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>Marcia, Marcia, Marcia

>Maureen McCormick won’t be seeing Tropic Thunder because she doesn’t like the plotline involving an actor’s bid for an Oscar by playing “Simple Jack,” a–as Tropic Thunder calls it–“retard.”:

I want to add my two cents to the opinions on whether it’s offensive to the mentally challenged. I know Ben Stiller has said that he’s making fun of actors, not people with disabilities. Still, the movie is geared toward a younger crowd and I fear a lot of those teenagers and college students will leave the theater thinking “retard” is an okay word to use.

Where to start? First, go see the movie if you want to have an opinion of it. Second, don’t patronize “the younger crowd” (sounds like something Alice would say!) by assuming that they view movies as life manuals. Were big sisters the world over corrupted by how mean you could be to Jan? The assumption that “they” won’t “get it” underestimates young people, prompts an impulse to control what they see/hear/read, and infantilizes the rest of us. It’s a power trip.

The controversy about this movie reminds me of the worst-titled children’s book ever, Someone Called Me a Retard Today . . . and My Heart Felt Sad. While it’s difficult to argue with the book’s theme–name-calling is hurtful–it missed the point that “retard” is an insult thrown around promiscuously, so much so that the term “mentally retarded” is no longer used to describe those individuals who actually have mental disabilities, a point excellently made by YouTube’s Retarded Policeman and his brother.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Anonymous says:

    >I’d like to quibble on the worst-titled children’s book ever. A book we were sent for Newbery consideration during my year: WHEN MOMMY HAD A MASTECTOMY. No kidding!


  2. Elizabeth says:

    >You know, I find this all rather comforting. I’ve seen the movie, and I think anyone who comes away from it thinking “retard” is an ok word to use will also think it’s inoffensive to put shoepolish on your face and do a minstrel show,to offer sexually explicit favors for drugs,to kill pandas and wear their skins, to name an asian child “Little Half Squat” and to worship Tivo like a god–oh wait, I do the last one already.

    But my point is, people have been complaining that children and teens will pick up the wrong messages and vocabulary from books and movies as long as I have been paying attention, and let’s face it, we’re most sensitive to the names that touch us personally. By the way, I’ve never seen a parody that someone didn’t mistake for the real thing. Didn’t someone quote a parody review that you wrote, Roger, in a serious book of criticism? It’s kind of a relief to know that in the age of ebooks and blogs and text messages, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

  3. Roger Sutton says:

    >Peter Sieruta (now of the excellent Collecting Children’s Book blog) wrote a really funny piece for us called “Dear Clueless: The Rejection Letters of Edna Albertson,” which was kind of a takeoff on Leonard Marcus’s collection of Ursula Nordstrom’s letters, Dear Genius. Some children’s literature textbook reprinted a portion of Peter’s article, which had ol’ Edna rejecting everything from Charlotte’s Web to Goosebumps, as an example of how different editors have different tastes. They thought she was real. Retards.

  4. Anonymous says:

    >Are you aware of any of these people who a) have disabilities and b) disagree? The point for many people with disabilities, myself included, is that it is inappropriate for nondisabled people to decide what it is about our lives that is game for humor. Seems pretty basic to me.

  5. Roger Sutton says:

    >I don’t think it is all that basic, Anon. “Simple Jack” is not a portrayal of a disabled person, it’s a jab at all the Hollywood notions that mentally diabled people are nicer, more sensitive and more (unconsciously) linguistically picturesque than the rest of us. The movie makes that exceedingly–even repetitively–clear.

    I also don’t think we can control what other people find funny about us, either as individuals or as members of a group. We can attempt to persuade others to come around to our point of view, which is one thing, or, as Timothy Shriver has done, we can bloviate about getting Congress to step in to regulate what movies are allowed to show, which is another.

  6. Anonymous says:

    >There’s quite a difference between “controlling what other people find funny about us” and expecting to have a voice in how the group “we” belong to is portrayed. Seemingly, this concept was understood, or a consultant would not have been brought in to look over the bits where a character was playing a character wearing black face to achieve the same kind of parody. Nondisabled people should not be the sole decisionmakers about images of disability, but they are, time and time again.

  7. Fran Hodgkins says:


    Thanks for the link to The Retarded Policeman and his brother. I think that says it all.

  8. Roger Sutton says:

    >It’s true that Ben Stiller screened it for the NAACP to make sure they wouldn’t raise a stink, but I think that says more about Hollywood’s fear of black people (and their wallets) than it does respect for their input. But, yes–if you feel the need to run it by one group, run it by them all.

  9. Anonymous says:

    >You’re right that it was a screening, not a consultant. Thank you for the correction. And, yes, I imagine money and the fear of “a stink” was what led to that choice, but clearly it was understood that one way to avoid a stink is to give people input into the images of themselves (parodied or not) that you are putting out for public consumption. It’s not the first time people have behaved more decently because there was a financial incentive to do so. If there were a fair number of movies, books, or, hell, anything at all, that included three-dimensional portrayals of disabled people by disabled people, this might not be an issue. There aren’t, so it continues to be an issue to no small number of disability rights groups.

  10. Roger Sutton says:

    >There’s certainly a problem in that Stiller seems to have been more worried about offending one group of people than another. A number of commentators have also criticized the movie’s depiction of Jews, as personified in Tom Cruise’s movie producer character. Manohla Dargis of the NYT wrote, “What’s most notable about the film’s use of blackface is how much softer it is compared with the rather more vulgar and far less loving exploitation of what you might call Jewface.”

  11. >Any way you look at it, name-calling is hurtful. And even if it is steeped in satire (e.g., the Oscar-grabber), that satire is lost on young audiences in favor of the humor of hearing the word “retard” come out of an adult’s mouth on the big screen. Not appropriate, any more than the use of the n-word (African American) or the f-word (homosexual).

    And I might add…

    Marcia was practically never purposely mean to Jan. Jan had all sorts of insecurities and self-esteem issues, which were connected to Marcia in more than one episode– but Marcia was a Brady, and not inherently mean. The big-screen adaptation skewed their relationship and portrayed Marcia as a beeyatch.

  12. Melissa Wiley says:

    >it missed the point that “retard” is an insult thrown around promiscuously, so much so that the term “mentally retarded” is no longer used to describe those individuals who actually have mental disabilities

    Actually, the term is still very much in use, in the U.S. at least, as I learned to my surprise when my 4 yr old son was diagnosed with mental retardation in July. The diagnosis didn’t surprise me, but the terminology did. I hadn’t realized it was still in use. Not that I have a problem with it–in fact I find it much preferable to the jargony “intellectually disabled” label now preferred by the former American Assoc. on Mental Retardation (which renamed itself in 2006 and now promotes the use of the term mentioned above).

    The medical establishment and school systems–at least here in southern California–still use mental retardation as an official diagnostic term.

    A British friend tells me teachers in the UK would be fired for using “mentally retarded”–the preferred term there is “learning disabled”–which of course means something entirely different over here.

    When reading up on MR after my son’s diagnosis, I was fascinated by how much of the discussion centers around the terminology. Even the Wikipedia page starts with a long exploration of the various terms the condition has been described by over the centuries. You have to scroll down for quite a while to get to any discussion of the dx criteria, description of the condition, etc.

    And it was there that I realized that while I’ve always avoided the hurtful slur “retard,” my frequent use of “idiot” and “moron” (particularly aimed at other drivers, LOL) falls into the same category of insult. “Moron” was invented by doctors to replace “idiot” and “imbecile” when they became slurs in common usage. “Mentally retarded” was later coined to replace the similarly fallen “moron.” I suppose if “retard” keeps up the momentum it has been gaining as an insult for the past, what, 30 years?, we’ll be stuck with jargon like “intellectually disabled” or “mentally challenged.” Ugh.

    But for now, at least, “mental retardation” is what’s printed all over the medical forms that pour into this house.

    I haven’t seen Tropic Thunder yet so am not qualified to make a judgment on its satirical usage of retard one way or the other!

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