Because of the pervasive superficiality of American culture, we get what we pay for. Many of us want cheap laughs, and we pay for them and get them. We also often get actors who are little more than script-memorizing chimps, incapable of reasoning and analysis that would lead to true empathy. It’s a quandary of late great Hollywood: Many of the top actors do a great job of pretending to feel, but inside, they’re empty shells. Approach some of them with a genuine emotion and they recoil in horror, or make fun.
So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that actor Ben Stiller, who directed and co-wrote “Tropic Thunder,” thinks it’s OK to make fun of people with intellectual disabilities, like those with Down syndrome. After all, it may well be that he’s a soulless husk, like so many of his Hollywood peers. If that’s the case, perhaps we can forgive him personally for helping to validate verbal abuse and marginalizing of people with disabilities. But that doesn’t mean we should forgive the film or the others who took part in it.
Yes, I am on my high horse about the use of the word “retard” to get laughs in the film. I have a vested interest: My young nephew Aidan, age 5, has Down syndrome, and life’s been just a barrel of laughs for him. He had to have a tracheotomy when he was a week old, open heart surgery at six months, and reconstructive throat surgery at 18 months. He also had several operations in the first couple years of his life. He also has an allergy to wheat products that gave him stomach pains and diarrhea for months, until it was diagnosed.
Many people with Down syndrome have complicating medical problems throughout their lives. Many won’t live past their fifties.
I was made aware of this whole fiasco regarding the movie from my brother Christopher, who is Aidan’s dad. Christopher has no tolerance for such verbal abuse of people not as fortunate as many of us. “They’re talking about my son,” he says.
And they’re talking about my nephew, or rather, nephews. My nephew Matthew, age 11, has a rare chromosomal abnormality. But he’s no “Rainman,” with gifts that make the world look upon him and appreciate him. His family loves him. His uniqueness, though, is overlooked by the people who produce, pay for, and create the gags for those cheap laughs they have at his expense.
I will not see the Stiller movie, but I have to wonder how much the script would have been harmed if the bit with the “r-word” had been edited out. Would the storyline have suffered so much that the movie just wouldn’t be funny, or not edgy enough? If so, then it’s not a very good story. And if not, then the bit should have been removed before it became part of a film.
Disparaging remarks about people who are disabled, or any other minority, leads to objectification of those people. When you objectify them, it’s a short step away from locking them up in a room or a cage. Then it’s a small step to killing such people, in the case of the Nazis and other regimes. People with disabilities once were dealt with in these ways, in this country and throughout the world. It wasn’t that long ago.
Ben Stiller is a jagoff. He can’t say that the off-base bit in his movie wasn’t meant to harm, because it did cause harm, and he knew it would cause harm. This millionaire star is so desperate for attention and more millions that he’ll take cheap shots at people who get insulted by assholes like him all their lives. I have to wonder about Robert Downey, Jack Black, and Nick Nolte, too. Why did these rich stars think it was fine to bust on people who get busted on all of their lives? Nick Nolte was even in Lorenzo’s Oil, a film about a child with a rare disease (one scene of which was filmed in my parent’s house in Bellevue), so I have to wonder where his empathy went, or if he really ever had any.
I shouldn’t even have to make such a point. I am arguing over behavior that most of us were taught was wrong before we were ten—that is, making fun of people who have a disability. Putting it in a film doesn’t make such behavior somehow innocuous; rather, it enshrines such behavior in the minds of some people. It makes such behavior more acceptable to them.
Things have become so twisted in this doublespeak Repubmocrat Golden Age that everything—race, religious beliefs, physical and intellectual disability—is up for grabs, or possibly, sophomoric gags. But the gags aren’t nice and gentle, they’re mean, and those who might take offense are told to lighten up. People of lesser gifts, those of us who weren’t lucky enough to be born with the capability of reading this paragraph, for example, are “respected,” but the respect is really tolerance that is only skin-deep. There’s an obvious resentfulness to it, as in, “I respect you, now get away from me.”
But every once in a while, the jagoffs, like Stiller, show their true colors. He crossed the line, and he makes no bones about it, and he thinks everything should be fine. We are to accept him as he is, is Stiller’s implied message. If only he gave the same respect to people who are disabled.