Tropic Thunder's “Retard” Problem

Perhaps you’ve been too busy trying to hold onto your mortgage to notice, but there’s been a fair amount of controversy over actor/director Ben Stiller’s comedy “Tropic Thunder”. Apparently some folks have an issue with use of the word “retards”- and the depiction of disabled people- in the film. Understandable…

…but having both a mentally disabled brother AND having laughed my ass off through the entire film only last night, let me say a thing or two about what I believe is wrong with the controversy:

Let me be clear, there are those who have raised, lived and/or worked with disabled people who are angry toward the film, and that is their right. Timothy P Shriver, Chairman and CEO of the The Special Olympics, has issued a boycott of the film, calling it “an unchecked assault on the humanity of people with intellectual disabilities — an affront to dignity, hope and respect.” Shriver’s a passionate and intelligent guy. And, as someone who has seen, first hand, the amount of love and work it takes to raise a mentally disabled child, I can’t thank him enough for his battle to elevate the stature and dignity of disabled people around the world. It’s hero’s work.

That being said, I’m also someone who’s had to sit through endless films and subsequent conversations, about mentally disabled people which were sincere, meaningful, well intended, and utter bullshit. And yes, I’m referring to both the films and the subsequent conversations. Stiller’s big-budget farce takes wicked aim at the bloated, contrived performances that audiences and the Academy loves to fawn over, and hits, in my opinion, a bulls-eye. The fact is, Hollywood doesn’t make films about disabled people any more than it makes films about real relationships, real love, or real war (with the exception of the excellent and un-watched “Generation Kill”). When it comes to people with mental disabilities, they are always so far off the mark, so intent upon deifying the disabled that they don’t bother to consider the day in, day out realities of raising and loving someone who will never “grow up”. Yes, it’s full of rewards, and laughter and joy, but it’s also relentless, grinding and complicated.

Mentally-disabled people are not angels. They can be angelic, sure. And hilarious and insightful and they can make you so happy your face hurts. I love my brother Lloyd, and I can’t imaging having grown up without him. His presence in my family has made all of us much more tolerant, empathetic and better people. But he’s not, as Hollywood likes to paint it, a gifted other with some magical, otherworldly connection to a higher truth that we “normal” people cannot attain. It’s way messier than that, folks. Yet over and over and over again, I’m asked to watch films like “Benny and June”, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”, (the much better)“Rainman”, etc, etc, where the adorable, gifted “special needs” character teaches our other, too driven, too hard, too self-involved lead actor learn how to be human. Not only am I asked to watch it, but then I’m supposed to nod wildly about the beauty of this, the great leap for “people like your brother”.

I can’t remember the number of times I’ve had to sit at a dinner party biting my tongue, while someone went on and on about so-and-so’s brilliant version of a mentally disabled person. I always want to scream, “How come no-one ever had to scrub so-and-so’s ass?” The fact is, if anyone in Hollywood ever made a real movie about a mentally disabled person, no one would watch it. Why? Because it’s too painful, too difficult and too real. As Robert Downey Jr.’s character brilliantly schools Ben Stiller’s character, “you never play full- retard man”.

Seriously, who wants to see that?

For me, Tropic Thunder is a relief. Finally, someone is calling BS on “meaningful” performances about disabled people. And it doesn’t stop there. The entire industry is hammered, skewered and abused. From over-wrought “real” actors playing in black-face to a depiction of a Jewish studio head that blew my mind for about ten thousand reasons, no one gets out alive. And sure, I get the irony of a made, Hollywood insider like Stiller taking the piss out his cash cow, but who cares? It made me laugh, it made me cringe and most of all, it took the words right out of my mouth: “Never play full-retard, man. They don’t give you the Oscar for that”.


  1. David,

    I agree completely, and now I want to see Tropical Thunder. (Although I admit to having liked Rain Man.) My nomination for most overdone, pandering, fantasy depiction of a person with intellectual disabilities is “The Other Sister”, with Diane Keaton and Julliet Lewis. I was appalled by the stupid sentimentalism, I mean, I was affronted. And I only saw the trailer!

    In that movie, as in Rain Man & lots of others of the genre, notice how there’s always lots of money money money in the “special person”’s house. There’s never any worry about real serious health problems, and how to pay for them. There’s never a concern about the electricity man coming to turn off the power. Or, maybe I shouldn’t say “never”. But in the worst of the pandering movies where everything is happy and the “normal” people are given special insights, there are no *other* problems. Ah, I could go on and on, but I’m only rehashing what you said.

    And anything with Robert Downey Jr. in it is must-see, by definition.

  2. Excellent essay – Indeed, all “others” in mainstream media suffer the indignities of Hollywood constructions of reality. There’s something of a tonic in taking it on and writing right at it with insane humor than forcing retarded people, and audiences, to wear little glowy angel rings over their heads. In fact, old people and retards are kind of treated the same way in movies – sweet, insightful, harmless, never shit in their pants or make you lock yourself in a closet and scream your head off. Thanks David!

  3. I love you. Even with your clothes on.

  4. I haven’t seen the film so i can’t comment on that but i feel compelled to comment on the general tone of your piece. The comment “the amount of love and work it takes to raise a mentally disabled child” is particularly troubling. My son is severley developmentally delayed and sure i’ve had hardships and worries most other parents don’t have, but i’m sure those same parents have had worries and hardships i haven’t had. Parenting is hard, full stop. I certainly don’t see bringing up my son as “hero’s work”. The “mentally-disabled” tag seems very prevalent in your thinking and i wonder if you see past the disability to the person where your brother is concerned. So many people refer to people with disabilities as “them” and “they”, when of course “they” are “us”. We’re all the same and we’re all completely different. Maybe i’m coming to the wrong conclusions, based on a very brief insight into you life, but i know i’ve never wanted to scream about wiping my son’s ass. He can’t do it himself, so i do it for him, it’s just part of being a parent.

  5. I’ll let David answer for himself, if he feels like it, but I think the book he did about his brother Skip does show that Skip is a real person to him, not a member of the “them” class:

    His commentary here, as I read it, is about the patronizing and sentimental treatment, in movies, of people with mental disabilities.

    I’m also the parent of adult offspring with real developmental issues, and I have also wiped my brother’s ass when he couldn’t do it for himself. We’re all on the same side here, I think.

    The issue under discussion, I think, is not how we relate to people with various kinds of challenges and disabilities. The issue is whether it’s OK to make fun of the way Hollywood sentimentalizes people with such disabilities, as Stiller has evidently done, or tried to do, in Tropic Thunder.

    But I haven’t seen the film either, so that kind of exhausts my contribution to this topic.

  6. Darren (et al)-

    My comments were fired up by what I found to be a wholly incorrect reading of the film by a vast, self-righteous group of people. I could go on and on about it, but instead I’ll just say that if I gave the impression that I think of my brother Skip as being one of “them”, then I didn’t articulate my thoughts well.

    This is not a commentary on the quality of love one has for his or her disabled family member. This is a commentary on what I feel is a very crass but funny film which does a fine job of taking the piss out of Hollywood for, as John succinctly puts it, “patronizing and sentimental” projects about developmentally disabled people, without ever daring to depict the more intimate and yes, difficult aspects of that process.

  7. I followed John’s link to your book and looking at the pages there and reading the reviews gave me a much better insight. I’m very much of the opinion that the attitude to disability/imperfection is generally getting worse (over here in Britain anyway) and sixteen years of so many people looking at my son with that “what a shame” look has perhaps made me a little over sensitive. My son is almost always happy yet most people can’t see past his disability to see that, hence me wondering the same about you. Anyway, to finish, it’s probably fair to say that if i had seen this first i wouldn’t have wrote what i did.

  8. Darren,

    I think there is a growing backlash against people with imperfections of any kind, especially the kinds of imperfections that are (a) detectable by prenatal testing and (b) result in expenses (health care and education, mostly)that are shared by the public. As work on the human genome progresses, the goal of “perfectability” will, I strongly believe, become more and more entrenched, and the backlash against “optional” humans who are less than perfect will grow stronger.

    I wrote a long essay on this topic for Salon a few years ago that you may find of interest.

    Anyway, I’m glad to have you as a reader, thanks for commenting, and please send along my regards to your son.

  9. Thanks for the links John, i’ve read the first page and it’s definitely got my interest, i’ll save the pages to my mobile phone so i can read it later when i have more time.

Comments are closed