Welcome to Illinois

In defence of Simple Jack

Posted in Attitudes to disability, Media by Matt at WelcometoIllinois on November 10, 2009

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 ignoring the fact that Tropic Thunder is a satire in order to get their point across”.

In Simple Jack, Stiller’s character from Tropic Thunder tries to prove he is a serious actor by playing a disabled character. David Tolleson (executive director of the National Down Syndrome Congress) described the portrayal as “shockingly awful”, missing the fact that that was, in fact, the point.

The point of Simple Jack was to lampoon vacuous actors who see playing a character with disability as proving their credentials as an artist.

With that in mind, I draw your attention to this article about Filipino actress Niña Jose. I had never heard of Jose before reading this article, nor do I expect to again.

From the article we learn two key things about Jose:

  • “My boobs are real.”


  • “I just don’t [want] to limit myself to sexy roles. My dream role? I want to play someone who [has] Down’s syndrome. Super challenging.”

I don’t think I need to add anything else at this juncture.


Off topic: Simply popular

Posted in Media, Off topic, This blog by Matt at WelcometoIllinois on October 18, 2008

Looking at my blog stats I’ve noticed a massive increase in the number of searches for “Simple Jack”, the film within Tropic Thunder that caused such a fuss about Ben Stiller’s satirical portrayal of a Hollywood action star trying to be taken seriously by playing a character with disabilities.

94% of the searches for ‘simple jack’ that have brought people to Welcome to Illinois have occurred in the last 48 hours.

The 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 than it got in the 68 days since it was published.

So why the sudden interest? It can’t be the Halloween costume connection as Halloween doesn’t crop up in any search terms.

Meanwhile the US DVD release is still over a month away and I can’t see any other reason for the massive increase in interest. I’m really curious – any ideas?

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.

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?