Monday, August 18, 2008

What's The Big Deal ... It's Just A Word, Right?

I know that there was some good feeling engendered concerning the movie, Tropic Thunder (a comedy about selfish, pampered actors who go overseas to make a war movie and accidentally provoke real jungle warlords) when the Hollywood stars choppered into the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base recently for a special USO screening. Which is nice. Don't get me wrong.

But the movie has also been a bit of a hot topic in the disability community recently. For example, the President & CEO of Special Olympics Canada has issued a communique concerning the movie-within-the movie wherein Ben Stiller plays "Simple Jack", a man with an intellectual disability, notings that it contains "material that would be considered offensive to members of our community".

Of particular concern appears to be the movie's original tagline "Once upon a time … There was a retard” and a scene in which Robert Downey Jr.’s character advises Stiller’s character to “Never go full retard.”

For this reason, Special Olympics International is leading a public campaign surrounding the film in the US. Although SOI, along with a coalition of US disability organizations, has engaged in conversations with DreamWorks (the production company) to address the content, requesting that action be taken to delete these scenes from the film and marketing platform, as well as to promote public service announcements and educational opportunities about people with intellectual disabilities, apparently, this has been to no avail.

It is hard to argue with the premise that the words we choose are an expression of our values and that much hurt and harm can be caused by using hurtful language. And while I don't know that I would personally go so far as to label the "R-word" as "hate speech", it's no secret that I have a lot of trouble with the word's casual use. I have, in fact, for a long time.

But that being said, in the past I have perceived the disability community, on occasion, to overreact to various movies. And not having seen Tropic Thunder, I will reserve judgment.

I would, however, like to point you to the words of a young man with Down Syndrome. John Franklin Stephens is a Special Olympics Virginia athlete and a global messenger for the Special Olympics. Here is just a portion of what he has to say on the subject.
So, what's wrong with "retard"? I can only tell you what it means to me and people like me when we hear it. It means that the rest of you are excluding us from your group. We are something that is not like you and something that none of you would ever want to be. We are something outside the "in" group. We are someone that is not your kind. I want you to know that it hurts to be left out here -- alone. Nothing scares me as much as feeling all alone in a world that moves so much faster than I do. You don't mean to make me feel that way. In fact, like I say in some of my speeches, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers," and it works out OK most of the time.

Still, it hurts and scares me when I am the only person with intellectual disabilities on the bus and young people start making "retard" jokes or references. Please put yourself on that bus and fill the bus with people who are different from you. Imagine that they start making jokes using a term that describes you. It hurts and it is scary.

Last, I get the joke -- the irony -- that only dumb and shallow people are using a term that means dumb and shallow. The problem is, it is only funny if you think a "retard" is someone dumb and shallow. I am not those things, but every time the term is used it tells young people that it is OK to think of me that way and to keep me on the outside.
You can read the rest of it here.

H/T to Pipecleaner Dreams

Update: Cruising around the intertubes a bit on this subject, I came up with this response, which seems to say it well.
"Hey... in case you have been living under a rock for the past 100 years, using the R word reinforces a negative stereotype that we have been trying to get rid of forever... thanks, assholes... "
So, 'nuff said, I think.


doorkeeper said...

I recently had a short discussion, which I wish had had the opportunity to go longer, about these types of things. Of course, Hollywood will never be "sensitive" about anything unless it involves gays or spotted owls. But there are things you DO NOT DO, OR SAY, and it's simply manners......

They just had no raising. I expect nothing more from Ben Stiller, who has proved over and over again, that he's dumber than most. But not retarded, since he has no excuse...and that term would be too good for him.
but that's just me.
PS--I was worried about how "real" soldiers were going to be portrayed in this film, and had no idea about this part. thanks for the tip

Punkys Dilemma said...

I saw the movie and I'll admit it had me cracking up. You have to understand, Downey Jr and Stiller's characters were in a conversation about Stiller's most popular role as Simple Jack. In my opinion, it was just a conversation as if you and I were talking about the degree of retardation and how that would apply to the role as an actor and the popularity of that retarded character. I didn't see that it was at all bullying or humiliating of a specific person, name calling or degrading the use of the word.
An article to boycott the movie by the disability community said that it made fun of 'retarded' people by exaggerating the "china bowl" haircut and bad teeth. Well, maybe it did exaggerate that. But then you could also make a protest about "The Nutty Professor" in both the original and remake of that movie.

My daughter and I call each other that word in a joking way, and that really doesn't bother me.
Although I do not like it when and if someone will call an actual person who is developmentally delayed, "retarded" in a malicious way, making fun of them. That is definitely wrong and it makes the word ugly and vicious.

My other daughter is extremely developmentally delayed. I will not tolerate someone calling her retarded in a malicious way. Even saying it casually about her would annoy me. Because that word is used and abused mostly in a derogatory way (I'm guilty of that too I guess), to use that word to describe a person who is actually challenged, I think is crossing the line.

MMC said...

Thanks punky.
Like I said in the post, I have seen before where the disability community has protested some movie and I thought it was a bit of an overreaction. Not having seen the movie myself, I wasn't sure what to think.

I find it interesting that some parts of the community are trying to have word "retarded" treated like the word "nigger". Doing that whole the "R word" and the "N word" thing. It's a dangerous game I think we're playing there. As you know, I really, really do mind people throwing around the word "retard" as an insult. BUT to equate it with "hate speech"? A bit of a stretch, I would think. Although I suppose years ago, no one considered the "N word" to be hate speech either.

Still, you know what they say about the road to hell...