D/deaf Characters on Television: Joey Lucas on The West Wing

I have been on a bit of a West Wing extravaganza over the last few weeks, and there’s all kinds of interesting stuff going on in this show that I suspect I will be writing about as I move through my epic DVD set. One of my all time favourite things about the show is Joey Lucas, played by the fabulous and lovely Marlee Matlin. Joey is a fantastic example of a D/deaf character I love, and she’s also a terrific feminist television character.

The West Wing is a depiction of the working lives of White House staffers that aired for seven years in the United States. Fairly early on in the show, we are introduced to the character of Joey Lucas. A California expert for polling is needed, and she’s the woman for the job. What I love about the way she is introduced is that when people first encounter her, they are more surprised by the fact that the California expert is a woman than they are by the fact that she’s D/deaf.

There’s a lot of sexism in US politics, and it’s pretty common to assume that men are the primary movers and shakers, the experts, the consultants. The West Wing confronted that throughout the series with strong female characters like Joey Lucas, challenging the assumptions of viewers as well as characters in the show. A far bigger production is made over her gender than her D/deafness, and we don’t have laughable/ugly scenes where other characters struggle with how to interact with her and her interpreter.

Joey Lucas is presented as a woman political expert, struggling with sexism in politics, having romantic interests in other characters, and having her own opinions on things. She is a character who happens to be D/deaf. She isn’t consumed by this identity. It’s acknowledged in the show, but it’s not made into the central point of who she is and what she does. Sometimes characters say and do ignorant things. They are corrected within the context of the show, and everyone moves on. The show laudably avoided the temptation to include very special educational moments with her character. They told by showing, something television seems to struggle with a lot these days; it’s really ok to just let characters be themselves, to show other characters interacting with them, and to not lecture the audience.

As a feminist television character, there is a lot to recommend her. The men in the show are constantly stepping on her toes and acting like she doesn’t know what she’s doing, and she puts them firmly in place. There’s a great scene where they are preparing to run a big poll, and Josh Lyman is concerned that the pollsters will be chewing gum, and he fusses mightily about this, convinced that Joey won’t remember to tell them not to chew gum; it’s also implied that since she’s D/deaf, she wouldn’t know that chewing gum would be a problem. Lo and behold, when she gets ready to tell the pollsters to start calling, what’s the first thing brought up? Gum chewing. Bam.

Joey’s fully integrated into the landscape of The West Wing. She’s not singled out as a special character or an exception. She engages in brisk discussions, she challenges people, she reminds people that she really knows what she is doing, she has happy and sad days like everyone else. And I love, love, love seeing American Sign Language on television. One of the things that I especially love is that the camera actually shows it. A lot of times, I see a D/deaf character, and the camera focuses on the face or another character while ou is Signing. Not on The West Wing.

This is the right way to do it. Develop a complex character with a lot of stuff going on, let that character just be a person. Depictions like this one do far more than repetitions of hackneyed tropes and stereotypes.

The West Wing may not be airing anymore, but it’s worth checking out if you haven’t seen it, since there is a lot going on in this show; not always good stuff, but such is the nature of television. I think that in particular, the show does a really good job of depicting fussy white liberal attitudes in the United States, with characters being more concerned with how things seem than how they are, and constantly requiring reassurance from minority characters that they’re doing things right on race, or women’s issues, and other -isms.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

11 thoughts on “D/deaf Characters on Television: Joey Lucas on The West Wing

  1. Great post! Joey Lucas is one of my all-time fave characters, and you reminded me how much I love the West Wing and how, for the most-part, they did a great job of portraying intelligent, fully-rounded women. Thank you 🙂

  2. Love, love, LOVE The West Wing! And I have always been impressed with this particular character. You are right about how subtly the show handles her deafness. I recall a moment in which she and Josh are having a conversation one-on-one, without her ASL interpreter, and she just reaches over and tilts his chin up to remind him that she needs to read his lips. They just do stuff like that without feeling the need to explain: “Oh right, you’re deaf so you have to be able to read my lips, because you can’t hear. Did we mention that this is our deaf character?” Her interpreter, furthermore, is treated so matter-of-factly. He’s always there, but they rarely draw attention to him. In fact, there’s an episode where she is brought in to consult on an ultra-top secret matter, and the President wonders aloud if anyone is sure that the interpreter can be trusted–“Does anyone know Kenny’s last name”–which is as far as the show ever goes in commenting on the fact that he’s so ubiquitous you rarely notice he’s even there. He’s never treated as either an impediment or so essential that she could never do her work without him.

  3. ‘They told by showing, something television seems to struggle with a lot these days; it’s really ok to just let characters be themselves, to show other characters interacting with them, and to not lecture the audience.’

    Such a good point! Also repeating the rec for the show.

  4. Interesting. I will have to check this out. I was not fond of Matlin’s character in Children of a Lesser God or What The Bleep Do We Know?!. I haven’t seen the L Word.

    It is good to hear that she is an active character in this series and that ASL is shown – like you said, it’s way too common for filmmakers to neglect to show ASL in its entirety.

  5. I’m a big time West Wing fan, and recently rewatched the episodes that introduced Joey to recap and discuss in a fan community and I was struck by this: Joey Lucas is the only female character on this show, recurring or regular, who was actually well-rounded and well-written. She was never given boggling moments of incompetence or ignorance, never used as a motivator for a manpain-led decision or story arc, never succumbed to awkward or embarrassing emotional outbursts and was never a manipulator, even though she was a political operative.

    Also notable: from the very first, the fact that she is a gorgeous, desirable woman (to more than one man, even) was never ignored, but she was never used as a sex object or eye candy or talked about in a sexually demeaning way.

    She is hands down my favorite West Wing character.

  6. since FWD is usually so careful about language, please reconsider your use of the word “binge.” Thank you.

  7. I have issues with the West Wing, especially the middle seasons when it seems like Sorkin was just using the show as a mouthpiece to talk about things he was angry about (Mary-Louise Parker’s character, the internet fansite episode) instead of writing good stories. But Joey Lucas was great.

    I saw that interpreter again on an episode of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” that focused on the Deaf community (“Silencer,” Season 6, Episode 18). He had to decide whether or not to translate a conversation in ASL to the detectives, since the people having the conversation were in view, but at a distance away.

    (I’d love to see FWD take on “Criminal Intent.” They often give the criminal a mental illness, and use that to explain the source of ze’s criminal behavior, but sometimes it’s others’ reactions to the mental illness and their inability to deal with it that causes the crime. They’ve tackled everything from multiple personalities to Asperger’s to PTSD.)

  8. Ohh! I have seen (and loved) bits and pieces of the West Wing but never had the spoons to watch large chunks of it – 7 years of episodes is a lot of TV! I don’t recall seeing the character (I think I’d remember it – I adore Marlee Matlin) but even if I had the spoons I wouldn’t want to watch 7 seasons of WW – I always get politic’d out after about 20 episodes and give up for a while. :/ I have a very low tolerance for official Political Stuff, real or imagined.

    Is there a significant chunk or a specific season where Joey is around a lot that I could focus on?


  9. I’ve only seen episodes of TWW here and there, but I did like Matlin’s character.

    I remember particularly, when she first starts talking to someone, and they turn to the terp and say, “Tell her….” Which is such a common thing for hearing people to do. And Joey corrects whoever it is who she’s talking to and they move on. This is so true to life. As a hearing person who has had many terps and Deaf people in my life, and as someone who communicated primarily by sign for two-three years when I lost the ability to voice (and used terps at doctor’s appt and the hospital, etc.), I can’t tell you how often this happens. It was incredibly validating to see that on TV!

    However, my memory is that the camera did NOT show the signing in entirety. My memory is that sometimes not all of Matlin’s face and upper body were shown, so that you’re only seeing some of the sign (which would be equivalent to the sound cutting in and out for someone voicing, so you caught some words and not others), and that usually the terp was not shown signing (interpreting English into ASL) at all. There’s a valid argument for not showing the terp, but less of one for not showing Matlin speaking in full.

    Maybe I’m wrong, though. Maybe it’s just so ubiquitous in TV shows where it’s assumed the audience is hearing and/or not signing and that they cut off the signing (yes Law & Order always does this, and so did CSI and the worst offender IMO was The L-Word) that I’m mixed up. I hope so! I’ll have to start renting TWW and see. . . .

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