Welcome to Illinois

Reconsidering “the r word”

Posted in Language, Media by Matt at WelcometoIllinois on August 13, 2008



retard (plural retards)
1. retardation; delay
2. (offensive slang) a person with mental retardation
3. (offensive slang) a stupid person, or one who is slow to learn


  • (retardation): delay, hold-up, retardation
  • (person with mental retardation): idiot, tard (offensive), imbecile (disused medical term), mental deficient (legal term), moron (disused medical term), person with learning difficulties
  • (stupid person): See synonyms for “fool” in WikiSaurus
  • The protesters against Tropic Thunder have certainly made their 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” and its use in popular culture.

    I mentioned previously that I was largely indifferent to it given that the word is rarely used in Britain but the more I have read about reaction to the film the more I understand why people have a significant problem with it and the fact that its use in film perpetuates its use in society.

    The R Word Campaign

    Clearly “retard” is as offensive as most of the synonyms listed above and its use in society is not to be tolerated. However, I am also convinced that the description of the term as “hate speech” or the suggestion that it encapsulates “an entire history of marginalization, neglect, murder and abuse” is ludicrous exaggeration.

    I maintain that when used in context within film the use of the word “retard” is justified, as is the use of many other words that are not acceptable in polite conversation (and I continue to suspect that its use within Tropic Thunder is an example of that context). But I agree that the term should also be used as sparingly as possible.

    The protesters against Tropic Thunder appear to be either misunderstanding or willfully ignoring the fact that Tropic Thunder is a satire in order to get their point across. I just can’t shake the feeling that this was a protest looking for a target and that the protesters are wide of the mark.

    If the ultimate goal is changing attitudes towards “the r word” in wider society then I support that goal but I’m unconvinced that demonising Ben Stiller is the way to go about it.


    7 Responses

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    1. Leticia Velasquez said, on August 14, 2008 at 4:18 am

      I haven’t seen the film, nor do I intend to, but I trust the judgement of David Tolleson, Director of the National Down Syndrome Congress, who, after attending a screening, said he felt “assaulted”.
      Did you know, I just heard on NPR that blacks were focused grouped on Robert Downey Jr.’s acting in black face. No one cared to ask disability rights groups their opinion of the disparaging use of the r word. Right there is a good reason to protest, our children’s feelings are not important to Dreamworks.
      I use the term mentally retarded, descriptively. In TT they are using it with contempt.
      By the way, I deliberately didn’t use the term “hate speech” in my editorial because I oppose such legislation since it infringes on the First Amendment rights of Americans.
      I want DreamWorks to edit out offending parts of the film because they care for the mentally disabled, not because they’re afraid of jail.
      Maybe society isn’t over eugenics just yet. . .

    2. welcometoillinois said, on August 14, 2008 at 9:24 am

      Thanks for the comment. Do you really think he felt “assaulted” or do you think he was exaggerating for the sake of drumming up support for his campaign?

      I guess my point is that if the goal of the “ban the r word” campaign is good, which I now believe it is, then such exaggeration should be unnecessary.

      I agree with you on the First Amendment right point, but shouldn’t Hollywood want to avoid using “retard” because it understands the nuances of the campaign, rather than to avoid a bunch of noisy protesters?

      I agree that DreamWorks have not handled this issue well, but are they really worse than any other studio? I’m still not convinced that Tropic Thunder is the right target. Of course I haven’t seen the film either but I plan to as soon as I can so I can make up my own mind.

    3. Rickismon said, on August 14, 2008 at 8:58 pm

      I agree that the movie can not be banned. However, since dreamworks was aparently dreaming (in that they toned down, aparently, the language as regards other groups, and here they didn’t) I think that:

      1) It is appropriate to protest the film, not asking for a ban, but giving a positive message (Those with Intellectual disabilities deserve only one “R” word: Respect)

      2) It would be quite fitting for Dreamworks to support (FINANCE) a TV campaign, or better yet, a blurb at the end of the movie, (BEFORE ALL THE CREDITS and everyone runs out) about the need to watch our tongues, and respect for the DDisabled.

    4. […] Thunder redux I promised some time ago that, unlike many of the bloggers writing about Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder, I […]

    5. […] also: Tropic Thunder redux Reconsidering “the r word” Protesting the Tropic Thunder […]

    6. Spread the word « Welcome to Illinois said, on March 31, 2009 at 9:09 am

      […] that’s actually used much over in the UK, and I do think some people have a tendency to get carried away about it. However, clearly the use of the word “retard” in a derogatory manner is to be […]

    7. […] » Amid the furore against Tropic Thunder and the film-within-a-film Simple Jack last year I maintained that “the protesters against Tropic Thunder appear to be either misunderstanding or willfully […]

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