14 Aug 2008

That film and that word

So there's this film that's just been released in the US. Ben Stiller has co-written, directed and stars in the film. It makes frequent use of the words retard and retarded. It features the stories of a white actor who is made up to play a black man and a non-disabled actor doing the whole bowl haircut, bad teeth and crap dialogue in the film-in-a-film, with the tag-line, "Once upon a time there was a retard."

The white actor who dons black-face is admonished by black characters in the film, but no such denouncement occurs for the other character. Instead he is told that the reason he failed to gain Oscar success, unlike previous actors who portrayed disabled characters, is that he went too far with the character. The line used at this point has already gained notoriety and T-shirt slogan status.

In flicking about I found this interview on Entertainment Weekly with the actors:

The challenge with that character was to find the right line. You want to make fun of this pompous actor, but if you play it wrong, it verges on being minstrel-like. Your costar Brandon T. Jackson told me there was a scene in the script where Osiris uses the N-word and that he said it went over the line.

ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: Brandon might have saved the movie that day.

For sure. We were rehearsing in Hawaii and we got to that scene and I said to him, ''What do you think of this?'' Brandon said, ''This feels wrong.'' It was definitely a constant process of feeling it out.
So the black actor advised them on what was going "over the line" on what "feels wrong" but they never thought to consult with disabled people about what might cross lines or feel wrong in their use of "retard" or the many examples of insensitive dialogue and portrayals detailed here.

I'm glad disability activists are speaking out about this. I'm not going to join them in asking people to boycott the film. I won't go see it myself. Until I knew about all this stuff, I had intended to go as the trailer I saw looked bloody funny and I really like some of the films Stiller has been involved in. Other people can decide for themselves. I know there is an important distinction between trying to ban something and deciding not to go yourself. But there is a bit of me that feels it's all a bit "down with this sort of thing." The film has already been made unfortunately, and we can't decide what other people choose to watch, read or say. But we can inform them on what we think about the controversy and why.

A blog I read had a post up arguing against the "PC vampires" and their weak euphemisms and making a case for people to use language as and how they see fit. I commented there, and I'll copy from that here 'cause I'm too lazy to write the same stuff down twice.

I don't think the word retard should be banned; how do you ban a word anyway? But like some people who have learning disabilities or have family members who are learning disabled, I don’t like the word and want to educate people as to the reasons why.

Retard is an ugly, hard and hurtful word. People can keep on saying it if they want, knowing that choosing a word that refers to people like Brent Martin (beaten to death because a few lads thought it was fun to pick on the ‘tard) or my son or the thousands of people like them, and using that word as a short-hand for stupid, moronic, pathetic, just devalues these people and hurts them.

Some wise people have explained the history of ugly words and how they cause harm. Others can clamour for their freedom to label stupidity after a term used to describe my son’s developmental delay. They can fight to call gay people faggots. It’s different when you know someone well enough and can make an in-joke. But not in a million years will I use a term associated with hate speech. Do you think when bigots attack, they accompany each kick with the PC words, or might they choose the strongest, most hateful language possible?

I don’t know why people are so desperate to be able to keep saying retard as an insult. I think everyone can say and write what they want. I can choose who I talk to and what I read. Just be aware of the reasons why some of us wish that word could just be quietly dropped out of circulation.

Please, just read this one post, then decide if moderating language can be the right thing to do.

And how do you make the distinction between hate speech and offensive speech? Yes sure retarded is a valid word. If I put sand in my car’s tank it would retard its performance. My son’s development is retarded compared to his typically developing peers. (I’m not going to refer to them as “normal” as that just makes him by default, abnormal.) Those are perfectly fine uses of the word.

But using that same word to mean disabled people like Duncan, and then using it as synonymous with stupid, pathetic, crap is not nice. If you drop your glass, or bash into a wall and your mates call you a retard or say “jeez you’re so retarded” then a judgement is made on learning disabled people as the epitome of thick.

Oh and just to round off, here’s a much funnier and less wanky way of making the point Stiller claims he wanted to make with his movie. It's the episode of Extras with Kate Winslet. Watch out at 4.40 in particular and notice the reaction of Gervais' character. Excellent stuff.


Anonymous said...

Ben Stiller movies always have high and low points, some jokes that are brilliant and others that are terrible. My husband and I were planning to see the movie, but after hearing about the abuse of the word "r..." I decided not too. I also want a better world for my autistic kid. My husband says he'll still go though.

Nick McGivney said...

Leila - tell your husband to buy a ticket for another movie and sneak in to Tropic Thunder. He'll see it, they won't get the cash for it. Yes, I am that mean!

And well written Sharon. You're rattling the stick in the bucket like a good thing!

Sharon McDaid said...

I've seen a few TT trailers but none hinted at this content.

Nick, good idea.

Lisamaree said...

HI Sharon, I hope all the furore we have created just sends the message that it is not okay to do this again; and use viral marketing to attract lowest common denominator punters to see it.
I was thinking this morning in the grey light of well, 7.30am; what an obscene waste of money this movie is. and then wonder if the money is wasted if people got jobs and bought things with their salaries and blah blah. Then I remember Bollywood, my favourite source of unadulterated escapism and entertainment. They make those films for nix! And then they charge half of nothing for literally millions and millions of people to go and see them many times. Why does Hollywood have to make so many inexorable films every year, films that make you want to throw your dvd player into the sea, films that have to be aggressively marketed by any means possible just to make back the third world debt amounts of money that went into making them?

For every "little Miss Sunshine" there are ten "Heartbreak Kid"s; How is this even possible?
I despair of it.

And for the record: I LOVED Snowcake. I saw it at an arthouse cinema AND bought the DVD. And I am always telling myself "Now I have to Do Social" when I have to interact with the normals.
I also loved Huiteme, although I cried buckets. And "I am Sam" not just because it was my first Dr Suess book, but because My Boo likes to put on 10 t-shirts at a time (one for every time I have nagged him)

as I said, nice ter meet ye!


Elizabeth (My Reading World) said...

It is a hard topic to cover-you've done this well.

I keep wondering why we still use the words to begin with. What would happen if most people just stopped using them? Would they be replaced with other negative words--or would we just gradually erase such hurtful words from everyday use?

I ponder this often.

Sharon McDaid said...

Hi Hammie

Brilliant comment! There are so many crap films made but now and then something wonderful is released. I love films and have a fair idea of what's on release, even if I rarely go to the cinema these days.
(This is one of my weekly indulgences.)

I like "do social" but I like your "interact with the normals" too!

If Boo likes wearing multiple layers of clothing, he might have enjoyed a Irish children's show from years ago about a character called Forty Coats. Totally flaming bizarre.
It's on Youtube here.

Hi Elizabeth and thanks.
I think this is what lots of people say, that the expressions that are acceptable now will be replaced later and become tomorrows negative words. Some people then go on to say that it's pointless to even try to avoid giving offense as they can't keep up with what's currently acceptable. I disagree with them, and think that it's fairly easy to listen to the people affected and let them dictate what they prefer to be called. Common courtesy helps too.