Simple Jack and the "R" Word
A few days ago my dear friend Bridget forwarded me an e-mail about a movie that premieres in major cities Monday and opens nationally next Wednesday, Tropic Thunder, and its use of the word "retard." The e-mail, circulated by the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), hints at a possible boycott of the film, which features a "movie-within-the-movie" called Simple Jack whose main character is described as a "retard."
The AAPD and other advocacy groups talked to representatives of DreamWorks, the studio that produced Tropic Thunder, which removed from the Internet a mock trailer for Simple Jack, at least until things get sorted out. A followup meeting is set to take place tonight.
I'm not one to gravitate toward political correctness, but the word "retard" makes me flinch.
I'm sorry to report that this hasn't always been the case. I've had a complicated history with the word, in fact. When Bridget and I were teenagers, we went to a lot of parties together. Sometimes, after a beer or two, I would take on a silly persona that Bridget dubbed "Little Tardy Wonder." This must have happened often, because for years and years Bridget referred to me not as Jennifer or Jenni but as "Tards." Whenever I wrote to her, I signed off as "Tards." If I called her on the phone, I'd say, "Hi, it's Tards."
Fifteen years ago, Bridget had a baby. Maura is a beautiful girl who loves music and the woods and her trampoline. Maura is intellectually disabled. It wasn't until some time after Bridget and her husband learned this about their daughter that Bridget remembered, in horror, that "Tards" came from "retard." She never called me that again; I never used the name again, either.
As silly teenagers, we meant no harm by our use of the word "retard." Nor do my kids mean harm on the rare occasion when the word flies out of their mouths; they, like the adolescent me, just aren't thinking about the implications of the word and its potential to hurt. I know that neither Bridget nor I nor my kids, when uttering the word "retard," made any connection at all with actual people.
But should a major movie studio be held to a higher standard? I'm guessing that DreamWorks didn't deliberately set out to hurt anyone. In their zeal to provide the kind of raunchy entertainment that sells tickets, they probably just grabbed on to a word that has proven incredibly resilient as a slang term over the years and just ran with it.
(DreamWorks spokesman Chip Sullivan told me Thursday he didn't want to comment on the film's use of "retard," though he did say that the meeting with the advocacy groups was "very productive" and that DreamWorks is "committed to taking these concerns very seriously.")
Andrew Imparato, president of the AAPD, told me Thursday that he and his colleagues in the advocacy community were anxious to see Tropic Thunder so they can "put their concerns in context." He added that he felt the folks at DreamWorks are "taking our concerns seriously, talking with us in a respectful way."
"We want to help them understand that 'retard' is a uniquely painful word for people who have been called this all their lives," Imparato says. "We're trying hard to get it out of the lexicon." He acknowledges that the movie's R rating will keep many young, impressionable people from seeing in the theater, but the hype surrounding it -- not to mention the eventual DVD release -- may still exert a strong pull.
Imparato is particularly concerned about the extreme popularity of the movie's stars, Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., and Jack Black, especially among teenagers. "We don't want it to become cool for people to use that word or to use it to belittle other people," he says. Having actors of such appeal utter the word "retard" is "like putting a cigarette in their mouths," he says.
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