As a kid growing up in the greater Boston area, our playground banter was liberally sprinkled with the epithet “you’re/it’s/that’s so retarded” — actually, “you’re/it’s/that’s so retahhhhhded.” But at some point during that bucolic time, the word became verboten, unacceptable, offensive, off the list, un-pc.
So I’ve been interested recently in conversations that have come up in which folks have suggested that retard/retarded could, somehow, be brought back (for example, as a way to insult your friend who is behaving stupidly) without being more generally offensive. And evidently, Ben Stiller has tried to do that in his new flick, “Tropic Thunder,” and is paying for it. According to the New York Times:
LOS ANGELES — A coalition of disabilities groups is expected as early as Monday to call for a national boycott of the film “Tropic Thunder” because of what the groups consider the movie’s open ridicule of the intellectually disabled.
“Not only might it happen, it will happen,” Timothy P. Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics, said of the expected push for a boycott. Speaking by phone, Mr. Shriver said he planned to be in Los Angeles with representatives of his group and others to picket the movie’s premiere on Monday evening in this city’s Westwood district.
A particular sore point has been the film’s repeated use of the term “retard” in referring to a character, Simple Jack, who is played by Mr. Stiller in a subplot about an actor who chases an Oscar by portraying a mindless dolt.
You can read a statement by Shriver (who admits he hasn’t yet seen the movie) in the Washington Post, “What ‘Tropic Thunder’ Thinks is Funny.”
On the other hand, according to the studio, the film is satire:
In a statement on Sunday, Chip Sullivan, a DreamWorks spokesman, said the movie was “an R-rated comedy that satirizes Hollywood and its excesses and makes its point by featuring inappropriate and over-the-top characters in ridiculous situations.”
I suppose there are two issues here, really. One is around the question of whether the movie really does constitute satire or whether the groups calling for a boycott have a legitimate beef. And what constitutes acceptable use, anyway? Why “Tropic Thunder” and not “Napoleon Dynamite”? The “colorful locals” in the films “The Departed” and “Gone Baby Gone” (both set in Boston) frequently referred to each other as retarded, but no one complained about that.
But I’m also interested in this other issue: Once a word has been deemed offensive, can it somehow be made un-offensive? What do you think?