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Women and Deafness:
theatrical-dramatic performances as much as expressions of the splendor of sign language, these cultural expressions linked bodily beauty with artistic and linguistic merit. Deaf women were rarely called “master signers.” That status was given only to men (and in some cases, hearing men). Even the NAD’s film preservation series, which began in 1910 and included some twenty filmed presentations to capture “the butiful sign language,” shows only one woman, Mary Erd. Her performance of Longfellow’s “Death of Minnehaha” is one of stunning drama. Dressed in Indian garb and shot from a distance, her work stands in stark contrast to the closely shot, public speech/sermon style of virtually all the male masters’ films. George Veditz, a main force behind these sign master films, derided Erd’s performance, however, claiming she had not “the film face” and that hers was not “the sign language.” Descriptions of women signing, even in the Deaf press, also connect the physical beauty of the woman to the elegance of her signs. No such commentary appears for men. Thus although women display their “talent” of signing, the lines between ASL skill, acting, and beauty are blurred together.
While deaf women’s cultural status, when compared to their hearing peers, remains blurry and muted, cultural values regarding oralism and signs—as expressed in beauty pageants—have certainly clarified in the past twenty-five years. Civil rights activism and academic linguistic research that “proved” ASL was an authentic language—among other potent factors—have provided a more fertile environment for Deaf people to express and celebrate their cultural-linguistic identity. Emboldened by the DPN movement in 1988 and disability/Deaf civil rights activism since, Deaf judges (meaning both the officials and the general community) of pageants have expressed a more specific ideal of cultural Deaf feminine beauty. An interview with the 1988 Miss Deaf America, Brandi Sculthorpe, for example, noted that the Illinois native’s heroes included her mother and I. King Jordan, the Deaf president installed that year at Gallaudet as a consequence of the DPN protests. Several pictures in the article show Sculthorpe signing.29 Coverage of the 1990 beauty queen, Nancylynn Ward, further demonstrates this enhanced Deaf cultural “read” of Miss Deaf Americas. Showered with photographs throughout, an article on Ward in Deaf Life magazine described the twenty-two-year-old auburn beauty’s Deaf cultural credentials: she was prelingually deaf, attended a residential school for the deaf in Maryland (as well as other programs), and preferred ASL for communication. The pictures in the article especially mark her as culturally Deaf. Portraits throughout the essay show Ward signing words like “home,” “meet,” “fine,” and “talk.”30 Distinguished from common modeling portraits, these “signing” shots include facial expressions, hand shapes, and hand positioning that resemble pictorial sign dictionary entries. In this way, the photos allowed Ward to “speak for herself” with signing readers, enhancing the common cultural-linguistic bond. Similar “signing” montages commonly appeared in Miss Deaf America interviews during and after the 1990s.31
Those who deviated from this model faced increasing challenges. For example, Alexandrea Hermann won the Miss Deaf California pageant in 1991, playing piano for the talent portion. After the pageant, however, members of the community roundly criticized for her “mainstream lifestyle”—reading lips and speaking, attending a hearing school, and socializing primarily with hearing people. Hermann was informed that she could not use her piano talent for the national competition.32 She did not win the national title. In the following year, a Deaf Life poll asked readers whether they felt pageant contestants should be allowed to sing or play music as part of their talent routines. Although most (62 percent) answered yes, a strong minority (39 percent) disagreed.33 One former judge in state deaf pageants suggested that contestants be aware that “some kind of fallout [might occur] if they decided to sign or play music.” Another opponent of “hearing”-style performances answered with an emphatic “No!” The respondent continued: “Most Deaf audience do not benefit from it [sic]. . . . They will talk to each other until the next contestant comes on stage with respect and pride in her culture!”34 This attitude pervaded many state and national pageants. As a current description of the pageant notes, “This is not an ordinary contest . . . beauty, poise, gracefulness are desirable qualities, but the biggest point is one’s cultural talent performance” and that “the women are judged across a broad spectrum of categories including . . . knowledge of deaf culture.”35