Disability and Super Bowl 50

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Leah Smith

With Super Bowl Sunday being this week, American’s have been inundated with advertising and football. Super Bowl Sunday, to say the least, is an American event that is hard to ignore.

As someone who has made a career out of evaluating media portrayals of Disability, I couldn’t help but watch Super Bowl 50 to see if and how disability would be presented. I was pleasantly surprised to see that, in fact, it was integrated and in some decently progressive ways.

To kick off the game, Marlee Matlin signed the national anthem as Lady Gaga sang. While reports indicate that Marlee is completely deaf in her right ear, she has some hearing in her left ear. This is only significant for the fact that, while there wasn’t much coverage of her signing, what I saw was directly in sync with Lady Gaga. This is no small feat for any interpreter and should be celebrated. Moreover, I loved that they got a Deaf person to perform the symbolically unifying song of our country.

Further, Axe, a men’s fragrance brand, and SunTrust Bank both came through with including disability in their ads for Super Bowl Sunday. Axe’s commercial (http://youtu.be/WzTSE6kcLwY) included a person in a wheelchair dancing wildly and SunTrust Bank (http://youtu.be/kKtDqM1H82w) also featured a wheelchair user dancing on one wheel and a little girl with Down Syndrome laughing joyfully. In both instances, I was impressed that disability was integrated into the broader definition of diversity and that in every case the disabled person was living life and not put in a position to be pitied.

However, as someone that critiques media on its portrayal of disability, you know I can’t just leave my evaluation at that. While, yes, it was good- I would argue that we can do better. After all, progress is our goal, not the status quo. So while I’m satisfied with how we were portrayed by the commercials themselves, I must say that Marlee Matlin’s 5 seconds on air was far from satisfying. It seemed to me that those paying for advertising have come to the realization that we are a part of their customer base, but the Super Bowl itself simply gave us a pat on the head by merely sweeping the camera by Marlee’s signing of The National Anthem. It could even be argued that she deserved a split screen with Lady Gaga.

This sends the message, “we want your money, but we don’t actually want you.” It is nice to be seen as productive individuals with money to spend, but this is still only one step toward equality and not the end point. Clearly, ASL was not regarded as an art form in its own right. Language access is important, but that is only the tip of the iceberg here. Of course, most Deaf viewers at home could see the national anthem translated via the closed captioning on their TV, but that misses the point entirely. When someone performs a song in ASL, they are not just merely translating it. They are, in fact, performing it. In this context, ASL should be seen as a kind of artistic expression. Marlee Matlin’s goal was not anymore a matter of communicating the words of the national anthem to Deaf viewers than it was Lady Gaga’s goal to communicate the words of the national anthem to hearing viewers. So, by only flashing her on the screen it was clear which performance was regarded as valuable and which was a minor footnote.

Contact: Leah Smith