tropic thunder

What do you get when you put
old racist jokes,
glorification of war
and outright ableism together?

A: Tropic Thunder

Tropic Thunder is a big-budget film to be released next week. The synopsis on the promotional website describes the film as

“an action comedy about a group of self-absorbed actors who set out to make the most expensive war film. After ballooning costs force the studio to cancel the movie, the frustrated director refuses to stop shooting, leading his cast into the jungles of Southeast Asia, where they encounter real bad guys.”

In the movie, Ben Stiller plays an actor who is upset for not winning an award for his [wretched, offensive] portrayal of a man with developmental disabilities in a movie titled Simple Jack. Robert Downey Jr. plays a white man in blackface. Jack Black plays another actor, one who wore a body suit and starred in a picture called The Fatties.

It upsets me when I hear people let things go in the name of humor. Movies, television, and all forms of media play a huge role in how people perceive things, even when the themes are less obvious. Two weeks ago, Angie Zapata, a young trans woman of color, was murdered (and called “it”) just for being a trans woman. Only a few months before Angie’s death, Dorothy Dixon, a disabled woman, was abused, beaten, and murdered in Illinois. The New Jersey 4 are still in jail for defending themselves against a homophobic attacker (in which the media called them things like a “wolf pack of lesbians”). There are so many more that we’ve lost. We cannot afford to let movies rooted— or quietly lined— in mischaracterization and dehumanization pass by. If it was just comedy, it wouldn’t cost us so much.

Patricia Bauer, a disability rights blogger who has been following the movie, wrote that disability organizations will be meeting with Dreamworks this Wednesday. Be prepared to take action.

Under the cut, you’ll find a R-rated preview and a dialogue between two of the characters that will show you why this is unacceptable. [trigger warning— many violent scenes, language, and all-out offensive stereotyping]

(h/t to JFAactivist blog for transcript)

Stiller: There were times when I was doing Jack when I actually felt retarded. Like really retarded.
Downey: Oh yeah. Damn.
Stiller: In a weird way, I had to sort of just free myself up to believe that it was okay to be stupid or dumb.
Downey: To be a moron.
Stiller: Yeah.
Downey: To be moronical.
Stiller: Exactly.
Downey: An imbecile.
Stiller: Yeah. When I was playing a character.
Downey: When you was a character.
Stiller: Yeah, I mean, as Jack. Definitely.
Downey: It’s like working with mercury. It’s how science makes art form.
Stiller: Yeah.
Downey: You an artist.
Stiller: It’s what we do, right?
Downey: Everybody knows you never do a full retard.
Stiller: What do you mean?
Downey: Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, Rainman, look retarded, act retarded, not retarded. Count toothpicks to your cards. Autistic. Sure. Not retarded. You know Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump. Slow, yes. Retarded, maybe. Braces on his legs. But he charmed the pants off Nixon and he won a ping-pong competition? That ain’t retarded. You went full retard, man. Never go full retard.


Filed under ableism, activism, disability, intersections, organizing, violence

22 responses to “tropic thunder

  1. I’m no fan of Hollywood’s tendency to cast non-disabled actors as characters with disabilities. I even think there’s some scathing satire to be done with that. But satire, as nojojojo points out, is about subverting power:

    Consider the power differential, and direction. If your satire is directed from an oppressed group towards a group in power, you might have a satire on your hands. If your satire contains a subversive attack on the existing, status-quo power structure, you might have a satire on your hands. If the subject of your satire would find your comments funny, and not merely (yet another) a slap in the face, you might have a satire on your hands.

    Ben Stiller and company may think they’re subverting power–they may even be trying to subvert power and failing. But the problem with just about everything Tropic Thunder is spoofing is that the jokes are still centered around the people in power. (“Let’s exaggerate the privileged so they look like fools!” is risky, because people with privilege don’t see their privilege, so they really don’t see how foolish exaggerated versions of themselves are).

    A joke playing off non-disabled actors playing disabled characters might work if you had a disabled actor playing a non-disabled person, and then winning lots of Oscars while everyone says, “That performance was so powerful! It must’ve been very difficult to do!”, etc.

  2. Oops. Paragraph #2 is a quote from nojojojo’s post. I tried to do a blockquote and failed ;-).

  3. every morning when i wait for the subway, there’s a blurry poster for tropic thunder across the platform from me. i kept seeing the last name “DOWNEY” over what didn’t look like robert downey jr. and going “no… they… no?” i don’t know how i missed this one until now.

    and now i want to rip it down and beat everyone who decided this movie was a good idea with it. for the whole movie.

  4. I think there is a direct line between the cultural belief that people with differences and the torture and murders that you mention…

  5. I just posted an entry on this today on my own blog (hat tip to your own analysis), pointing out what bothered me most about how various matters are handled, at the very least, in the trailer. Suffice it to say, there’s a rather significant contrast between how Downey’s portrayal of another race and Stiller’s portrayal of disability are dealt with.

  6. tera & codeman38, i like what you both say in your posts about satire and what’s missing here in this movie— the bubble that should scream this is a joke! as well as the satire being aimed at people of power.

  7. Erin

    And I love how if we find this offensive, it’s because “[we] have no sense of HUMOR!!!!!!!”

    This movie disgusts me.

  8. Pingback: Oh Tropic Thunder « Feminocracy

  9. I saw today that the cowriter of this movie talked about his grandfather being adopted by a “mentally retarded” person, and how angry his grandfather was at seeing Forrest Gump because “it was no picnic” to be raised by a man with a disability.

    Now, perhaps it’s quite true that Cohen’s grandfather was adopted by someone who was not prepared to raise a child, and at that time, social support would likely have been unavailable or not equipped to assist with the situation.

    But in one breath he says he doesn’t hate people with disabilities, he’s satirizing Hollywood, not making fun of “retards.” In the next breath, he talks about how much his grandfather hated his adoptive father, who had a disability classified at the time as retardation.

    Cognitive dissonance?

  10. Franny

    This is pretty disgusting. Making fun of how white, able-bodied people always get to represent “the other” (aka us) on film is a good idea in my mind. But this is just a mess. It’s not satire if it re-inscribes people’s original oppression.

    Also, this makes me wonder, is there a term for an able-bodied actor portraying a person with a disability, like “blackface” but for disabilities? If not, now seems like a good time to make one up.

  11. Hi, Franny,

    Also, this makes me wonder, is there a term for an able-bodied actor portraying a person with a disability, like “blackface” but for disabilities? If not, now seems like a good time to make one up.

    I’ve heard “crippling up” to describe that phenomenon, though it might be a mostly British term. I’ve heard “disability drag” as well. (Though I don’t personally like that one, because of the transphobia inherent in it). I don’t know if there’s an “official” word, though.

  12. Pingback: Disaboom | Alexa | The "Tropic Thunder" debacle

  13. Chris

    This whole argument is retarded.
    Was the movie Dumb and Dumber ablesim?
    Nobody in that film had the condition referred to as dumb.
    Might as well go whine about that as well.
    Oh how about that movie “white chicks”?
    I guess the caucasian people should blow up into a riot about that film just because they can.
    Seriously people get a hold of reality.
    Keep your completely bias opinions to yourself.

  14. DO NOT support this cause. Any disabled person that finds this offensive is an idiot and they themselves are retarded.

  15. i don’t know what to do about moderation…
    if you’re opposed to the boycotts then i think it’s fine to say so but please don’t use words that this whole post says is hate speech.

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  17. “Seriously people get a hold of reality.”

    Yes, embrace bigotry.

  18. Sam Crawford

    This movie was funny, hands down. I also find it funny that slasher movies like Saw, Saw II, Saw III, etc. NEVER get protested. But call someone a name and OOOH NO! I’m black and I thought Robert as a Black Man was FUNNY!!! He did a great job and was pretty damn authentic. It was also funny when Richard Pryor wore “White Face” way back. As for the retard thing, they explain that in the movie, which i’m sure most of the complainers HAVEN’T seen. Lighten up people, more important things to spend energy on.

  19. Pingback: one last post on tropic thunder « cripchick’s weblog

  20. Scarlett

    I think I also heard Robert Downey Jr putting on an over-the-top fake Australian accent in that trailer too. While this is in no way the same thing as blackface, it’s another example of exploiting (someone else’s) difference for ‘comedy’ value to add to the list.

  21. D J GRAY

    Hey all, it is satire which for most part is self referential to the characters in question. Not outward at us / you / them… whichever you like. By going “full retard” he is merely referencing how Hollywood do it, you know, fully able Tom Hanks or Russell Crowe going for the heart strings portraying challenged people but not quite all the way. It is what it is, and that is a joke about how hollywood as a whole is a joke, pandering to the ego and such. Shout out to Sam Crawfords well executed point. You my man say it well. How about we all meet up one day and instead of going on about this stuff build a shelter for the homeless or raise money for a decent cause or something. One love x

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