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Protesting the Tropic Thunder protest

Posted in Language, Media by Matt at WelcometoIllinois on August 11, 2008

It seems that the controversy surrounding Tropic Thunder will result in an official boycott of the film by disability support groups in the US.


About the picture.

In my opinion this would be a huge mistake for a couple of reasons:

1/ The protest may well backfire spectacularly
One of the precedents for the proposed protest cited by the media is the campaign against The Last Temptation of Christ, which TheCelebrityCafe describes as “one of the most successful movie boycotts”. If the definition of successful is turning an art house film based on a little-known novel into a profit-generating international blockbuster then yes, the boycott was a success.

Witness this report from 1988: “The film’s opponents have admitted that their strategy of parades and protests backfired last weekend when the movie sold $401,000 worth of tickets, an average of $44,000 per theater, sold out many shows and set a record at the Century City Cineplex in Los Angeles.”

2/ The protest may be counter-productive
I cannot believe that the representatives of the Special Olympics, the Arc of the United States, the National Down Syndrome Congress, and the American Association of People with Disabilities which are proposing this protest really do not understand that the portrayal of disability in the film is used as a tool to lampoon actors and Hollywood rather than people with disabilities.

I understand they have a problem with the use of the term “retard” in this film (more on that in a minute) but references to “hate speech” and David C. Tolleson’s comment that “I came out [of the film] feeling like I had been assaulted” are gross exaggeration that do nothing to promote the interests of people with disability and may even lead the disability rights groups to be seen in a negative light. I for one object to being told what it is I should find offensive.

3/ The response is an over-reaction
The biggest problem I have with the proposed protest is that it is being called for by people before they have even seen the film and come to their own conclusions.

“Despite my requests, I have not been given the chance to see the movie. But I’ve seen previews, read about it and read excerpts of the script,” writes Special Olympic chairman Timothy Shriver. “By all accounts, it is an unchecked assault on the humanity of people with intellectual disabilities — an affront to dignity, hope and respect.”

If you are prepared to accept this ill-informed exaggeration as gospel go ahead and protest. Otherwise, consider the point that there may be better ways of responding.

4/ What is the point of the protest?
If it is to draw attention to the misuse of the word “retard” then there are better ways of going about it. I accept the point that the use of “retard” in film accentuates its use in society (although I maintain that when used in context it is entirely appropriate if it is the term that a character would use – just as many offensive terms to describe other minorities are justified by context).

The ARC’s action alert (Word doc) proposes either a national boycott or an education action “to use the release of this film as a teachable moment for the public, while recognizing the film’s offensiveness and the industry’s response”.

Surely this is a better method of fulfilling the aims of the proposed protest. It is not just Tropic Thunder that makes repeated use of the word. On a flight home from the US at the weekend I noticed the word had been hamfistedly edited out of the film Kevin Spacey film 21 (where it was also used, incidentally to discuss Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man) and replaced with “reject”* .

So why stop at Tropic Thunder? Why not protest every firm in which the word is used? Alternatively the protesters could use this moment as an opportunity to engage sensibly and calmly with the studios to educate them on why the use of the word is considered offensive.

*Also isn’t “reject” just as offensive as a sweeping generalisation? If “retard” is to be outlawed then what approved terms should the film industry be using instead?

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4 Responses

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  1. […] mark – it was the lead item on the BBC’s entertainment news last night, and while I remain sceptical about the merits of a protest I’ve been giving more thought to the word “retard” […]

  2. mic said, on August 22, 2008 at 10:23 pm

    I can understand some being offended by the use of the word, but honestly….it’s a movie. No one is knocking at the doors of each mentally disabled individual and yelling such words. I mean any movie can be offensive. I’m overweight, you don’t see me complaining about the Eddie Murphy movie “Norbit.” Come on! Unfortunately, there will always be some group complaining about something. We have much bigger problems in the world.

  3. movie buff said, on August 26, 2008 at 10:32 pm

    Ben Stiller has a track record of doing anything for a laugh (i’m thinking Heartbreak Kid, yuck)

  4. […] seen the film I am more convinced than ever that this was the case and that a protest was the wrong strategy. I couldn’t help thinking about the claim made by David Tolleson (executive director of the […]


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