I guess you could say I’m a longtime “The Circle” expert. From writing about the early seasons of “The Circle” in my application to The Michigan Daily Arts (winter 2023 deadline is Jan. 22!) to enjoying the TikToks of season four contestants John Franklin and Alyssa Ljubicich’s real-life relationship, I’ve been paying close attention for a while now, which is higher praise than I can give most shows. Now gradually releasing its fifth season, “The Circle,” a voice-activated internal social media platform competition, is back — this time, with its first-ever deaf contestant.
“The Circle,” a game designed such that the players never actually meet another contestant until they are eliminated or reach the finale, understandably causes players to be cautious and distrustful, interacting exclusively on the virtual platform. As each player wonders if the others are who they say they are, “The Circle” sows the seeds of conflict and heartbreak. All reality television requires some level of betrayal and scandal to remain entertaining, but “The Circle” stays relevant and lacks the “ick” that so many other reality television shows carry in abundance. What’s the “ick?” Watching people suffer horrible mistreatment by both production staff and other cast members, all influenced by a tint of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. On “The Circle,” though devastating blocks and gossip may cause rifts — even between former allies — nobody suffers mistreatment by the production staff or is targeted because of their race, gender, sexuality or disability — including deafness.
A season five “Circle” favorite, among viewers and other players alike, is Raven Sutton. Raven, a Black woman from Maryland, is the first deaf player in “The Circle.” Introducing herself as “#deafasfuck, and … proud of it,” Raven is a warm, vibrant presence from the start. With her interpreter, Paris, by her side, Raven explains to the audience that, “in the game, I’m the one calling the shots” and that, “American Sign Language is my first language, and yes, I can use my voice, but I feel more comfortable using sign language.” She adds that she comes from a deaf family, and is third-generation deaf. From her introduction alone, Raven intercepts all the questions a hearing audience might ask and, despite the fact that she’s probably received all of the questions many times, responds preemptively with grace, clarity and pride.
A self-proclaimed “bad bitch,” Raven’s presence on the show is a refreshing and carefully-handled change of pace. Raven is an autonomous, incredibly lively human being, and is never construed as anything less by her fellow competitors or the show itself. When Raven tells her “Circle” competitors that she’s deaf in her profile, nobody bats an eye. Even in a game where just about everybody comes in either as a catfish or with the intention of catfish hunting, nobody questions Raven. Disabled people are frequently questioned at every turn — whether being harassed for using a disability parking spot or having to “prove” their own disability to the government (there’s even a United States Social Security Administration page titled “How We Decide If You’re Disabled”), disabled people face cruelty on a regular basis as they go about their lives. Thankfully, you won’t see anything of this nature on “The Circle.” Raven’s treatment on the show represents both a model for how the rest of the world needs to behave and an example of how easy it is to do so.
In the virtual realm of the show, Raven isn’t tortured, but celebrated, and is offered a platform upon which she can be her fullest self. From twerking her way through the trials and tribulations of “The Circle” to telling the truth even when it hurts, she’s sassy, honest and a little bit thirsty — full of as many quirks, joy, likes and dislikes as any of her competitors. “People always look down on deaf people, but the truth of the matter is that deaf people can do everything except hear,” Raven said in episode 1. From every angle, “The Circle” season five and Raven’s presence emphasize that deafness does not mean that a person is less than.
Sure, season five also contains deep alliances, brutal blockings and washboard abs like every season before it, but, like much of the rest of the world, I’m here for Raven. The crown is all yours, girl! We’re rooting for you.
Daily Arts Writer Emmy Snyder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.