A Movie, a Word and My Family's Battle
Margaret and I were lingering in front of the multiplex one evening last summer, a mom and her adult daughter laughing about the movie we'd just seen, when a gaggle of cute pre-teen girls sauntered past.
The one in the lead jerked a thumb in our direction and made a goofy face to her friend. "Look. Retard," we heard her say, and Margaret wilted. Her chin trembled. One by one, the other girls turned to look, nudging one another and whispering. The last girl spun all the way around as she slowly walked by, eyes fixed on my daughter.
In her size 6 jeans and Old Navy shirt, Margaret hadn't done anything to attract that unwanted attention. But then, my blond, blue-eyed daughter lives every day behind a face that can be a lightning rod for such talk. The beautiful face I've loved for 24 years displays some of the characteristic signs of Down syndrome, a chromosomal anomaly associated with varying degrees of cognitive impairment.
Last week lightning struck again, not just for Margaret, but for millions of Americans with intellectual disabilities. Ben Stiller's highly anticipated "Tropic Thunder" hit screens across the country. The film packs a powerful combination of explosions, irreverence, crudity and political incorrectness. It also features many iterations of the word "retard."
With the film's release, the public has plunged headlong into an overheated argument about the borders between comedy and hate speech, political correctness and oversensitivity. I know, because posts that I put on my blog, drawing attention to the movie's marketing and discussion of a character with an intellectual disability, have set off a firestorm in Hollywood and the disability community. Protesters picketed "Tropic Thunder's" premiere last week, while the film's high-profile stars defended it as a parody aimed at the movie industry.
The film features Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black as unsavory actors who are thrust into a real conflict while filming a war movie. Stiller's character is an actor who previously sought Oscar glory by portraying Simple Jack, a man with an intellectual disability, a bowl haircut reminiscent of state institutions and few relatable qualities. Cue the retard jokes.
The original marketing campaign, featured on a Web site that was taken down in response to complaints, included an image of Stiller as Simple Jack bearing the memorable tagline, "Once upon a time . . . There was a retard." Another marketed scene depicts Downey uttering the line that will undoubtedly launch a thousand T-shirts: "Never go full retard."
For years I've tried to figure out how to handle moments like these, when the word "retard" crash-lands at our feet, either aimed directly at Margaret or tossed around as an all-purpose weapon. It has become a routine epithet, used to describe something or someone stupid or worthless or pathetic. For my daughter and my family, it's more like a grenade, and we're the collateral damage. "It's not a good word," Margaret says. "It's mean, it's insulting and it hurts people's feelings."
As the word has seemingly become increasingly pervasive in recent years, I've tried gently to let others know that it heaps scorn on people who are already stigmatized and may not be in a position to defend themselves. The responses I've gotten? Gosh, everybody says it. It's just a joke. Or: I didn't mean it like that. Or: Lighten up. It doesn't mean anything. People reacted as if I'd offended them when I told tell them that they were insulting my daughter and others like her; they would never insult such people, they said.
Discouraged, I started letting it pass, gritting my teeth, wishing it would go away. Not everyone uses it, and sometimes I wonder whether I'm overreacting. But I hear it at every turn. A clerk in a store apologizes for being "such a retard" when she can't find an item for me. Ouch. Kids at the mall call one another "you big retard." Ouch. A friend tells a long, involved story at my dinner table about her recent fender bender, with a punchline about "some retard" who parked behind her. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.
With each of these incidents, I hear what others perhaps don't hear. This word, derived from a clinical term used to describe people like my daughter, carries a cultural subtext so huge that we don't even notice it. By using it, we threaten years of progress toward a society that accepts and values all its citizens, including the 14.3 million with cognitive disabilities.
When I was young, kids like my daughter were kept at home or, worse, sent to institutions by the hundreds of thousands. They had no legally guaranteed right to an education.