Here’s a fact: the deaf community are criminally underrepresented in TV, movies and videogames. But you know what’s arguably worse than being underrepresented? Being represented poorly, which deaf characters almost exclusively are, in pretty much every medium.
I’m not sure why, but writers and developers across the world seem totally incapable of creating intelligent, confident, charismatic deaf characters. They prefer instead to present them as helpless victims who, as a result of being deaf, do not fully understand the world around them and are forced to live their lives stuck in their own heads. Shouto Nishimiya from a Silent Voice is an absolutely prime example of this. Let me explain why.
Despite being one of the main protagonists, Shouko Nishimiya hardly says a word throughout the entire of a Silent Voice. And no, I don’t mean that she doesn’t ‘say’ anything – lots of deaf people choose not to use their voices, usually because of speech impediments they have developed as a result of their disability – what I mean is that she never communicates. At all. To anyone.
Despite having both sign language and written language at her disposal, she barely ever expresses her thoughts or opinions about anything. I barely knew anything more about her at the end of the film than I did at the start, so barebones is her character progression. She gives us nothing – I felt like I had to constantly second-guess her feelings, just like the characters in the movie did. She clearly has feelings – her facial expressions and body language are clear on this – but she hardly ever tries to tell the other characters in the show how she feels, even though she is capable of doing so. She just sits there in silence, looking sad, like a zoo animal passively watching the world go by from behind a glass window.
Why is this?
Do the writers of the a Silent Voice think that deaf people don’t have opinions like everyone else? Do they think that being deaf prevents you from interacting with the rest of the world?
Nishimiya is deaf, not mute.
When will people realise that deaf people have just as many complex thoughts and opinions as everyone else? They joke, argue, tease, snap and chit-chat just like hearing people do. They’re just people.
Part of what makes the deaf community so inspiring is proving time and time again that language transcends speech. You don’t need to ‘speak’ to speak. That’s the whole point of sign language. I can’t imagine how offended I would be as a deaf person to see my disability represented by such a passive, airheaded character – especially in a movie that is constantly touted as being ‘oh so inclusive’ to deaf people but does such a poor job at representing them as thinking, feeling humans.
Perhaps the worst part is that so many of this movies’ plot points are built around poor communication between Nishimiya and the other characters. The scene where Shouto tries to tell Shoya that she loves him, but because of her speech impediment, he thinks she’s saying ‘tsuki’ (moon) instead of ‘suki/daisuki’ (like/love) got me particularly frustrated. She could have just as easily signed ‘I love you’ since Shoya knows some quite advanced sign language and would’ve understood her just fine. Hell, she could have texted him! But she doesn’t, of course. Why? Don’t know. Is she being purposefully difficult, or is she just stupid? I’m not sure which is worse.
Nishimiya’s behaviour as a whole is awkward and obtuse throughout the whole movie. Her incompetence drives the story forward – she’s a plot device and nothing more. Being deaf is her entire personality and the only thing that the audience really knows about her, which is exactly the kind of attitude we should be trying to get away from.
The movie isn’t all bad – I do think that telling the story from the perspective of the bully was a bold move and it was very interesting to see the vicious cycle of bullying perpetuate itself throughout the story. However, that doesn’t make up for how hard they drop the ball with Nishimiya’s character. I suppose we’re still waiting for positive deaf representation in anime.
If you’re interested in learning more about what it’s really like to be deaf, I would recommend visiting the Sign Duo YouTube channel – they have some really eye-opening videos about what relationships between hearing and non-hearing people are like, and some of the difficulties deaf people face in their day-to-day lives as a result of their disability. I find Ryan and Ellen to be really inspiring – exactly the kind of confident and resourceful individuals that characters like Nishimiya could have been and should have been.