August 14, 2008

Retarded like a fox

Slate's Dana Stevens holds a Q&A on the Tropic Thunder controversy. The very first reader gets that the targets of Stiller's satire are "overweening, ambitious actors who take roles as physically and mentally challenged characters because they're proven Oscar-bait" (pretty hacky) and "moviemakers who exploit disabilities for sentimentality while pretending to promote awareness about them" (somewhat sharper). Which raises the question: "Do the protesters not understand that they are not Stiller's target? Do they understand the satire, but worry that moviegoers will not? ... Or are the protesters simply reacting emotionally to the words used regardless of the context?"

Stevens points out that the idea of judging anything "regardless of context" is pretty meaningless. But my hunch is that there's another explanation altogether. The protesters, who have put together a sophisticated talking points memo regarding the film and the use of "the R-word," are cynically taking advantage of the movie's buzz to gain a spotlight for their cause.

Special Olympics chairman Timothy Shriver all but said as much:

[The filmmakers'] response, he said, convinced him that the time had come for his group and others to strike a far more aggressive public posture on behalf of the disabled. “The movement needs to enter the public eye and not just be talking among ourselves,” he said.

I haven't seen the film, so I guess there's a chance that it's genuinely offensive, though I highly doubt it. The Farrelly brothers have created some of the least condescending mentally disabled characters ever seen on film, and have gotten more shit for it than all the Rain Men-I Am Sams-and Riding the Bus with My Sisters combined. Comedy is always an easier target for protests like this.

What the protesters clearly don't realize is that by overreaching, they're setting their own cause back. It took Christians decades to get beyond their reputation as "those uptight freaks who boycotted The Last Temptation of Christ and Disney World," if indeed they have.

Want to really make a statement? Make your own movie.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


Now, wait a minute. I seriously defer to you on the subtleties of comedy, but ... you seem to be dismissing out of hand the possibility that the same logic they are lampooning also applies to themselves -- that is, these writers and actors (Black, Stiller et al.) have taken up the "target" of egotistical actors precisely because it allows themselves to utter the dread R-word (a.k.a. "retard"), which is otherwise unacceptable. Maybe it's OK for them to scratch that itch, but do we need to construct this edifice whereby itch-scratching is ipso facto noble? I don't see why.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding you. But I've always thought that a lot of racial, mistrel-y, or otherwise passive-aggressive "humor" (Imus, et al.) is really just there to allow people to express stuff "in the name of pretending" when no such "pretense" is in any way intended. That is, for a white person to say, "in jest," such things as "me and mah niggaz" or even "hey massa', I gwine to clean the stable now" is often just flat a way of saying those things to be hurtful, with humor being the mode selected because it's the only one that won't get you punched by other white people.

It's not that clear cut, I get that. A thing can be socially useful while also serving "selfish" ends, sure. But I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the dynamic I describe.

I just love how you avoided writing "BEGS the question." Huzzah!

Martin - Since none of us have seen the movie yet, it would be unwise to make any definitive claims about what the true intent/effect of the humor is (which is one reason why asking people to oppose the movie by NOT seeing it is a draconian step that should be taken only in the most extreme circumstances). So yes, your scenario is certainly possible. However from everything I've heard about the film, I don't think it's likely.

Beyond the fact that most critics agree with Stevens and her correspondent, there's the simple fact that the word "retard" is already tossed around more lightly than "nigger," so comedians hardly need to construct an elaborate edifice just for the opportunity. While "the N-word" is a real thing inasmuch as people go to great lengths to use that phrase rather than "nigger," there is, despite what the protesters would have us accept, no such thing as "the R-word."

The most persuasive skeptical take I've seen [on a movie I haven't seen] was from a letter to Ebert:


I've seen the movie. It was funny. The "full retard" scene that Dargis said caused her to squirm was actually a great payoff to the use of the word since it hammers home the whole Hollywood actors are vain, glory seeking morons. That it's delivered by Downey Jr.'s character who is supposed to be a "legit" actor (but is shown to be the most ridiculous of them all) only heightens the satire.

Now, if you buy into the any utterance of the word further desensitizes us to the use of the word school, then sure, it's offensive, but whoa to the world if we start going down that slippery slope.

I'm also not worried about the class of people who will laugh at the mere use of the word "retard." Sure, those people exist, but so what? Is a protest really going to turn them around?

Maybe they just don't understand that it's supposed to be satire and not a mockery of them? They are retarded after all.

check out the new Jay Reatard album, it's awesome.


That makes sense, Daniel. At the same time I would suggest that the issues of sensitivity involved in discussing the mentally disabled in our culture very well do require some edifice of legitimation, for people with the kind of cultural capital that Stiller, Black, et al. have. If you consider the way a group of people like "snobs" or "the boorish" would be treated in a movie, that depiction would lack absolutely any kind of signals that the creators do not associate themselves with the critique, whereas we "know" that the Farrelly brothers do not adhere to the worldview of e.g. Matt Dillon's Pat Healy. Not to disagree about your point w/r/t the Farrellys, you're right. But the two things work differently.

Actually, reading more about it, it does seem like the protests constitute willful refusal to understand a pretty legitimate satire of a "proper" target, I don't want to suggest otherwise. But it's often hard to dissociate that sort of satire from a more calculated knowledge that being the kind of movie in which people say "retard" in movies will succeed in attracting a large audience, regardless of intent.

As a housemate and caregiver for people with mental disabilities, I believe the film is right to lampoon the tendency for audiences to lavish praise on actors playing someone with a mental disability, no matter how lazy or inaccurate the method. But the film should have gone further and taken the sentimentalization of mental disability in Hollywood—and the rest of our culture—to task by simply following the Disability Rights Movement’s slogan “Nothing About Us Without Us.”

Just imagine if an actual person with a mental disability were one of the “extras” in the film-within-a-film, much like the real African-American actor shown opposite black-faced Robert Downey Jr. Front and center would be one of Hollywood’s many talented actors with disabilities who didn’t get the part played by Stiller because he “wasn’t right for the role.” Forced to “act normal” to play a typical soldier, he would resent Stiller’s blatant caricature of “his people” (to use a phrase from the film) and have lines like “you know, we really don’t act like that,” “nobody really uses that word anymore,” or “what do you mean, ‘you people’?” That would have been irreverent and helpful without being offensive or sentimental. It would have been funnier, too. (Just watch Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" or Johnny Knoxville's "The Ringer," and you'll see what I mean.)

Coming up with all that would have been difficult, though. You know, like Googling “Disability Studies” and making a phone call.

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