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Groups criticize 'Tropic Thunder' for attitude toward intellectual disabilities

Rex W. Huppke
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

The way some people are griping about the jokes in that hilarious new Ben Stiller movie "Tropic Thunder" is totally retarded.

What? That sentence offended you? C'mon, it's a joke. It's satire, thus the flippant use of the word "retarded" is perfectly fine.

At least that's the logic Hollywood executives are relying on to explain the "retard" gags scattered throughout Stiller's new flick - it's a satire about Hollywood actors and the absurd lengths they'll go to for fame and awards.

Unfortunately, that logic isn't sitting well with many who have intellectual disabilities and the wide array of advocacy groups that represent them. Special Olympics and other organizations are calling for a nationwide boycott of the film, holding protests outside some theaters and decrying the movie as a shining example of how a derogatory term has muscled its way into acceptable everyday slang.

"I think it's something that's getting more and more prevalent," said Soeren Palumbo, a 19-year-old who works for Special Olympics and whose sister has an intellectual disability. "I think we're getting to the point where the word retard or retarded is used to describe anything undesirable or anything stupid, anything that doesn't quite fit the mold."

In the film, which opened Wednesday, Stiller's character is an aging action hero - Tugg Speedman - attempting to make an epic Vietnam War movie. A running joke is that Speedman's previous role was as an intellectually disabled man - played to every stereotype imaginable - in a box-office disaster called "Simple Jack."

A fellow actor on the set of the war movie - Robert Downey Jr., playing a surprisingly non-controversial white man who has undergone a pigmentation procedure to become black - tells Speedman the movie was a flop because he went "full retard." That prompts an absurd stream of dialogue riddled with the R-word.

According to DreamWorks, the studio that released "Tropic Thunder," the film was pre-screened in 250 theaters nationwide since April, and there were no audience complaints about use of the R-word. If that's true, it either galvanizes the studio's defense that the film is an R-rated goof, or it speaks volumes about how the word has comfortably settled into everyday parlance.

"Sometimes I think the word has almost lost its meaning," said Wendy Murphy, director of therapeutic schools for Easter Seals Metropolitan Chicago. "I hear a lot of teenagers using the word now, like they don't know at all what it means."

The movie could be viewed as offensive to many, including blacks, Asians, gays, movie executives and anyone who cares about panda bears. DreamWorks spokesman Chip Sullivan noted: "No (organization) was consulted in the making of it because it's intentionally outrageous."

But what irks people on the side of those with intellectual disabilities is the broader picture - the fact that a word deeply offensive to a certain swath of the population is used often and with limited social consequences.

"The great disappointment from our point of view is that the movie made it this far without this issue even coming up," said Timothy Shriver, head of the Special Olympics, which has launched a formal campaign to discourage use of the R-word.

The hope now, Shriver said, is that the controversy might educate some about why the word should go the way of other now-unacceptable slurs: "We're not making a play for pity. We're not making a play to be the language police. But as long as you perpetuate that stereotype, it has a very damaging effect on people with intellectual disabilities."

Before calling Shriver and others who share his views overly sensitive, or saying they don't have a sense of humor, consider Maurice Snell, a 24-year-old employee at Easter Seals' Therapeutic School and Center for Autism Research in Chicago.

Snell has autism and has been called a retard plenty of times.

"I hear the word retarded, it's basically like putting people down, not motivating them to do what they want to do," Snell said. "I've felt that way when I was called retarded. I just wasn't motivated, I had low self esteem. It hurts my feelings very deeply."

He overcame such barbs, graduated from college and became a key spokesman for Easter Seals and for people living with his disorder.

He said he understands, and believes, that the filmmakers didn't mean to be hurtful.

"But I would tell them," Snell said, "not to judge a book by its cover."

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