The conceit for last night’s episode of Bones, “The Signs in the Silence,” was that the murder suspect is, in one character’s words, “a deaf mute.” The thirty-second promo with this piece of information drew ire from Deaf actress Marlee Matlin and other Deaf and hearing Twitter users, as “deaf mute” is a derogatory term in that it implies that Deaf people are incapable of communicating.
The thing is, less than ten minutes into the episode, Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) corrects the character who calls the Jane Doe a deaf mute. After acknowledging that it’s offensive, she suggests that perhaps the prosecutor meant to say “deaf and uncommunicative,” which is indeed true because the character refuses to sign and explain why she’s covered in another man’s blood and holding his murder weapon.
After watching the episode, Matlin thanked Fox for clearing up the term and admitted that she had reacted to the preview before seeing the story in context.
That said, to even have approved half of the exchange for air, without the whole context, wasn’t the wisest decision. It might be like having an uneducated character on another show say in a preview, “Well, the suspect is a Negro” without including athe other character saying, “Don’t you mean African-American?” It could look as if the studio is condoning the isolated use of the term.
Another point that Matlin brought up — albeit before she watched “The Signs in the Silence” — was that it’s best when TV shows include Deaf characters who are “whole”; presumably she means those who are not tortured victims like the grunting Bones Jane Doe, who for half of the episode resembles a feral animal.
When it comes to this Jane Doe, who turns out to be have been kidnapped and abused, her Deafness reflects more on Brennan and the team’s ability to solve murders in creative ways than on her actual character. Despite the attention paid to creating her backstory, she seemed mostly to be a tool to uncover more information about Brennan’s past in the foster care system.
However, Bones just got picked up for a seventh season, so maybe we’ll get to see a Deaf character who helps the team solve a murder instead of stopping them…!