To the editor:
Wednesday, Aug.13 was the release date of the movie “Tropic Thunder.” The film is expected to be a summer blockbuster, and features Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black as self-absorbed actors filming a big budget war movie on location. Through a series of freak occurrences, they are forced to become the soldiers they are playing. Stiller’s character is a fading action star who failed in his bid for an Oscar as “Simple Jack,” a man with an intellectual disability. “Simple Jack” is featured as a film-within-a-film, with Stiller sporting a classic institutional bowl cut and bad teeth.
This film is meant to be a satire about actors and the entertainment industry, but the result is far more sobering. The damage the film will do to people with intellectual disabilities and their families is immeasurable. The word “retard,” considered hate speech by disability rights advocates, is used frequently in the film. “Simple Jack” is described as a “retard,” and until recent objections, marketing materials and a Web site featured the tagline, “Once upon a time…There was a retard.” Scenes include Robert Downey Jr.’s character advising Stiller’s character to “never go full retard.” This phrase is already available on a T-shirt on the Internet.
A coalition of advocacy organizations has met with DreamWorks and Paramount executives in an effort to educate them about how extremely offensive this word is. Although the companies removed offensive marketing materials, they fail to understand the impact of their decisions. Advocates have been told they are overreacting, that the intention is not to make fun of people with intellectual disabilities, that other groups are made fun of as well. As usual, they’ve been told that it’s just a word, and words have no power.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. The words we say define who we are, and define how others see us. Words that denigrate and dehumanize an entire segment of the population have far-reaching effects. People with intellectual disabilities are routinely targeted for ridicule, abuse and violence, all because of how a word defines them. What starts with hateful words ends with hateful violence, and that should not be accepted in our society.
Films like “Tropic Thunder” not only foster a negative stereotype, they tell young people that it’s okay to belittle others, especially those who can’t defend themselves. I have a child with an intellectual disability, and in a few weeks, I will be sending her back to school, along with millions of other parents of children with disabilities. The hallways have never been exactly welcoming of those with differences, and many of us are already cringing at the thought of our kids enduring “full retard” remarks.
I call on parents, schools and teachers to make sure this doesn’t happen. Avoid “Tropic Thunder.” Banish the word “retard” as hate speech in your homes and schools. Educate people about why this word is so offensive. Don’t allow my charming, funny, and yes - smart - child, and others like her, to be targeted.