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Movies and The R-Word

A few weeks ago, a reader of this blog wrote to ask me what I thought about the use of "the r-word" in movies. She wrote about a movie where one scene includes a joke about the word "retard." In her words, "I found the movie in it's entirety funny even when one scene made me cringe. Some of my closest friends say "that's retarded" or "that's so gay."I try to tell them I'd rather they not say those things, but I don't write them off as a whole. Maybe movies I should write off as a whole because they are edited over and over before the final cut."

What do you think?

My post last week ("Our Daughter Penny and the Word Retarded") was an indirect response to this question. I'm posting here an unpublished Op-ed I wrote two summers ago in relation to the movie Tropic Thunder:

What's the Problem with the "R-word"? Tropic Thunder—a new Ben Stiller comedy—opened last week. It's received a lot of attention. Mr. Stiller and his fellow cast members appeared on the Today Show, The Charlie Rose Show, NPR. Trailers for the film have run during NBC's Olympic coverage and before blockbuster hits of the summer. Clearly, DreamWorks expects Tropic Thunder to bring in plenty of profit. It's also generated some controversy. In the movie, Mr. Stiller plays an actor named Tugg Speedman. Speedman's most recent role was in Simple Jack, a film with the tagline, "Once upon a time there was a retard…" According to the National Down Syndrome Congress, the film uses variations of the term "retard" at least 16 times. Mr. Stiller has tried to explain why the use of the word retard in Tropic Thunder really has nothing to do with people who are intellectually disabled. He says the movie simply satirizes actors who go to excessive lengths to get "in character," particularly in the pursuit of an Oscar. Robert Downey Jr.'s character, for example, plays a black man, and he undergoes a procedure to change his skin color. Thus Hollywood is mocked twice over: first using the motif of race and also through Speedman's role as Jack. It's simple satire, and anyone who doesn't see that is missing the point. Satire or not, the movie uses people with intellectual disabilities (and the laughter that their stereotypes provoke) as a means to the end of poking fun at Hollywood. And it rankles me to think that men like Mr. Stiller, men with money and power and fame, can get away with—can make millions of dollars from—picking on the vulnerable among us. Promotional T-shirts have been made with a line from the film: "You never go full retard." I'm not sure everyone who purchases a T-shirt will appreciate the satire. The thing is, as Stiller himself has noted, an African-American man plays a role in the film in order to counter-balance Downey Jr.'s character. But no one speaks on behalf of individuals with intellectual disabilities. And then there's the use of the word "retard" in and of itself. As with any word that categorizes, and mocks, an entire group of people, the "r-word" treats all intellectually disabled persons as if they are the same, as if they do not warrant individuality, as if they can be separated from "the rest of us." Of course, mockery at the expense of others is also just plain mean, and a cheap trick as far as humor goes. Maybe I wouldn't mind so much if I thought that the word "retard" was a joke only among a certain subsection of our culture—adolescent boys, for instance. It's not. To cite one example: TIME coined a word about a year ago. The word was "celebutard," short for "celebrity retard." They used Paris Hilton as their model. I wrote a letter: "Making fun of celebrities is one thing. Making fun of ‘retards' is another. In the same way that it is common practice not to disparage someone's race or gender, neither is it acceptable to malign the condition of countless individuals whose mental capacities are out of their own control. Please take more care with your words, and your humor, in the future." I received no response.

From a movie targeting young men to a magazine with a primarily college-educated audience, "retard" is considered funny. Acceptable. No big deal. I've always winced when I've heard people toss around "retard," but in recent years, it's become personal. Our daughter Penny has Down syndrome, and we were told when she was born that she would be "mentally retarded." It's a medical term given to those whose IQ is lower than 70 (a "normal" IQ is 100). We haven't subjected Penny to an IQ test—she's two and a half—and I'm not convinced that she's as cognitively delayed as the literature about Down syndrome suggests she should be. But regardless of her intelligence, Penny has the features of a child with Down syndrome—the extra fold of skin around her eyes, an occasionally unruly and protruding tongue, a tiny nose, pronated feet. She has features that would allow a stranger to look at her and summarize, "retard." Try as he might to say otherwise, she is the one maligned by Mr. Stiller. She is the one who gets hurt when another generation of Americans are taught to laugh about mental retardation. I'd like to introduce Mr. Stiller to Penny. I'd like for him to hear her say, "Hi, Ben!" with a big smile and a wave. Or watch her kiss her little brother on the head, or ask if she can "wock Wilwum" (rock William). I'd like for this abstract concept, this joke, to become a concrete reality. I'd like for Mr. Stiller (and TIME, and the countless adults and kids who routinely use the word "retard" as a joke or a slur) to realize that human beings like Penny are exactly that—human beings. People with disabilities aren't a different species. They are real people, and to reduce them to a joke is to reduce the humanity of us all.

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