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The path from cinema to playground

Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr in Tropic Thunder

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

A new film repeatedly uses the word "retard". Can it be acceptable to use satirically or is it intrinsically offensive and a quick route to playground and workplace insults?

Retard is not a nice word.

It is two harsh sounding syllables that no-one would want applied to them.

This might explain why Ben Stiller's latest opus Tropic Thunder prompted protests and even pickets in the United States last month from disabled groups.

That didn't happen in the UK when it was released at the weekend, but there are still fears over the potential effect of the film.

The word is used very specifically in a context that satirises Hollywood's attitude towards people with learning difficulties
Peter Bradshaw
Film critic

Ben Stiller plays an actor who has previous played a character with learning difficulties in a film called Simple Jack. Robert Downey Jr's character discusses how actors who go "part retard" such as Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man win Oscars, while an actor who goes "full retard" - Sean Penn in I Am Sam - does not. Downey Jr's character's conclusion is "never go full retard".

Disability commentator Patricia Bauer has written how her daughter - who has Down's syndrome - has been called a "retard" in the street.

"I'm stopped cold by the thought of a major studio constructing an ad campaign and film that prominently feature the word 'retard' without a thought to the consequences," says Bauer.

She wonders how long it will be before the phrase "never go full retard" is printed on a T-shirt.

Malign power

For the opponents of Tropic Thunder, the path between film and television and "hate speech" is clear.

The UK provides an interesting crucible. While the word "retard" is extremely common in the US and crops up regularly in films, in the UK other epithets are more common. But it still has an immense power to offend, topping a poll by the BBC's Ouch website for the most offensive disability-related words.

Bullied child in the playground
The old adage about sticks and stones is wrong

If there are more school-children using the word "retard" in playgrounds this week, some might take that as an indicator of the malign power of the film.

"The media is very powerful, whether it's films or comedy," says sociologist Prof Colin Barnes, who studies the relationship between the media and disability. "Subliminal messages are distributed. 'Spaz' was popularised by Rik Mayall in the Young Ones. That really took off in the 1980s in schools."

Of course, Tropic Thunder is self-consciously satirical in intent. The whole "full retard" scene is an attempt to satirise Hollywood and its mawkish and stereotypical treatment of disability. In the film, Stiller's character has appeared in an earlier film called Simple Jack.

"I enjoyed the film and I didn't have a problem with the use of the word retard because of its satirical intent," says Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw. "The word is used very specifically in a context that satirises Hollywood's attitude towards people with learning difficulties.

"The only justification for them to have learning difficulties [and be a central character] is if they are courageous with superhuman levels of fortitude. I would find the word offensive if it was used straight but it is satirising."

And there is no doubt that disabled writers and actors have noted for many years, the way the media inadequately portrays disability.

"Rain Man for me provides quite an interesting example," says Ian Macrae, editor of Disability Now magazine. "In theory you could see Rain Man as bringing the plight of people with autism into the spotlight. But they do it in such a stereotypical way with this completely helpless character, remarkable because of his ability to count a pile of cocktail sticks that have fallen on the floor."

Rarely authentic

Scent of a Woman is another example of a ludicrous portrayal of disability, with Al Pacino hamming it up wildly.

NON-DISABLED ACTORS IN DISABLED LEADS
I Am Sam: Sean Penn
Radio: Cuba Gooding Jr
Rain Man: Dustin Hoffman
My Left Foot: Daniel Day-Lewis
What's Eating Gilbert Grape: Leonardo DiCaprio

"I'm blind and I've known a lot of blind guys and he isn't like any of them," says Mr Macrae.

And it's not simply that the portrayals of disability are rarely authentic, it is also a major bone of contention that so many non-disabled actors are cast as disabled people.

"We are talking about an industry that doesn't readily employ disabled actors… the discrimination is so entrenched," says actress Kiruna Stamell, who played La Petite Princess in Moulin Rouge.

"There was a film recently, Tiptoes, in which they CGI-ed the leading actor to be a short-statured person. If I as an actor was offered tall roles, and they were happy to CGI me to an average height, that would be another matter."

Its defenders say Tropic Thunder satirises this convention, but its detractors feel a mainstream Hollywood film has to tread a difficult line. In any audience there will be some who never get the joke.

"The danger with the argument they are putting forward is that I don't know we're ready for that kind of post-modern humour," says Mr Macrae.

"People are playing fast and loose with things they have absolutely no right to play fast and loose with."

There's the old Till Death Do Us Part conundrum. Johnny Speight created a brilliant satire of small-minded racist bigots in the grotesque Alf Garnett. But some of the people he set out to satirise missed the point and took the show as a vindication of their views.

Social incongruities

For Ms Stamell it is not about the word "retard" being off limits, it is all about the context.

"Is the word used in context? I don't think there should be a situation where people can't use certain words.

"It depends on whether or not, in terms of disability and comedy, the comedy lies - if you are looking at the inequalities and the incongruities between social attitudes between disabilities, rather than say pointing and laughing at the disabled individual.

"I myself use the word retard. If somebody makes fun of me or my appearance I might refer to their attitude. But I would never refer to a person as retarded."

But there are those for whom it remains beyond the pale.

"It is a distinctly unappealing term," says Prof Barnes. "When you talk about someone as a retard it has implications for their self-worth."


Below is a selection of your comments.

Having actually seen the movie I find that the backlash against the use of the word "retard" to be, frankly, bizarre. The conversation in question discusses how disability is portrayed in film and how audiences seem happy to watch disabled people as long as they have some exceptional gifts in compensation (such as the ability to count cards in Rain Man, or to play Ping Pong at the Olympic level in Forrest Gump). However, if disability is portrayed more accurately, such as in Simple Jack (in the movie) or I am Sam, then audiences aren't interested. It was a surprisingly salient point being made, and those who bash it for uttering the word "retard" in my view have missed the point entirely. I recommend that those who take offense should either see the movie or at least a clip containing that bit of dialogue.
Alan, Edinburgh, UK

As a disabled, bisexual, "goth", I've been called a lot of things. While my school-days weren't entirely a barrel of laughs, I've come to realise that getting overly upset by a word just really isn't important. It's the caller of the name that is the "retard", not the target.
Joelle, Rugby, UK

It may be of benefit to people with disabilities to use Tropic Thunder to ignite a debate about prejudices. UK audiences should also realise that in the US "mental retardation" is the accepted and commonest descriptor for people with learning disabilities - unlike in the UK, Australia and Europe who realised a long time ago how offensive the words could be.
Rachel, Manchester

In context, I believe most things, including such insults, are acceptable. However, one thing I witnessed on Saturday 20 September's 'X-Factor' crossed a line. The last performance came from a gentleman who clearly had learning difficulties resulting in huge guffaws and lampooning about his performance from the judges. I have noticed more so in this series than others, that there may be certain people who might not be as self aware as others, but who are put in front of the judges for one reason only, to get cheap laughs. I find this exploitation very uncomfortable indeed and sets a very poor example for children likely to be watching.
Tim Williams, Wilmslow, Cheshire, England

Words gather emotional weight over time in ways that are far to complex to try heading such a thing off in this manner. Those who were of school age in the 80s will remember Joey Deacon and the popularisation of "Joey" and "spastic" as insults. The Spastic Society renamed itself as a result. Surprise, surprise, "Scoper" is now used as an insult.
Bob, UK

The problem is, some people seem to be of the belief that they have a legal right not to be offended by something that someone else does. Sadly, this is not the case: the right to free speech guarantees the right to offend others and being offended yourself.

Anything that anyone says could offend someone else, and just because there are some who "don't get the joke", doesn't mean that the joke shouldn't be stated. We shouldn't be having to run our country in fear of what the stupid will do.
Sam Chew, Dorking, UK

Differences exist to be celebrated and occasionally, poke fun at. Jokes are never universally funny, they're always at the expense of another group, so unless we intend to get rid of comedy, we need to accept that we'll offend certain people from time to time.
Neil, Stansted, UK

Making a fuss about something like this trivialises the very real discrimination that many people face every day of their lives. Instead of complaining over a word that may or may not be PC in the context of a film, why not highlight the real problems disabled people endure?
Franchesca Mullin, Belfast, Northern Ireland




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