CODA, the 2021 film directed by Sian Heder, tells the story of Ruby Rossi, the only hearing person in her otherwise Deaf family. Ruby is a CODA, a child of a Deaf adult. CODAs grow up with Deaf culture, community, and using sign language as their primary method of communication. But because they’re hearing, they cannot fully be a part of the Deaf world. That being said, CODAs do not have a “normal” hearing childhood either, leaving them caught between cultures. I’m part CODA: My Deaf grandparents helped raise me, as my mom was a single mom of three. I could sign before I could speak, and adults and teachers were always amazed when I signed, as if it were some magical talent that was bestowed upon me.
CODA follows Ruby and her family during her senior year of high school. They live in a small town in Massachusetts where they work as fishermen. Ruby works with her dad Frank and brother Leo on their boat before school every day and then attends her local high school. The film opens with Ruby singing to herself loudly on the boat. When Ruby gets to school, it becomes clear that she gets bullied, this time for smelling like fish, to which her best friend jokes and says: “At least they aren’t calling you Deaf-voice anymore.”
When CODA was first announced, I hoped that this would finally be the perfect movie to use to explain my own experiences. It half worked out: the movie is funny, light-hearted, and a tear-jerker. At the same time, it plays into stale and distasteful stereotypes of Deaf people and Deaf culture.
For instance, like many other movies surrounding Deafness, CODA centers on music. Ruby has always loved singing and wants to join her school’s choir, and when she tells her mom Jackie, Jackie scoffs and says, “If I was blind would you want to be a painter?” Ruby constantly clashes with her parents’ disdain for her singing. In reality, the number of people who are born completely Deaf are the minority within the Deaf community, and even they can enjoy music – my grandma included!
I think music becomes the opposite of deafness in the hearing world because of how misrepresented Deaf people are in the media. It seems many people believe deafness is all-or-nothing, making music the antithesis to deafness. And what better conflict is there than one that simply cannot be overcome? While most CODAs do have at least one point of disconnect between them and their parents, having Ruby’s be music is hyper-dramatized. It paints a picture of Deaf people hating music, which is simply not true. Nor are Deaf parents the antagonistic enemies of music. None of my hearing family members are inevitably drawn to music as CODA presents it. My two brothers and I all participated in the school band in elementary and middle school, and there were plenty of times my grandma knew we were playing our instruments. Like Frank, my Deaf grandpa loved music. Every time he picked me up from work there was something playing extremely loud, usually classical music.
Throughout the film, Ruby is expected to interpret for her family members. Being in the position of interpreter is definitely not unknown for CODAs so it’s something the movie almost gets right. For example, when Jackie and Frank are arguing about letting Ruby go to college, Jackie says, “She’s my baby,” and Frank replies, “She was never a baby.” This interaction implies that Ruby’s role as a family interpreter forced her to grow up prematurely. CODAs understand the significance of this line in the film because within the inaccessible hearing world we live in, the hearing child functions as the connection between worlds. However, the film seems to neglect the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA was passed in 1990, so it doesn’t necessarily make sense that Ruby was the interpreter for her parents at the doctor’s office or that there wouldn’t have been an interpreter at Ruby’s school concert. It would make more sense if the film was set before 1990, because this is something my mom went through, but it’s a bit of a dated take. However, both my mom and I still accompany my grandma to her appointments because she finds using an interpreter uncomfortable. This is a sentiment echoed in the movie when Jackie asks Ruby to call her grandmother on Jackie’s behalf. Ruby says, “Use an interpreter,” and Jackie replies, “It’s so awkward to talk to them.” Troublingly, there are many times in the movie when Ruby does not interpret what her parents are saying or what’s being said to them, and adds in, “That’s from him, not me.” One of the first things someone learns as an interpreter is to interpret the message fully and without bias. Ruby is doing a harsh – and unethical – disservice to her parents by censoring them and the world around them.
One of the most painful parts of the movie is when Mr. Villalobos, Ruby’s music teacher, is asking her to describe her voice when she entered school. Ruby explains that she had an accent, that she talked funny, and that she talked like a Deaf person. Mr. Villalobos asks what she meant by that and she says, “Wrong. Ugly.” This was especially painful to watch because I remember hearing how other kids, or sometimes adults, would make fun of my grandpa’s voice. Given the fact it was a majority Deaf cast, it was surprising that such a negative and popular stereotype of Deaf people made it into the film. A majority of the world is hearing and by default, a majority of the viewers will be hearing. A continuation of the stereotype that Deaf people talk funny that will be implanted into hearing people’s minds instead of the realities that Deaf people talk absolutely fine. Had Mr. Villalobos, a Latino character with an accent himself, taken a strong stance against what Ruby said and that speaking with an accent is not wrong nor ugly it would have done much more for the movie.
I was hoping for a CODA that I could see myself in, or see my mom in. Someone who doesn’t make me angry or confuse me with her actions and choices. I was hoping for a CODA who loves ASL and Deaf culture and loves talking about it, but Ruby tries to run away from it all she can – except for when it seems convenient for her. Ruby chooses to sign along with her singing when she auditions for the Berklee College of Music. This scene is also the epitome of what hearing people love about ASL. Videos of hearing creators signing songs constantly go viral but seldom do Deaf creators’ videos. Nowhere in the movie does Ruby acknowledge the beauty of ASL or the amazing community the Deaf have, only that her parents need her and how ugly their voices are. But she seems willing to exploit her ability to sign, using it to make herself stand out. I felt having Ruby sign at her audition just played into this fetishization of ASL interpretations of music.
Additionally, the film characterizes Ruby as the “hearing savior.” Leo expresses this sentiment throughout the movie. He often refers to her as “Saint Ruby” and says things such as, “I don’t need you,” “our family was fine before you were born,” and “let them [the hearing world] figure out how to deal with Deaf people.” Leo feels infantilized by his little sister stepping in for him, while Ruby does not see the harm in helping.
These actions extend to her parents as well. When Ruby and her duet partner Miles go to Ruby’s house to practice their song, embarrassingly, they hear her parents having sex. The next day at school, Ruby discovers that Miles spread the story and now the whole school knows. Ruby, rightfully so, lashes out at Miles. What she says to him, however, is unbecoming. She says that she hears what they can’t, and so she has to protect them. I feel conflicted about this line because I think I know what Ruby meant: she has to hear and hold onto all the horrible things people can say about Deaf people. I know that people have said rude things about my grandparents while thinking I was deaf too, and holding onto that can and does hurt. But hearing mean words pales in comparison to Deaf people’s fight for accessibility. Disabled people do not need protection – they need accessibility, understanding, and compassion, which is something this movie never addresses.
There are things the film gets right, and for viewers who know nothing about the Deaf world, I’m sure it was an excellent movie. But this story feels dated. Times have changed and so must pop culture reflections of the Deaf. All of the Deaf characters were played by Deaf actors, but I wish Ruby too had been played by a real-life CODA. I don’t believe it was a bad movie. I cried many times because I understood the pain Ruby and her family felt. It was emotional and I think it’s the closest a film has gotten to getting it right. But there are a lot of issues to resolve before a reboot inevitably comes out in ten years.