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Tropic Thunder: Oh, No, Here We Go

August 12 2008 | by

Ben Stiller’s new movie Tropic Thunder was written as a parody of actors who will go to any lengths to advance their careers. In one of the subplots, Simple Jack, we hear repeated use of the word “retard.” One of the movie’s lines is, “Are you a full retard?”

A coalition of disabilities groups believes Stiller went too far with the film’s repeated use of this term, which they’re calling the “r-word.” Special Olympics chairman Tim Shriver and others have asked the movie’s studio, Dreamworks, to cut references to “retard”, but Dreamworks has refused. Now the coalition wants Tropic Thunder banned from theaters.

The word “retard” is hurtful to many people in America who have a mental disability, just like the “n-word” is insensitive to African Americans. In focusing his anger on a word, Shriver misses an opportunity to stand up for a more positive cause: The advancement of Americans with disabilities, despite their physical or mental limitations.

Starting with the Civil Rights era, America has provided special protection to racial minorities and women; protection that has been extended to the disabled through the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. There are good and bad points to such protective measures. For instance, the ADA has helped curb discrimination in the workplace, made private and public spaces more accessible, encouraged technological advances and created opportunities for the disabled to live more productive lives.

On the other hand, Corporate America, Madison Avenue and Hollywood have smelled the money and cashed in on these measures, giving us Hispanic marketing, women in the boardroom and tear-jerker movies about triumphant disabled folks like Simple Jack.

Tropic Thunder exposes the satire of American idealism, where our government creates protective laws and America uses them to make ads, grow their stock price and win an Oscar. These are not terrible achievements until their roots are exposed by special rights’ groups.

Shriver wants to shut down a movie that jeers at the inherent, capitalistic outcome of disability rights. Instead he should use his public podium to remain focused on how fruitful the ADA has been for the disabled, such as for the Special Olympics and Paralympics, which have been recognized as a chance for athletes to compete against those with similar limitations.

Let’s pull off the blinders and talk. We’d all like to be perfect, but some of us need a helping hand, or at least different benchmarks. The Special Olympics cannot exist in a vacuum, nor can we shine only an uber-positive light on the plight of people with disabilities. Just because the Special Olympics and Paralympics are off-limits to criticism doesn’t mean everything else should be, too.

Shriver says he fears that, because of Tropic Thunder, mentally disabled kids will be teased on the playground. Kids don’t need movie lines to say cruel things, and Hollywood shouldn’t need permission from disability groups to jeer at the lengths society will go to make a buck.

It’s not the “r-word” that’s being debated here, but the good things we’re trying to accomplish as a nation while still maintaining our sense of humor.

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