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A not so simple problem

Posted in Attitudes to disability, Language, Media by Matt at WelcometoIllinois on August 8, 2008

Ben Stiller’s new film Tropic Thunder has got DreamWorks in trouble with disability rights activists thanks to Simple Jack, the film within a film where Stiller’s character tries to prove he is a serious actor by playing a disabled character.


DreamWorks has pulled the website related to the fictitious film after complaints while the “Nobody goes full retard” clip that has also got some hot under the collar also appears to have been removed from many web sites.

The clip is still available here and features Robert Downey Jnr’s character explaining why an actor wanting to win an Oscar should “never go full retard”.

“Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, Rainman, look retarded, act retarded, not retarded. Count toothpicks to your cards. Autistic. Sure. Not retarded. You know Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump. Slow, yes. Retarded, maybe. Braces on his legs. But he charmed the pants off Nixon and he won a ping-pong competition? That ain’t retarded. You went full retard, man. Never go full retard.”

Personally I find that pretty funny, although I accept that my sensitivities may well change once our baby has been born.

The biggest problem people seem to have with the clip is the repeated use of the word “retard”. I don’t have an issue with this word myself but then it is very rarely used here in Britain.

I do understand why some people would have an issue with the word, but given that Stiller and Downey Jnr are playing characters that would be likely to use the word it use seems justified by context.

In fact it’s more justified than Kate Winslet’s use of the word “mental” was in making a similar point in Ricky Jervais’s Extras: “You are guaranteed an Oscar if you play a mental”.

The fact that Downey Jnr delivers the lines above while wearing enough make up to make him look black because his character, a white Oscar winning actor, is paying a character written for an African American actor makes it impossible to take seriously.

In fact it’s a pretty big hint that the target of the joke here is actors and Hollywood rather than people with disabilities or African Americans (although it lacks the subtlety of Summer Heights High in that regard to be sure).

The idea of a white actor playing a role written for a black actor is so ludicrous that it is difficult to be offended by it. Why is it then that we accept totally the fact that disabled characters are almost always played by “able” actors.

The film I Am Sam again was on British TV recently, and Sean Penn gives a great performance supported by a cast of disabled actors. The film would have been all the more powerful if a disabled actor had been cast in the lead role.

Would a disabled actor be able to take the pressure of acting in a leading role of such magnitude? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Thanks to the Hollywood system it is extremely unlikely we will ever find out.

See also:
Tropic Thunder redux
Reconsidering “the r word”
Protesting the Tropic Thunder protest

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5 Responses

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  1. Tim Jeffries said, on August 8, 2008 at 8:53 am

    I laughed too and I have son with DS who is 4 months old. People need to lighten up if you ask me.

  2. […] the Tropic Thunder protest It seems that the controversy surrounding Tropic Thunder will result in an official boycott of the film by disability support […]

  3. […] the portrayal by Stiller’s  character (an action film actor trying to be taken seriously) of Simple Jack. In this article from The Guardian, David Tolleson described the portrayal as “shockingly […]

  4. […] huge increase in searches has resulted in the initial post I wrote about Simple Jack getting three times as many hits in the last two days that it got in the […]

  5. […] An interesting perspective, and one that I have some sympathy for. […]


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