In Hollywood, perfection is the name of the game. Blockbuster movies cast beautiful, healthy, able-bodied actors and actresses to portray loveable characters overcoming harrowing obstacle who then manage to see their problems resolved in a neat and tidy fashion in about 120 minutes. It’s an entertaining formula, but it’s not true to life. Where are the stories we don’t see? The not-so perfect people who live with and manage their not-so-sexy challenges without being limited or defined by them.
Fortunately, Hollywood directors are starting to take notice, and we’re seeing more movies about the people whose stories haven’t been told.
Take Baby Driver, the 2017 Oscar-nominated action/adventure heist film about a getaway driver named Baby. Baby is young, cool, whip-smart and the best in the business. He also has tinnitus. But instead of portraying Baby as a victim and his tinnitus as a crutch, the movie flips the disability narrative on its head. Baby is the best getaway driver there is because of his tinnitus. He’s learned to manage his condition by always listening to music, and it’s his heart-pumping soundtracks that help him perfectly choreograph his high-adrenaline escapes.
That chronic-condition-as-superpower storyline has a lot of people talking with many tinnitus patients voicing their enthusiastic approval. Here are some other things that Baby Driver gets right about tinnitus.
Movies rarely, if ever, feature characters who struggle with tinnitus, despite the fact that tinnitus is one of the most common conditions in the world.
Representation in the media is vitally important for many reasons. When the majority of positive images we see on television and in the movies are of young, healthy, able-bodied people, audiences who don’t fit into those narrow categories question themselves. They ask, “Do I matter?” “Am I normal?” “Does society value me?” When people with tinnitus see themselves portrayed positively in the media, it normalizes and demystifies their struggle. It helps them realize that they aren’t alone, and that their symptoms are common, manageable and nothing to fear.
As an added bonus, Baby Driver takes hearing impairment representation a step further. In the movie, Baby’s adopted father is deaf. The character is played by deaf American actor CJ Jones. Why is this important? Often, casting directors choose to cast actors with normal hearing in deaf roles and then teach them just enough sign language to fumble through the movie. But the Baby Driver team again embraced the value of representation. This gave world-wide exposure to a talented deaf actor and ensured the accuracy and authenticity of the sign language used throughout his scenes.
2. Tinnitus Symptoms
Tinnitus is noise in your head that has no external source. For some patients, it sounds like high-pitched ringing. For others, it’s a hiss, whoosh, buzz, screech or hum. Some people experience it in one ear, others in both. Others still only hear it occasionally, while for some people, the noise never stops.
The character Baby experiences chronic tinnitus as a pitched ringing in both ears. At the end of the movie, his tinnitus isn’t magically resolved. It’s portrayed as an ongoing condition, with all the highs, lows, setbacks and triumphs that come with it.
This accurate portrayal has gotten praise from many tinnitus patients. Some online commenters have even noted that in some scenes, they forgot Baby had tinnitus because the pitch of his tinnitus sound accurately mirrors their own.
3. Tinnitus Causes
Tinnitus is most commonly brought on by damage to the delicate structures of the middle and inner ear due to overexposure to loud noise. But this is by no means the only trigger. Tinnitus commonly co-occurs with age-related hearing loss. It can also be caused by stress, medication side effects, meniere’s disease or injuries to the head and neck. Baby’s symptoms were brought on by a traumatic head injury as a child when he was involved in a terrible car accident—an accurate portrayal of one of the many causes of tinnitus.
4. What Makes Tinnitus Worse
Throughout the movie, whenever Baby finds himself in a high-stress situation, his tinnitus symptoms always get worse. Again, this is an accurate portrayal, as stress is known to bring on bouts of tinnitus and exacerbate the symptoms of people who already suffer from it.
To understand how stress and tinnitus feed each other, we need to understand exactly what stress is. Stress is how our body responds to a challenge. That response may be a good thing as stress can help us run a race faster, motivate us to do well on a test, or like Baby, help us concentrate in high-adrenaline situations. But it can also lead to more intense reactions. When your brain perceives a threat, the fight-or-flight response is triggered, and your body goes on high alert, heightening your senses and pumping stress hormones into your veins. That stress reaction leads to worsening tinnitus which leads to more stress and for some, a self-perpetuating loop of noise.
5. What Makes Tinnitus Better
Baby uses a technique called “masking” to lessen the impact of his tinnitus symptoms. He listens to music all day and night which drowns out the sounds and gives him energy to do his job. Other examples of tinnitus maskers that work for many tinnitus patients include turning on a fan, TV or white noise machine (especially at quiet times like bedtime) or wearing hearing aids that emits sound that then matches and cancels out tinnitus symptoms.