by Yan Ng Xuan Min, Gail
At first glance, A Quiet Place (2018) appears to follow a common trope in most apocalyptic films — such as X-Men (2000) and Avatar (2009), where the disability is presented as a disadvantage to survival by exposing the audience to the vulnerabilities of our body. Directed by John Krasinski, A Quiet Place pivots around the struggles of a family to survive while hiding from blind creatures with insanely sensitive hearing in a post-apocalyptic world. The film imagines a world where any noise means death, and silence is the only key to survival. The oldest child of the family, as well as the main protagonist of the film, Regan Abbott is deaf. At the beginning of the film, Regan’s inability to hear her surroundings evokes tension and anxiety. Her loss of hearing is highlighted as a disadvantage when she is unable to detect the approach of the creatures coming her way. Alongside, Regan might unknowingly create loud noises that could attract the creatures and pose a greater danger to the family.
While this traditional representation of disability in popular films – where the disabled are commonly associated with being weak and “less than abled” (Coopman, 2003, p. 342) is familiar, A Quiet Place is also substantially a statement about the constant shift between the disempowerment of the abled and the embracement of disabilities. Typically, society believes that abled people should have all bodily functions to thrive during existence. Individuals who deviate from this standard expectation of an “abled” body are then identified as “disabled” and presumed to face greater struggles in society. Yet, the conflict between the notion of an “abled” and a “disabled” body is observed when the disability — speech and hearing impairments — helps to better navigate the apocalyptic environment in A Quiet Place. This paradox embedded in the film raises the question about what exactly constitutes an “abled” body and if one is still considered as “abled” when the ability to speak leads to death. In this article, I argue that the simultaneous empowerment and disempowerment of characters in A Quiet Place gradually blur the line of distinction between the abled and disabled in the apocalyptic environment.
Tony Kashani and Anthony J. Nocella II’s conceptual framework of social constructionism is instructive in understanding this paradox (2010, pp. 105-114). While Kashani and Nocella’s work does not analyse A Quiet Place directly, it examines how Hollywood cinema, in general, manipulates the social construct of disability by determining the characters who are “abled” and the others who are not as “disabled” (2010, pp. 111-112). This social constructionist framework reinforces that disability is a relative term that varies according to interpretations and circumstances — hence an absolute standard of an “abled” body never exists in the apocalyptic environment. By using the disabled as a plot device, Kashani & Nocella claim that the underlying purpose of Hollywood cinema is to inherently influence the audiences that “social Darwinism is the norm in society” (2010, p. 106) —which follows the mantra where only the stronger and superior one survives. In order to satiate the consumer palate, these films tend to assert the conventional understanding of the “abled” bodies as the “fittest” (2010, pp. 107-110). While A Quiet Place agrees that disability is a constructed concept, it also challenges Hollywood’s particular construction of disability as a stable concept. Instead, A Quiet Place suggests that a change in the environment (i.e. an apocalypse) will redefine what constitutes “fitness”.
This article will proceed in 3 sections. To begin, I will explain how the shift in an apocalyptic environment in A Quiet Place disempowers the conventionally “abled”. Thereafter, I will delineate how hearing impairment becomes an advantage through the adoption of sign languages. Finally, I will be discussing the “heroic” aspect of the hearing aid, explaining how an object that is used to restore “normality” of the disabled becomes empowering in A Quiet Place. Overall, I argue that this reversal — the “abled” becoming “disabled” and vice versa — demonstrates the constructed and fluid nature of “disability”.
Disempowerment of The Abled: Silencing
In A Quiet Place, the binary between the “abled” and “disabled” is blurred through the forced adoption of muteness. As the creatures kill anyone who makes a sound in A Quiet Place, the film oppresses the “abled” by weaponizing an aspect of the human condition — the ability to speak. In the normal world, the ability to speak is treated as an essential tool for the communication and survival of mankind. Extending Kashani and Nocella’s application of social Darwinism in cinema, the ability to speak is favored and constitutes the standard of an “abled and fit” body. Yet, through the lens of an apocalypse, A Quiet Place highlights the detrimental and dangerous consequences of speech. By abolishing such means most humans communicate with — expressing one’s feelings and thoughts through words, the film also diminishes the human experience, which makes the characters seem “less abled”. Hence, this contradictory phenomenon provides a new perspective of what is a “fit” body.
Throughout the film, conversations through words are limited. The only exception is at the waterfall. When Lee brings Marcus to the waterfall, he reassures Marcus that “small sounds [are] safe while big sounds [are] not safe, unless there’s another sound nearby that’s louder”. Hence, due to the diegetic sound of the waterfall, the family is able to make sounds and freely speak to one another without having to worry about the creatures. This highlights the notion that sound is only safe when it occurs in a secretive and secluded spot, which is hidden from the “normal” world. With a shift in the new “normal” environment towards an apocalypse, the ability to speak is no longer used to differentiate and distinguish an “abled” body from the “disabled”. This, in turn, reinforces the social construction of disability in A Quiet Place. Therefore, one can no longer intuitively associate one’s ability to speak with the modern perspective of an “abled” individual.
Empowerment of The Disabled: Power of Sign Languages
On the other hand, the distinction between an “abled” and a “disabled” body becomes less conspicuous when the loss of hearing — previously associated with the “disabled” — becomes an evolutionary advantage and increases survivability in the apocalyptic environment. As the leading character of the film, the empowerment of Regan serves to invite viewers to a more optimistic perspective of disability — where the “disabled” are depicted to be as capable as other “abled” characters in surviving the apocalyptic environment. The film’s attempt to empower the loss of hearing is evident through the positive representation of American Sign Languages (ASL). As Coopman pointed out, the media tends to promote the benefits of hearing over the use of sign languages (2003, p. 373). This is further supported by Kashani and Nocella’s analysis of cinema which helps to explain the underlying theme of ableists in popular Hollywood films (2010, pp. 106-107). While these are useful in understanding how the social construction of disability is presented in films like — A Quiet Place — where it interprets disability and defines “abled” bodies in their respective ways, it cannot account for the nuanced portrayal of sign languages as a beneficial attribute of the disabled in the film. A Quiet Place is, after all, not one of the films Kashani and Nocella have taken into consideration directly. This is because while other films assume a hearing-dominated world where conversations are naturally conducted through words, A Quiet Place depicts silence as a necessity. This means that non-verbal modes of communication are instead the safest way in conveying feelings to one another in the film.
The Abbott family almost exclusively uses ASL to communicate with one another. Since Regan lost her sense of hearing since birth, it would be fair to assume that the family has already gotten used to adopting it. In contrast, other families are restricted to instinctively whisper or remain silent. Therefore, Regan’s loss of hearing now benefits her family in the apocalyptic world as they can better adapt to their surroundings. Thus, A Quiet Place depicts an alternative conception of an “abled” body than prevailing thought would have it, suggesting that disability is ultimately a constructed concept.
Empowerment of The Disabled: “Broken” Hearing Aid
Furthermore, the hearing aid — a device that aids to “repair” the loss of hearing in the real world — has ironically empowers the disabled in A Quiet Place. In drawing upon the medical perspective of disability, where the disabled are perceived to be “broken and not working properly” (Kashani & Nocella, 2010, p. 106), it suggests that reliance on a technological device to “repair” the loss of hearing emphasizes the dichotomy between the “abled” and “disabled” (Coopman, 2003, p. 345). However, Regan’s hearing aid is broken. Despite the multiple attempts to put it on, Regan’s hearing aid is never effective in transmitting sound waves to her brain. This is evident in the scene where Regan rejects the hearing aid Lee has been working on and is strongly certain that “it won’t work, and that it never works”. In the real world, a broken hearing aid that needs to be appended to the human body is deemed to be useless. Yet, in A Quiet Place, Regan’s hearing aid becomes the “saviour” as it emits feedbacks that could scare the approaching creatures. When Regan’s hearing aid squeals with feedback, she notices the creature’s distressed reaction. As the creatures reveal the flesh beneath their armored head, Regan realises the lethality of her “broken” hearing aid. By amplifying the frequency through the microphone and speaker, the creatures become vulnerable to gunshots. Hence, a change in the circumstance — where the creatures are afraid of the hearing aid — forces a new “normal” that presents the broken hearing aid as an asset. As the hearing aid protects Regan from the creatures, she could survive better than the “abled” characters in the film, and at the same time, is more capable of protecting her family. As the disability becomes an advantage for survival instead of a societal burden, the dichotomy between an abled and a disabled body is now fragile with Regan being seen to be neither “abled” nor “disabled”.
To summarise, A Quiet Place is an interesting film as the disability serves as an important informing voice in the narratives, which ultimately shifts the social lens of an abled body away from the ideal standard modern society is obsessed with. In an apocalypse, the ideological construct of disability changes. By respecting the weaknesses and strengths associated with the disability, the film represents a bold move towards a genuinely disabled-sensitive cinema. Thus, outside of the apocalyptic context, this film encourages us to reflect on our hypocritical attitude towards disability in the real society. In considering the application of Kashani & Nocella’s analysis on the social construct of disability in the context of A Quiet Place, it becomes apparent that their conception of disability in Hollywood cinema explains the fluid nature of the disabilities but does not help in understanding the paradoxical nature of the film — where the “abled” seemingly aligns to the standards of a “disabled” body, and vice versa. This forces us to recognize that the context of A Quiet Place is one that differs greatly from that of Kashani & Nocella’s understanding of the portrayal of ableness in cinema, and to acknowledge the absence of an “absolute” standard of an “abled” body. Perhaps, one may think that “A Quiet Place” is a rather befitting title as the letter ‘A’ reflects one of the many possibilities a disability could be socially constructed.
Coopman, S. J. (2003). Communicating disability: Metaphors of oppression, metaphors of empowerment. Annals of the international communication association, 27(1), 2003, 337-394.
Kashani, T. & Nocella II, A. J. (2010). Hollywood’s exploited: Public pedagogy, corporate movies, and cultural crisis. In T. Marcus & A.J. Nocella II (Eds.), Hollywood’s cinema of ableism: A disability studies perspective on the hollywood industrial complex (pp. 105-114). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Krasinski, J. (Director). (2018). A Quiet Place. New York: Platinum Dunes.