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August 25, 2008

Who the heck is looking for sensitivity in an R-rated Ben Stiller movie?

Amy In the past week, I've read countless emails and blog posts about the infamous scene in Tropic Thunder where two actors (and by that I mean actors playing actors) discuss a character that one of them (Ben Stiller's character) had played.  This character, called Simple Jack, was mentally disabled.  Robert Downey Jr.'s character is making the point that when playing a character who is "slow" you don't go all the way, or "full retard."  The word "retard" is used multiple times.  This has caused all sorts of outrage, indignation, and protest.

[The fact that Robert Downey Jr. is playing an actor playing a black character is going almost completely undiscussed.  I guess that's a post unto itself.]

I'm seeing three distinct arguments over and over again.  And none of them have convinced me that the movie has done anything wrong at all.

Argument number one: There's absolutely nothing funny about using the word "retard."  Says who?  That's the problem with comedy, and entertainment in general: it's subjective.  I saw the scene in question (I haven't seen the whole movie yet - anybody want to babysit?).  I thought it was funny.  Not because I like making fun of people who have mental disabilities, but because I like making fun of self-centered actors who take roles not because they're fascinated or challenged by them, but because of the impact they think those roles will have on their careers.  It's an inside baseball kind of thing, and I get it. As Kate Winslet said on Extras (a show that parodies actors), "You are guaranteed an Oscar if you play a mental."  It's a subject ripe for the picking.  And it doesn't involve making fun of anyone's disability, just actors' egos and the simplistic, one-dimensional view that Hollywood takes of people with disabilities.

Argument number two: Say a word enough times and people start to think it's OK.  What does that mean exactly? I hear the word "nigger" dozens of times every day.  I will never like hearing it and I will never think it's OK.  I didn't even like writing it, but since the theme of this post is that context and intent matter, I left it in.  So why does it roll off the tongues of some people so easily?  Who gets to decide if it's OK?  There are words that I say at home or just around friends that I would never say in line at the grocery store. I've decided when those words are OK for me to say and when they're not, and mostly it's based on what would make the people around me feel uncomfortable.  If I'm at a party with adults I'll let swear words slip that I wouldn't say in a restaurant or a park.  And I've been known to refer to myself on occasion as a retard.  When I say it, I'm referring simply to someone who is dumb or did something dumb.  The word retard doesn't have the same connotation for me that it might for someone with a mentally disabled child. 

So a better question might be, what makes some people care about making the people around them feel comfortable, and what makes others not care?  What makes grown men let loose a string of four letter words in the booth next to me and my kids at the diner? 

Argument number three: People, especially kids, will see this movie and think it's OK to make fun of those who are mentally retarded.  What I don't understand is, why isn't the focus on what kind of person would see something done in a movie and automatically think that it's OK to do that thing in real life? 

And as for kids, well, it's an R-rated movie.  Watching shows aimed at adults could cause kids to do all sorts of things that they shouldn't do.  Kids are impressionable.  Their brains are still growing.  That's why they're not supposed to see R-rated movies.  What's that you say?  It's too easy for kids to see R-rated movies?  I agree with you, but that's a different problem!  I like R-rated movies, and I want access to them. I'm a grown up.  There are many things that I'm allowed to do that kids are not allowed to do, and that's the way it should be.

The thing is, it's easy to protest a high-profile movie.  It's easy to sign an petition and talk about how the movie is promoting this or that behavior.  It's harder to figure out why 99% of people can see a movie and be entertained and leave it at that, and why the other 1% takes away something dumb or dangerous.  I personally don't know anyone stupid enough to climb out onto the bow of a ship and re-enact the famous scene from Titanic, but a handful of other people thought that this was a good idea and died trying.  A few more people decided to lie down in the middle of busy streets after seeing the football movie The Program, and they were hit by cars and died. These people probably did not have an abundance of common sense before they saw those movies.  It was just a matter of time.  Blame the movies, TV shows, video games, and songs all you want.  But you're ignoring the fact that there are people who manage to grow up without the common sense, foresight, and sensitivity to live their lives in a way that doesn't purposely cause other people - or themselves - great pain.

Beyond  all of this, though, is the fact that the world is full of people whose sense of humor does not extend any further than their own ideologies, beliefs, and lifestyles.  If you're offended by this movie, ask yourself, have you ever laughed at a comedian?  At The Daily Show?  At a stereotype on Saturday Night Live?  Chances are, you were laughing at something that was insulting to someone else.

When done right, satire is an especially biting form of commentary, and the watcher has to keep in mind what is being skewered.  I realize that that may be hard to do if the satire hits close to home.  I'm very lucky to have two children who are healthy, both mentally and physically, and I can only guess at how I would handle something like this if that weren't the case.  But I can't imagine going through life getting offended at things meant as entertainment. 

There are plenty of forms of entertainment that I don't like.  So I don't watch them and I don't listen to them.  I'm terrified that my children will be swayed by them, that the very things that we're talking about will affect my own kids and cause them to act or think in ways that I don't approve of.  But aiming my disgust and contempt outward at the world would be a Sisyphean task.  So I aim, instead, at my own children, and at the circle of people around us, with ideas of responsibility and consequence and appropriateness.  I try to teach my kids to think for themselves and judge for themselves and treat others as they want to be treated, but to also remember that the world is a big place, and tolerating someone else's beliefs and ideas doesn't mean you have to agree with them.  My kids are seven and four, so I have no idea if it will work.  My son likes to hit and my daughter likes to antagonize and manipulate.  But I do know that if I start to focus on things that I have no control of, that will be less energy that I have to focus on molding my own kids into productive members of society.

When my kids are going at each other, saying mean things and trying to hurt each other, most of the time I sit them down and talk to them about why they're doing it and how it might make the other person feel and how it makes them feel to be cruel, and I try to get them to look ahead at what might happen.  It takes a lot of time and energy, and sometimes I wonder if one word out of five is getting through.  But I keep trying, because I want my kids to be good to other people, and I want them to want to be good to other people.

But when I'm feeling tired, or overwhelmed, or lazy, I just yell at them to cut it out.  And I feel like this is what's happening with this movie.  It's a big easy target.  But aiming at it doesn't address the bigger problem, the problem of why anyone would want to make fun of a real life, flesh and blood person with a disability, whether triggered by a movie or not.  So go see the movie, or not.  But don't blame it for the world's problems, it's just there to entertain.  And if it isn't your kind of entertainment, that's fine.  But it is mine, and I don't want someone else telling me that I can't see it.

This is an original post to NYC Moms Blog. Amy also blogs about parenting in Brooklyn, blogging full time without making any money, and keeping herself sane and comfortable at Selfish Mom, and attempts to keep one step ahead of the stalkers and paparazzi at  Filming in Brooklyn.

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