Mighty Red Pen

August 11, 2008

Tropic blunder

Filed under: Mad marketing,Pop culture,Word wars — mighty red pen @ 7:58 pm
Tags: , , , ,

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?



  1. I have been following the debate on the use of the word ‘retard’ in Ben Stiller’s new movie. Hear’s my two cents. It strikes me that this argument is neither small nor stupid. Will the negative press backfire? yes, probably. Is it just a stupid film? Sure. But, the major thing is that people with disabilities are speaking out in a real way. The blogs/news have been reporting that the uproar is too politically correct — hardly. People are not splitting hairs here — retard is a terrible word period. Why does the American mainstream shy away from using the ‘n’ word and yet retard is fair game.

    Here’s my bone to pick, I am a professor with cp. I have more degrees than a themometer. Yet, I have been called retard throughout my life by various people who are far less savvy than me. That is the mind of someone who uses the word retarded.

    People with disabilities are the bastards of the civil rights movement, People who might never insult other minorities rutinely shun us. There is no affirmation action for PWD. Why?

    Comment by jennifer — August 11, 2008 @ 8:34 pm | Reply

  2. I think people need to grow up and stop trying to ban words from the public ear, we use these words on a daily basis, we make fun of disability and race and sexuality and sex, it’s just human nature, it’s a coping mechanism, everybody does it. I come from ireland, I accept ridiculous racial stereotypes everyday, people need to learn to take it as what it is, a joke, at their expense, and move on…

    It’s so sad and pathetic that people take these things to such extremes. Personally, I don’t like the movie, but I like the fact it’s so beyond “the line,” it just doesn’t care about the inevitable backlash, and I like that in a movie, not because I’m a controversialist whore, but because too few people do it these days, I think it’s a great thing to see a movie out that just pisses on the boundaries.

    I feel plenty of words can become un-offensive.

    [C***] for example, in the UK, it’s just a word, wheras in America and for a long time here it was the most vulgar insult you could throw at a man. At the initial wave of political correctness everyone was afraid to say [n*****]. Now everyone says it.

    I think if you say it enough people become rightly desensitised to it, because, in reality, all it is is a word, and words shouldn’t hurt, and if they do, there’s something wrong with the person who’s offended, not the person who says it.

    Comment by Virgil Hart — August 11, 2008 @ 10:17 pm | Reply

  3. Also, nice blog entry.

    Comment by Virgil Hart — August 11, 2008 @ 10:17 pm | Reply

  4. I had a philosophy professor who argued that discrimination against the less-intelligent (stupid, retarded, whatever) was the last remaining socially acceptable bigotry. As Jennifer points out, words like “retard” are used to label anyone different, regardless of mental ability. In cases like that, it’s clearly just bigotry.

    But what about when the person *is* stupid? Or, perhaps, actually has some condition which makes them mentally sub-average? Is it discrimination then? Is it bigotry?

    If someone behaves in a foolish fashion, is it wrong to call them a fool? If a person behaves like someone of lesser intellect, is it wrong to call them a retard?

    Certainly the word has been used more often to hurt than to contribute to discourse in any meaningful. Maybe that alone is reason enough to declare it off limits.

    By that standard, however, many political ads would be silent.

    Comment by David — August 12, 2008 @ 11:15 am | Reply

  5. >>Once a word has been deemed offensive, can it somehow be made un-offensive?

    Yes, it can and it has. The LGBT community has successfully reclaimed several derogatory words over time. Case in point, “queer.” Now even colleges have courses labeled “Queer Theory.” I’m gay and if someone called me queer, I wouldn’t call the PC cops out on them. The best way to banish an offensive word is to embrace it, in all it’s ugliness. Rappers have done so with the “n word.” (And obviously there’s more to this debate when you factor in context and who is speaking the word… ) But by doing this you cease being the victim, the wounded child on the playground. (It’s kind of why I’ve always hated organizations like GLAAD tallying up how many times words are used on TV and in movies in a “bad” way; it’s an exercise in futility and wasted effort.)

    Although would it work for the protesters to shout “We’re here, we’re retarded, get used to it!”? I digress…

    This debate, although, adds the wrinkle of identifying individuals who are clearly not part of a subgroup with that particular group. (Obviously if you call someone who has a physical disability a “retard” that’s clearly offensive, as in Jennifer’s case, she doesn’t really belong to the group that would label her this way, as she isn’t cognitively disabled. ) So perhaps it comes down to intention. Is it meant to shame the individual or shame the whole group being referred to? Is it meant in humor or jest, as someone has mentioned: can we afford ourselves the opportunity that our identity is allowed to be poked fun at?

    Another reason “retarded” is problematic is that it has acquired multiple meanings instead of referring to just one concrete thing: it could mean developmentally disabled, cognitively impaired, slow growing, stunted, or perhaps now foolish. Which is why context (like a rapper using the “n word” ) is important to read. What I think we are seeing here with “retarded” is the separation of the usage of the word as a clinical, scientific, or medical term to the alternative usage meaning slow, foolish, or stupid. Words morph over time and assume multiple meanings. To use an example and bring it back to my people, it wasn’t all that long ago if you said gay that people might have just though you meant “happy.” Protest averted.

    Side thought for discussion: I’m also curious how these posts tend to demonstrate our level of comfort with the word. It certainly isn’t a word a majority of folks feel the need to self-censor when typing or speaking, with asterisks like c*** or placeholders like the “n word” instead of typing it out fully as everyone has done.

    Comment by FBGD — August 12, 2008 @ 3:32 pm | Reply

  6. C*** for example, in the UK, it’s just a word, wheras in America and for a long time here it was the most vulgar insult you could throw at a man

    I am trying and trying, and I cannot think of a word that begins with C that would be acceptable in the UK but a phenomenally vulgar insult to a man in the US.

    The term “retarded” used to ahve a clinical, medical meaning (meaning more than just abysmally stupid). Then it became and insult, and so it was dropped in favor of “mentally delayed.” I have heard that “delay” (DE-lay) has become an insult on the playground.

    I don’t think the term “retarded” can really become un-taboo. However, if it’s not used as a medical term for long enough, maybe it could–“idiot” used to be medical/clinical, and nobody uses it that way anymore.

    If you asked my kids what “retarded” meant, they’d say “stupid, dumb.” They don’t know anybody medically “retarded.” But their parents do–because I remember when that was still the clinical term.

    When my kids are grandparents, maybe then “retarded” will mean simply “an abysmally stupid person” without being linked to the disabillity.

    Comment by TootsNYC — August 12, 2008 @ 4:52 pm | Reply

  7. @TootsNYC, Virgil meant the c-word that’s offensive to women in the U.S. Which, pursuant to FBGD’s final point (which I find very interesting actually), I should mention was redacted by me and reflects my own deep discomfort with that word (and the n-word), I guess further reinforcing Virgil’s point in that regard.

    Comment by mighty red pen — August 12, 2008 @ 6:10 pm | Reply

  8. “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.”

    For me, this is the most problematic part about the whole thing. I have absolutely no problem with people protesting the use of a word that they find personally offensive. However, I find it futile and a bit like pissing against the wind to choose a film like Tropic Thunder as the vehicle for which to do so. Particularly since the people protesting haven’t even seen the film yet! Why protest that which is already being condemned? The criticism is inherent in the satire, isn’t it? It’s called irony people!

    Protesting a film that is satirizing the very thing they are upset about just seems like they’re doing it for the attention, rather than to make an actual point since the point has already been made. So if they’re going to protest Tropic Thunder, then they had better protest Napoleon Dynamite, The Departed, Gone Baby Gone and the entire city of Boston because there the word “retarded” is used without the slightest hint of irony.

    Inappropriate protesting and censoring retards any progress made (see what I did there?) towards getting people to stop using the word as a derogatory insult and just pisses off the people whose minds need changing. Also, it’s obnoxious.

    Also, what FBGD said.

    Comment by Manna — August 12, 2008 @ 8:33 pm | Reply

  9. While waiting for the train the other day I was listening in to two teenage boys bantering with each other.

    “Are you actually Down’s Syndrome?” one asked the other.

    I have to admit I fell about laughing.

    When I was at school the insult of choice was spastic, spazz or spazzer. Anyone offended by ‘retard’ should, I suppose, be offended by these words too.

    Oh, and when I was teaching in Russia I noticed the kids often called each other ‘Down’ (as an insult, in Russian). They found the band name ‘System of a Down’ quite hilarious too.

    Comment by JD — August 13, 2008 @ 7:02 am | Reply

  10. and that C would would be “just another word” in the UK? I have a hard time wrapping my head around that.
    That’s what made me reject that 4-letter word.

    Also, while of course it would be incredibly insulting to call a man that in the US, it just isn’t done in any of the readings or conversing I’ve done. The P word (which is slang for the same part of the anatomy), perhaps, but not the C word. Not ’cause it’s too rude, but I’ve assumed just because it doesn’t occur to people.

    The C word is used for women, insultingly, here, of course–but not for men.

    Not any more than “everyone says” [n****r].

    Comment by TootsNYC — August 13, 2008 @ 10:33 am | Reply

  11. I believe that the statement that “everyone” uses a particular vulgarity says more about an individual’s social circle than it does about the actual diction of any other population.

    Comment by David — August 13, 2008 @ 12:04 pm | Reply

  12. As a number of people pointed out, prejudice against people with disabilities is the final frontier and should be changed, Would a movie that uses [n****r] and [f*g] be acceptable? Why not, if we can use retarded? Why ban some words and not others? I actually thought the scene in the movie was funny, but until people start realizing what PWD are capable of, we need to stop the jokes.

    Comment by jennifer — August 13, 2008 @ 6:38 pm | Reply

  13. Note: When I looked back, the N word and ‘F’ gay word were edited, not retarded. See my point? When are people going to reconize that PWD deserve respect too?

    Comment by jennifer — August 13, 2008 @ 8:05 pm | Reply

  14. I believe that this entire argument is entirely based around each individuals completely subjective feelings and interpretation of the negative, neutral or positive connotations they attach to the word “retard,” as such, it is a pointless debate, as the bottom line is, just because you think it’s a bad word, doesn’t mean anybody else does.

    You can argue it is till the sun stops shining, but it won’t make a pick of difference, because people like me will continue to use it, because we know it hurts certain people, we find humour in the suffering of others, and quite frankly, we just like to use it simply because it pisses people off.

    There is a strange sense of superiority that washes over you when you manage to insult somebody with a word, not because you’ve insulted or degraded them, but because you realise how much of a lesser plain of thinking they are than you, in that they actually believe certain words to be “vulgar” or “disgusting”…

    “I actually thought the scene in the movie was funny,” – It was, people need to grow up, and realise it’s ok to make fun of those with disabilities, just as it is to make fun of everybody else. Everyone is fair game. End of story.

    Comment by Virgil Hart — August 13, 2008 @ 8:41 pm | Reply

  15. Virgil wrote: “people need to grow up, and realise it’s ok to make fun of those with disabilities, just as it is to make fun of everybody else.”

    Um, wow. Virgil’s comment reflects total detachment from these issues. I have seen sentiments such as his be completely retracted (and with great remorse) when someone who thought “everyone was fair game” has a new perspective when a loved one falls into the category that is “ok to make fun of” — like a sibling coming out as gay, or a parent having a severe stroke, or falling in love with a person of color.

    Being affected personally makes a huge impact on someone’s sense of humor about such issues.

    Comment by Gopher — August 14, 2008 @ 9:19 am | Reply

  16. Virgil,

    Okay, Good point. Now, let’s make ALL words fair game and get rid of these stars.

    Comment by jennifer — August 14, 2008 @ 9:38 am | Reply

  17. jennifer wrote: “When I looked back, the N word and ‘F’ gay word were edited, not retarded.”

    I don’t think this is a reflection of MRP’s respect for any particular group over another, but rather an issue of practicality. How could she possibly start a conversation about “the r-word” if few people know what the r-word is?

    I understand that over at your blog it is totally appropriate for you to use such lingo as “r-word” and “PWD” and your readers “get it”, but how fair would it be to use them here and just assume people know what you mean?

    MRP is taking her audience into consideration for *this* blog — that would include not launching into disability rights lingo without decoding it for people who are not in those communities.

    Comment by Gopher — August 14, 2008 @ 9:40 am | Reply

  18. also, some of those words that were redacted have been deemed to be particularly offensive. Offensive, not insulting. There is a big difference.

    Calling a prostitute a whore wouldn’t be insulting, it would be true, but the W word is generally regarded as unacceptable for polite conversation.

    For those words deemed generally offensive, in and of themselves, it is not polite to use them EVER, even when talking about them (which is why my son got in trouble for spelling the B word–because he didn’t want to say it)

    For example, I have kids, and while I probably *would* use the F word around them and not the R word, I still wouldn’t want them to be led to believe that the F word can simply be dropped into our communication like any other word.

    “Retarded” has a specific meaning–when you refer to a mentally delayed person as being retarded, you are not insulting them. You’d be out of date, but not necessarily insulting.

    It is offensive to call someone or something “retarded,” but the word in an of itself is not offensive.

    Comment by TootsNYC — August 14, 2008 @ 3:38 pm | Reply

  19. I wish people would get the point. Yes, people are not aware of the rights of people with disabilities. This a problem that needs to be addressed. Note: my blog is a poetry blog, not a disability lingo blog.

    Comment by jennifer — August 14, 2008 @ 4:31 pm | Reply

  20. As a parent of a baby with DS, I find it remarkably easy to zone in on the offensive in the TT case. DreamWorks put together a trailer, attendant marketing and even merchandise for a cod movie within TT, Simple Jack. In the case of people with mild to severe intellectual disabilities, this is cruel, inhuman, degrading and fucking sneaky. The kids in the playground yelling ‘Never go full retard, retard!’ are to be expected. Hurtful, but at least predictable. The Hollywood studio trying to out-gross itself off the backs of ‘retards’ is a different matter. It’s a disgusting crime, one for which they should answer, apologise and atone.
    My apologies if I’m not about the wider PC debate on semantics, but I couldn’t give a fiddler’s fuck about the ebb and flow of the power of what makes idiom idiomatic. Not in this case. All words have history, and all words evolve or become extinct. They carry endothermic and exothermic heat. George Carlin wrote the book on that. This Tropic Thunder issue (and not Napoleon Dynamite or any other movie that merely invokes the zeitgeist) revolves around callous opportunism against those who cannot mobilise themselves or verbalise their hurt in any way effective enough to counter big-budget Hollywood. It is a NEW LOW. Ben Stiller has proved himself at best hideously naive, at worst spectacularly stupid. Not mean, just stupid. But the net effect on my child, and on others like him, will be mean.

    That’s the case from the narrow point of view.

    Comment by Nick McGivney — August 18, 2008 @ 6:49 am | Reply

  21. “I believe that the statement that “everyone” uses a particular vulgarity says more about an individual’s social circle than it does about the actual diction of any other population.” – The most intelligent people I know swear – To quote Stephen Fry, the same is true of the people I know. It’s usually dullards and simpletons who hide from swear words.

    Comment by Virgil Hart — September 3, 2008 @ 4:49 pm | Reply

  22. Virgil, my point was that with the wide variety of colorful expression available in English, there is little chance than any particular expression is indeed as universal as you may think. I suspect that swearing is near-universal but particular swears-of-choice are affected by generation, region, ethnicity, and educational level.

    Comment by David — September 4, 2008 @ 10:12 am | Reply

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