By Timothy Shriver
Monday, August 11, 2008
I've been told to keep my sense of humor about the film "Tropic Thunder," which opens this week. Despite my requests, I have not been given the chance to see the movie. But I've seen previews, read about it and read excerpts of the script. By all accounts, it is an unchecked assault on the humanity of people with intellectual disabilities -- an affront to dignity, hope and respect.
Consider this exchange:
Ben Stiller's character: "There were times when I was doing Jack when I actually felt retarded. Like really retarded."
Robert Downey Jr.'s character: "Oh yeah. Damn."
Stiller: "In a weird way, I had to sort of just free myself up to believe that it was okay to be stupid or dumb."
Downey: "To be a moron."
At another point, about acting like a person with intellectual disabilities, they say:
Stiller: "It's what we do, right?"
Downey: "Everybody knows you never do a full retard."
Stiller: "What do you mean?"
Downey: "Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, 'Rain Man,' look retarded, act retarded, not retarded. Count toothpicks to your cards. Autistic, sure. Not retarded. You know Tom Hanks, 'Forrest Gump.' Slow, yes. Retarded, maybe. Braces on his legs. But he charmed the pants off Nixon and won a ping-pong competition. That ain't retarded. You went full retard, man. Never go full retard."
I worked with the Farrelly brothers on a film on this topic. I know about edgy comedy. I'm also told that movies are equal-opportunity offenders.
So here's an equal-opportunity response to the equal-opportunity offenders:
People with intellectual disabilities are routinely abused, neglected, insulted, institutionalized and even killed around the world. Their parents are told to give up, that their children are worthless. Schools turn them away. Doctors refuse to treat them. Employers won't hire them. None of this is funny.
For centuries, they have been the exception to the most basic spiritual principle: that we are each equal in spirit, capable of reflecting the goodness of the divine, carriers of love. But not people with intellectual disabilities. What's a word commonly applied to them? Hopeless.
Let's consider where we are in 2008. Our politics are about overcoming division, our social movements are about ending intolerance, our great philanthropists promote ending poverty and disease among the world's poor. Are people with intellectual disabilities included in the mainstream of these movements? For the most part, no.
Why? Because they're different. Their joy doesn't fit on magazine covers. Their spirituality doesn't come in self-help television. Their kind of wealth doesn't command political attention. (The best of the spirit never does.)
Sadly, they're such an easy target that many people don't realize whom they are making fun of when they use the word "retard." Most people just think it's funny. "Stupid, idiot, moron, retard." Ha, ha, ha.
I know: I could be too sensitive. But I was taught that mean isn't funny. And I've been to institutions where people with intellectual disabilities are tied to beds or lie on concrete floors, forgotten. I've heard doctors say they won't treat them. I know Gallup found that more than 60 percent of Americans don't want a person with an intellectual disability at their child's school.
I've talked to people with intellectual disabilities who cry over being insulted on a bus. I've received too many e-mails from people who are devastated not by their child's disability but by the terror of being laughed at, excluded and economically devastated.
It wasn't funny when Hollywood humiliated African Americans for a generation. It's never funny when good and decent human beings are humiliated. In fact, it is dangerous and disgusting.
This film is all that and more. DreamWorks went so far as to create a mini-version of Simple Jack and posted it online. The studio has since pulled it down, realizing it had gone too far, even in an age of edgy, R-rated comedies.
So, enough. Stop the hurtful jokes. Talk to your children about language that is bullying and mean. Ask your friends, your educators, your religious leaders to help us to end the stubborn myth that people with intellectual disabilities are hopeless. Ask Hollywood to get on the right side of dignity.
I hope others will join me in shutting this movie out of our lives and our pocketbooks. We don't live in times when labeling and humiliating others is funny. And we should send that message far and wide.