So aside from my drunken excursions to unnerve NRL players last week I’ve pretty much been busy smoking my crackpipe and watching the Olympics, which means I almost missed out on the fact that people are protesting against Tropic Thunder.
Not against seeing my filmcrush Robert Downey Jr playing a character who wears blackface, but against the fact that it uses the word ‘retard’.
Protesters, led by Special Olympics chairman and CEO Timothy Shriver, marched outside the world premiere of the Hollywood satire Tropic Thunder on Monday night.
Chanting and waving placards that read “Ban the movie, ban the word” and “Call me by my name, not my label,” several dozen people tried to get the message across that the word “retard” and making fun of the mentally challenged is not comedy material.
In Thunder, Ben Stiller’s character is an actor who previously attempted to go for Oscar gold by playing a character called “Simple Jack.”
I AM DEAD. Truly, I am dead. Speechless and dead. Dead and speechless.
It’s probs pretty obvious by now that I am crap at being politically correct – almost as crap as I am at keeping my mouth shut – but I like to think I have some kind of heart and some kind of conscience. I know enough to know that there are Some Words you just don’t say, because no matter how much you might mean no harm, the wounds of the word run really deep and it’s simply cruel and lazy and selfish to tap into those old hurts. We are clever enough to find other words to express ourselves and to do otherwise is just careless.
But surely we all know by now the context in which the movie uses the word retard, don’t we?
Downey: Everybody knows you never do a full retard.
Stiller: What do you mean?
Downey: Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, Rainman, 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 he won a ping-pong competition? That ain’t retarded.
You went full retard, man. Never go full retard.
I know you’ve all watched the Oscars and noticed the exact same thing that they’re making fun of. Retard wins oscars. At the very least it wins nominations. But not Full Retard.
For Sean Penn in I Am Sam, for Leonardo di Caprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, for Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, for Dustin Hoffman in Rainman. Retards are gold, people, if you want to be a credible actor.
And this is surely what Ben Stiller wants you to think about – why is it so much more impressive to convincingly play someone with a mental disability or a condition like autism than it is to play someone who is equally distant from the actor in any other way? Someone with a different culture? A completely different life? Someone extremely clever?
I think it’s a symptom, to be honest, of a society where political correctness is powerful enough an influence that We Don’t Say Those Words – words like spastic, or retard, or Special – but underneath, the people who were once labelled with any of those words are still just as marginalised. Taking away the vocabulary of marginalisation hasn’t magically changed people’s attitudes. All it’s done is blanket them. Because we’re all politically correct, didn’t you know?
But whether we say the R-word or not, Westerners, and particularly Americans, still live in a culture where anyone differently abled, mentally or physically, is still characterised as the Other. The way Hollywood loves to gleefully reward a “normal person” for playing retard is just an institutionalised way of reinforcing the idea that they are making a sacrifice by doing it, that they are somehow slumming, giving up the privilege of being normal or looking normal, certainly looking desirable by deigning to portray someone ‘less than normal’ on film. A nomination for an award is a recognition of the massive effort the actor has made in playing their part.
How utterly demeaning. How surreptitiously discriminatory. And worst of all is the sense throughout the whole process that Hollywood is patting itself on the back for its open-mindedness and compassion in recognising the disadvantaged or the disenfranchised.
I see exactly the same system at work in the way that Hollywood fixates on straight actors playing gay. Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain, James Franco and Sean Penn in Milk. It’s obvious in the way that they are lauded at awards ceremonies and the way that every interview sees the actors discussing their reservations in playing gay.
Because in our heteronormative culture, what could be more of a sacrifice than having to act as a homosexual? (Except, perhaps acting as a retard). How utterly awful! What a sacrifice they make! How they must fight back the bile when they have to kiss someone of the same sex. Apparently it is all too easy to kiss a stranger, or someone you don’t find attractive, but only provided they are of the opposite sex.
It’s no different to the most obvious of all Hollywood prejudices: beauty. If it’s not someone winning an oscar for playing a retard, or a paraplegic, or a fag, it’s someone being deemed SO BRAVE and SO TALENTED for putting on a fake nose and playing an ugly person.
But as much as Hollywood loves showering praise on the Normals who play these Challenging roles, the one thing no one wants to talk about, let alone see on the big screen, is the real thing. They don’t want to see ‘real retards’ just like they don’t want to see ‘real ugly’ or ‘real gays’. What they really want is a watered-down Hollywood prettied-up version of the real thing. So what we get is hot people playing ugly (not too ugly though! A fake nose or a few extra kilos will do), straight people playing gay (with all the gay sex censored out, of course) and ‘normal’ people playing mildly retarded (with all the actual retards whitewashed out).
So tell me, what is it that we should be spending our precious time protesting against exactly? Which is more dangerous? A movie that – shock, horror – uses the word retard, or the system that it’s satirising? A system where every word is closely monitored and sanitised in the interest of political correctness, but every action more deeply ingrains the very prejudice those words used to embody.
And more importantly, tell me what better word is there to use to try and illustrate the kind of insidious prejudice we’re talking about?
It’s just one more way that the veil of pc language has paralysed us, left us unable to discuss actual issues. Not even in a comedy film.
[promo stills via DreamWorks]