Marlee Matlin | Getty Images
Updated: December 14, 2012 6:14AM
This was the week I seriously contemplated pulling out of Social Media. No blogging, no Twitter, no Facebook. Stop it all. I was getting too many “lighten up” or “get a life” comments. And I was getting a lot of very angry emails, too. As a mom of four and an actress, I have enough drama in my life. I don’t need any more.
Let me give a little background. About a week ago, parodies of Mayor Bloomberg’s sign language interpreter during Hurricane Sandy began to appear on television. Many people found them funny and suddenly she was an Internet meme. People began to ask me “Have you seen the jokes? They’re hilarious!”
As a person who is deaf and been signing all my life, I found them mostly dumb and slightly offensive. Not that I don’t have a sense of humor; just watch all the times I’ve been on “Family Guy,” or my episodes of “Seinfeld,” “My Name is Earl” and “Spin City.” It’s just that making fun of sign language, by fake signing or mugging and pantomiming (sign language is not pantomime), reminds me of when kids made fun of me and my friends by gesturing wildly in our faces. It was childish and elicited a cheap laugh. But that’s comedy, I said. To each his own. So I left it alone.
Then I began to get hundreds of Tweets and messages saying deaf people were miffed. Some were hearing people, people who had deaf family members or were sign language interpreters. The point they were making was that hearing people were poking fun at something that they knew nothing about and it only perpetuated stereotypes. So I decided to jump in and offer my two cents. I said the comedy was dumb, but I still had a sense of humor. It’s just how you do the humor.
Then the deluge happened. Perez Hilton said I offered the middle finger to the parodies, others told me to “get a backbone.” Some comments I couldn’t even repeat, people were so angry. And that’s when I said, “I’m done, I’m outta here.”
Then I got a Tweet from a young hearing mother who said, “Thank you, Marlee. Thank you for my young son who is deaf and is sometimes made fun of.” And I stopped and realized: Who are they to tell me to lighten up? Are they deaf? Do they know that deaf people are still misunderstood by people who think sign is mime? That for more than a 100 years deaf kids weren’t even allowed to sign in schools because it was “wrong?” That if deaf people were offended, that a better response might be “gosh, we understand” not “get a life.” Somehow I think the level of discourse has gotten too angry with the anonymity of the Internet.
So now it’s me who is saying, “You get a life” and “You lighten up!” Unless you know what it’s like to be deaf, cut people like me a break if we find something about us unfunny. After all, it is about our language and our culture. And no, we are not “handicapped” when it comes to humor. We appreciate funny as much as hearing people do. Just be smart about it.
With her interpreter Jack Jason
Oscar winner Marlee Matlin currently stars in “Switched at Birth” on ABC Family. Her new app, “Marlee Signs,” is available in the iTunes App Store, and can be downloaded at http://Bit.ly/marleesigns. Marlee donated her fee for writing this column to the American Red Cross.