Thursday, August 21, 2008

Tropic Thunder

For the past several weeks, the disability community has organized protests against Tropic Thunder, a new film directed by Ben Stiller. Stiller, along with Robert Downey, Jr., Jack Black and others, stars in the movie. Stiller portrays a vain actor who is filming a Viet Nam War movie. Prior to the Viet Nam movie, Stiller's character portrayed a character with an intellectual disability in a film called Simple Jack.

Disability advocates argue that Stiller's portrayal of Simple Jack demeans people with intellectual disabilities, and that repeated use in Tropic Thunder of the word "retard," a word that carries a negative connotation similar to, if not stronger than, the word "midget" for the short statured community. Groups such as the Special Olympics and the American Association of People with Disabilities protested outside the film's Los Angeles premiere. East coast advocates staged a similar protest for the New York City premiere.

Though the protests have earned incredible media attention, each day there are more reports of national exposure, few within the film industry and few film critics I know of support the efforts of the disability community. When questioned about the protest, Stiller and other actors defend their work, explaining that the film is meant to satirize the egos of actors. They insist that the language and the scenes are meant to make fun of the lengths actors will go for attention and credibility, and in no way are meant to poke fun at the disability community. Most film critics appear to follow a similar line of argument. In his review of the film in the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert didn't mention the disability community's concerns. Many film critics who do mention the protests appear to brush off the disability concerns, suggesting that the word "retard" is only a word, and that the disability community has failed to interpret the true intent of the film. My favorite are the scores of people who have weighed in on youtube, who also claim that people with disabilities have given to much value to the weight of words. Yet, these youtube critics seem to relish their own frequent use of the word "retard" to describe the disability critics.

It's easy to argue that we often put too much value on the weight of words. It is easy to argue that words depend upon the context and the intent in which they are used. But when the actors, the film industry, the pundits, and the youtube prognosticators defend their use of offensive language, they fail to recognize the real power of language. Just as they justify use of certain words because of the context in which they are used, they fail to recognize the power of the word within the context of the lives of people with disabilities.

There are certain words that are not accepted in movies anymore, or in popular culture. It doesn't matter if the film is a comedy, drama or thriller. Defenses such as satire, context and freedom of speech simply won't stand up to these words because of their long history of hatred, racism, bigotry and contempt.

Today, the disability community campaigns to add the word "retard" to this list of unacceptable words. The organizations and individuals who protested and who continue to protest Tropic Thunder worry that the film might damage these efforts. That the film might anoint the word "retard" with acceptance. Already, there are reports of merchants selling tshirts with the phrase "Never go full retard."

But I am encouraged. While the film may motivate huge numbers of young people and older people to use offensive language, and perhaps purchase offensive merchandise, more people now than ever before know the damage that the "r" word can wield. This may not stop everyone from using the word, but it will make some people stop. And those who do decide to use the word will no longer be able to hide behind the excuse of ignorance or satire.

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