Saturday, January 15, 2022

How children’s author Cece Bell, ‘El Deafo’ give deafness a lead role in new Apple TV+ animated series

From Steven Aquino, the diversity, 

equity & inclusion contributor at Forbes

Considering the world is entering into its third year amidst a pandemic, it’s hard to recall what life was like before it. At this point, 2019 feels like ancient history. It might as well have happened during the Jurassic period, when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

As a tech journalist who’s covered Apple at close range for years, I remember 2019 for the star-studded event the company held in March at Apple Park to announce, amongst other things, the hotly-anticipated Apple TV+ streaming service. The glitzy event was the closest I’ve ever come to covering a red carpet show, only nobody wore their fanciest designer clothing. It was quite something to sit in the audience and watch Apple parade A-lister after A-lister onstage to hype up their new project: Oprah, Steven Spielberg, Jennifer Aniston, Jason Momoa—even Big Bird was there. Afterwards, as I was milling around the press area in the Steve Jobs Theater with Apple PR folks and fellow reporters, I distinctly remember being alerted at one point that JJ Abrams was standing twenty feet away. He was surrounded by other people, but to this day, it’s kinda cool to think I once was in close proximity of a celebrity.

When TV+ launched that November, it debuted with shows like The Morning ShowSeeDickinsonFor All Mankind, and moreAnd the roster has grown considerably since. One of its newest titles is the animated series El Deafo, which premiered on January 7. It shows the journey of a young girl named Cece who loses a substantial amount of her hearing following an infection. In its press release announcing the show, Apple described Cece as “[learning] to embrace what makes her extraordinary.”

Apple’s trailer for El Deafo is on YouTube.

El Deafo is based upon the graphic novel of the same name, written by author and illustrator Cece Bell. The book is autobiographical of sorts, as it mirrors Bell’s own childhood experience with being born hearing and then becoming deaf. In a recent interview with me, Bell said the impetus for the comic started a decade ago. She felt a need to come to terms with her deafness, as she was reticent to tell anyone she was deaf nor discuss it. Having already been a published children’s author, she figured what better way to confront her feelings than by writing for others. “I felt like the graphic novel would be the perfect format to try to share this story,” she said.

As for how El Deafo came to be for the small screen, veteran TV writer Will McRobb contacted Bell and expressed how much he enjoyed the novel and was interested in developing a version for TV. Bell was a fan of his prior work, so she felt comfortable working with him. (Both Bell and McRobb serve as executive producers.) “[It] all just sort of fell into place after that,” she said. “But it took somebody like him being [someone] I already respected for me to really dive into turning the book into a show.” The decision to make the show animated was an easy one as well, given the book is in cartoon form. Another reason for animating El Deafo was, of course, the pandemic. With the animation studio located in Ireland, it was easiest (and sensible given Covid) to work remotely by passing around notes and having virtual meetings. The remote aspect of production came in especially handy when doing the post-production audio work, which includes Bell’s voiceovers, both of which play crucial roles in the show.

Bell described the audio work as a “very complicated, very tricky” process; she worked closely with engineers to get it right. In order to achieve maximum authenticity, Bell told them to “take beautiful sound and make it sound terrible.” The complicated and tricky part was Bell needing to explain to engineers what she hears and what it feels like, and then ask them to recreate it. Characters’ voices on the show are purposefully distorted, almost to an unintelligible level, to try to give audiences a sense of what Bell’s world sounds like. She clarified, however, that what’s heard in the show isn’t literally what she hears—it’s an approximation of what she perceives to hear.

“I was so involved [in the sound design], and I read more notes than you would ever want,” Bell said with a laugh.

One poignant point Cece the narrator makes in the pilot episode is that, although she lost her hearing, she did not learn American Sign Language. She became deaf in 1975, and explained deafness and sign language were not as socially accepted then as they are nowadays. Bell explained how, growing up, she attended a school dedicated to deaf children; communicatively, teachers pushed students to learn to talk vocally and become lip-readers rather than learn sign language. Bell had about four-and-a-half years of typical hearing and language, so she grasped the concepts of lip-reading quickly. Sign language was never an option for her, not only because it wasn’t taught but also because Bell “didn’t want to be pigeon-holed,” she said. She thought of herself as a hearing person, and felt learning sign language would stigmatize her as an official deaf person. Sign language is inherently performative, and Bell didn’t want to be gawked at by her peers. “I just felt like I was that kid who didn't want anybody to see me as a different person,” Bell said. “I didn't want anybody to look at me. That was me as a kid, but I don't think I really understood it [sign language] the way I do now.”

Bell is finally learning sign language, little by little, now that she’s an adult. It hasn’t been easy for her. “I’m very slow,” she said.

The addition of El Deafo to the TV+ lineup is significant not only for attrition’s sake—Apple’s used its nigh-infinite war chest to pour considerable resources into building the service’s catalog, with new content appearing all the time—but for representation too. For all of the incessant talk about subscriber numbers by analysts, the company deserves the utmost credit for being amongst a select few streaming providers to tackle disability representation in Hollywood with tenacity—and authenticity. Bell’s series joins the ranks of See and CODA, as well as the recently-cancelled Little Voice, as positive displays of disability. As disability has been historically portrayed in TV and film as something to be pitied and overcome—too often resulting in feel-good, patronizing fodder that the disability community derisively refer to as “inspiration porn”—Apple instead has positioned disability matter-of-factly. To wit, that being disabled is not something out of a Shakespearean tragedy—it’s simply part of who we are as humans. Put another way, Apple has taken the same thoughtfulness it uses for the accessibility support for its products and applied it just as meaningfully to the shows it bankrolls for TV+. Apple is certainly not above criticism, but again, is deserving of more recognition for its effort to boost inclusivity of our marginalized communities. It gives TV+ an undervalued differentiator as it competes in the market.

As for Bell’s relationship with Apple, she couldn’t have been more complimentary of her dealings with the company. “Overall, it’s just been a terrific experience,” she said. Bell has had “100% involvement” with El Deafo every step of the way, saying Apple has listened to her and given whatever support she needed. Executives never questioned, for example, Bell’s insistence that the lead voice actress be deaf and have similar life experiences to hers. I asked if the aforementioned disability-centric shows were factors into her signing on with Apple for El Deafo, and Bell said her deal was struck long before stuff like CODA arrived—in the days when TV+ carried a fraction of the content that’s available currently. Like seemingly everyone else on the planet, she adores Ted Lasso, telling me it was the first show she watched. “This [being on Apple TV+] has been a happy accident, you know. I’ve ended up at the right spot,” she said.

Bell had kind words to say about Tara Sorensen, who leads creative development of children’s programming for Apple Worldwide Video. Sorensen, Bell told me, was adamant about El Deafo staying true by preserving its authenticity. Bell called Sorensen “a great, great advocate for the book from the beginning.” Bell noted that, although there were hiccups along the way—Bell often was the only deaf person in meetings—“everyone listened and was willing to absorb information,” she said.

The show is still very much in its infancy, but feedback on El Deafo has been terrific thus far. One of the comments Bell receives most often are notes from people who say they love the show, but felt they needed to adjust the volume of their TV because the show’s distorted audio made it seem like their set was broken. She also hears from many parents, who are excited for their children to see what other kids’ lives are like, and to be exposed to esoteric pieces of technology like hearing aids. Deaf children in particular, she added, are “very excited” to see themselves on TV and to personally identify with the experiences the animated Cece goes through. “It’s been really, really fun [working on the show], and I’m very relieved people are enjoying it,” Bell said.

Apple has posted a video to YouTube that features special commentary by Bell.

The three-part El Deafo can be found now in Apple’s TV app.