When Netflix first rebooted Queer Eye as an original series, I binged the first season in record time, reveling in the joy of the Fab 5. Their easy kindness, even in the face of surprisingly difficult conversations, was a welcome respite from the toxic masculinity that plagued headlines across 2018. Fortunately for me and other fans, the second season (which was filmed at the same time as the first) dropped on June 15.
One of the first things I noticed about the second season was that the Netflix original newly introduced a bleeping sound to censor profanity spoken on the show. The next thing I noticed was that the censoring carried over to the closed captions, but not in the normal way.
Instead of bleeping out certain words, Netflix seemed to replace those words with more generally accepted ones.
Normally, closed caption subtitling bleeps words in a variety of different ways: phrases, such as (bleep), [expletive], or [censored] may be used, though sometimes hyphens or asterisks are substituted instead (f–k, f—, or f*** are all examples. Did you just say that word three times over in your inner voice? Me too.)
The second season of Queer Eye eschews all of those traditional options and instead opts to change the profanity in the closed captions completely: s— becomes “crap,” all versions of the F-word devolve to “frigging.” You get the idea.
I started using closed captions when watching television and movies a few years ago, after surgery to repair my dislocated jaw caused nerve damage and hearing loss on my right side.
Closed captions or subtitles help me catch dialogue and sounds I might miss as a result of my hearing loss. I’m not alone. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 15 percent of American adults age 18 and over report some hearing troubles. And, according to estimates from the World Health Organization, more than 6 percent of the world’s population (466 million people) have “disabling hearing loss.” Those numbers solidify the need for captions for d/Deaf or hard of hearing (HOH) viewers, but hearing loss isn’t the only reason why captions are important to the viewing experience.
In fact, many other people use captions, including those who speak English as a second language and those who have sensory processing disorders. A 2006 study by the Office of Communications, the regulatory body for U.K. television broadcasting, suggests that 80 percent of television viewers using closed captions were using them for reasons other than hearing loss.
Even Netflix acknowledges on its website that captions (which they call “timed text files”) are “paramount…for the consumption of media in a world without the living room as the primary center of entertainment.” Subtitles mean you can even watch TV in a loud room or without headphones, regardless of whether you’re a hearing person or not.
I found the experience of edited captions to be jarring and distracting: Each time the words on the screen didn’t match up with what was being said, I was knocked out of my television reverie.
The more closely I paid attention, the more I realized the captions were changed far beyond simply swapping out family-friendly words for curse words; I noticed chunks of dialogue had been edited, sometimes in ways that altered the meaning or intention of the sentence. The first episode of the second season, "God Bless Gay," was light on profanity, but I caught minor edits: Bobby would say, “In the beginning, I was honestly really apprehensive about this renovation…” but the captions would show, “In the beginning, I was apprehensive about this renovation.” In that same episode, Antoni tries a bite of egg salad and joyfully pronounces, “That’s freaking delicious!” but it becomes a bland, “That’s delicious” in the captions.
Finally, two minutes into the second episode, "A Decent Proposal," Tan’s exclamation that the straight guy of the episode “Shit or get off the pot!” when it comes to proposing to his girlfriend is edited to, “Crap or get off the pot.” These are just a few examples of the changes I noticed for profanity and general sentence structure.
When I took to Twitter to complain, many of my friends chimed in. My friend Jennifer Brown replied, “As a Deaf person who watched #QueerEye2 on Netflix recently, I didn’t catch that. Like… at all. :(“
Jennifer could tell that the captions weren’t lining up with the speakers’ words (“There was something odd,” she told me privately) but didn’t notice that Netflix had substituted more family-friendly words in place of the profanity. The captions Netflix provided to her were not the “accurate and natural translations” they promised in their standards. It was nearly impossible for her to recognize that her experience of the television show had been fundamentally altered, without her consent and in the most patronizing manner, as if she were a child instead of an adult.
My tweet picked up steam and was eventually noticed by Karamo Brown, the culture host of Queer Eye.
Brown has spoken out before on supporting disabled people within our culture; in April, he committed to captioning his videos on social media for d/Deaf and HOH friends. When he retweeted my tweet, he promised he would bring up the caption issue internally the next time he was at Netflix. “Deaf and HOH people should have the same experience as everyone else!” he declared. Nondisabled allies like Brown are integral to changing the world.
Netflix responded on Twitter the next day, thanking him for bringing the issue to their attention and promising to fix the Fab 5’s missing dialogue. They acknowledged that they do sometimes bleep incidental profanity from their unscripted series.
“Netflix invests heavily in ensuring our entertainment is accessible to all audiences and has captioning/subtitling across all content,” a Netflix spokesperson told SELF. “Netflix has requirements for closed captioning to ensure as much of the original content is included as possible. Truncating the original dialogue is limited to instances where reading speed and synchronicity with the audio are an issue.”
The spokesperson continued, “We love getting feedback so we can correct these types of issues, so thanks again for raising it. Note that viewers can also provide feedback directly to us via a tool in the player if you're watching on a web browser.”
Inaccurate captions (even just swear words) are an insidious sign of inaccessibility, which is a type of ableism, or discrimination against disabled people.
A lack of access means disabled people can’t participate in the world the same way nondisabled people do. A lack of access is a sign of inequality. Ableism might mean broken captions when someone is trying to watch Netflix, or it might mean businesses refusing to make their building accessible to wheelchair users. It might mean schools telling a disabled student that it’s “too expensive” to provide them with needed accommodations, or a bar refusing entrance to a disabled person and their service dog.
Ableism and inaccessibility are systemic issues that disabled people grapple with on a daily basis. Many nondisabled people remain unaware of our struggles against an inaccessible society. After all, when the world is made for you to easily move through and function within, why would you have any reason to notice that others are excluded when trying to participate? It might seem like a small thing to a nondisabled person, but if a company as big and far-reaching as Netflix can’t get something as simple as accurate captions right, it’s worth wondering what else is slipping through the cracks when it comes to accessibility.
Netflix took a good first step towards addressing the caption issues occurring within the second season of Queer Eye, but that doesn’t mean their work is done. Their platform is riddled with caption and transcription errors. While trying to watch Aggretsuko, I noticed that the captions weren’t anything close to what was being said on screen. “Best of luck with the shoe thing!” said a character’s voice at one point, but the captions read “Let’s talk again sometime.” And in "Hear No Evil," an episode in Netflix’s Forensic Files collection, captions are placed over captions that already exist in the video footage of an interrogation, rendering both of them illegible.
A Twitter thread by Vilissa Thompson, a social worker and activist who founded the organization and blog Ramp Your Voice!, pointed me towards caption discrepancies in the newest season of Luke Cage, released on June 22. Bushmaster, the primary villain, speaks in Jamaican Patois—a dialect that the captions seem determined to clean up and clarify. As early as the second episode, Bushmaster’s “Just tell him to test me no,” becomes “Just tell him not to test me,” in the captions—and the edits continue throughout the season. Thompson also noted that some of the lyrics for music used in the series weren’t included in the captions, either.
“As someone who is HOH, I rely on captions to fill in the dialogue I may not hear (particularly if a character is speaking in a low tone or whisper),” Thompson explained. “Having the dialogue altered took away the experience for me, and really made me question the use of proper English in place of the Jamaican Patois. The lack of effort in keeping the dialect in the captioning throughout the series [disappointed me]. It's really disheartening when accessibility is treated as an afterthought, particularly when it's so easy to get it correct.”
A Netflix spokesperson told SELF they would “pass [these issues] along to the team to make sure they get checked and fixed as appropriate.”
Netflix is not alone in these captioning issues. Amazon, Hulu, YouTube and almost every other video streaming platform that exists is plagued with similar issues, rendering a huge chunk of the internet inaccessible to millions of us. We deserve an experience equal to the one our nondisabled friends have, and we won’t stop fighting until that’s what we [f—ing] get.