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‘Tropic Thunder’: My views

August 16th, 2008

More than two weeks ago, I kicked off the public conversation about the use of the word “retard” in “Tropic Thunder” and its marketing materials with this post: ‘Tropic Thunder’: Once upon a time … there was a retard.

Since then I’ve been bringing you up-to-date coverage of the controversy, and have provided a forum in which people have been able to express their views. I’ve frankly lost count, but I think  the number of comments here currently stands at something around 700. It has been a lively discussion, with many differing and often emotional opinions expressed.

Now I’ve weighed in with some opinions of my own. They can be seen in the Sunday Opinion section of the Washington Post: A movie, a word and my family’s battle. My point: The thoughtless and widespread use of the word “retard” as an insult sets back progress that has been made toward including and accepting people with disabilities, and hurts us all. Here’s how the piece starts:

Margaret and I were lingering in front of the multiplex one evening last summer, a mom and her adult daughter laughing about the movie we’d just seen, when a gaggle of cute pre-teen girls sauntered past.

The one in the lead jerked a thumb in our direction and made a goofy face to her friend. “Look. Retard,” we heard her say, and Margaret wilted. Her chin trembled. One by one, the other girls turned to look, nudging one another and whispering. The last girl spun all the way around as she slowly walked by, eyes fixed on my daughter.

The piece is accompanied by an edited version of the “full retard” scene from the movie.

You can also see me expressing my views on “The Morning Show with Mike and Juliet,” a national Fox talk show. Appearing with me were David Tolleson, executive director of the National Down Syndrome Congress; Eddie Barbanell, a star of “The Ringer,” and Gitesh Pandya of boxofficeguru.com.

[And in case anyone wonders if I've seen the movie: Yes, indeed, I have. Check my post on it here.]

9 Responses to “‘Tropic Thunder’: My views”

  1. Paula J Stanovich Says:

    Here are my thoughts on Tropic Thunder and the lack of appropriate response from anyone in the film industry.

    Tropic Thunder: We Get It, Do They?

    Okay. We get it. We get that Tropic Thunder is satire. We know what satire is. We ourselves not only consume satire, but also produce it, in speech and in print. So, to say that we missed the point is not true. We do get the point: Tropic Thunder is a satiric assault on the film industry and was not intended to be an attack on people with intellectual disabilities. We know what satire is. That is not the issue. The real question is, do you get our point? Do you get that the word “retard” is offensive to a significant portion of the population? Do you get that that word causes real harm to real people?

    So we get it. Now what I would like to hear from Ben Stiller is this:
    I get it. I get that words can hurt. I get that the use of the word “retard” will cause pain and anguish for real people. I get that Tropic Thunder may give rise to taunts on the playground, that the phrase “never go full retard’ may show up on t-shirts that will be worn in public and read by people who have intellectual disabilities. I get that that will hurt. But I think that the artistic purpose of using the “retard” riff in the film more than balances the harm done.

    What I have not heard from Ben Stiller is some recognition of the tradeoff involved. He would be free to judge the costs and benefits differently than I do-to think that they are justified, whereas I do not. What I have not heard from any of the principals in this film-in all the discussion of this controversy-is any acknowledgement of the harm done. And to me this represents a profound ignorance about the environment in which intellectually disabled children must live.

    Some of us who have criticized the film for its use of the “r-word” have been accused of censorship. But I am not trying to censor you. I strongly believe in our right to free speech. The operative word in that sentence is “our.” I not only believe that you have the right to make the movie you want to make, including dialogue that may be objectionable to me. But I also believe that I have the right to criticize that movie, to raise my objections to that dialogue, and to urge people not to see your movie. Through that criticism I am not trying to censor you. I am, however, trying to change the social climate. I am working to make the use of the “r-word” as unacceptable as the use of the “n-word.” You yourselves change the social climate by using this word. I wish to change the social climate by sanctioning your use of it. There is no issue of censorship here-simply a nonviolent clash in the marketplace of language and ideas.

    Critics of your movie have been accused by many of wielding the cudgel of political correctness. The attempt to shut down the criticism of the film by using spurious charges of “censorship” is itself a PC strategy. Like all PC, the mindless utterance of the word “censorship” is supposed to deter critics, who, presumably, would not want to be associated with an illiberal word like “censorship”. But sanctioning speech by arguing against it is not censorship.

    I have been a special educator for almost 40 years. As a part of my commitment to the field and the students it serves, I have been promoting inclusion, equal rights, and respect for persons with intellectual disabilities. I have written many letters to the editor, spoken out publicly, and used many other means to educate others about these issues. I tell you this to let you know that my complaints about Tropic Thunder do not stem from any form of political correctness, but from my direct knowledge of the harm that has been and continues to be inflicted on real people by the use of the “r-word.”

    Do any of you in this industry understand the reality of that harm?

    Paula J. Stanovich
    Professor of Special Education
    Portland State University

  2. Keith Gatling Says:

    I read your comments on using “retard” as an insult in our local paper (the Syracuse Post-Standard), and I understand what you’re saying. Really, I do. I get it. However, there are some things about the English language that we have to consider also. Does it bother you when the words “idiot” and “moron” are thrown around casually to refer to someone who is acting in an amazingly stupid manner? Both of these words used to be accepted clinical terms for specific levels of mental retardation, and now they’re just garden variety insults that no one thinks about.

    In fact, while typing a paper for a friend 20 years ago, I was astounded to hear that the former Syracuse Developmental Center was originally founded as the New York State School for Idiots. More people now are shocked that the school was called that than are offended by hearing the word “idiot” used as a general insult. In fact, as I looked through your site, I saw a news article about my home state of New Jersey changing the constitution to remove the word “idiot” from it because it was seen as an insensitive way to refer to the mentally challenged. However, the fact is that at the time that it was written, “idiot” wasn’t an offensive term. It was the proper term, and has become insensitive in retrospect because succeeding generations have used it as an insult. Yes, change it because the term is unacceptable *now*, but don’t assume that it was unacceptable and insensitive *then*.

    As a teacher, I *do* firmly get on my kids when they use “retarded” as an insult; just as I do when they similarly use “gay.” However, knowing what I know about the language, I often wonder why we don’t make a similar fuss about us using “idiot” and “moron.” In fact, a common joke *I* use in my computer classes is warning them about the dreaded ID-10-T error, which if you write it out without the hyphens becomes ID10T, which of course looks like “idiot” (unless the student writes it out as IDTENT, which has happened, and we won’t even go there).

    I suspect that we are in a very uneasy “transition time” where the word “retarded” is going the route of the words before it. It would be interesting to know how people felt at the time that “moron” and “idiot” were becoming general insults rather than clinical terms. I suspect that what happened was as the terms fell into the vernacular, they stopped being used clinically; and perhaps that same thing will happen with “retarded.” Perhaps it’s already happening, after all, I don’t regularly hear people referred to as “mentally retarded” anymore, but instead, I hear of them as having Down’s Syndrome or being “intellectually challenged.” So perhaps here the issue isn’t so much the public’s use of the word, but (and I didn’t set this up to lead to this point) the insistence of those who have Down’s Syndrome and their families of hanging onto that term as a clinical descriptor.

    With that in mind, I suggest that you just LET IT GO. Let “retarded” go the way of “moron” and “idiot.” When’s the last time you heard a “Down’s Syndrome” joke? I haven’t, and I love “sick humor.” No one’s *that* insensitive. And I have to admit that I probably haven’t heard the former term for Down’s Syndrome, “mongoloid” in over 20 years, not even when used in questionable taste. That’s not a case of people just being sensitive not to use it, it’s a case of a term that’s actually just out and out *died*.

    So here’s what I say: Your daughter may have Down’s Syndrome, but anyone insensitive enough to make fun of her is retarded. Not only that, but they’re morons and idiots too. “Retarded” is gone as a clinical term. Let it go the way of its idiotic and moronic cousins.

  3. Nancy Iannone Says:

    Thanks Patricia. It is such a tough thing to tell people that the words they throw around sound like nails on a chalkboard. They are usually just so unaware. The impact on my as a mom can vary from “ouch” as you said to downright punch in the gut depending on the circumstances. And then I have to make a quick choice about whether to say something. What kind of mood am I in? How will this information be received? Who is this person talking – will I have to hear them use that word over and over? I’ve dealt with it so many times.

    My daughter with Down syndrome was 10 days old and getting a thyroid scan – a tough day for us for many reasons. The scan operator refers to herself as a “r –.” OUCH. But it’s her first day on the job – do I say something and make her feel terrible? My child is in outpatient surgery. Tough day. Another waiting mom refers to herself as, “r—-.” OUCH. Do I say something? Now I feel terrible, but what is she going through? A mom on the baseball field comments on my beautiful baby, then turns and adjusts her child’s baseball cap, saying, “You can’t go out like that. You look r—.” That one was a punch in the gut day for many reasons. A caseworker is in my home and uses the R-word. And when I say something she says “at least I didn’t say ‘stupid.’ I tell my kids never to say ‘stupid.’” There are so many other times. Many of those times I’m told it does not refer to my daughter, that I should grow a thicker skin, that it’s just a word.

    How do we tell people, people we see every day in our lives, that their words hurt? Does someone offer thicker skins for sale somewhere? Because being comfortable with this word’s use is really not in my future. And I worry about the day when my child will hear it and make that connection to herself. That classification of “mentally retarded” is still in use in many clinical contexts, so most certainly some day she will see the connection. Since I have difficulty hearing the R-word in a non-clinical context, I can’t imagine she will instantly be able to decipher the speaker’s intention of mean or simply unaware (“we didn’t mean you”). Like me, I’m sure that she won’t be able to get past the fact that this word which is connected to her is being used as an insult. And it will hurt. Will she have a voice? Mine is silent sometimes. Will hers be silent even more often? And if she does speak, how will her words be received?

  4. Corey Pritchett Says:

    I give much thanks for peopele like you who choose to stand up for those who may otherwise be incapable of standing up for themselves. I also give thanks for people like Margaret who make this world a better place. I have a cousin, Cooper, who has Down Syndrome, and I’ve never met a more outgoing, wonderful, smart kid in my enitre life. However, in this country you’d be better off labeled as a prostitute or drug dealer than as “retarded”. The word has become synonymous with “stupid” and “worthless”. I am ashamed that the very values this country once stood for are tossed aside for entertainment and validated by semantics. The bigots in Hollywood could stand to learn a thing or two from my Cooper and your Margaret.

  5. Frank McEvoy Says:

    I agree with the comments made about the poor decision to use the word “retard” in the Stiller movie. I object to the deal for two main reasons:

    1. Other words could have been substituted: dummy, dumbass, idiot, airhead, to name a few. I think dumbass would have been funny.

    2. How realistic is the dialog? I haven’t been everywhere, but I’ve been to college and grad school, the Navy, and the business world. I can’t remember anyone saying that. People said a lot of other things, but maybe most people out there have a family member with a disability, so they steer away from that term.

    I really want to press the screenwriter by asking how many disabled persons he knows. I guess maybe zero, but I find that a stretch. I have three family members who are disabled (they’re all fun to be around, and each is making his or her way in the world. My brother has Down syndrome; a couple of years ago, he went on a cruise with all his peers (believe me, that was not the type of cruise I’m used to. Evidently, all the disabled people were a real hit on the cruise), and I was a substitute teacher for a year in a special education class. I thought the kids were great.

    I’ll stop now. But, Ms. Bauer, good for you for stepping on these people. They give new dimensions to the term “gratuitous.”

  6. Sue Roosma Says:

    Hi,
    I have been a teacher for 29 years and a foster parent to many children and young adults with disabilities. Your article in today’s Washington Post said a lot that needs to be said over and over and over. I wish that the Word would be eliminated altogether. Each student I teach hears about why it matters.
    Thank you for writing the article.
    Sue Roosma

  7. William L Freeman Says:

    Words have both denotations and connotations. The movie’s stars and makers may not have *intended* to communicated the many strong negative connotations “retard” has, but it has them nevertheless. The ways the movie made sure viewers got the basic joke about “blackface,” vs. the absence of such aspects about the word “retard,” says to me that the stars and makers either did not think about those connotations or chose to ignore them.

  8. Erin Says:

    I thought that parents of disabled children were being inappropriately hypersensitive to the “Tropic Thunder” controversy and I have not had much sympathy for the R-word debate in the past. Mostly, I have thought that the REAL problem is not the use of a word, when you strip away the political correctness, but rather the sad reality that these children’s brains are simply not functioning and developing properly. It’s not the “R-word” that is the problem but rather the malfunctioning brain that is the thing to get upset about.

    However, reading remarks from parents on this blog has opened my mind and my heart to a simple fact that I have literally never in my life been encouraged to think of people with mental disabilities with kindness or sensitivity. These days, you are taught a certain way to speak and think about women, gays, racial and religious minorities, etc., etc. But absolutely never, ever have I been taught at school or anywhere else how to speak to or reconsider people with intellectual disabilities. And that is a terrible, terrible omission from our socialization process.

    The fact remains that the intellectually disabled are so very often kind, much kinder than everyone else, and they do not deserve to be made to feel like lepers.

  9. Elisabeth's Mom, Donna Says:

    I think you are a great spokesperson and appreciate the awareness you continue to create with your blog.

    Our children come with a certain celebrity, don’t they? But instead of people hounding them for what ever reasons people hound celebrities, our children are gawked at or made fun of EVERY TIME THEY GO OUT IN PUBLIC. People either stare or feel they have to comment or say something that is hurtful.

    Just yesterday, I took Elisabeth who is 14 to “Limited, Too” with her younger sister who is eleven. A fun place to go for their age group, right? Elisabeth’s fingernails and toes are polished, she’s looking pretty awesome, it’s a back to school shop to you drop day, she has this headband that usually gets a lot of “oh, that’s so cool” attention when her sisters are wearing it, and all people ever do is stare at her. There was a group of girls who kept “oh, that’s so gross” “that’s so retarded” when they saw Elisabeth. When I invited the curious gawkers to meet her, they ran away.

    People think we’re sensitive? Oh, they hardly know how thick our skin is really.

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More than 50 million people in the United States have disabilities, a number that is growing rapidly as the population ages. Experts say disability will soon affect the lives of most Americans. This website attempts to aggregate news and commentary about disability, and to document the efforts of people who are seeking new ways to address familiar challenges.

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