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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

have ‘Tropic Thunder’ protesters actually seen the movie?

The only possible explanation for their complete wrongheadedness here is that they haven’t:

US groups that represent the disabled have protested at the premiere of Ben Stiller’s new film, Tropic Thunder.

Demonstrators who gathered outside the Mann Village Theatre, in Los Angeles, said the film “humiliates people with intellectual disabilities”.

What? The movie, quite clearly, does not do this, and it’s hard to imagine anyone honestly believing otherwise. Of course, it’s possible that the protesters do not honestly believe this and are merely taking advantage of the opportunity for some publicity. Either way, they’re making themselves look foolish.


Tim Shriver, chairman of disability group Special Olympics, said protestors were particularly offended by the use of the word “retard” regarding a character, Simple Jack, played by Stiller

“We feel that the use of the word ‘retard’ throughout the film, 15 or more times, is done without any regard for the dignity of people with intellectual disabilities,” he said.

Hmm. Yes, the word retard does appear in the film. But this is kinda like protesting that Huckleberry Finn is racist because the word nigger appears in it X number of times. It’s not a perfect analogy, but the point is, surely it’s the context that matters, not the word itself. Surely. Otherwise satire cannot exist.

“The caricatures of people with intellectual disabilities are you know, almost hateful, and we want this to be the beginning of the end. We want this to be the end of Hollywood treating this population as the butt of jokes.”

But that is the point of the “retard” jokes in the movie: they don’t make fun of retarded people, they make fun of actors who play retarded people as caricatures, who use mental disability cynically as a path to critical acclaim and awards. The caricatures here are the celebrities — in this particular instance, the actor played by Ben Stiller — not people with disabilities.

Of course, more people will hear about these protests than will ever see Tropic Thunder. So most people will never realize that the protesters are wrong. All they’ll remember is that Ben Stiller is mean to retarded people. And that doesn’t seem very fair.

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  • It’s a shame we can’t make people who want to protest some work of fiction actually see/read the work in question before they protest it. Ah, well. (I may as well wish for a sundae bar in my office and world peace.) :)

  • Bill

    There was a promotional poster in which Stiller posed as “Simple Jack” (the character his character plays in the film within the film) with the tag line, “Once upon a time there was a retard…” My understanding is that this was offered as a stand-alone bit of marketing. Without the benefit of context, I can see how this would be interpreted as tasteless and terribly offensive. I imagine most would look at it and think, “No way I am seeing what I am seeing. There’s gotta be something more to this.” However, the disabled are the butt of many jokes and I can see why advocates would react the way they have if their only exposure to the movie was this poster.

  • More people will hear about this than will see Tropic Thunder? I’m not sure about that. I don’t think this is particularly big news, and TT looks like it’s going to be very popular. Technically, numerically, you may be correct, but I don’t think many people are going to come out of this thinking “Ben Stiller hates retarded people”.

  • Joy

    I saw this at a sneak preview over 2 weeks ago. Funniest movie I think I have seen in my life. I totally agree with MaryAnn that this is all out of context. Go watch the movie and I dare you to not laugh. I couldn’t believe some of the OTHER things I saw in this movie. The references to mentally challenged people were the least shocking things, really.


  • MaryAnn

    My understanding is that this was offered as a stand-alone bit of marketing.

    It isn’t. The *Simple Jack* thing is inherent to both plot and theme.

    Funniest movie I think I have seen in my life.

    Oh man, what’s with all the PR-troll-sounding comments today?

  • Henry

    I think there is actually an industry for people who would like the jobs of finding things to be offended about, 24/7. However, I can see possibly being a little put-off by the posters that Bill was talking about above.

    I’ll be honest, when I saw the trailer, I did wonder about the whole Robert Downey Jr. playing a black guy thing — I figured it could either be satiric genius or highly offensive. But since you greenlighted it, and you’re usually pretty good at catching racism/sexism/general small-mindedness in films, it must be the former.

  • MBI

    “I think there is actually an industry for people who would like the jobs of finding things to be offended about, 24/7.”

    Of course there is. Advocacy groups, like that one for the mentally disabled and the others that support blacks, Jews, liberals, fundamentalist Christians, homosexuals, Venezuelan-Americans, child molesters, vegetarians, etc. etc. etc. seem to spend half their budget every year denouncing things that offend them. I honestly don’t know what else it is that they do.

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