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Terri Mauro

Satire Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

By August 13, 2008

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The excuses are starting to pour in from the Tropic Thunder creative folks and their supporters, and the crux of the argument seems to be, "Hey, it's satire! Don't take it so literally." And it's great that they see that taking satire literally can be a problem.

Unfortunately, I think they're aiming their defenses at the wrong group. They're worried about protesters misunderstanding and getting all offended over nothing. And I'm worried about segments of the audience missing the fact that all that "retard" talk was really satirizing the actors, and going right ahead and bashing people with intellectual disabilities with those cool new catchphrases.

That's the trouble with satire. It seems like a license to offend, because the creators know that what they say is not what they mean. But there's always a risk that some portion of your audience will take you at your word, and do as you say. The fact that you didn't mean it that way is immaterial.

Blogger Jim Emerson, defending Tropic Thunder against us literal-minded protesters, uses as an example the Randy Newman song "Short People." He's critical of short folks who felt attacked by the song, completely missing the point that it was a satire of prejudice, and not prejudice itself.

Well, let me give him a view from close to the ground on that one. I was a four-foot-eight-inch high-school senior when that song came out in 1977. And after being initially taken aback, I did get that Randy Newman had nothing against me. I understood the satire, and thought it was clever.

My problem was the people who took it literally, and took it as a great opportunity for teasing short people. They weren't interested in the satirical intentions of the songwriter. They just thought it was funny to tell me I had no reason to live.

And, without a doubt, there are going to be Tropic Thunder fans who are going to think that making jokes about "full retard" and "once upon a time, there was a retard" in the presence of people with intellectual disabilities is all in the same roaring good fun as the film. I'm pretty sure they're not going to be running to Tom Hanks' house and Sean Penn's house and teasing them for being one of those satirized actors.

How much do we hold Ben Stiller and Co. responsible for that? I don't know. To some degree, an artist can't be culpable for the misinterpretation of his work, and for what people do with that misinterpretation.

I do think, though, that some blame can be laid based on the way this particular satire was put together. I believe that actors taking on roles of people with intellectual disabilities just to chase awards could have been well-satirized without a single R-word being uttered. I don't think such language was essential to the humor; politically correct language would actually have been a more apt target. If they didn't need offensive slurs to characterize other groups in the film, they could well have avoided it here, too.

One troubling tip as to why they didn't may be found in an interview with Stiller and the script's co-writer, Etan Cohen, on MTV.com:

"Some people have taken this as making fun of handicapped people, but we're really trying to make fun of the actors who use this material as fodder for acclaim," co-writer Etan Cohen echoed to MTV. "The last thing you want is for people to think you're making fun of the victims in this who are having their lives turned into fodder for people to win Oscars."

The joke, then, is really on people like Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man), Sean Penn (I Am Sam) and Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump), actors who do more harm than good by denying the painful realities of the illness and instead paint their characters as too sunny or bright, Cohen said.

"Movies about the mentally retarded is something we talked about for a long time. My grandfather was adopted by a mentally retarded man, a man who shouldn't have been allowed to adopt a kid," Cohen revealed. "When he saw 'Forrest Gump,' you never saw a guy angrier than him. It was not such a picnic to be raised by that guy."
So the topic of satire here seems to be not so much actors portraying people with intellectual disabilities, but actors who portray them in a positive light. Who portray them as something other than victims who are in pain and ill. Whose portrayals don't match the negative experience of Cohen's grandfather, who was angry about Forrest Gump and felt that the man who raised him was not worthy to be a parent.

Doesn't sound like such good fun now, does it? Maybe we weren't so wrong in taking it literally after all.

Though we can't do much for Cohen (other than to recommend some community-service time with the Special Olympics, and maybe therapy), perhaps by broadcasting the message that the R-word is hurtful, we'll reach some of those other literal thinkers. Or we'll reach some folks who didn't see the movie but may be in a position to step forward and stop harassment. Perhaps introducing the idea that this is hate speech will get people thinking -- if not the ones in the theater or the production office, then the ones in the schools and the communities.

And hey, if anyone complains -- we're not really protesting, we're satirizing people who protest. That gives us permission to say anything we please, right?

Read more: Special Needs News | Pledge to Stop Using the R-Word | Video Responses to "Tropic Thunder"

Image courtesy of the Special Olympics.
August 14, 2008 at 8:32 am
(1) Wendy B says:

Cohen is a sick person, IMHO. Forrest Gump, I Am Sam, and Rain Man gave DIGNITY to people with disabilities. His father has his own personal trauma, he should seek counseling rather than say that the mentally challenged need to always be shown in a degraded fashion.

My own story is that my parents were both poor students, and dad has major reading difficulties. I was summa cum laude in pre-med (straight A), so I guess it didn’t hurt me much! My parents have talents (such as dad’s fantastic mechanical and carpentry skills) that I wish I had inherited more of! Should I have ridiculed my father for reading at a third grade level? No, that’s sick, and contrary to every major religion’s tenants to “honor thy father and mother.”

The Cohens needed to learn to appreciate what was good in a flawed person. And who isn’t flawed? I’ve met plenty of genius-level people who lacked parenting skills. They obviously were handicapped in their own way.

January 14, 2009 at 7:06 am
(2) Jalu says:

Depends on how the grandfather was affected by his mentally retarded (did Cohen say that?) man. Maybe he was abused by him. If a son gets molested by his own father, he’ll lose respect for him too.

On the other side, I once saw a documentary about a father with Tourette’s syndrome. His ticks seemed dangerous for the child, but he didn’t hurt it in any way.

Still if the movie is said to mock actors who play mentally disabled people, it’s still an insult because the movie was done by “healthy” people. I’m sure there are enough more or less mentally disabled people out there who thought Rain Man or Forrest Gump are good movies because they raised awareness. It’s up to them and not Cohen to decide if it’s ok to mock the actors.

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