Thursday, August 14, 2008

The controversy about "Tropic Thunder"

Well, you may have read in the news about the recent uproar from the disability rights community about the new comedy "Tropic Thunder" starring Ben Stiller and Robert Downey, Jr. The groups are outraged and insulted by Ben Stiller's character playing the role of a mentally handicapped person, and the excessive use of the word "retard". I have not seen the movie, but I have heard a clip on the radio of some of its dialogue using the term "retarded." I didn't really find it to be offensive. Funny yes, offensive not so much. In fact, the dialogue I heard from Robert Downey, Jr.'s character was describing famous roles in Hollywood about the mentally handicapped including Rainman and Forrest Gump. In addition to repeating the word "retarded" in that clip, I also heard the word "autistic", which I think is encouraging that Hollywood is at least trying to use the proper names to associate to mental handicaps, to some extent.

I realize my opinion is in the minority here, and that many in our small special needs community are outraged. That said, name calling hurts. We should always teach our children to respect others. However, in my opinion, I would hate to see that in our effort to criticize a movie for his interpretation, that the end result is that we've placed a larger stigma on the word "retarded." Personally, I find the words "mentally retarded" to be the most useful way to describe Jenelle because she has no underlying diagnosis and she is "mentally retarded." I worry that we are fighting the wrong battle.

Recently I read a fascinating blog post by author Stephanie Klein, who also happens to have a handicapped child. In her post entitled "Is Special Needs a Retarded term?", she says, "I have no doubt, one day, people will refer to the word "disability" as derogatory..." and I couldn't agree more. Like Ms. Klein, I find humor in dire situations. Sometimes that humor comes across as being offensive to others when I say my daughter is retarded. Don't be offended. I am her Mother, and it doesn't offend me. But where do we draw the line? Am I supposed to give up my sense of humor in dealing with such emotional issues because now I am supposed to to set an example for others? I think not, because I am human. For me, laughter even in dire circumstances is an important part of who I am and how I cope with being the mother of a special needs child.

Arguments such as the controversy against the movie "Tropic Thunder" only create a negative stigma associated with the mentally handicapped community and the use of the word "retarded." I absolutely agree, the term used in certain context can be offensive. However, given the context of this movie, which is meant to be a satire, I think using this movie as a platform against derogatory terms against the disabled in general overshoots the real goal.

The bottom line is we need to teach and practice respect for others. Making fun of some one's mental or physical abilities is never acceptable, unless of course that person can also laugh at themselves. Today I watched the wonderful video below that has been circulating the special needs community. The message is clear; the goal is respect. If we focus more on that, then maybe we won't need to protest movies or make a huge deal out of using certain phrases. Isn't this a universal goal we can all agree to strive for?


Reagan Leigh said...

Great post Kelly. I couldn't agree with you more. It does seem that in general people are just becoming way too sensitive these days. The thing is...many of our kids are delayed. And delayed is just the politically correct way to say retarded. The definition for the two are the depressing as that reality might be to some (including me). Thanks for your honesty!

Anonymous said...

Your opinion is in the minority of what I have read lately, and good for you to state it anyway. You might be interested to read a pocket of people who agree with you at: See the many comments.

Katy said...

You make a good point. I'm reserving judgement on the movie since I hate it when people complain about a movie they haven't actually seen.

I worked as a special ed teacher for several years and was surprised that the kids all hated the word "special." I didn't mean mentally handicapped, but any time I used the word that's what they thought. Weird.