All About the Netflix 'Deaf U' Series

For the first time, a TV series has been produced entirely dedicated to the experiences of Deaf people, who are also the only protagonists. The series Deaf U is a reality TV series that focuses on a group of Deaf students from Gallaudet University and has been shown on the Netflix platform in more than 15 countries around the world.

Deaf U, cuatro personas, dos chicas y dos chicos


Deaf U, the series

The series is a reality show presented as a documentary, which is called 'docusoap'. It starts without a previous script, they shoot for hundreds of hours and build a story on the fly or after the shooting is over. About its format, a review in Vulture said:

For me, it is a reality show, made with exquisite production values and a really careful, thoughtful perspective about how to weave deaf culture into a bingeable teen drama

In Deaf U, the life of a group of Deaf students at Gallaudet University is followed over eight episodes of approximately 20 minutes each. The university is the context in which they spend their lives but, as a reality show, the series says little about university life and focuses almost exclusively on emotional and personal experiences. Deaf U is not suitable for children under 17 in the United States and under 15 in the United Kingdom. Here is the official trailer (English captions):

One of the goals of the series was to break down stereotypes about deaf people. Executive Producer Nyle DiMarco, famous for winning America's Next Top Model and Dacing with the Stars television contests, said he wanted to break the mold and prove that "there is no one right way to be deaf," since he felt that the television image projected of him was too one-dimensional:

Most of the time when we see deaf characters or deaf personalities in TV shows or film, they’re very one-dimensional. There’s no real nuance to who they are. You don’t really deep dive into their experience; you don’t really see any layers to their character

Gallaudet University in Washington, USA, is the only university in the world of and for Deaf people. It was founded in 1864 and currently has approximately 1,100 Deaf students, although it is not true that there are 700 women and 300 men, as one of the protagonists in the series states. From the university itself they report that in 2019, 54% were women and 46% men.


Production

Nyle DiMarco is the most famous face of the production team of the series, as one of the executive producers, but there are other deaf people in the production: Bradley Gantt and Ruan du Plessis are story producers and the founders of a video production company called Bus Door Films (BDF), the two Deaf professionals with many years of experience. They probably owe a part of the story told in the series to them. In the following video we can meet them in a presentation of their company:

In the production we also found a well known deaf person: Tyrone Giordano, as a field producer, famous for his performances in the films 'The Family Stone' and 'A Lot Like Love'. In addition, he is currently working at Gallaudet University as the director of the Clerc Center Communications.

Tyrone Giordano está sentado a la derecha junto a un hombre negro. Apoya un brazo en su hombro y sonríe
Tyrone Giordano in a scene from the film 'The Family Stone' (2005)

Finally, the production team also includes another Deaf professional, Toj Mora, as post-producer, a freelance filmmaker and video editor working for Bus Door Films and DPAN.TV, and Peggy Ann St. John Wenger, as associate producer and casting director.

In addition to the production team, 30% of the crew and 30% of the edit team were composed of Deaf professionals, many of them former students of Gallaudet University itself.


Docusoap: A Reality Show In Documentary Format

Deaf U is a reality TV series, with a documentary format, a genre very well defined in Wikipedia as 'a genre of television programming that documents purportedly unscripted real-life situations, often starring unknown individuals rather than professional actors'. Although it does not start from a preconceived script, the story is built throughout the shooting, looking for the elements that can best fit into it and highlighting the dramatic and conflictive.

In this sense, Deaf U focuses on two main conflicts: love relationships and social relationships. The first ones are not very different from any other reality with young people who have unstable relationships, doubts and upset feelings. However, the second one, social relationships, presents to the world a rather unknown topic of debate but which has caught the interest of Deaf communities all over the world: Deaf elitism.


What is Deaf Elite?

An elite is basically a minority group of people who have a higher status than the rest. Elites exist in all societies and social groups, differing mainly between power elites and privilege elites. The power elites control aspects such as the economy or politics, while in the privileged elites people have certain advantages simply because they have a certain personal characteristic or circumstance. The white privilege (being white versus other people of color) or the hearing privilege (being hearing versus deaf, as explained on this page) are examples of these privileges.

Gallaudet University itself makes it clear on its website that the Deaf U series refers to the privilege elite:

[Deaf elite] more often than not it refers to privileges that certain deaf people have by virtue of being born to deaf parents who are known in the community, having language access from birth with native ASL skills or fluency in English, being able to go to a deaf school before going to college, and seeming to enjoy “favored status” within their communities [...] "Deaf elite” generally implies a group of Deaf individuals with higher privileges within the Deaf community

Elitism is a complex issue with sociological, anthropological and philosophical overlaps, but it is common for people who are part of an elite to recognize themselves as members of that elite, consciously or unconsciously, and to perpetuate the privileges within their group, that is, to be in closed groups. This is a very visible phenomenon in American society and it is more evident in the universities, where there are elite universities (such as Harvard, Columbia or Yale) and, within the universities, fraternities or sororities named by Greek letters, as 'Gamma Delta Xi' or 'Gamma Sigma Zeta'.

Therefore, one has to take into mind the context in which the deaf elite is presented in this reality TV series, a university in the United States, which may be quite different in other countries of the world, or that the characteristics that lead to a higher status within the deaf community in their country are very different from those in the United States. Not for nothing, a good indicator of the interest and concern for the deaf elite are the searches that people do in Google, and it is observed that only the American society has had strong interest in the subject, especially since the launch of the series Deaf U:

Searches for the term Deaf Elite in Google Trends between September 8 and November 8, 2020 globally (source: Google Trends)

As we can see in the graph above, interest in the term Deaf elite before the launch of the Deaf U series was low, it increased considerably from October 10, 2020 (the day after the launch of Deaf U) and all searches are from Canada and the United States. Note that Google does not reflect low volume searches, so Google searches for the term Deaf elite in other languages have not been significant and are not reflected in its global search trends (you can do your searches here).

One of the protagonists of the series, Cheyenna Clearbrook, explained in a video after the series that perhaps the term elitism was not the most correct to describe her experiences and that she said it was the result of emotions and anger at that time. She believes that 'The word elitism is overused and something I could have used different word choices to define elitism term':


Filming Locations

Most of the series was filmed on the campus of Gallaudet University and, in particular, the interviews in which each protagonist answers questions while sitting in front of the camera, were recorded in one of the university's new buildings, designed under the principles of DeafSpace architecture.

Hall Memorial Building at Gallaudet University, where most of the interviews with the protagonists of Deaf U were shot. The design won two awards for excellence in architecture in 2016 (photo: Gallaudet University / Greater Washington)

However, there are other locations outside the university campus. One of them that appears throughout the series is very interesting, because it is a brewery founded by three deaf people, who graduated years ago from the same Gallaudet University and share their passion for beer: Jon Cetrano, Mark Burke and Sam Costner. The brewery is located 13 minutes by car from the Gallaudet University (link to Google Maps) and in the following video you can see two of the founders explaining the origin of the name of the brewery, Streetcar 82 Brewing Co:


The Deaf Cast

Since the series does not focus on university life, but on personal lives, you may be curious to know what each person was studying at the time. In fact, the shooting of the series was completed a year before its premiere, and since then, some of them have already finished their studies or dropped out. Here are their studies and the social media where you can follow them (some people don't have social media accounts or have turned them off):

Rodney Burford

Psychology


Instagram - 5.882 followers
Facebook - personal account

Cheyenna Clearbrook

International Studies (dropped out)


Instagram - 68.054 followers
Twitter - 3.569 followers
YouTube - 124.000 followers

Tessa Lewis

Social Work & Minor in Communication Studies (graduated in May 2020)


Without social media

Renate Rose

Government with specialization in Law and International Studies (graduated in May 2020)


Instagram - 11.064 followers
Facebook - personal account

Alexa Paulay-Simmons

Communication Studies & Minor in Psychology (Graduated in May 2020)


Instagram - 16.306 followers
Facebook - personal account

Daequan Taylor

Physical Education & Recreation (graduated in December 2019)


Instagram - 4.879 followers
Facebook - personal account

Dalton Taylor

Physical Education & Recreation


Instagram - 4.547 followers


Will there be a second season?

Nyle DiMarco has expressed his wish for a second season to continue to explore the lives of deaf people and show their multidimensional reality. In this way, he would hope that a second season would feature a greater diversity of deaf people in the series, which a part of the audience has missed in the first season.

One thing that seems to be clear is that, if a second season is shot, the main characters will be other students, since most of the first season have already graduated.


Sources:

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