Thursday, March 31, 2016

Heads up, Hollywood, this isn't funny

There's an ad out today featuring Donald Trump and Robert Downey Jr., and it's got nothing to do with politics and everything to do with respect.

You might be familiar with Tropic Thunder, the 2008 comedy starring Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr; Stiller co-wrote the screenplay, too. It follows a group of actors making a movie about the Vietnam War. In it, the character Kirk (played by Downey Jr.) gives Chuck (Stiller) advice about a film he was in, Simple Jack, which centers around a character with intellectual disability (ID). Chuck usually plays action heroes, but decided to stretch his range and portray a man with ID in hopes it would be award-winning material. The movie was a flop; as Kirk explains it, he overdid the acting. 

The scene sparked, you guessed it, the catchphrase "Never go full retard" and a meme that won't die. There are any number of t-shirts you can get emblazoned with the phrase.

Hollywood, comedians and a whole lot of people on Twitter thinks the word "retard" is funny. It crops up in movies on occasion—Ted, The Change-Up, The Descendants, Napoleon Dynamite. The people cringing in the movie theater, the people who speak out, include those who have loved ones with ID, disability advocates and the Special Olympics, which started the Spread the Word to End The Word campaign.

Stiller's never apologized. He defended the Tropic Thunder scene by saying that disability groups that called for a boycott of the film missed the point. "It's sort of edgy territory, but we felt that as long as the focus was on the actors who were trying to do something to be taken seriously that's gone too far or wrong, that was where the humor would come from," he told MTV News.

In related news, last fall Donald Trump came under fire for seemingly mocking a reporter with a disability. At a rally in South Carolina, he looked to be mimicking New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, who has a condition that affects his joint movements.

The incident made headlines and appalled many. Trump appeared to be stooping to a new low in making fun of someone with a physical disability—going, as ABC News put it, "where no presidential candidate has gone before." Trump later denied it, claiming he had never met the reporter, which Kovaleski has disputed. At a subsequent rally Trump noted that he was merely being "very expressive" when he was talking.

The reaction to Trump left an impression on Hannah Jacobs, the mother of a young woman with intellectual disability, an advocate and president and founder of the nonprofit Family Member (I'm on their advisory board). "It struck me as hypocritical that people became so incensed by Trump mocking the reporter, yet never spoke out when people with disabilities were mocked and marginalized in films or comedy routines," she says.

People are often quick to note they would never call someone with intellectual disability a "retard"  but see nothing wrong when the word is used in as a synonym for stupid, pathetic and loser—perpetuating the idea that those with ID are stupid, pathetic losers. It's a distinction that is lost on a whole lot of people, including Hollywood powers-that-be.

And so when Family Member landed a grant, Hannah made an ad. As of today, it's going to be running in the Hollywood Reporter for five weeks. Hannah seeks to engage screenwriters, actors, comedians and members of the entertainment community. Hopefully, it will help them better understand that mocking disability in any form is no joke. 

There are infinite ways to be funny on film, as Ben Stiller has shown us throughout his career—but there's no reason to do it at the expense of people with intellectual disability.

More on this:

Would you call my child a retard?

If you ask people not to use the word retard

So, what do you say when someone uses the word "retard"?

20 reasons to respect my child with special needs

Do you get why this word hurts so much?


  1. Look I don't like either of those things. But yes it's appropriate to be more outraged by the idea of the leading Republican contender for leader of the free world to engage in this bad behavior than some movie.

    1. Why choose one over the other? Aren't they both mocking disability?

    2. Exactly. The point isn't Trump, per se, but that people don't seem to get that both slams of people with disability—whether obvious mimicry or using the word retard—are offensive.

    3. I totally disagree what Trump did was outrageous but I don't think it was planned. Those Hollywood writers WROTE THE LINE it was rehearse dozens of times. Therefor it's worse and unfortunately didn't get as much attention

    4. So are you saying that if you say something off the cuff, that it doesn't count as offensive?

  2. Tropic Thunder was a *satire*. Fiction. Totally, utterly, 100% different than Trump cruelly mocking a reporter with a disability.

    I get why people shouldn't use the r-word in real life (it's a slur) but do not really get why folks are demanding it be removed from works of fiction (satire, like Tropic Thunder; used by a selfish, thoughtless teenage character in a novel set in the early '90s, etc). You're certainly entitled to lobby creators of fiction not to use it, but I must admit I'm baffled that it's a hill Ellen and other parents of kids with ID keep choosing to die on. Especially as there are so many other ways in which individuals with disabilities are discriminated against, "don't like the word choice of some scriptwriter or novelist" strikes me as not at the top of the priority list of things to rage against.

    1. When Hollywood gives a green light to mocking kids like mine, it has a trickle down effect on how she is treated by society. If you are offended by Trump mocking the reporter, you offense shouldn't stop there. Satire or not, the 14 year old boy sitting in the theater watching came away with something new to call my kid...full retard. If that's a hill to die on, count me in.

    2. Did "12 years a slave", a big budget Hollywood movie, encourage folks to use racial slurs against African Americans?

      Should "mean girls" be banned because it's filled with put downs?

      Do kids walk out of "batman" and "superman" thinking they can fly or build their own bat cave?

      The mean kid that your kid the R-word -- was he previously your child's BFF? Did a single viewing of "Tropic" turn him from a kind young man who appreciates people's differences into a verbal bully?

      Trump's behavior was abominable and he got called out publicly for it. The first amendment ballots him to say horridly hurtful things -- and everybody else to call him out for doing so.

    3. Looks like we'll just have to agree to disagree here. If you're on Facebook, I invite you to our Special Needs Watch: Hall of Shame. Perhaps you'll see a link between abuse targeting disability and what you hear and see in entertainment. Or perhaps not. /

    4. Miss M., if this blog were dedicated to the r-word, or if Hannah's nonprofit were, I'd get your point. Except: This blog addresses a range of issues faced by children with disability, and Family Member addresses a range of issues faced by people with disability. I've often said here that this speaking out about it is just ONE thing I can do to help make the world a more welcoming place for my son. It is obviously not everything. (And it is obviously not going to make the word go away, either, but at least it gets people thinking about how we talk about people with intellectual disability.) So I'm not clear where you come from with your assumption that in speaking out against the usage of this word, it is some hill we choose to die on. As a parent, I will do everything I can to get my son more respect. It is clear that you don't get why the continued use of the word "retard" to describe people doing stupid things is demeaning to people with ID, that's too bad. Sure, people have the right to say whatever they want but people do know better than to use slurs—and, yes, the word has become a slur.

  3. I would say something rational, but, since I am the close follower of a blogger with ID (You know the one.), this has gone too far. M is a thoughtful, kind person and is not to be trifled with. *proceeds to flip desks and chairs in outrage*

  4. I'm hate the r word. I don't care what context or who says it. I just hate it. I've hated it since I was called it a decade ago at the age of 8.

  5. I just read the article and all the comments. They certainly made me think and realize that writers need to be better at their jobs and find different ways to get their point across. At first I saw this as a fiction thing vs a presidential candidate thing but now I see it from a different perspective.

  6. wow, what a coincidence! I just posted a blog on this topic 10 minutes ago!

  7. Trufully all of y ou, including you Ellen, constantly miss the boat on this issue. The ONLY way to get rid of the use of the "R-word" is to make a meme comparing` it to the "N-word" and caption....... "One of these words is absolutely offensive by millions, constantly used to denigrate those who lead their life with dignity and shows a complete disregard of human decency... the other is the "N-word". Until enough people take think approach we're all chasing our tails!


Thanks for sharing!

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