The "Stranger Things" Closed Captions Suck Ass, Actually
On July 1st, Netflix finally released the finale of the fourth installment of the hit show Stranger Things.
I’m fully aware how confusing that probably sounds to someone unfamiliar with the show, so allow me to clarify: Stranger Things doesn’t have seasons, per se; rather, each “season” is more like a single movie in a series, so instead of “Stranger Things, Season 4,” it’s Stranger Things 4, like Lethal Weapon 4. For Stranger Things 4, we got the first 7 episodes (“chapters”) all at once, then the season finale—which isn’t actually called that because they aren’t seasons—was split into two longer parts and released two months after the first 7 chapters. I can’t imagine this was helpful for you at all.
Since part two of the—you know what, I’m not doing this. Since the last two episodes of this goddamn TV show were released, I’ve seen quite a few articles praising a specific aspect of Stranger Things, something I thought I was one of the very few who actually noticed: the descriptions in the closed captioning (a lot of people call them “subtitles,” but that technically refers to translating dialogue spoken in a foreign language).
Vulture published an article ranking “by delightfulness” the descriptive captions used in the show. Den of Geek published a similar ranking of the “most revolting closed captions,” which “highlight the increasingly important art of audio description.” BuzzFeed published—what else?—a list with no discernible order or criteria for inclusion. Everyone seems to be downright tickled by those wacky captions; hell, even the writers confessed that they were “trolling a little bit” with one description in particular (“tentacles undulating moistly”). (Also, that the captioners called it “trolling” can really only mean one of two things: either they wrote the captions as a little easter egg for people who can hear, or they were…trolling deaf people?)
I hate to ruin such a good spoof, but closed captioning exists to allow deaf and hard-of-hearing people to understand what’s happening on the screen. But apparently, the people who captioned Stranger Things are more concerned with indulging their own whimsy than in making the show as accessible as possible, and that sucks.
For most of my childhood and the entirety of my adult life, I’ve watched movies and TV shows with closed captioning. I don’t need closed captioning—my hearing is perfectly fine—but my brother Blake did: he had profound hearing loss and wore hearing aids. Without them, he was functionally deaf (any sound below 100–110 decibels didn’t register at all), but with them he could listen to music or watch TV provided the sound was loud enough, and he could carry on conversations normally as long as the other person spoke clearly and faced him so he could read their lips as a failsafe.
When we were very young, closed captioning wasn’t really a thing yet, so Blake either had to turn up the TV really loud or wear these special headphones (sort of an early ancestor of Bluetooth) that boosted the sound from the TV. Eventually, TVs with closed captioning became more widely available, and once we got one, that was it: the captions stayed on. Over time, I got used to them—so much so, in fact, that I never turned them off.
I’m 36 years old now, and I still use closed captioning whenever I watch TV. It’s contagious, too: my wife watches everything with captions on now, and after living together our senior year of college 15 years ago, one of my best friends still watches movies with captions on. There’s no real reason for it: I’ve always had exceptional hearing and I haven’t shared a TV with my brother since I was 13, and there’s no possibility I ever will again because he died eight years ago. Still, the closed captioning stays on.
Most of the time, people who need closed captioning can’t tell when the text doesn’t quite match up with the dialogue or the sounds. Usually it doesn’t really matter all that much, as long as the caption conveys all the relevant information: Who’s talking? What are they saying? Are they saying it in a particular way? Are there any non-dialogue sounds the viewer should be aware of, like footsteps or music?
As a hearing person who uses closed captioning, it’s obviously easier for me to spot bad captioning: sometimes the caption isn’t synced right with the dialogue, so it’s either too far behind or too far ahead of what’s actually being said. Sometimes a show or movie only captions dialogue and not sounds or music, so an off-screen sound that acts as the punchline to a joke or a running gag (like in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm) is completely missed. Sometimes the caption ruins plot twists by identifying who’s speaking before they’re actually shown on-screen.
Bad captioning is usually the result of sloppiness: errors in transcribing the dialogue because the captioner isn’t familiar with the speaker’s accent or dialect; attributing certain lines to the wrong speakers; not captioning sentences exactly as they were spoken; that sort of thing. What makes the captioning on Stranger Things so infuriating isn’t that they’re sloppy or poorly-written, it’s that they seem to have been written without much thought to the people who actually need them.
In recent years, a growing number of hearing people have started using closed captioning, for various reasons. In a 2017 article for Refinery29, writer Rebecca Farley says she uses closed captions (she calls them “subtitles”) to enhance her enjoyment of the thing she’s watching:
I want to read the script. I’m the person at the art museum who’s going to read the entire blurb next to the painting. I’m also a fan of the audio walking tours and when the waiter describes the specials. The script is half the process! That’s the foundation for the movie or show, and I want to see it! Show me how the sausage is made.
No, subtitles are not the solution. They flatten our perception. Sounds are more muted these days because there are too many of them, every utterance equally weighted and demanding of us total comprehension. Look at the words themselves. All too often they are meaningless.
On one side, we have closed captioning is great because it makes the viewing experience better for me, a person who can hear. On the other, we have closed captioning is awful because it flattens all dialogue and removes all its nuance. Both arguments are insulting as hell to deaf and hard-of-hearing people—not just because they are both blithely unaware that closed captioning is not meant for them, but because both stances imply that there is a fuller, richer viewing experience out there, and deaf and hard-of-hearing people don’t get to enjoy it. (Kehe’s stance—which amounts to Hearing the words is the only way to truly understand their meaning and their intent—is particularly dickheaded: “Too bad you’re deaf, guess you’ll never know what any line of dialogue really means, ever.”)
I’m sure Farley and Kehe didn’t realize that their respective arguments could seem insulting to deaf and hard-of-hearing people. But that’s the problem—they didn’t realize it because they weren’t thinking about deaf people at all. They were thinking about closed captioning the way most hearing people think about it: as something that can enhance or detract from the viewing experience, rather than as something that makes the viewing experience possible in the first place.
That’s precisely the kind of attitude that leads to people working extra hard to make their caption descriptions at best unnecessarily and distractingly florid and at worst incomprehensible. The caption description “[eldritch ______] appears numerous times throughout Stranger Things 4; I’m a fucking writer and I had to look that word up. And I’m lucky, because I could actually hear the “eldritch” sound, but what about the people who can’t? Is firing off a five-dollar synonym for “sinister” so important that it’s worth potentially forcing a deaf person pause the episode so they can look up “eldritch” in order to understand what’s going on?
Closed captioning doesn’t exist to augment what a hearing person can hear, it exists to fill in what deaf people can’t. It’s an accessibility feature, not a delivery device for in-jokes, and certainly not a time to pull “rodomontade” out of Roget’s Thesaurus and try to cram it into the captions somewhere. If you’re a captioner and you feel compelled to be entertaining and quirky, leave deaf people out of it. You’re more than welcome to write a novel, but in the meantime just write down what’s on the fucking screen.
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