These days, a major world event can’t happen without an accompanying meme. During Hurricane Sandy, the new social media star is Lydia Callis, the American Sign Language interpreter who appears next to the Mayor at press conferences and whose facial expressions have garnered her an internet following and – the ultimate status symbol on the internet—a fan Tumblr. Outlets like NPR are calling her “a star” on the level of El Bloombito, the Spanglish-snark Twitter account that added some levity to Hurricane Irene by making fun of Michael Bloomberg’s terrible attempts to speak Spanish.
While most of the comments about Lydia online have been positive, they’re positive in an ironic and subtly mocking sort of way. The title of the Tumblr is “Lydia Callis’ face for NYC mayor”—not her whole body, just her face. Laine Nooney, a PhD candidate at SUNY-Stony Brook, tweeted that Callis is “the only SL interpreter I've ever seen who signs with a New York accent.” TruTV’s “Dumb as a Blog” even catalogued 12 of Callis’ facial expressions, giving each a nickname like “The Double Yodas” and “The Hiarious Paperback.” In some of them, Callis is articulating herself in a way that would be completely relatable to any signer. “The Double Yodas” makes fun of the sign itself—two hands in “Y” shapes pulling downward, which can either mean “now” or “today”—while purporting to be a joke about Callis’ facial expression in the screencap. The satiric website DListed, however, gave Callis the ultimate ‘compliment,’ crowning her their Hot Slut of the Day. (Previous Hot Sluts include a goat from a viral internet video and the vagina of reality TV supermom Michelle Duggar.)
As a native speaker of American Sign Language (yes, we say “speaker,” and yes, we need a better noun for that), I’m quite used to that attitude. I’m a sign language activist and sometime interpreter (I’m not certified, but I can fill in when someone needs me) as well as a proud CODA—Child of Deaf Adults. My friends often contact me when they have questions about ASL or about Deaf culture. Once my friends knew that my Brooklyn apartment and I were fine, they all wanted to ask about Lydia Callis and, more specifically, her facial expressions.
Focusing more on Callis’ facial expressions than her words is classic marginalization of the Deaf community. The first and most common mistake that people make about sign language is that it’s just a language in your hands. Unlike spoken language, which has tone and volume to indicate changes in emotion, sign language has body and facial language. You can sign “That hurt my feelings” with a somber expression and it means something quite different than when you sign “That hurt my feelings” while frowning, angling your body away, and stomping your feet for emphasis. I’ve always heard that sign language is “so beautiful,” but it’s an empty, meaningless compliment. To me, that means “I don’t care about sign language as a language, I just want it to amuse and entertain me.” It means “I’m making no attempt to understand what’s going on here, but it sure looks cool.”
Yes, Lydia Callis’ facial expressions and large, emphatic signs are a bit unusual among interpreters, but they’re not incorrect. Most interpreters have a difference between the way that they sign for large groups and the way that they sign for small ones. Callis’ sign style reminds me more of the way that interpreters translate at Broadway shows or at college graduations, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong or that she’s doing it for attention. She’s signing for a room full of reporters, but the closeness of the TV camera blows her signs up and makes them more pronounced. If someone went on TV speaking English with an unusually high-pitched voice, I doubt they’d get their own Tumblr chronicling all of their vocal patterns. But because of a fundamental lack of understanding about sign language, Callis’ communication style is suddenly a joke. If she spoke English with a thick accent and people made a Tumblr about it, that would rightly be called out as offensive. But because the comments on Callis’ signing are presented as symbols of affection, no one pays attention to the underlying ignorance about Deafness and sign language.
Let’s focus on what Callis is actually doing when she’s not inadvertently entertaining the internet: her job. Callis’ only task is to effectively communicate Mayor Bloomberg’s words in American Sign Language, and she’s doing it. She seems to be a wonderful sport about her pseudo-celebrity, as evidenced by the polite replies on her Twitter account. But she shouldn’t have to explain herself, answer questions about whether she has a boyfriend, or respond to condescending “your signing is so cool” comments. She should just get to do her job, just like everyone else in every language.