime.
A mistake people often make when they talk about – or even worse, when they set down to actually depict – disability on screen is to assume that it’s inspirational. It’s not. We don’t invest in these characters because they show us how we can be superhuman, or give us a lofty ideal to match. The major barrier to me being an Olympic-level archer, martial artist, and secret agent wasn’t my belief that such things were impossible for deaf people – just check out two-time Olympic Gold fencer Ildikó Rejtő, MMA fighter Matt Hamill, World Championship swordfighter Safari Jessop, or Olympic Gold boxer Carlo Orlandi.
See also: The Matrix | Transgender Allegory, Applicability, and Me by Ell Twine
The barrier was me not wanting to be those things, and not having the willpower to stick to anything even if I had.
None of us were sitting here waiting for a role model – Professor Barnes’ ‘Super Cripple’ – but it turned out I was waiting for someone whose experiences genuinely looked and felt a lot like mine. Representation isn’t about the size of the presence or the scale of the achievement, it’s about sincerity. All it takes is one scene and a handful of lines for you to feel seen.
Funnily, the last time something profoundly affected me like this was also superhero-related. In an issue of Kick-Ass 3 (2013) by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., vigilante dork Dave Lizewski is getting it on with his girlfriend, Valerie, when he spots her hearing aid. He says “Oh, you wear a hearing aid” or something to that effect.
That’s all it was. It wasn’t a plot point, it was just a detail on a supporting character, but it brought into sharp focus how seldom you see that sort of casual representation. Hearing aids are used like Checkov’s gun (eg. A Quiet Place, Batman Forever) and deafness only exists to heighten vulnerability (Hush, Baby Driver, Take Shelter, Godzilla vs. Kong).
The bar really is that low, but with three more episodes of Hawkeye to come, there’re plenty of opportunities left for them to lose their way. Despite the authenticity of Maya’s storyline, ‘Echoes’ still relied on a recurring joke about Clint – sans hearing aid – repeating everything Kate said after she had already said it, which wouldn’t feel out of place in a 1970s sitcom. It would be like giving Daredevil a ‘bit’ where he walks into a coffee table repeatedly and playing it for laughs. Trust me, not hearing things and having people laugh at it gets old very fast.
To finish where we began, with Professor Colin Barnes and another of his stereotypes, ‘The Disabled Person as an Object of Ridicule’:
“The negative implications for disabled people of this type of abuse should not be underestimated. On the one hand, it seriously undermines what little opportunities they have to be taken seriously by non-disabled society. On the other hand, it has the capacity to sap their self-confidence and esteem.”Professor Colin Barnes, Disabling Imagery and the Media (1992)
“Good thing they call you HawkEYE, not HawkEAR.”Kate Bishop, ‘Echoes’ – S1, Ep3.
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James is editor of The Companion. He has been “working in publishing” since the early 1990s when he made his own Doctor Who fanzine to sell in the school playground.You can find him on Twitter @JDHoare