Tropic Thunder – Now with More Retards
Tropic Thunder will open this week to a hail of criticism from various members of the press and polite society. Much to my surprise, it had little to do with Robert Downey, Jr.’s black-face performance of a tough Vietnam-era sergeant, but rather dealt with the copious use of the epithet “retard” oft-used by the characters to describe themselves.
Their indignation caused a bit of a row at the opening of the film, attended by advocate, and openly retarded actor, Tom Cruise. The “beautiful people” were met on the red carpet by a group of protesters coming from across the street.
Dozens of people from organizations such as the Special Olympics and the American Association of People with Disabilities protested the movie-industry spoof across the street from the film’s Los Angeles premiere at Mann’s Bruin Theatre on Monday. The protesters held up signs with slogans such as “Call me by my name, not by my label” and chanted phrases like “Ban the movie, ban the word.” More.
One of the film”s writers recently spoke to the controversy, saying:
“Some people have taken this as making fun of handicapped people, but we’re really trying to make fun of the actors who use this material as fodder for acclaim,” co-writer Etan Cohen told MTV. “The last thing you want is for people to think you’re making fun of the victims in this who are having their lives turned into fodder for people to win Oscar.”
Whether we like it or not, I think there are certain offensive words that have crept into our national lexicon – and retard is one of them. It’s become a way to describe things or people, and in the absence of mentally handicapped friends or family, it’s probably something folks say a lot without the hesitation that comes from personal involvement with affected individuals.
Honestly, I didn’t really think much about it until I saw a post on my Facebook page from a high-school friend who is a regional leader of the Special Olympics and has a sister with Down syndrome.
Coming from a family where we have a middle school teacher on staff, our language tends to degrade the deeper we are into the school year. Whereas we would once describe things as being “unfortunate,” as time goes on they become “retarded” or “gay”. There is a certain primal element that goes into the use of some of these words and a sense of empowerment that comes with using a mean word becomes a tribal designation to separate “us” from “them”.
We are this, they are “gay” – or whatever the nom du jour happens to be.
That’s not spoken as a disparagement of gay folks, but I think the language also becomes a short-cut to create a funny reaction in folks and the shock-factor of a lot of jokes is more often based on language that creates offense by stereotyping one group or another and putting them into the awkward position where we can point at them and laugh.
It all comes back to asking why things make us laugh, and I think we either laugh at things because they are really are funny or sometimes we laugh at things because they make us uncomfortable – and somewhere up in the cerebrum similar chemicals are being mixed around and it elicits the same “laugh” response.
And speaking of gay and funny, I remember watching Ellen DeGeneres’ bit a few years back at a relatives’ house (we still don’t have cable). It was really funny, really clever, and above all – really clean.
We were all amazed later on when recounting the show that it was funny without having the normal potty talk or “seven words” to make us laugh.
It’s a rare comedian that can elicit such riotous laughter without working blue.
But I think there is something more to the protests that the disabilities advocates have hit on.
“I just think Ben Stiller and the people involved in this movie just didn’t think it was going to be offensive.”
Andrew J. Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities
I think he’s right. I don’t think Hollywood thinks a lot about what they put together.
Movies are a business – a big business – and Hollywood writers and producers have put together a John Grisham-novel-esqe algorithm for making money on their product.
There is no motivation to try to challenge perceptions of comedy and what makes us laugh because it’s just too risky. If it’s too high-brow no one will get it, or even another group will come out of the woodwork and be offended by the material because it’s considered snobby.
So we’re back to where we started – watching the latest stars push the envelope of what’s socially acceptable and maybe even highlight the hidden biases within ourselves.
At least now we have explosions and cool special effects.