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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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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