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You’ve seen the trailers. Tropic Thunder, a big budget summer comedy by DreamWorks Pictures, is due out August 13. But here’s something the trailers don’t point out: Ben Stiller plays a role that leans heavily on the term “retard.”
There are those who view the word “retard” as offensive and demeaning, and think it fuels social stigma against vulnerable people. And there are others, like perhaps the R-rated film’s star, director and lead writer Ben Stiller (at left in an image from one of the studio’s marketing websites), who may think the word is inoffensive and a good complement to the film’s other gags, stunts, explosions and gross-out jokes.
Already disability advocates are registering dismay about the language on the image above — “Once upon a time … There was a retard” — and conferring about how to address it. Let’s be clear: I haven’t seen the movie, and early reviews are scant. (Click here to see what Variety and the Hollywood Reporter had to say.) Here’s what I have been able to piece together:
Tropic Thunder is a testosterone-pumped action/adventure/comedy featuring mega-stars Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black as self-absorbed actors filming a war movie on location.
Stiller is Tugg Speedman, a fading action star who earlier failed badly in his bid for Oscar glory as “Simple Jack,” a man with an intellectual disability. “Simple Jack” is featured as a film-within-a-film, with Stiller outfitted in a classic institutional bowl haircut and bad teeth. It even has its own marketing website — the slogan is “What he doesn’t have in his head, he makes up for in his heart.” A satirical plot synopsis posted there quotes a critic as saying that Speedman’s Jack was “one of the most retarded performances in cinema history.”
Downey, as the more distinguished actor, gives Speedman advice on maximizing his chance for future Oscars: “Never go full retard.” When the actors are taken hostage by real guerrillas who turn out to be Jack fans, they force Speedman to re-enact the role for their entertainment.
It’s just good clean fun, the studio might say, pointing out that the movie also pokes fun at racial stereotypes. It’s a sendup of old Hollywood films that trotted out able-bodied actors in disability drag, like Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump,” Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man” and Sean Penn in “I am Sam.” Stiller isn’t laughing at people with intellectual disabilities, I can imagine his publicist saying. He’s laughing at the way Hollywood portrays them.
But for the estimated 14.3 million Americans with cognitive disabilities and their families, such arguments may be problematic. These people share a history of segregation and exclusion, and report that what many call the “R-word” reinforces negative social attitudes just as surely as racial, ethnic and sexually oriented slurs do. See earlier posts here, here, here and here.
Peter V. Berns, executive director of The Arc of the United States, said yesterday that the organization would reach out to the studio in an effort to screen the film. The 140,000-member organization represents people with intellectual and developmental disabilities across the country, and its mission includes promoting and protecting their civil rights.
“What we are seeing already is a cause of great concern,” he said. “People with intellectual and developmental disabilities have had a lot of pejorative labels assigned to them over the years. I’d like to think that we as a society are getting past that, but we are seeing one after the other examples that this is not the case.”
Let’s hear from you, readers. Is this a tease to get us all into the seats? Should we lighten up? And have I played into the studio’s publicity strategy by devoting so much attention to the movie here? (You’ll notice: the words on the image above are written in small type, so any website that wants to draw attention to them must run the image very large. Coincidence? Marketing ploy?)
Let the comments begin.
Note: The film is rated R for “pervasive language including sexual references, violent content and drug material.”
- Readers: What’s your advice on ‘Tropic Thunder’?
- ‘Never go full retard’
- Disability rights groups organizing on ‘Tropic Thunder’
- My essay about the film “The Ringer” in the New York Times: What’s so funny about disability? Well …
(Graphic from Dreamworks Pictures)