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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.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  August 8, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
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I think we should ban all words and not speak or write at all becuase someone will eventually find some word offensive. I can understand not wanting to be called something that is meant in a deragatory way. It's disrespectful. However to try to ban a words utterance in all contexts becuase in a one particular context it is directed at you is rediculous. Take the word 'midget' for instance. The height challenged community for years has fought to have this word eliminated. Why? It's common venacular for a physical condition. A rose by any other name is still a rose. How about s**t? Really what is the difference between s**t and poo? They both have the exact same definition yet one is considered offensive? Why? We need to stop beeing so sensitive. After all there is right to not be offended in the constiution.

Posted by: akmzrazor | August 8, 2008 8:50 AM | Report abuse

How is the term used in the movie? When Matt Dillon in "There's Something About Mary" said "I love retards" the intended effect was to show how clueless Dillon's character was.

Speaking of intent, what is the writer's point in mentioning Maura loves music, the woods and her trampoline? So?

Posted by: JLM | August 8, 2008 10:33 AM | Report abuse

i think the intent was to point out that maura is many things and one tarit among many is her intellectual disability.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 8, 2008 11:21 AM | Report abuse

I can understand the frustration some people have expressed in their perception that society is becoming increasingly ‘PC’ with language. There are times that the efforts to create respectful communication seem to create confusion instead of clarity. However, it has long been our goal as a society to reject hurtful stereotypes, diminish the bigotry we discover and support our fellow citizens with respect. We have managed to condemn the use of racial and religious slurs in our language, and it is time we removed the disability slurs as well. It is reprehensible to use ridicule and condescension to target a group of people who have not chosen their abilities, but have worked as hard as anyone else to create their own destinies. Much of the hidden intention behind the language of bigotry is designed to dehumanize and therefore separate the speakers from the possibility that “it” could happen to them. Well…disability is actually a matter of time for most of us. When that day happens when we need equipment to support our lives, specialized care to ensure our health, assistance to be mobile and caregivers to guide our decisions, we and our loved ones will not consider prejudice in the form of ridicule to be so amusing. Need we remember what history has taught when a group is dehumanized by ridicule?

Posted by: Karla | August 8, 2008 11:26 AM | Report abuse

I can see why the mental health community is displeased about this and to some extent I agree. But we have to look at the bigger picture that the "Simple Jack" is a play on the actors who seize opportunities to do movies that are "Oscar Gold".

More importantly lest us not forget that there have been SEVERAL other movies who have done far worse. The movie that comes to mind "The Ringer" where Johnny Knoxville pretends to be an athelete in the Special Olympics. Or what about South Park that portrayed that as well and has a cast of disabled people and use the R word in an extensive manner.

I understand we do not want our nations youth corrupted into thinking in this sense. But on the whole, aren't there many more fronts on this war then we choose to see?

Posted by: Justin | August 8, 2008 1:16 PM | Report abuse

I have been blessed with the opportunity to work with many children who have had a wide variety of disabilities. I have never had a bad or negative experience on the whole and I have never met a disabled person who intentionally wanted to or tried to hurt another's feelings. I know that many others have said the same and it still amazes me that so many people think that it is funny and entertaining to make fun of a disability that can not be helped. I would bet that not one person in this world would choose a mental or physical disability if they had the chance to do so. Please tell me why then it is okay to find humor in those situations at the expense of the helpless. Those of you who do so are the truly disabled.

Posted by: Wendy | August 8, 2008 1:32 PM | Report abuse

The idea of 'Simple Jack' presents absolutely no comedic value through it's usage of stereotypes and rude language. It is a shame that the film industry and it's actors would support such a movie and attempt to make it appealing.

Posted by: Kathryn | August 8, 2008 1:38 PM | Report abuse

I don't use the word as slang, either. But the movie in question also has, as one of its main running gags, a white character appearing in blackface. The whole movie is a joke about how silly and insular Hollywood can be--the white guy doesn't understand why black costars are offended by the blackface, the action star doesn't understand that there may be actual wars going on around the world, and the studios don't realize that the word "retard," in the way they're using it, is offensive. Whether they make this point well is subjective, but it still seems to me that it's the obvious point and a lot of people seem to be missing it.

Posted by: Wait, really? | August 8, 2008 1:59 PM | Report abuse

As I point out in the blog, the folks who have expressed concern over the movie are upfront about the fact that they haven't actually seen it yet, and they seem to be trying to keep an open mind. They did object to the online trailer for Simple Jack, which DreamWorks took down in response to their concerns.

Posted by: Jennifer Huget | August 8, 2008 2:03 PM | Report abuse

The whole idea of "Tropic Thunder" and movies like it simply disgusts me. Sure, you might say that it is virtually impossible to ban the "R" word from everyday language. You might also say that we who take offense to these types of words are too sensitive. And you might be right. But I truly believe that it is those who make these assumptions that prevent the rest of the world from overcoming the stereotypes that are so ignorantly labeling the less fortunate or the minority. And we wonder why the world can be such a violent place.

Posted by: KT | August 8, 2008 2:07 PM | Report abuse

Words such as "retard" attack the very core of a child/person (with or without a disability). Just because another movie uses similar distasteful humor at the expense of many, does not make it O.K. There is nothing as heartbreaking as watching your child repeatedly come home devestated after being called names such as "retard" or teased about a difference that they have. The only worse news that I can imagine (and have experienced)is answering the door to find that that your child (who is now an young adult)has taken their life- just days after being ridiculed and made fun of by so called "friends". We as a society need to take a stand against using language that is intended to demean others just to make a buck. Hopefully, Dreamworks, will help to correct this. I have no plans at this point to see this movie, but I am sure due to the cast, many others will, but at WHOSE expense?

Posted by: Kim | August 8, 2008 2:13 PM | Report abuse

"The whole idea" of the movies is making fun of pretentious actors and movie executives, according to trailers and an interview with Ben Stiller I saw.

The concept of the movie was rooted in the practice of actors in war movies going to lame "boot camps" for a few days so they can be authentic. What about that is disgusting and what are other movies "like it"?

Posted by: Roger | August 8, 2008 2:20 PM | Report abuse

I would LOVE to hear an explanation of how a modern slang word is the root of violence.

Posted by: Roger | August 8, 2008 2:23 PM | Report abuse

Unfortunately it seems almost everyday I am reminded of how much further we have to go,how much more we have to overcome. Treat people with respect, dignity, and compassion. Treat others as you yourself would want to be treated. The use of the "R" word, is just as disrespectful and negligent as the use of the "N" word. Whichever way it is meant does not matter, it can only be taken one way and that's offensively.

Posted by: Rachael | August 8, 2008 4:20 PM | Report abuse

That's silly. Nothing can be taken only one way. Context matters and part of context is what the speaker meant. Huck Finn uses a term that wouldn't please an HR department today, but he doesn't use it in an insulting way.

The original poster above says she spent years being called a derivation of a name and not being insulted by it.

Posted by: Jen | August 8, 2008 9:47 PM | Report abuse

Just what is wrong with being retarded? We have a president that is retarded or an audit now. I think he can dress himself but I an not sure.

Posted by: Old Coot | August 8, 2008 11:36 PM | Report abuse

What is an "audit"?

Posted by: Richard | August 9, 2008 9:16 AM | Report abuse

Like many controversial issues, it's the debate that is important. This is what needs to get out so people can hear/read what's being said and draw their own conclusions. Yes, it's a hurful word. When my sister-in law says it right next to my daughter, who is a person with mental retardation, it really hurts. Does saying it cause violence, well I would say no. Not that word alone. Everyone that has commented has reasonable points that should be considered. My own conclusion is: There are some universal truths, though, about kindness, caring, character...these things cross all boundaries and it is within the spirit of political correctness that the word should be excused to leave.

Posted by: Candace | August 11, 2008 5:49 PM | Report abuse

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