Last year, Internets were abuzz over the past few weeks over the launch of the new Ben Stiller movie “Tropic Thunder” and the American-led boycott by advocates for individuals with intellectual disabilities. The argument is that the movie presents a negative representation of individuals with intellectual disabilities through a borderline-obsessive use of the word “retard” and a “Simple Jack” storyline, which allegedly aims for cheap laughs at the expense of people with intellectual disabilities.
Being a disabled advocate who is currently studying representations of disabilities in the media, I had to check out this movie and see what all the buzz was about. Although not immediately sure how I felt about the movie, upon further reflection I’ve decided I quite enjoyed it and don’t agree that this movie slanders individuals with disabilities.
Now, before I go any further, I will admit that I have never been diagnosed with an intellectual disability and do not consider myself to be directly a part of that community, although I did coach a Special Olympics hockey team for several years.
Having said that, I feel it’s important to look a little closer at this movie and not immediately classify it as trash just because it uses the cursed “R” word excessively. A quick glance at the Simple Jack storyline reveals the storyline is not taking shots at people with intellectual disabilities or attempting to get laughs at their expense. At its core, Tropic Thunder follows in the vein of many recent comedies, and arguably any comedy worth watching, in that it’s attempting to push the audience to a place they may not be overly comfortable confronting and then poking fun at our prudish perceptions. The goal here is to imply that these social faux pas may actually be ridiculous and require re-evaluation. What has been lost on some viewing this movie is that it’s a satire and is not attempting to make truthful claims about people with disabilities.
What this movie IS attempting to satirize, however, is Hollywood itself. Rather than poking fun at people with disabilities, Tropic Thunder is quite obviously taking aim at the Academy’s obsession with mentally challenged characters and the near-absurd parade of questionable movies that have been given the title of “masterpiece” simply because an actor pretends to have Down syndrome or autism (read: I Am Sam, The Rainman, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Forrest Gump, etc). It can be argued that these types of movies can be quite positive, inspiring audiences to “be better people.” At best, these movies help to show people that individuals with disabilities can contribute to society in a meaningful way, putting a face to disorders that are oft monolithic and marginalized.
But at their worst, films like I Am Sam contribute to a prevalent paternal superiority felt by the nondisabled, promoting the notion that people with disabilities have it so tough compared to everyone else and “normal folk” all have a lot to learn from those living the “simpler life.”
Ultimately, these films normalize what I like to call the “disabled hero syndrome,” where any accomplishment, no matter how easily achieved, place disabled character upon a pedestal of triumph. For accomplishing the simplest of tasks, we are often showered in patronizing complements and congratulations, to the point that every time I manage to go to the washroom anywhere but all over myself I half expect I’ll make headline news, complete with ticker-tape parades, a big achievement medal for bravery, and accolades raining from the rafters. While the disabled life can be difficult and sometimes we do go to extraordinary lengths to accomplish things some may consider medial or inconsequential, I’ve always found it strange when people are astonished and inspired by me completing a task that the nondisabled are simply expected to manage.
It is this superiority complex that Tropic Thunder so aggressively satirizes, to much success. If you ask me, we should not be boycotting or chastising Ben Stiller, we should be thanking him!