Normal Is Overrated

Musings and meanderings on the autistic spectrum

August 6, 2008

Stumble in the jungle

I’ve been thinking about the Tropic Thunder controversy that’s been brewing in the disability blogosphere. (Go follow that link if you haven’t already heard about this; I don’t see a need to reiterate the background story when it’s already been covered on plenty of other blogs.)

And as I thought about it, I noticed something odd. It wasn’t the oft-quoted dialogue about mental retardation that bothered me; sure, it’s offensive, but part of the whole point of the movie is that the characters are painfully insensitive. (I mean, come on, Downey’s character performs in blackface. You can’t say the characters are pinnacles of understanding.) The portrayal of “Simple Jack” in the film-within-a-film is a bit more unsettling, yet even that wouldn’t offend me if it were framed in a suitably satirical context pointing out just how chock full of stereotypes it was.

No, what’s nagging at me goes further than mere dialogue and character portrayals; it’s a matter of unfortunate implications. Now, to be fair, it could very well be that this is dealt with in a more balanced manner in the movie as a whole, so I’m withholding any final judgment for the time being; even still, the choices of what scenes were chosen for the trailers alone demonstrate a… rather unsettling bias.

In this corner… we have Robert Downey’s character playing a black character, in blackface, totally to stereotypes. And in just the trailers, he’s called on how offensive this is, by actual black actors within the movie, who are none too pleased with said portrayal. This happens in at least two separate scenes, one shown in the general-audience trailer, one shown in the restricted trailer.

And in this corner… we have Ben Stiller’s character playing the intellectually impaired “Simple Jack.” But unlike Downey’s character, the only criticism he gets, other than a brief mention of bad box-office returns, is from Downey’s character for overplaying the character. Not because such an over-the-top performance could be offensive, but merely because it was something audiences couldn’t connect with.

And, at least as far as the trailer goes, that’s it.

There’s no further discussion of ableism, other than that short bit about how audiences won’t go for a character unless he’s Not Too Disabled. The characters’ own disability stereotypes aren’t touched on at all— which is a shame, because that’s something that could have led to some brilliantly satirical dialogue.

There’s no discussion of how certain terms are a shock to the disability community, in a huge contrast to that “you people” scene involving Downey’s character that’s even in the all-ages trailer.

There’s no discussion of the fact that an ill-acted, overly stereotyped portrayal of a character with a disability can be an embarrassment no matter how “mildly” disabled the character may be. (Unless, of course, that’s also a point of that one dialogue, in which case the filmmakers fail at writing satirical dialogue.)

In fact, even the criticism of non-disabled actors portraying characters with disabilities goes over like a lead balloon, assuming that was even part of the filmmakers’ intent. The point made in the trailer, at least, seems to merely be one of “…but not too disabled.”

And this is what I find most offensive here. It’s the fact that these points are explicitly touched on regarding race, yet issues of disability are shrugged off with a few lines here and there.

Now perhaps the movie’s writers thought that the mere excess of the dialogue, of the slogan and reviews for “Simple Jack,” and of the portrayal of the Jack character were ridiculous enough to drive these satirical points home without making them more explicit. The problem, of course, is that they’re not ridiculous enough. I’ve seen character portrayals as crude as Jack in various comedies that had no satirical intent whatsoever, and heard dialogue in university hangouts that sounded not unlike that one scene. Satire just doesn’t work when it’s too close to the truth.

Or to put it another way: Imagine that Downey’s character was the only “black” character shown in the trailer. Now imagine that, on top of that, the other characters, insensitive as they are, threw racial epithets left and right in referring to said character. Imagine that Downey acted the part in the most Stepin Fetchit-esque way possible. And imagine that the only issue that was explicitly brought up in the trailer, out of all this, was Downey’s character acting “too black.”

You’d bet the black community would be up in arms if the trailer was like that. And yet the disability community is said to be acting like the PC police when they criticize something with very similar implications.

Regardless of whatever the filmmakers’ intent might have been, just judging from the discussion around this trailer, it looks like we still have a long way to go in disability discourse before we approach anything resembling the state of racial discussion.

Filed under: Controversies — codeman38 @ 11:41 am

4 Comments »

  1. In this corner… we have Robert Downey’s character playing a black character, in blackface, totally to stereotypes. And in just the trailers, he’s called on how offensive this is, by actual black actors within the movie, who are none too pleased with said portrayal. This happens in at least two separate scenes, one shown in the general-audience trailer, one shown in the restricted trailer.

    And in this corner… we have Ben Stiller’s character playing the intellectually impaired “Simple Jack.” But unlike Downey’s character, the only criticism he gets, other than a brief mention of bad box-office returns, is from Downey’s character for overplaying the character. Not because such an over-the-top performance could be offensive, but merely because it was something audiences couldn’t connect with.

    In There’s Something About Mary, there’s a scene where one character’s ableism is specifically criticized. For those unfamiliar with the movie: Ben Stiller’s character is trying to get in touch with a nice girl he knew in high school that he’s still in love with (Cameron Diaz). So he hires this sleazy private detective who falls in love with her, too. Mary’s brother has an intellectual disability; the detective, who is totally villainous and unlikeable, says something like, “Yeah, I really love those r####!” (there’s more, similar foolishness in his speech as well). Mary is shocked, and the detective loses major brownie points with the girl he’s obsessed with.

    I’m pretty sure the writers intend this scene’s humor to come from watching the private detective be such a jackass and get called on it. But he’s not called on it by a member of the group he’s just insulted (such as Mary’s brother). He’s called on it by a non-disabled person. Which may make dramatic sense (that particular non-disabled person is someone whose approval he REALLY wants), but sets up this weird thing where he becomes responsible *to a non-disabled person* for his ableism.

    On top of that, although Mary is clearly disgusted with the detective’s behavior, she doesn’t get angry with him at all. (Her niceness being a huge source of the other characters’ attraction to her as well as of the film’s humor). She says something like, “Are you sure you should be talking like that about people you work with?” So the whole thing just comes off as another socially awkward situation for everybody.

    And even if the writers were making fun of ableist jerks and not disabled people, they did it so clumsily that some viewers completely missed the point.

    Great post.

    Comment by Tera — August 6, 2008 @ 10:00 pm

  2. Well it’s alright by me :)

    Comment by Jethro — August 9, 2008 @ 6:58 pm

  3. [...] about how humor doesn’t happen in a vacuum and that the execution of a joke is most important. Cody points out that there wasn’t a character in the movie to call out the ableism out and make it [...]

    Pingback by more than just words: tropic thunder boycott « cripchick’s weblog — August 12, 2008 @ 10:58 pm

  4. [...] few unconflicted feelings I have about the whole brouhaha, and they dovetail almost precisely with this post over at Normal is Overrated:It wasn’t the oft-quoted dialogue about mental retardation that [...]

    Pingback by Disaboom | Alexa | The "Tropic Thunder" debacle — August 13, 2008 @ 1:34 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress