Saturday, January 03, 2015

Batgirl 37 - did y'all miss the appropriation of ASL?

I finally read Batgirl 37, and yes I agree with the rest of the liberal internet community, that issue relied on tired old tropes and cliches for trans people and was all in all clumsily and hurtfully done.

Why have I not seen anything about the use of ASL in the issue?  For those that don't know, ASL is American Sign Language, used by the Deaf community in the States and is a different language to all the other sign languages in the world.  Like English is different to all the other spoken languages in the world.  Even other English speaking countries have sign languages that are different to ASL.  E.g. Australia has AusLan, the UK has British Sign Language (BSL) and the languages are not interchangeable.  Got that? Good.

Back to the comics.  My ire is particularly directed at this page:

Some background - Babsgirl goes to an art show and it's full of floor to ceiling photographic images of someone dressed as Batgirl, pulling all sorts of stupid poses.  Babs is obviously horrified as everyone thinks it's the actual Batgirl in the pictures.

When the show has ended Babs does some investigations and looks up an ASL dictionary.  A quick google search brings up a variety of different images for ASL dictionary, none of which look like the book Babs is holding.  Harrumph.
After looking in the book Babs concludes that the stupid poses were actually ASL signs, a code to her, saying 'Below Burn Side Bridge 10pm'.

Arrggghh!  OK, before we get into how the signs work, let's just look at how this secret message would work.

The plot assumes that no one else at the show, or who would be consuming the images at a later date, understands ASL.  Like it's some ultra secret hidden thing, that you only get to learn once you're in the club.  Not so.  This article gave the number of ASL users in 1974 at half a million, at a very conservative estimate.  For crying out loud, America has a University for the Deaf where everyone uses ASL!  That's not even counting those for whom ASL is a fluent second language, or those who have studied ASL and use it in their jobs or for fun when out with friends, for example.

So, I do not hold that Babs will be the only person ever seeing those images who can work out that it's ASL.

Next, the signs.
Full disclosure here:  I don't know ASL, I know BSL.  I have no idea about ASL vocabulary, but I do understand the grammar of sign languages and the ways in which they can be represented.

The photographs in this comic are 2d representations of a 3d language.  It can be hard to accurately draw vocabulary from sign languages because you need to show movement, speed and relation of the sign to other parts of the sentence.  But it can be done.  Off the top of my head The That Deaf Guy comic strip does it well, as did some of David Mack's Echo/Daredevil comics.  Peter David's Deaf Supergirl and Young Justice issues also did OK.

These Babsgirl panels do not do this.  Yes, you can see that the handshapes are correct - so some tell me, others say they aren't so I guess there's some regional variation in the signs there.  If you look at the image for burn, I'll bet you anything that the ASL for burn is not static and is similar in construction to the BSL sign for burn or fire, e.g. the sign includes movement and without the movement the handshape is meaningless.  Here are some clips of the BSL sign for burn and fire.

Oh look, I've remembered I'm online and have just looked up the ASL sign for burn.  What it ain't is someone clutching their chest and looking wistfully/sexily at the sky.  Facial expressions, shoulder position, head position all count in ASL.

Here are the other signs in that panel:
Pm or any other indication of time isn't even in there, as far as I can see.

Taking handshapes from just one part of the sign is akin to writing down 'cial' from facial and expecting everyone to know you mean facial.  On twitter I said that movement wouldn't have worked in the context of the comic.  I take that back.  They could have shown movement, they could have done lots of superimposed images of the fake Batgirl's hands moving through space.  Bet they still could have made it sexy if they wanted.

Finally, I'd expect Burnside, as a trendy area of Gotham, to have it's own sign and not be an amalgamation of Burn and Side.  It might not be in the dictionary, but I bet you, within the fictional DCU Deaf folk have their own sign for it.

This comic bothers me so much because it reads like cultural appropriation of ASL, it's nominally in there just to move the plot forward and show how awesome Babsgirl is.  It doesn't do anything for Deaf studies, Deaf awareness or ASL.  It's like Gwen Stefani's harajuku girls or white folk dressing up as Native Americans for Halloween.  Or like that godawful French film that was recently released.

I know I'm hearing, and some would say it's not my place to say this, and really it's probably not, you'd be better off reading Deaf bloggers views of the comic, and I'd point you to them but I'm out of the loop on Deaf blogs and I have no idea where to find Deaf comic bloggers (particularly political ones), and particularly fans of the DCU.  If anyone knows any please point me in the right direction!

I'm not trying to say my viewpoint supercedes any Deaf people viewpoint. It doesn't.  But I can't believe that no one else has spoken up about this.  Regular readers know I get my knickers in a twist quite regularly, this is one of those times.  If no one else is going to speak up so that I can comment on the blog and link back to it, I'm going to mouth off.

Many thanks to @matttygurney75, @unikornus and @adreanaline for talking through my ideas with me on twitter.  As @adreanaline said:
"Comics is about capturing 3D motion onto 2D pages.  That is why ASL Deaf artists should be hired.  They know how to do ASL."

Incidentally, she is a Deaf cartoonist and author of How to Write American Sign Language.  So she'll know.


Saranga said...

One of things that bugs me is I follow a lot of people on twitter who are concerned about diversity, (less so in the blogpshere as I'm hardly reading any comics blogs these days) and I didn't see any furore about the use of ASL in this issue.
You don't need to know how the language operate to recognise appropriation at work.

Michael Boucher said...

Hi, Unikornus from twitter here. Excellent write up! As for Deaf blogger, I realize Ridor9th (YouTube account name) is a rather controversial figure but he is a diehard DC fan and definitely will not shirk from sharing a piece of his mind with DC folks.

Also re: names in ASL; you are correct re: Deaf folks in DCU likely would have their own sign for the Burnside Bridge. Furthermore, in ASL proper nouns are often not signed literally although there are exceptions. Burnside likely wouldn't be signed as "BURN" + "SIDE." Instead, ASL users are more likely to use an abstract sign or just fingerspell it out.

As the point you and Saranga above made re: diversity - its an old issue, Deaf people generally are ignored when it comes to diversity, even by other minorities themselves. Minorities are human beings as well and are not exempted from acts of hypocrisy, apparently.

Saranga said...

Hi Michael! I (the blog writer) am Saranga, I thought adding a comment would make it more likely that people would read it, in case they read the post before I edited it.

I'm glad you like the write up!

About Burnside, I was trying to say the same thing. I was thinking of the BSL equivalent place names. E.g. Sheffield isn't signed Chef and Field (anyone else reading: bear with me, I know sheff and chef isn't the same, it's just for illustrative purposes). It's the sign for cutlery because of the historical industry there. In the same way Burnside would have it's own sign (given it's portrayal in the comic, I suspect it might be something linked to 'hipster' but that's a whole different conversation!)

Thanks for commenting and I'll go look up Ridor9th.

adreanaline said...

Thank you for the mention, Saranga!

The reason why there isn't a furor is because the community has long ago accepted that comics isn't a place for people that aren't white heterosexual males. We've only recently had women speaking up about how they are portrayed in comics, and look at how severe the backlash has been. What are the hopes for the ASL-speaking Deaf community? The decks are stacked against us.

If more allies in the comics community can start giving us space and supporting our perspective, then we will be braver in coming forth to sharing our stories. The gates need to be open for us to walk through, otherwise you'll only see shadows waving past.

Saranga said...

Thanks for stopping by and commenting Adreanline!

I don't hold that comics are just for white heterosexual males. I think the people that think that are deliberately blindsiding themselves and ignoring evidence to the contrary. There's thousands of women chatting (about superhero comics) online and going to cons proving otherwise.

Did you read Hawkeye 19 which dealt with Hawkeye getting Deafened? that was a fabulous issue that dealt properly with deafness and ASL. I know some hearing folks who read it started thinking more about what D/deafness means.

Anything I can do to give you the space you need online? I don't have a big space or a big readership but If I can do anything let me know.

adreanaline said...

Thank you for your comment, Saranga -- I don't think so either but people have made us feel unwelcome. Deaf artists are not being hired, and we don't have equal opportunities for an education like hearing people do.

Yes, I have commented on Hawkeye 19. Take a look at the Bleeding Cool thread on it for the kind of treatment that we get when we speak up.

Thank you for asking about giving space. I appreciate that you quoted me and validated my experience as an artist. That is a step forward. Please continue to do so and boost Deaf artists by pointing to their work and their comments.