Setting the Record Straight About American Sign Language and Deaf Culture

I love the movie Jerry Maguire – except for one scene that always makes me want to throw something.  It’s the one where Dorothy (Renee Zellweger) and Jerry (Tom Cruise) see two deaf people signing, and Dorothy says, “My favorite aunt is hearing impaired. He just said ‘You complete me’.”

What a sweet scene, right?  The line even appears later in Jerry’s big winning-Dorothy-back speech at the end.

But here’s the problem: anyone who actually knows about Deaf culture or American Sign Language doesn’t buy it.  If Dorothy’s aunt really taught her that much sign language, then she surely also taught her that many deaf people (and certainly the vast majority of ASL users) find the term “hearing impaired” offensive.  Also, what the deaf actor, Anthony Natale, signs would be rendered word-for-word as “You make me feel complete” – and it’s highly unlikely that even a skilled, experienced interpreter would come up with such a graceful interpretation as “You complete me” on the spot, let alone a character who had only learned a few signs from her aunt.  Though the moment is no doubt lovely to those who don’t know any better, to those who do it’s another example of the pervasive sentimentalization of sign language.

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