Think About It

***Update***  I wanted to address an issue that I have received comments about concerning the movie “Tropic Thunder.”  I know that the pretense of the movie is that it is a satire – that the movie is a spoof  – and that it is actually mocking Hollywood and the actors that sometimes take on the role of a character with mental disabilities (think Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump) in order to win an Academy Award.  That may very well be the case, but I still stand by my earlier position.  Those with mental disabilities don’t have a voice in our culture to defend themselves against such a movie (satire or not.)  I also believe that the average movie audience won’t understand that “Tropic Thunder” was written as a satire.  They will go to see the movie and have a good laugh.  Teenagers, and supposedly smart and mature adults will leave the theatres and try out the new phrase “go full retard.”  All at the expense of those who are mentally disabled.

This post makes me uncomfortable.  I don’t want to feel like I’m pushing my opinion on others.  I’m just going to chalk it up to one of those “things I thought I would never do, but end up doing and find out its not all that bad…”

So, have you guessed what this post is all about?  Advocating for the mentally disabled. OK, so it’s not all crazy and “out there.”  Maybe it is.  You probably don’t think that this is relevant to you, but it is.  The subject matter probably makes you uncomfortable too.  It’s OK to admit, but don’t be afraid to learn.

Why am I so riled up?  This is a story of the little guy fighting against the big giant.  In this case the “little guy” is those that are mentally disabled and the “big giant” is the new movie “Tropic Thunder.”  I’ve done a bit of research and found an opinion article by Timothy Shriver in the Washington Post to be the most eloquent on the subject.  You can click here for the full article, but I will paraphrase parts of his commentary throughout this post.

What is all the fuss about?

“Tropic Thunder” is a big-budget, R-rated summer comedy made by DreamWorks/Paramount and directed and co-written by Ben Stiller, who also stars. The movie plot centers on a group of pampered actors who are lost in the jungle while making a war movie. Stiller’s character, Tugg Speedman, is presented as a fading action hero who earlier failed in his bid for Oscar glory while portraying Simple Jack, a character with an intellectual disability. Speedman’s portrayal of Simple Jack is featured as a movie within the movie.

Consider this exchange:

Ben Stiller’s character: “There were times when I was doing Jack when I actually felt retarded. Like really retarded.”

Robert Downey Jr.’s character: “Oh yeah. Damn.”

Stiller: “In a weird way, I had to sort of just free myself up to believe that it was okay to be stupid or dumb.”

Downey: “To be a moron.”

Stiller: “Yeah.”

At another point, about acting like a person with intellectual disabilities, they say:

Stiller: “It’s what we do, right?”

Downey: “Everybody knows you never do a full retard.”

Stiller: “What do you mean?”

Downey: “Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, ‘Rain Man,’ 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 won a ping-pong competition. That ain’t retarded. You went full retard, man. Never go full retard.”

Before Charlie was born I would say that my sympathy meter ran pretty low.  I didn’t understand why people couldn’t just grow thicker skin and “get over” what ever comment had offended them.  I rolled my eyes when people discussed the “politically correct” way to say or do things.  Why did people have to be so sensitive?  Really, before Charlie, I would have ignored this discussion and moved on with my life.

Things have changed.  I now realize how mistaken I was before.  Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not easily offended – if someone refers to Charlie in a way that isn’t “politically correct” I don’t get upset, as long as it wasn’t meant to be hurtful.  I do however get all fired up when people blatantly, purposefully and intentionally act or speak out of hate or ignorance.  Especially when it directly (or indirectly) affects my son and family.  Any parent would.

I’m going to make an assumption here – most of the movie-going public doesn’t put much thought into what they are watching.  We go for entertainment – for a good laugh, suspense, to feel “moved.”  But what happens when the subject of the movie is a group of people that can’t defend or stand up for themselves?  What happens when this group – a group who already is made fun of at school, on the bus or at the store – is mocked across the nation in theatres by leading Hollywood actors?  I’m guessing that it becomes something that is considered “cool” and will be condoned in the mainstream.

What I want to point out is that there are millions of families and individuals that will be hurt by this film.  I’m sure that when Ben Stiller wrote this movie he was only focusing on making his audiences laugh and adding a few more millions to his bank account.

Stiller didn’t think about the mom who just received a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome.  Will she now terminate because this movie shows how intolerant our society is of individuals with mental disabilities?  What about the family who’s son who has Autism?  What about the mentally-impaired woman who bags your groceries and is the recipient of the “full retard” comment hurled by the teenagers driving by in the parking lot?

I find it ironic that in a society that claims to be so evolved and inclusive we still tolerate such discrimination against individuals with disabilities.  We work so hard to include minorities, and woman continue to fight for equality.  We go to great lengths to avoid offending anyone – that is unless you are mentally disabled.  If you fall into that category, then your voice doesn’t matter or count in our world.

Why am I bringing this to your attention?  Do I want you to protest outside your local theatre?  No.  Boycott the movie?  Sure.  Express your disgust to others about the movie/t-shirts/trailers?  That would be great.  But most of all, I want you to realize that this is taking place.  Spend some time thinking about it.  Realize that this doesn’t have to be something that we just accept.

So yes, I am taking this personally.  Don’t tell me it’s “just a movie.”  I won’t pretend that I’m not offended.  I am.  I am upset.  I am sad for Charlie.  I will not just “get over it” and move on.

However, I do realize that pushing my feelings and opinions isn’t going to change your mind.  You have to make your own choices.  But, I would like to ask you to please think about how your choices affect others – even when it is as simple as going to the movies.  When all is said and done, I just ask that you to think about it.

A quick up-date: Paramount/Dreamworks – has decided to stop selling the “go full retard” promotional t-shirts and have altered the movie trailer introduction which originally stated…”Once there was a retard…”  Seriously, I’m not kidding…

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7 thoughts on “Think About It

  1. Thanks Libby – I’m a friend of Maribeth’s and I’m so glad she sent your blog address on to me. Your point is so important. I appreciate your writing about it.

  2. Pingback: Advocacy « Matthew Nicholas Vawter

  3. Standing up for people with mental disabilities is a nobel goal and you should be applauded for your concern.

    However, when it comes to this movie I think that a lot of people are completely missing the point of what the movie was trying to do.

    The point of the “Simple Jack” portion of the movie is not to make fun of people with mental disabilities. The point is to make fun of hollywood, more specifically the actors who will take on the part of a person with a mental disability in order to get more fame, fortune and get that coveted statue of an academy award.

    The part of the movie that the article you quote leaves out is the very next part where Robert Downey Jr’s character says that Sean Penn failed to get an award because he took it “too far”.

    Tropic Thunder is taking the movie industry and the acadamy awards to task for not being willing to reward an actor for taking on a character like Sam, but Gump and Rainman are ok. It was one actor telling another acter how to be “just retarded enough” to get an award.

    Yes, the movie is over the top. You have to see the entire movie to understand the context, to see the facial expressions of how Downey’s character is mocking Stiller’s character, and how the script is mocking hollywood and not mocking those who have mental disabilities.

  4. daniel z,

    I think you also may be missing the point. You’re operating under the mythology that Hollywood has something to say; or, perhaps, rather, desires to say something. The film takes on the aesthetic of having something to say, sure, by seemingly promoting a critique of Hollywood pictures (the indulgence and ineptitude of actors, the shallowness of producers, and the frivolousness of an audience afraid of being confronted with “full on retards”), and yet the film operates under strict Hollywood guidelines: The apparatus of seamless editing, the star system, you name it. But not only by praxis, but also by expectations. The film is relentlessly tacky with its humor, making large strives to appeal to a mass audience.

    For a film to be critical, everything has to be critical. This film is sheer kitsch, as Clement Greenberg defines the term. It doesn’t expect anything of its audience but their money. This film only presents an aesthetic of caring; the surface value of concern. The “full on retard” joke allows the viewer a space to indulge in the joke, but also walk away feeling not entirely guilty. (I can’t even explain how much it depresses me thinking about people leaving the theater thinking, “You know, Robert Downy Jr. made an excellent point about Sean Penn not winning an award for his performance in I am Sam.”)

    The film doesn’t want to disrupt anyone’s film outing. The film isn’t critical of anything. It’s indulgent in the worst way, in that it is entirely what it sets out to critique. This is not only embarrassing for the filmmakers involved, but an abomination of satire. Satire is supposed to be sharp and cutting, relishing the space between cultural constructions and the truth. Tropic Thunder, I’m sorry to report, relishes only within cultural constructions.

    The film provides a cheap laugh, the idea of caring without having to actually think, and millions upon millions of dollars for the actors and producers that this film, as you put it, “took to task.”

    My God! May we all get taken to task someday!

  5. incidentally, that emoticon after I am Sam.” is supposed to be a closing parenthesis.

    not that that winking face isn’t charming, but at any rate, i’m a little embarrassed it’s there.

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