Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Women’s History Month: Lauren Ridloff

Welcome to our first-ever Women’s Month Series! Throughout the month of March, we will be highlighting different women in pop culture — fictional characters, celebrities, and activists alike — who we think exemplify accurate and honest portrayals of women in the mainstream media and use their voices to empower and uplift.

When Marvel’s Eternals premiered in November 2021, the world was introduced to a new team of diverse superheroes. One of those heroes was Makkari, a speedster whose spunky personality and romance with Druig quickly won over fans. Played by Lauren Ridloff, Makkari is the first Deaf hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (though she was quickly followed by Echo in the Disney+ Hawkeye series, which also introduced Hawkeye’s deafness to the MCU for the first time.) Ridloff is no stranger to groundbreaking roles, with many Marvel fans already familiar with the actor from her recurring character Connie on The Walking Dead. But Eternals catapulted Ridloff into the spotlight, and in the process, we all got to know what an incredible activist she is aside from her skills as an actor.

Ridloff’s rise to fame is remarkable considering she never wanted to be an actor in the first place. In fact, Ridloff taught American Sign Language to kindergartners for over ten years before becoming the ASL tutor for the revival of Children of a Lesser God. When the show was struggling to cast its leading lady, director Kenny Leon asked Ridloff to fill in for a read-through. She was so impressive that he offered her the role, leading to her Broadway debut and a Tony nomination. This breakthrough role led to The Walking Dead and the film The Sound of Metal, where she also played a teacher. Marvel came calling soon after, with director Chloé Zhao and producer Nate Moore tailoring their take on Makkari to her strengths.

I don’t get up in the mornings thinking, ‘Oh, I’m deaf. What challenges am I going to face today? How am I going to overcome them?’ The first thing that comes to mind is coffee. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more stories out there with more deaf people and with more people with disabilities also involved behind the camera, preproduction, production, postproduction, and even the marketing aspects of it. I think that will make the stories out there so much more rich and interesting and real.

Lauren Ridloff, Cosmopolitan
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Ridloff’s most impressive work isn’t on the screen, but off of it. Ridloff is an advocate for representation, always taking the opportunity to talk about ways the film industry can be more inclusive for disabled actors. As Ridloff told W Magazine when asked why she signed on for Eternals, “This was going to be my opportunity to become a teacher again. Only now my classroom is a lot larger.” Her open approach and hard work led to an unprecedented uptick in the amount of Americans searching for American Sign Language classes in the wake of Eternals hitting theaters — demonstrating the true impact representation has on the world.

Ridloff and Zhao also introduced the concept of Deaf Gain to mainstream audiences through Makkari’s powers, which explicitly make the case that her deafness is her greatest strength. Even Makkari’s surprise romance with Druig is an advance in representation. There are few examples of disabled characters as equal love interests, and with the “Drukkari” relationship, audiences rooted for the two the same way they rallied behind Wanda Maximoff and Vision, or Peter Parker and MJ Watson.

Ridloff used the platform of being a Marvel star to call out the lack of closed captions screenings for the film, rightly noting that many deaf fans would not have the same access to watching the first deaf superhero as hearing fans. Marvel ultimately added more screenings, and Ridloff continues to push for the movie theater experience to be accessible to all audience members.

But Ridloff’s Deafness is only one aspect of her identity. Eternals offered Ridloff the chance to develop Makkari along with Zhao, transforming the comics character from a white man to a biracial deaf woman. Ridloff is Black and Mexican, and her racial identity is just as important to her portrayal of Makkari as her Deaf identity. Ridloff brought forth conversations about intersectional identities on the press tour for the film, again introducing a major social justice topic to a larger audience.

“I come from a biracial mixed family. I am Black and Mexican … I definitely struggled with that because of all those intersections of identity, what comes first? What do I say first? And how do I even … what do I call myself? Growing up, I really didn’t see enough of that on screen, so I definitely felt a little lost. I saw a deaf woman on the screen, but she was white. I saw a Black woman on the screen, but she was hearing. Where are the people that are just like me?”

Lauren Ridloff, Essence
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As conversations continue about the future of MCU and its ability to push the boundaries of representation in superhero films and television series, it’s clear Ridloff is at the forefront of that sea change. Unafraid to clearly advocate for herself and the next generation of diverse filmmakers, Ridloff’s passion communicates to so many communities that they deserve a seat at the table. With Makkari, Ridloff brought to life a dynamic character that millions could see themselves in for the first time. But while Makkari is the one with superpowers, it’s clear that Ridloff is the true superhero.

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