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Tropic Thunder redux

Posted in Attitudes to disability, Campaigns, Language, Media by Matt at WelcometoIllinois on October 6, 2008

I promised some time ago that, unlike many of the bloggers writing about Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder, I intended to see the film the first chance I got so I could make up my own mind about whether it is offensive to people with disabilities.

What with one thing and another, today was the first chance I got as my wife allowed me the decadence of an afternoon at the cinema. The initial response is that I cannot understand what the fuss was all about.

I previously wrote that “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” and that I couldn’t “shake the feeling that this was a protest looking for a target.”

Having 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 National Down Syndrome Congress) that he came out of the cinema having seen Tropic Thunder “feeling like I had been assaulted.”

The claim is as laughable as anything in the film. The target of the jokes is so clearly Hollywood, as opposed to people with disabilities, that I believe you would have to have a huge chip on your shoulder to think otherwise.

One of the main issues protesters had against the film was 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 awful”, missing the fact that that was, in fact, the point. The satirical portrayal is also criticised within Tropic Thunder itself.

Having seen the film I find it hard to believe that those leading the protests that had also seen it did not understand that Simple Jack was satirical portrayal of an actor playing someone with intellectual disabilities, as opposed to the sort of ridiculous portrayal of disability seen in other films.

Within the context of Tropic Thunder Simple Jack makes sense, although I can understand that in isolation it would appear offensive. It would appear that DreamWorks made a big mistake with the viral campaign based on Simple Jack that kicked off the protests against Tropic Thunder, and was right to pull it.

The protests could, and perhaps should, have ended there and some of the other complaints against Tropic Thunder are difficult to fathom.

In The Guardian article, Tolleson describes “a segment of the film involving Stiller and Matthew McConaughey. When Stiller’s character says he wants to adopt a child, McConaughey looks at a photo of himself with his arm around a boy vacantly staring into space – clearly meant to have an intellectual disability – and says: ‘At least you get to choose yours. I’m stuck with mine’.”

Like others I do not think it was clear that the boy was meant to have an intellectual disability. In the short period of time that the boy is on the screen I would suggest it is impossible to know for sure if he is supposed to have some sort of disability or just be uncool and uninterested.

If one assumes that protesters against the film understood that it was satire then one has to assume then that they chose to ignore it in order to draw attention to the campaign to eradicate the use of the term “retard”.

That is an honourable campaign and I agree that the word retard should be used sparingly in the media. The word is used many times within Tropic Thunder, but almost exclusively entirely within a single conversation between the characters player by Stiller and Robert Downey Jnr.

I previously argued that its use in this conversation was justified by the context of the characters and the storyline, and this is definitely the case. From that perspective the repeated use in the conversation is much more justifiable isolated use in other films for shock value or to get a cheap laugh.

I fully understand why those that protested against Tropic Thunder are concerned about the portrayal of disability in movies and in reducing the use of the word retard and wish to bring their concerns to the attention of the film industry, but I maintain that in Tropic Thunder they picked the wrong film to protest against.

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2 Responses

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

  2. […] also finally had a chance to see Tropic Thunder for myself and report first hand on the controversy, or lack of […]


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