Friday, June 12, 2015

Strong Female Character Friday: Joey Lucas (The West Wing)


So, it's with shame in my heart that I admit that the reason I never really talk about The West Wing on this blog, despite it totally being a seminal work of television that is totally up my alley, is because I haven't actually watched it since it aired, and I was never a particularly faithful viewer. I haven't really seen it, is what I'm saying. I mean, I've seen some of it, just not all of it and not in the right order.

I'm working to fix that, though, and undertaking the enormous task of rewatching all of the episodes in order, much the bemused support of my roommates, and I have to say that the show really does hold up. It's an unrealistic, idealized, warm fuzzy version of a Democratic White House that could probably never exist, but I like that. I can dig it. 

This is also, for the record and those keeping score at home, the reason I've been so terrible about recaps lately. I'm sorry! But the reason I'm not up to date on Orphan Black and Game of Thrones is because I have to know what happens next on a television show that's been off the air since 2007. Sorry not sorry.

Anyway, the point of all of this is to say that for the first time I'm actually making a committed effort to watching The West Wing, and I have discovered a character I didn't know existed who I really needed to know existed.

Joey Lucas. Played by Marlee Matlin. A deaf actress playing a deaf character and it's really not a big plot point. I mean, it's not not a plot point, but the show doesn't go out of its way to make a huge deal about how progressive and interesting they are for having a deaf character. She just is deaf and is a character. No big. 

For me, a person with degenerative hearing problems and more than a passing interest in pop culture, this is really awesome to see. Joey Lucas is presented as being competent, sexy, funny, and just happens to be deaf. There's no tragic backstory, it's not something that needs to be fixed, and at no point does the story feel the need to apologize for her deafness. It's everything I've wanted from a story like this and more.

From the very first second she appears on screen, it's clear that Joey Lucas is going to be an awesome character. Based on her name and job, the characters of The West Wing initially assume Joey Lucas is a man. Lucas has demanded a meeting with the White House Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh Lyman, because "he" is upset that the White House has cut off funding for a California congressional race Lucas is managing. Lyman shows up to the meeting completely unenthused and more than a little hungover. Their first meeting actually occurs while he wears a set of foul-weather waders and a puke-stained tank top, blinking blearily at the woman standing in his doorway.

That woman is Joey Lucas, whose interpreter, Kenny, calmly translates the words she's clearly shouting in sign language. It's a fantastic introduction, with Lucas finally resorting to yelling at Josh, "You idiot! I'm Joey Lucas!" when he doesn't understand what's going on. It fantastic because from the get-go, the show makes it clear that Joey Lucas is a deaf woman, but she's also really freaking good at her job and incredibly cool. I mean, she's standing in front of the White House Deputy Chief of Staff, and she's yelling his brains out in sign and out loud. She doesn't care that he's hungover and unhappy, she's a professional and she demands answers.

Josh tries to brush her off at first, but Ms. Lucas refuses to be put aside. She stays on him, and even ends up meeting the President while he wanders the halls seeking revelation. When he asks her what her views are on the death penalty - a topic he's been mulling all day - she's blunt and honest. She doesn't mince words and she doesn't apologize for her views. She's straight-forward and tells the President exactly what he doesn't want to hear: that the death penalty is wrong, plain and simple.

I mean, obviously I had a girl crush on her based on this episode alone, but it just keeps getting better. As the show goes on, Joey becomes more indispensable as a pollster and consultant for the White House staffers. She never backs down from her opinions, she's usually right, and she's always portrayed as being consummately professional but also super fun. And it's not like they make her out to be some sexless hag, either. It's made incredibly clear that Josh has a crush on her and he even tries to make a move. 

Even more to her credit, though, is the fact that Joey Lucas doesn't really reciprocate said move. At the time he makes it, she's in a relationship, and she doesn't waver in that. When the relationship ends, she seems vaguely open to pursuing something, but by then she's functionally working for Josh, so nothing happens. It's never because she's too "damaged" or too "different" that we're told a relationship between Joey and Josh would never work. We're actually told that it probably would work, they just have terrible timing. And that's okay. Neither of them is that broken up about it which is just so freaking refreshing.

I guess what I'm getting at is this: Joey Lucas makes me super happy because she's a person. She's not a disabled character thrown in for the brownie points of having a "progressive" storyline about her overcoming the odds, and she's not in there so that the White House staffers can pat themselves on the back for being inclusive. She's there because she's incredibly good at her job. She's there because she's the best, which is how it should be.

And the show, for all that it doesn't shove your face into her deafness, never ignores it either. It's made clear that Joey can read lips, but she still mostly speaks through an interpreter. She can talk, but it's hard and cumbersome for her to do it, so she tends to save it for times when it's super important. And that's fine. That makes sense. Her interpreter, Kenny, is shown to be her closest friend and companion in the world, and that makes sense too. They've been together for eleven years, and he's her ally against the world. 

It's such a fine line to walk, and The West Wing walks that line really really well. From storylines where people question whether or not Kenny should be in the room for top secret polling data meetings to side comments about how one knocks on a deaf person's door*, the show makes it clear that, yeah, Joey Lucas is a deaf woman, and yeah, that affects her life. But it doesn't rule it. Her disability is not the sum and total of her life.

She even acknowledges that her disability has made life harder for her. In that first episode where she appears, Josh asks her why she's working for this particular congressional candidate - he's a stuffed shirt and she's way too talented for such a terrible campaign. Joey succinctly replies that not many people are willing to hire deaf campaign managers. And Josh concedes the point. He doesn't argue with her, he just bows to her clearly more experienced understanding of her own hardship.

Overall, I think the show's treatment of Joey Lucas and it's radness can honestly be summed up by this one quote from Donna in the episode where Joey is introduced: "So Joey Lucas is a woman. And she's deaf. Cool."

That's it. That's all you actually need to do to have a deaf character on your show. You don't have to problematize their deafness, you don't have to make them a "special case" or a moment of diversity in action. Just introduce a deaf character who is a character with other traits and qualities, a person in their own right. You know, like a human being.

And all of this is why sometimes I get frustrated over how Marlee Matlin herself often gets pigeonholed as "that deaf actress". I mean, admittedly, there really aren't that many other people vying for the role of Hollywood's preeminent deaf celebrity, but still. She's good at other stuff too! I get frustrated because it feels like people try to reduce her personhood down to simply a description of her disability, and that's not okay.

But let's not get too negative. Let's keep looking at Joey Lucas and sighing in happiness, because here is a character who represents the best possible scenario. A woman who has faced discrimination for her disability, but who has succeeded anyway. A woman respected as being at the top of her field. A person with wants and needs and a complex understanding of the world who has compelling and deep relationships with other people. A deaf woman on a show that's not about deaf issues.

That's all worth celebrating. And seeing her now really makes me wish I'd been watching The West Wing when it aired so that I would have Joey Lucas in my back pocket when I realized I was going deaf. I wish I'd known about her so that I could pull her out and sort of go, "It's okay. If this is who I get to look up to, then it's really going to be okay."

Sometimes that's what you really need.


*You press a button and a light in the room flashes. Sort of the same concept for fire alarms and some alarm clocks.

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