Monday, August 11, 2008

Thunderous Dehumanization

3 polar bears, one disintegrating from a broken heart with the words, Sticks and Stones can break my bones, but words will really hurt me

The R rated movie Tropic Thunder directed by Ben Stiller comes to theaters tomorrow. The film coins the phrase “full retard” to describe one of its characters.

Journalist Patricia Bauer prescreened the movie and shares some of her observations:

“Stiller’s character, Tugg Speedman, is presented as a fading action hero who earlier failed in his bid for Oscar glory while portraying Simple Jack, a character with an intellectual disability. Speedman’s portrayal of Simple Jack is featured as a movie within the movie.”
Bauer describes the stereotypical protrayal of a person with a cognitive disability,

“In character, Stiller speaks in a stilted, stuttering, adenoidal fashion, and wears overalls, bad false teeth and a classic institutional bowl haircut.”

Bauer tallies the number of times slurs are used in the movie and finds (approximately):

“Number of repetitions of the word “retard” or its variations: At least 16 in the “full retard” scene alone, not counting the uses of words like “idiot,” “moron,” “moronical,” “imbecile,” “stupid,” “dumb” and “the dumbest M*****F***** that ever lived.” All are used to describe the character of Simple Jack, who is described in an introductory segment as a “mentally impaired farm hand who can talk to animals.”

Number of repetitions of the word “nigger”: Once, said by a black character criticizing a character pretending to be black.

Number of uses of other racial/ethnic/sexual epithets: None observed.”

According to the New York Times a Dreamworks spokesperson says that the movie is a satire of the excesses of Hollywood. I’ve always been annoyed by the portrayal of persons with disabilities by temporarily able-bodied people in pursuit of Oscar or Emmy nominations, and I would truly love to see a film that satirizes the Hollywood portrayal of PWDs. However, I’m finding it hard to believe that Ben Stiller is really making a sophisticated societal satire in the vein of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Mr. Stiller’s past films, seem to have the common theme of going for crass and crude humor, although the joke is on the zipper mishap or fart or whatever, not on an entire group of people. And, it’s not like Dreamworks is advertising this movie as a societal satire. According to Bauer,

“Early promotion of the film described Simple Jack as a “retard” and an elaborate DreamWorks marketing website that was taken down this week in response to complaints carried the tagline ‘Once upon a time … There was a retard.’”

The Dreamwork website is not advertising Tropic Thunder as a societal satire, but rather quotes critics who call the movie a “knockout of a comedy” and “the funniest movie of the summer.” So, I forgive me, Mr. Stiller and Dreamworks. I’m not buying it. Your movie is not a critical satire of Hollywood’s portrayal of the full diversity of humankind. It is another movie that slurs and hurts a large segment of our population for the sake of a joke or two.

I know some people, like one of Bauer’s commenters, would say, “Get a sense of humor!” At the root of this point is the belief that cognitive diversity is not a part of humankind, and making fun of this “other” group is no big deal. And since when does one group get to tell another group that they cannot be offended by slurs, epithets, and derogatory stereotypes? Do whites get to tell blacks to not be offended by slurs? Do whites get to tell native peoples to not be offended by dancing Indian mascots? Do men get to tell women to not be offended by curse words or sexual innuendos?

I’ve written before about the pain the word “retard” causes. Like all outrageous and socially unacceptable racial and sexual slurs, this word inflicts deep pain. Dave Hingsburger over at Chewing the Fat writes a powerful letter to Mr. Stiller explaining how much it hurts to see and hear the R word.

“You hurt me a second time today, Mr. Stiller. I am writing to tell you, to hold you responsible. I arrived home and saw on a website that it is now possible to buy tee shirts with the phrase 'full retard' on it. You are responsible for this Mr. Stiller, you wrote those words, you chose those words, you went public with those words. It is you, and only you, who must bear the consequences for your actions.”

“Full retard” t shirts?! More satire, right?

Autistic has an on-point video about the power of words.

Addendum: Thanks to Ruth for this link to a statement of solidarity "recognizing the dignity of individuals with intellectual disabilities" and signed by many organizations including The Special Olympics, National Down Syndrome Society, and more. Check it out.
A 2nd Addendum: Checkout 2 stories on NPR. "If one group laughs at the expense of another, we don't call that humor, we call it humiliation," explains Leonard J. Davis, Professor of Disability Studies at the University of Illinois. And Timothy Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics explains why the r-word is hate speech.
Picture credit: Human Policy Press


Ruth said...

David- great post. Speaking of t shirts, one of the comments I received pointed out the number of offensive shirts already being sold over at Cafe Press if you search under the word "retarded". When people say it's "just a word", there are so many examples like this of how it's being used to demean.

Mary M said...

David- As usual your blog promotes thoughtful consideration on the part of the reader. I probably wouldn't have gone to see this movie anyway. Now for sure I won't go.

I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog.

Thanks, Mary m

Michelle said...

great way to sum it all up; thanks for your words!

Anonymous said...

Of course i agree with you that the r-word is horrifically offensive and has no place in society today. I do however, believe that this use of the word is justified: the movie is mocking a great variety of Hollywood-isms including the trend of "serious" actors exploiting the intellectually disabled. I think this is a valid point, exposed through coarse humor.