This paper examines the way that language attempts to categorize and control bodies through the space of closed captioning. The paper examines three different incidents of closed captioned in television sex scenes to argue that queering and cripping provide a framework to examine how the rhetorical choices in closed captioning reflect larger anxieties over bodies engaged in pleasure in a space coded as "disabled." In considering closed captioning as a space coded as "disabled" what is made caption-visible (and what is not) can enforce a dual binary of heterosexuality/abe-bodiedness against queer/disabled. This dual binary is examined in three different case studies, Scandal, Queer as Folk, and Orange is the New Black; all 3 examples provide an overview of how closed captioning has performed ideological work which has largely gone unnoticed. This paper intervenes into the scholarly work which positions closed captioning as just a federal mandate or technological advancement. Instead, we should be looking at closed captioning as a series of rhetorical choices. By examining captioning, we can see the limits of defining, categorizing, and containing bodies and sex through language and disrupt ideas of normalcy which are being enacted in the space of closed captioning.

Let's talk about sex. Well, let's talk about the captions for sex. When examining closed captioning on television, I notice which sounds are not captioned. 1 One of the more noticeable gaps between captioning, image, and sound is in television sex scenes which are often written as: [groan] [moan] [heavy breathing] [grunt] [gasp]. These terms are the same exact descriptors which elsewhere are used to describe characters in pain or distress. Caption scholar Sean Zdenek notes that captions and sound rely upon context therefor many viewers can distinguish between pleasure and pain sounds in the captions based on the image. 2 Despite the potential to tell pleasure from pain, the frequency in which these handful of terms are used to describe sex in closed captioning (CC) indicates the larger issue of language's failure to rhetorically represent the sonic elements associated with bodies. By examining the rhetorical choices in closed captioning, we can see the limits of defining, categorizing, and containing bodies and sexual acts through language.

When we view closed captioning as a series of rhetorical choices then word selection is politically motivated by anxiety surrounding the body and compulsions for "normal" since a person who is influenced by ideological structures is making these rhetorical choices. The focus on CC as a technological advancement, its educational applications, and its legal mandates 3 has obscured scholars from closely investigating how CC reinforces values of normate culture, specifically in terms of heterosexuality and able-bodiedness. Normate, as conceived by Rosemarie Garland Thomson and written about widely in disability studies, refers to systems which use the concept of normalcy to control bodies or put forth an identity to strive for, but is in fact a social construct that maintains power through unmarked concepts such as: whiteness, male, young, and heterosexual. 4 Since closed captioning is a space coded as disabled or linked to disability, 5 sex scene closed captioning highlights the tension between concepts of bodies, pleasure, sex, and identity. To examine these tensions and the ideological work of CC, I have begun compiling a TV sex scene archive to find rhetorical patterns in the captions.

In this paper, I will briefly describe the archive which provides the framework for this project to argue that the lack of attention on CC allows CC to continually enforce a binary system which devalues sexual pleasure outside of heterosexual able-bodies. From the archive, I have selected three different case studies to deconstruct the space of captioning. The three sex scenes selected are from the shows: Scandal, the US version of Queer as Folk, and Orange is the New Black (OITNB). 6 Each case study illustrates how hetero-sexual/able-bodied must use queer/disabled to reinforce itself as the normal default body when there is sex being captioned. By examining these patterns, we can disrupt ideas of normalcy which are being enacted in the space of closed captioning. I hope that by raising question about CC, we can begin conceptualizing a queering of captioning that offers an alternative media experience. An experience that focuses not only on dismantling the influence of normalcy in captions but also one that focuses on a quality captions for all. 7

[TV&A: Selecting TV Sex Scenes]

I was unsure of what would emerge when I began compiling TV sex scenes in 2016. I knew that to establish captioning's current relationship to image and sound that I would need to examine the overall patterns. To begin this undertaking, I complied scenes into a digital archive. 8 To find sex scenes, I consulted different Internet lists of television's [hottest] [steamiest] [sexiest] [and many other -ests] sex scenes. While watching the scenes, I kept the information on a spreadsheet including:

  • show name;
  • show season;
  • characters in the scene;
  • episode title;
  • context;
  • type of sexual encounter;
  • media format (DVD, streaming, live TV);
  • terms used in CC;
  • sounds not included or that CC did not accurately portray;
  • and the timestamps.

From the clips complied, I recorded patterns in word choices and what types of information was frequently left out of captioning. I want to stress that the work done is this paper and archive are a starting point. This paper is examining the production and influences upon caption rhetoric and how this enforces certain ideological structures. While this paper is primarily in the realm of production of captions and ideology, the need to understand how these captions are perceived remains an important undertaking for caption scholars. As of 2019, the archive currently stands at over 265 examples of TV sex scenes which is how I was able to understand specific patterns, common word usages, and how TV sex scenes often function in a TV show's narrative.

A common pattern that emerges is that the sex scenes' captions dramatically impact an understanding of the overall narrative, tone, and access to character arcs and relationships. For instance, if a song plays during a sex scene, it can tonally position the sex as a romantic encounter, an angry hate fuck, makeup sex, or an awkward one-night stand. 9 But when extra diegetic or non-dialogue utterances, what Zdenek calls non-speech information (NSI), are left out of CC then it fails to achieve its ultimate purpose. According to the FCC, captions should aim to be "Accurate: Captions must match the spoken words in the dialogue and convey background noises and other sounds to the fullest extent possible." The FCC is not alone in demanding accuracy, many captioning guides such as those from the Described and Captioned Media Program and National Association of the Deaf (NAD) use language which reinforces the need for accuracy. 10 The FCC and others require that captioning convey "background noises and other sounds," and yet sex scenes are not captioned to the "fullest extent possible" [insert standard moan, groan, grunt]. 11

While CC clarifies certain sonic elements, the archive shows that bodily sounds are continuously left ambiguous or undisclosed. Part of the issue is that sounds associated with sex, referred to as paralanguage [breathing] [gasping] [moan], are considered less important to caption than dialogue. 12 Zdenek notes that paralanguage, as a form of NSI, is "to a large extent, invented by the captioner" (which sounds n.p). While part of the issue may be the lack of guidelines regarding which NSI are important, the overall priority given to dialogue reinforces normate views of communication. Verbal dialogue is considered an indication of cognitive abilities whereas paralanguage signifies a lack of cognitive abilities. In communication theory, paralanguage has even been associated with primal animality further removing it from "human" qualities, 13 Unfortunately, comparisons between disabled bodies and animals have pervaded public consciousness.

By selecting to prioritize dialogue over paralanguage, CC reinforces potentially ableist views of communication by sending the message that spoken dialogue is what makes you worth noticing or what makes you human. The need for d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing people to verbally speak fueled the oralist movement, led to legal battles regarding signed forms of communication, and the overall medical model of "curing" deafness. 14 Paralanguage in a written form highlights the constructedness of rhetoric, of meaning, and shows that the body can produce noises without our intention. Captioning bodily pleasure as paralanguage draws attention to the body experiencing sexual pleasure within a space coded as disabled and with language coded as disabled.

In closed captioning, what is made visible through language and what is not visible, helps enforce a dual binary of hetero/able-bodied and queer/disabled. As scholar Robert McRuer states in his book Crip Theory Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability, "compulsory able-bodiedness, which in a sense produces disability, is thoroughly interwoven with the system of compulsory heterosexuality that produces queerness…compulsory heterosexuality is contingent on compulsory able-bodies, and vice versa" (2).

From the archive, I selected three case studies which show how CC performs this ideological work. First, Scandal is a typical representation of TV sex scene's CC, as well as making several lists of [-est] sex scene. While appearing straight forward, it includes captioning for sonic elements which are not heard on the sound track and uses ambiguous descriptive terms. These choices show that CC uses its myth of objectivity to ease anxiety over the stability of the dual binary of hetero/able-bodied queer/disabled. Unlike Scandal, the second show, the US version of Queer as Folk, adds CC terms to control sexual acts and bodies which act to challenge the binary. The last example from OITNB indicates the anxiety over what exactly is being captioned? How do the sexual acts show the limits of language in understanding identity? Does CC capture what we do as sexual acts or who we are because of those sexual acts? Through these three (3) examples, we can understand how hetero/able-bodied needs queer/disabled and by understanding how this system operates we can break hetero/able-bodied down as the "default setting."

[Just Your Average Everyday Heterosexual TV Sex Scene]

When heterosexuality and able-bodiedness are continuously enforced as the normal or the "default human setting" they lead to compulsive behavior. 15 These compulsions to perform heterosexuality and able-bodiedness work invisibly in the space of closed captioning, but cripping and queering are methods to help us decode these compulsions. Cripping and queering both set out to question concepts of normalcy and inform each other in dismantling systems which perpetuate these concepts. To examine how these compulsions towards normal are enacted in closed captioning and how queering and cripping disrupt them, I will turn my attention to S2E14 of the ABC show Scandal entitled "Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot." Scandal is a political thriller that follows a crisis management firm lead by the character Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington). Another important element of the show is Olivia's on-again-off-again affair with President Fitzgerald Grant III (Tony Goldwyn). The episode is a typical example of how closed captioning works for television sex scenes. The closed captioning transcribes the dialogue, indicates song lyrics when related to the or if there is space for them, and barely indicates NSI. The episode's captioning adds sounds which are not present in the sound track 16 and uses vague terminology which reflects the need of hetero/able-bodiedness to reconfirm its own normalcy when they are positioned within a space coded as disabled. These subtle changes from sound track into language are part of the system which allows CC to uphold the dual binary by working subtly and going unnoticed.

Scandal is typical of closed captioning and, like most captioning, certain sounds and dialogue are changed from the sound track into written language. Sometimes these changes relate to the use of slang, concision to take up less screen space, or using shorter synonyms. During this episode of Scandal, the change I am most interested is the addition of [both moaning] into the episode's CC. While Scandal could be attempting to avoid ambiguity in its paralanguage by indicating who is producing sounds, it is doing this even when only one character or neither is heard [moaning] on the audio track. There are instances during this scene where Olivia can faintly be heard [moaning] at various moments. 17 When the CC [both moaning] appears on screen, neither are heard [moaning] on the audio track. During the scene, we do not hear them moaning together at the same time which is implied by [both moaning]. The caption is an example of what Zdenek calls sustained captions by changing the verb into its -ing form to indicate a continuous or repeating sound (Reading 40). While [moaning] occurs at various points through the scenes, the rhetorical choice made here also attempts to obstruct other readings or questions of the power dynamics associated with sex.

Generally, who is louder during sex can reflect who is receiving the most pleasure. While both might be enjoying the sex, one is positioned as sonically dominant. Outside of the sonic power dynamic, the positioning of bodies in sex acts reflects other power dynamics. 18 The indication of power structures within sex and outside of sexual encounters is largely discussed within porn studies. For instance, the focus on the money shot or cum shot within porn has reflected both a patriarchal nature of society but also that sex is for men. 19 While television sex scenes do not have a cum shot, the performance of sex on screen reflects power structures outside of the sexual encounters involving race, gender, sexuality, class, and ability. If "porn can be seen as offering means to resist the notion of 'good sex' as monogamous heterosexual and private, produced through regulation and sexual stigmas" (Paasonen, Nikunen, Saarenmaa 13) then television sex scenes are a place where 'good sex' is enacted and performed.

By showing the power dynamics built into sexual encounters through indicating who is creating certain sounds, CC runs the risk of showing the instability of these structures. Captioning creates anxiety regarding sexual power dynamics effect on power structures outside of sexual encounters. If women do not just "lie back and think of England" but actively enjoy sex and assert that pleasure through sonic dominance, then that challenges women as passive sexual objects. If women are sexually dominant and assert this through sonic dominance, then men might be positioned as the object. When object=women and women=subservient to men than other power structures which rely upon traditional patriarchal roles are challenged if men take the place of object in the above scenario. Those systems are tied with gender, compulsive heterosexuality, and able-bodiedness. To avoid this potential threat, CC either does not mention who is producing sounds by leaving out the speaker identification or takes the Scandal route and democratizes the caption track. CC attempts to ease these anxieties surrounding power's ultimate instability by arguing that heterosexual/able-bodiedness is pleasurable to all or (both) since the sexual power is shared and thus is stabilized.

By making the rhetorical choice for [both moaning], the captioning is presenting a sexual encounter where both parties are equally in control and enjoying the sex; [both moaning] draws the audience's attention away from the fact that Fitz is taking Olivia from behind. By downplaying the position and power built in to the sex scene, CC steers viewers away from its animal connotations. Male taking female from behind is often associated with how animals procreate, has given rise to sexual nicknames such as "doggy style," and has more carnal connotation than sex positions like missionary. If the captioning only stated that one person was [moaning] alongside this sexual position, it might stir up tension over the link between paralanguage and disability through the fear that paralanguage is close to animality and thus not reflective of cognitive abilities. As Dolmage says, "those without the ability to speak and those without the ability to "control" their bodies have been omitted from considerations of rhetorical capacity. The mean becomes codified as a normate position, and thus we get a picture of what bodies are allowed to be, to do, to look like, to express" (Disability Rhetoric 25). While CC wants to show Fitz as a sexually active powerful man, it does not want to position him as a carnal unthinking beast.

If Olivia is [moaning] alone then she might be viewed as more powerful and sexually active than Fitz which would challenge his masculinity. The CC avoids any of this tension by enforcing a narrative where both parties are enjoying the sexual encounter thus framing the paralanguage in terms of heterosexuality/able-bodied and not queer/disability. As both characters are considered strong leads, the captioning tries to draw attention away from the power dynamic discrepancies of their positions by using (both moaning). It can also ease racial tensions over a white man penetrating a woman of color. By focusing so hard in positioning this sex as between equals and equally enjoyable, the CC reinforces that heterosexual sex is democratic, by golly. Democracy, outside of being a key theme in the show, imposes a narrative of equality and stability, a narrative that is shared by hetero/able-bodiedness. The addition of (both moaning) shows that, regardless if it is true, this system of hetero/able-bodied sex relies upon repeating its universality so not only is it the "norm," but when we all participate in it, we all benefit [all moaning].

[Both moaning] attempts to obfuscate the unstable nature of hetero/able-bodied dominance by drawing attention away from the fact that they need queer/disabled to define themselves, and that heterosexual and able-bodiedness are phantom ideals which can never fully be realized. 20 CC highlights the idea that phantom ideals exist because CC can never achieve a fully realized version of itself. The ability for captioning to draw attention to phantom ideals makes the binaries nervous because then their own ideal which cannot be achieved is brought to the forefront. For instance, [both moaning] is not achieved in the scene, instead it must create this myth to perpetuate the ideals of hetero/able-bodied. While hetero/able-bodied relies upon its invisibility to remain dominant, closed captioning relies upon a myth of objectivity to normalize the terms used in TV sex scenes. As Zdenek returns to throughout his book, a "captioner not only selects which sounds are significant, and hence which sounds are worthy of being captioned, but also rhetorically invents words for sounds" (Reading 1). He shows that captioning is far from objective and relies heavily upon subjectivity. As we shall see, this is also the reason sex is captioned is so many ways, but if captioning is subjective then we can think about the structures which inform those choices made. The myth of objectivity has kept scholars from closely engaging with the ideological work that is performed invisibly in the space of CC.

No audio track can be transcribed "to the fullest extent possible" because the project itself is not objective. Definitions of closed captioning indicate that it is a phantom ideal that will never be realized. Let us compare two different definitions of closed captioning. First, "Closed captioning currently provides only the verbatim equivalent of the dialogue and ignores most nonverbal information such as music, sound effects, and intonation" (Rashid et al 505). A second definition states, "Closed captioning (CC) is the verbatim translation of spoken dialogue from television and film" (Udo and Fels 207). Both references indicate a level of accuracy by using the term "verbatim" which implies a level of objectivity, but they also imply that closed captioning is a series of choices. As Zdenek states "Every sound cannot be close captioned" (Reading 3). Therefore, choices are being made about which sounds to caption. These choices are not made in a vacuum but rather reflect the ideologies which have been internalized by the person creating the captions. In talking about CC primarily in terms of technology, scholars have allowed the choices by the person behind the keyboard to go unnoticed. By seeing how CC tries to hide its own myth and phantom ideal, we can also see how it tries to hide hetero/able-bodied's phantomness. Compulsion to perform hetero/able-bodied will aim for [both moaning] because CC allows it to remain an ideal that people can perform and strive towards. Ultimately, compulsions to perform "normal" will fail because [both moaning] will never be realized because it was never realized. 21 [both moaning] was never the reality of the scene. This dual binary is a system that exists only in its perpetuation of phantom ideals which CC helps regurgitate.

The imposed [both moaning] works to repeat the binary logic to enforce the phantom ideals that lead to hetero/able-bodied compulsions, but so does choosing vague terminology in place of more accurate terms. In the same scene, the anxiety over captioning bodies sexually in a space coded as disabled becomes visible through the usage of the term [clatter]. The phrasing implies general sounds of objects being moved and background noises. [clatter] has connotations which are less human, and more object oriented. A less ambiguous term for the sonic elements of [clatter] heard on the audio track would be [Fitz belt unbuckling] or [Fitz pants unzipping]. [belt unbuckling] or [pants unzipping] are captions which I have seen elsewhere and frequently they are used in conjunction with men urinating. Bodily waste can be associated with CC and disability, but not sexual pleasure? While [both moaning] allows the CC to present sex as a safe heterosexual/able-bodied act, [clatter] allows CC to avoid analyzing the genitals involved in that act. In other words, CC draws attention away from the character's sexual organs and bodies and focuses on the effects or rewards of hetero/able-bodiedness. Drawing attention to his zipper unzipping during sex would also be to draw attention to his penis 22. [clatter] allows CC to endorse the verb of having heterosexual sex without having to conflate a space of disability with the penis that heterosexual sex is assumed to rely upon or that all sex involving a penis is heterosexual. The dominant way in which heterosexual sex is defined is as intercourse between a body with a penis and a body with a vagina. Of course, sex, sexuality, and bodies are more complicated than the linguistic labels which compulsive heterosexuality relies upon. To avoid drawing attention to what bodies participate in heterosexual sex/able-bodiedness and questioning these linguistic constructions, the scene choses to remove this potential threat by using [clatter].

[Forming Trust Issues with my Closed Captioning]

Unlike Scandal which adds terms to reinforces its own hetero/able-bodiedness, Queer as Folk, adds terms to control sexual acts and bodies which challenge those concepts. In doing so, Queer as Folk's captions are still able to stabilize the dual binary even when queer sex is presented on screen. Queer as Folk is a Showtime 23 series which follows the lives of several queer characters, primarily gay men. In the first episode, several of the characters are at a gay bar and the character Michael (Hal Sparks) goes into a back room to ask their friend Brian (Gale Harold) when they can leave. As he enters the backroom, the caption [men moaning] appears. 24 In compiling the archive, this caption stood out because it was the first closed caption which attempts to specify the gender or sex of the characters in the scene. The caption I expected to see would be [moaning]. We would be surprised if Scandal's CC said [both sexes moaning] [both genders moaning] or [male and female moaning]. Scandal does not need to specify sex or gender because heteronormativity assumes that there are only two and that those two perform heterosexual sex. While Scandal and Queer as Folk insert two different terms into the captioning [both] and [men], the compulsion behind them is similar. [men moaning] acts as a way to contain queerness through the space of disability in order to reinforce the default setting of hetero/able-bodied.

While many instances of paralanguage are left unidentified in terms of which character is producing the sounds, this example stands out as attempting to not leave any room for ambiguity. The use of the term [men] categorizes these bodies so that they confirm the dominant narratives surrounding sex, gender, and sexuality. Outside of the CC, viewers are unaware if these characters are men or identify that way. While viewers might assume that these are men since the characters are in a gay bar, the CC goes the extra step to impose this narrative, leaving no room for questions. As the camera pans across various bodies performing sexual acts, they are mostly too out of focus to determine what genitals are involved. Nor does Michael go around asking if these characters identify as men. Instead, CC relies upon internalized logic regarding how binary systems work. [Men/women] [hetero/able-bodied] [queer/disabled]. In CC, this logic looks like this: [penis]=[man] and [[penis]=[man] + [penis]=[men]] = [gay 25]. By inserting [men] into the caption, CC gets to say, "hey viewer, look at these nice neat boxes in which bodies and sex fit into and thus bodies and sex can be contained through language." As disability rhetoric scholar Jay Dolmage says, "rhetoric [is] the strategic study of the circulation of power through communication"(3). In this caption, we see the power of the rhetorical choice (men) circulating power through closed captioning to reinforce hetero/able-bodiedness by making this sex visible in terms of gender in a way that heterosexuality does not need to be made visible.

In comparison, [both moaning] needs no more explanation because it is assumed that the [both] is a male and a female and thus their sex is heterosexual. Hetero/ablebodied remains hidden in the choices that label hetero/able sex as [both] whereas Queer as Folk does not say [all moaning], although all of the men are assumed to be included in the [men moaning]. [all moaning] leaves room for these bodies to remain invisible and thus challenge the dual binary. McRuer argues that "because these systems depend on a queer/disabled existence that can never quiet be contained, able bodied heterosexuality's hegemony is always in danger of collapse" (31). The binary looks for ways to stabilize itself through rhetoric, therefore CC must use [men] instead of [all] showing that queer/disable must be labeled and made visible to enforce the invisible normalcy of hetero/able-bodiedness.

Hetero/able-bodiedness tolerates moments in which queer/disabled are visible because it verifies its own normalcy by remaining unmarked. In other words, by marking the queer/disabled using language which is a-typical in closed captioning hetero/able-bodied remains unmarked and can safely stay the hidden compulsive default. The default for people, according to hetero/able-bodiedness, is heterosexual and able-bodied. The default for televisions is usually closed captioning off. The term closed captioning comes from the fact that the captions are "closed" and must be turned on for them to be visible. Open captions are the system where the captions are permanently on the screen. To make captioning visible, users must manipulate multiple interfaces to have access to this closed off space. In trying to activate closed captioning, the user must first acknowledge that this is not the default setting or in another word this is not the "normal" setting. Zdenke describes this as, "The invisibility of captioning is a result of the invisibility of disability" (Which Sounds n.p). By activating captioning, disabled bodies are forced to participate in a system where their need for CC enforces able-bodiedness as the standard, and queer bodies are forced to participate in a system where [men moaning] is used to confirm the standard setting of heterosexual [both moaning].

Closed captioning cannot erase the image of queer sex on screen but it attempts to over categorize and contain it in terms of language. The insertion of [men] positions the sexual encounters as abnormal which reaffirms the normalcy of not needing to define heterosexual sex through these terms. Introducing [men] attempts to contain and organize these bodies to gain control over them and force viewers to acknowledge that it is not standard. While the closed captioning can act to tolerate the existence of queer sex on screen, it can do so only to justify the normalness and compulsivity of hetero/able-bodiedness.

[What's in a Caption? Nouns and Verbs]

When Scandal says [both moaning] and Queer as Folk says [men moaning] what is being contained in the space of closed captioning? What is really being captioned? For viewers, CC appears to make the audiovisual elements of sex visible through written language. [moaning], which is paralanguage, is still considered actions that the body produces or performs therefore they are captioned as verbs. Zdenek states that "At the heart of almost every sound description is a verb" (41). These can be modified in several ways by placing a noun before the verb and/or an adverb after the verb. For instance, [both] is the noun before the verb of [moaning] same with [men moaning]. While the use of verbs to caption sex scenes is aligned with standard practices, the verbs in TV sex scenes imply a set of nouns even when not mentioned in the caption itself. Linked with the verbs is a belief that the verbs signify which bodies are participating in the sexual acts, meaning they signify nouns.

The verb of performing certain sexual acts is thought to directly align with identity categories, a set of nouns. 26 Examining the first two case studies, we have seen that a body with a penis engaging in sex with a body with a vagina is performing the verb of sex. Sex, when not qualified with [men] or other nouns, is assumed to be heterosexual sex. Thus, sex as a verb aligns with the noun of heterosexual according to the default logic in the dual binary of hetero/able-bodied. By not having to clarify the nouns involved in the verbs associated with the act of heterosexual sex, heterosexual sex can remain unseen, unmarked, and unquestioned. Whereas bodies with a penis having sex with other bodies with a penis is marked as a different type of verb, something that needs to be marked. The captioning for Queer as Folk shows that the verb gay or queer sex is directly tied to the noun of being gay or queer. Hetero/able-bodied nouns are those nouns because of the verbs they perform. Olive and Fitz are noun heterosexual because the verb of putting a penis into a vagina. Queer/disabled exist as a noun identity and a verb which is performed, but they exist as a second set of verbs as well when adding -ing to the end.

Queering and cripping are verbs that allow us to dismantle the ideas that any noun concept, especially those based on assumed verbs, is unstable. In doing so, queering and cripping question hetero/able-bodiedness concepts which require stability to assert dominance. Pulling from the work of Michael Warner and Adrienne Rich on societal compulsions, McRuer argues that "Cripping insists that the system of compulsory able-bodiedness is not and should not be the norm; cripping also imagines bodies and desires that fit beyond that system" (32). Here we could replace cripping with queering and able-bodiedness with heterosexuality. I want to use these two verbs, queering and cripping, to draw attention to the limits of CC language and the assumptions built into selecting certain verbs to indicate certain nouns.

The final case study, Orange is the New Black (OITNB), highlights CC's anxiety about using certain verbs in describing TV sex scenes because the dominant impulse is that those verbs also reflects identities. Scandal and Queer as Folk illustrate what CC does do in terms of word selection and the compulsions behind those choices. Two examples from OITNB are presented. The first example shows the official caption track from an episode, but the second example shows what closed captioning does not do and the compulsions behind those choices. To showcase these points, I first look at the official caption for Season 3 Episode 2 "Bed Bugs and Beyond." Next, I will examine an official Netflix tweet with a different captioning 27 from the same episode. By doing this, we can see that CC uses many different rhetorical tools to help enforce the dual binary of hetero/able-bodiedness and queer/disabled which are based upon assumptions regarding nouns and verbs.

OITNB is a Netflix original show about a women's prison. One of the ongoing plots is the wild romance between Alex and Piper, which swings rapidly from having sex to having physical altercations. In this episode, the two women are seen arguing, physically fighting, and then having sex in the prison's library. The official Netflix caption that accompanies the sex scene is [gasps], [grunts], [grunts], [moaning], and lastly, in a shocking twist: [moaning]. [gasps] is used near the beginning of the scene when Alex slaps Piper across the face so this NSI is used to indicate pain and surprise. The two women begin pushing each other, accompanied by the caption [grunts]. The caption does not give the speaker identification so in the caption it is unclear if Alex, the one pushed, or Piper, the one doing the pushing, grunts. 28 The struggle continues briefly but then quickly turns into Piper removing her top revealing a white bra underneath and the two women kissing. It is at this point that we get the second [grunts] as Alex pulls Piper's hair. The [grunts] here are ambiguous not only in speaker identification but it quickly moves from physical pain to lust. The first grunt is pain, but the second grunt is pain and pleasure. The captioner is not indicating that the second [grunt] is out of both pleasure and pain and leaves it to the viewer's negotiation of image and text to figure it out. From an overall narrative perspective, the use of [grunts] might be an example of thematic captioning. Zdenek defines this as "Patterns and themes which might otherwise be latent in a film become manifest when captioned" (101). The [grunts] indicate the ways in which their relationship is often oscillating from pain, anger, punishment to sex, pleasure, and love. Thematical [grunts] for both pain and pleasure capture the fact that their relationship is both for the characters.

While thematically resonant, the [grunt] also continues a tradition of linking paralanguage with animality. [grunting] is often used to denote physical assertion, hard work, an abrupt forceful release of air from the body, or the noise an animal makes. To position the sex as lustful and carnal, the captioner uses a word that describes the noise a pig makes. Again, we are seeing paralanguage associated with animal sounds and a loss of control. A loss of control that is associated with disability and reflected in the idioms we use, such as "you are out of control." Metaphors and idioms act as a form of rhetoric that enforce dominant ideologies and behaviors where "metaphors are also incorporated into bodily experience" (Dolamge Valley, 115). In popular media, when someone loses control, they are often brought back to their "normal" state with a slap to the face 29 and yelling "get ahold of yourself." The metaphors surrounding control and paralanguage demand a return to a previous state which does not challenge rhetoric as a construction. [grunting] is only meant to be momentary, but once the moment has passed the body will resume "normal" rhetorical functions. The enactment of metaphors surrounding control raise the question of what control, what influence, and in what manner is the body controlled? [grunts] connotations of lack of control and animality indicate that the body is not as easily "controlled" by a sense of self or dominant power structures.

Part of the allure of representing sex on screen is to see a "loss of control." The women began fighting but lose control of their emotions and bodies leading to a romp in the library. [grunt], when used in sex scenes, positions the sex as intense, lustful, and animal whereas [moan], [groan], [heavy breathing] retain a more human like qualities and are often used in scenes that might be described as "love-making." [grunt] is more sonically aggressive indicating a more physically aggressive type of sex. The overlap of sex and disability is discussed in Margrit Shildrick's book Dangerous Discourses of Disability, Subjectivity and Sexuality. In it she states, "it is precisely because of the inherent risk of losing self-control and self-definition that the domain of sexuality is so highly disciplined and regulated" (129). While the [grunting] might be acceptable momentarily for sex and pleasure, it is only acceptable because there will be a return to a "normal" state of body and rhetoric. A normal state which assumes defined gender roles and hetero/able-bodiedness but this [grunt] complicates the ideas of sex and rhetoric because the nouns performing the [grunt] are women performing the verb [sex] making them the noun [lesbian].

Women are thought to be less in control of their bodies and thus less stable. The idea of the noun [woman] has been viewed as less stable because it is assumed that woman is lacking. In Rhetorica in Motion, Jay Dolmage and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson argues that "the category of woman has been closely aligned with the category of disability as a term that has marked deficiency and disqualification (23). This lack or deficiency is not just a lack of bodily control, rhetorical skills, or cognition but also the assumed lack of a penis. The word [grunt] brings us back to the issue of the bodies who are producing these sounds as "lacking" a penis which is needed to have sex according to the hetero/able-bodiedness logic. A quick google search shows that over 328,000,000 search results can be obtained from searching "How do Lesbians have sex" whereas "how do heterosexuals have sex" only has 2,070,000 results. What this tells us is that people are very concerned over the noun [woman] which is assumed to mean a lack of penis performing the verb [sex] with other [woman]. Richard Dyer discusses this issue in Heavenly Bodies, in which he describes how sex and orgasm is historically thought of only being true when done through vaginal penetration. So, what the hell are lesbians doing and how does rhetoric in CC reflect these anxieties? Historically, the focus on genitalia to define the [noun] of sex and thus sexuality was done through a medical model. It is the link between the use of medical models to uphold the hetero/able-bodiedness against queer/disabled and nouns and verbs that is discussed in the Netflix tweet which references the scene discussed above.

On March 26th 2016, Netflix's official US Twitter account tweeted out "ATTN: Netflix Closed Captioning Dept" accompanied a gif of two women kissing. The gif shows Alex and Piper from the scene described above in which I have already listed the captions from the official caption track. The closed captioning for the Twitter gif reads [lesbianing]. The term "lesbianing" itself is an inside joke in the show. In an earlier episode, the character referred to as Pennsatucky says, "She a lesbian. They're lesbianing together." Netflix, by tweeting out this gif of closed captioning, draws attention to the word choice in the scene for comedic effect. 30 Specifically, they are drawing attention to the abnormality of the term. As Microsoft Word will inform you, lesbianing is not recognized as an official verb. In tweeting this image, Netflix is using CC to reinforce ideas of what "normal" verbs and noun identities are by making "abnormal" ones visible. Pennsatucky's term indicates that the noun [lesbian] must perform something [a verb] to be considered [lesbian]. Similarly to the insertion of [men] in Queer as Folk, this example reinforces the impulse and normalcy behind [both moaning]. But by making CC visible in this Tweet, it raises the question why is this so abnormal that it traverses into joke territory? The language in the tweet shows the limits of language to capture sex and identity in CC which extends into legitimate CC since the tweet is relying upon established logic and conceptions of CC.

The joke is understood because audiences understand that CC would never use these terms to caption the scene. But why not? They are performing the verb of queer sex that is associated with the noun identity of lesbian [[vagina]=[women]+[vagina]=[woman]=Lesbian]. If, as hetero/able-bodiedness proposes, this logic is true, then why can't the verb version of the noun be lesbianing. In discussing the way science is used to justify rhetoric and society, Dolmage says, "the word retarded is given a reified and unquestioned status as a scientific term. But…all scientific meanings are based on metaphor and use this to interrogate and challenge other negative medical definitions of disability, revealing when possible their pseudoscientific origins and the nastier intentions embedded in their rhetoric" (104). While [lesbianing] is not interchangeable for retarded in the above statement, Dolmage's arguments points to the larger issue of rhetoric which is produced through medical/scientific institutions as legitimizing actions or power structures. In Carrie Sandhal's article from GLQ entitled "QUEERING THE CRIP OR CRIPPING THE QUEER? Intersections of Queer and Crip Identities in Solo Autobiographical Performance," she examines how both issues of sexuality and disability "share a history of injustice: both have been pathologized by medicine" (26). The use of medical or scientific rhetoric has been used to justify marginalizing those who do not fit into the hetero/able-bodiedness ideal. [Lesbianing] has not gone through any medical or scientific model which would legitimize its status as a verb; rather, in this tweet it becomes a punchline to reinforce hetero/able-bodiedness as the standard to achieve. The official caption track opts for [grunts] because thrusting [lesbianing] into the spot light raises questions regarding the relationship between the overall construction of the term and identities which are built into sexual acts, including heterosexuality.

CC and the dual binary do not want viewers asking: If you are a lesbian, do you perform lesbianing, and can you lesbianing without being a lesbian? In transcribing [lesbianing], CC raises the question if the subject/noun of "I am a lesbian" is different than the act of performing the verb version of [lesbianing]. If [lesbianing] is something which can be performed, then its counterpart of hetero, which depends on queer, is also performative. Hetero/able needs people to believe that these verbs are not performed individually from their noun counter parts but rather they are inherently intertwined. But if [lesbianing] can exist then verbs and nouns are both intertwined and separate. They are something which can be embodied and performed. Hetero/ablest constructs of language cannot allow it to be a term and legitimize its existence because it would disrupt the intertwining of noun and verbs which allows hetero/able-bodied binary to remain stable. Turning identity into its verb version in the space of closed captioning pushes hetero/able-bodied towards its collapse.

Queer sex is made visible in Queer as Folk to reinforce the normalcy of not needing to specify bodies for the sex scenes in Scandal. [lesbianing] operates similarity, but the key difference is that one is a closed captioning and the other is a joke. Even though both reinforce the normalcy of the hetero/able-bodiedness in the captioning for Scandal, the tweet shows us why [lesbianing] works in a way that [gaying] would not work as a joke. Lesbians are already seen as lesser in the hierarchy of bodies built into patriarchal hetero/able-bodied since the bodies that are thought to perform or participate in the verb [lesbianing] are women. The disregard for lesbian behavior and lesbian experiences is even reinforced in queer discourse which have largely privileged gay white males over other bodies. Even though both shows contain queer sex, CC shows compulsions for hetero/able-bodied are still tied together with other unstable binaries such as gender and sex. Language can reinforce these concepts, but also draw attention to how the logic works and potentially be the dual binaries undoing as well. The tense relationship between caption, binary, and bodies is exhibited in the choices which are made in CC and which choices are avoided.

[Up Next: Queering/Cripping the Captioning]

Now that we can see the way hetero/able-bodied is perpetuated by CC, where sex scenes of hetero sex are just as manipulated as queer sex, we can use queer/crip as techniques to examine these spaces and revolutionize them. First, this means disrupting concepts of paralanguage and hierarchies of communication, specifically in relation to sex. To do this means questioning scholarship which says, "In a transnational cinema of universally recognizable car chases, sex scenes, and corporate logos, who needs language" (Downey 51). Since the transcriptions of sex scenes in films and television are similar with similar compulsions behind them, this type of argument reinforces hetero/able-bodied as operating unmarked in the space of closed captioning. The ideas that sex scenes and paralanguage do not need space in the captioning since they are universally understood perpetuates ideas of normalcy that remain invisible and dominant.

An argument that sex scenes are "universally recognizable" seems to ignore that sex scenes contain more than just the verb "to do sex." Issues of power, gender, bodies, identity, aesthetics, and sexuality play out during these scenes. To recognize that sex and thus sex scenes are not universal draws attention to the fact that those beliefs which rely upon universalizing, such as heterosexuality and able-bodiedness, begin to fall apart. To ask the question, "who needs language," seems to avoid the fact that in terms of sex, identity, and bodies, language frequently fails and yet is relied upon. The systems which rely upon language to categorize and separate queer/disabled from itself often simultaneously reveal the limits of hetero/able language. Who needs language? Compulsive hetero/able-bodiedness needs language, but we can queer/crip closed captioning in order to destabilize language and thus hetero/able-bodiedness.

I am not the first person to point out interesting closed captioning moments and the need to change the current approach to closed captioning. In fact, there is an entire Tumblr dedicated to Netflix on this subject. 31 One of the more famous critics of Netflix's captioning is Sam Wildman who argues against censoring language saying "But if someone says "Kill that motherfucker!" then shouldn't everyone be able to have the same shocked reaction to the word 'motherfucker' as anyone else?" But what about just wanting to know about two people fucking? In this area, closed captioning seems to not only fail the first rule of closed captioning by not aiming for accuracy, but it also changes paralanguage to uphold compulsive hetero/able-bodiedness to the point where experimenting with language to describe sexual scenes is absurd. Closed captioning becomes a space where the anxieties surrounding bodies and language clash. According to the National Association of the Deaf's website, closed captioning has "come of age," but this technological determinist attitude towards evolutionary maturity does not seem to include a sexual awakening. So, while closed captioning might be coming, how are we to know if it is cumming? 32

Works Cited


  1. While I use closed captioning, I am not currently D/deaf or Hard of Hearing. I am not equating my experience with CC as representative of those who rely upon this technology. Instead, I want to use my position as someone who uses CC and is hearing to draw attention to discrepancies in how CC represents bodies, sex, and sound.
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  2. In his book Reading Sounds, Zdenek uses the example of Bella Swan from the Twilight film series who is often gasping for various reasons. While the context for these gasps change, the captions themselves are often the same.
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  3. For more information on these aspects of closed captioning see Downey, Ellis and Kent, Perego et al, and Robson.
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  4. See Extraordinary Bodies Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature for more information on normate, for more on issues of normalcy, see Lennard Davis
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  5. The relationship between D/deaf communities and the term disabled has a long and politically charged history. This paper recognizes that not all member of D/deaf communities acknowledge it as a disability, rather some view it as a language community. Due to Federal mandates for accommodation, discourse which aligns deafness with disability, definitions of CC which align deafness to disability, and the pervasiveness of medical models of disability, this paper uses deafness as an entry point into the framework of disability without trying to argue for or against it being labelled as a disability. For more information on this history, please see Owen Wrigley and Brenda Jo Brueggemann.
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  6. As will be discussed in more detail, the example from OITNB is both an official caption example and an imagined caption.
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  7. Zdenek speaks frequently about the need to quality captions rather than current standards which focus on issues of style.
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  8. I am hoping to eventually make this archive public
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  9. For example, S3E6 of Lost titled "I Do" has a sex scene between the character Kate and Sawyer, who leading up to their sex scene have been arguing. The captioning captures the dialogue, which has a tone of frustration, but fails to indicate a soft romantic song plays once they begin to kiss. The non-diegetic song helps position this scene as a romantic encounter and more than anger towards being trapped. Captioning frequently leaves out non-diegetic elements which impacts the scene's meaning.
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  10. The DCMP states "Accurate: Errorless captions are the goal for each production." While the NAD says "A caption viewer should not receive any more or less information than a hearing one"
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  11. Throughout the paper, [ ] or ( ) are used to both indicate official captions from examples as well as disrupt reading patterns to force readers to engage with the image/style of captions in a way that not all readers encounter. I do not assume a familiarity with looking at shapes of captions, therefore this acts to replicate that shape within the paper. When breaking down the logic behind captions, it can also be easier to communicate that logic by using the format of the captions themselves.
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  12. It should be noted that dialogue's "superior" status is not limited to closed captioning. Across sound track studies, dialogue has been considered the most important sonic element. An issue that Zdenek also takes up in his scholarship.
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  13. For more information on communication theories history of ableist and heteronormative scholarship, please see Karen Lovaas.
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  14. For more on the history of deafness and disability rhetoric see Brueggemann.
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  15. For more information on compulsive behaviors linked to heterosexuality please see, McRuer, Rich, and Warner
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  16. Or at least readily heard on multiple viewings and various volumes.
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  17. It is unclear to me if President Fitzgerald Grant III also [moans] even when watching the scene multiple times.
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  18. While the positioning of bodies during sex and their link to power if often examined in queer theory in terms of gay male sex, specifically about top and bottoms. For more information on tops and bottoms, please see Steven Underwood
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  19. Please see Linda Williams Hardcore and Porn Studies for more information on sex and power structures.
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  20. The inability to achieve these ideas is explored by Rosemarie Garland Thomson, McRuer, and Butler. This can also be seen as connected to Derrida's idea of a pure body, for more information see Penelope Deutscher.
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  21. This concept is similar to Judith Butler's claims that gender and heteronormativity are unachievable because they are without origin.
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  22. Having fathered a child, it seems that the show is setting up its viewers to read Fitz as having a functioning sperm producing penis.
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  23. While audience members usually associated premium channels, like Showtime or HBO, with more explicit sex scenes, the captioning is not more explicit. The same vague terms are recycled on these channels as they are on TV channels, streaming TV sites or basic cable.
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  24. OITNB S3E4 [woman moaning] is used to show that the person Big Boo (real name Carrie) is fucking is a woman. Here we see similar impulses to the Queer as Folk, a way to mark the sex as not heterosexual.
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  25. A similar logic is proposed later for lesbian. While I do not ascribe to essentialist conceptions of bodies and gender, this is the logic which is re-stated repeatedly by dominant rhetoric.
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  26. Terms such as heterosexual, lesbian, gay, or queer can act as both nouns and adjectives. Here I am discussing the noun form.
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  27. While the Tweet's gif is not a standard form of captioning, as it is not representing an audio track, I will refer to it as a caption since the Tweet is presenting the words on screen as a caption. By approaching this as a caption, it reveals even more information about the structures and limitations of CC practices for official caption tracks.
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  28. After several listens it seems that Piper is the one who grunts
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  29. Or throwing water on someone seems to achieve the same effect
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  30. This was the only record of this captioning that I could find so I assume that this was a joke by Netflix and never the original captioning.
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  31. This can be found at: http://awkwardnetflixcaptions.tumblr.com/
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  32. Thank you to the Center for the Study of Women in Society at the University of Oregon whose Jane Grant Fellowship made this research possible.
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