Tropic Blunder: R-Rated Comedies and the New Offensive

Could the groups boycotting Tropic Thunder be right?
By  · Published on August 12th, 2008

A few years ago I found myself in one of those generic, convention-center chairs situated near the front of the grand hall at the Driskill Hotel in Austin. It was the kind of chair created solely to keep someone comfortable for exactly an hour, the kind that makes you want to leave the conference room as soon as a panel is over. The rest of the room was built with the same intent. The lights, too bright against the walls, kept the mood completely sterile. I imagined countless dentists, realtors and traveling salesmen sitting in the same seats, listening to whatever their bosses or the industry had sent them down to Austin to learn about.

That environment seemed perfect for them. It did not, however, seem perfect for me and several hundred other Austin Film Festival attendees listening to Michael Ian Black and Jake Kasdan talk about the return of the R-rated comedy. There was nothing funny about the discussion – there was a short history of the genre, a few attempts at dissecting the humor and some honest talk about where it was headed. Aside from a few quick non sequiturs from Michael Ian Black, the conversation could have been about the technical specs for a new root canal drilling instrument.

Two years later, Paramount is realizing that it shouldn’t go full retard.

It didn’t take a rocket surgeon to see that the rise of R-rated comedies would be followed by the parallel outrage of the communities who felt slighted in the process. After all, it’s impossible to make an R-rated omelet without cracking a few racist jokes. Or misogynistic jokes. Or religion jokes. Personally, I’ve weathered the slew of outraged protests and calls for boycotts with a roll of my eyes. For the most part, it’s been knee-jerk reactions clothed in a tone that seeks more pity than communal understanding. Now, on the edge of groups calling for a national boycott of Tropic Thunder because of its portrayal of the mentally handicapped and use of the word “retard,” I find myself having to rethink my positions a bit.

Here’s why.

Although there have been some outlandish reactions and demands, the argument that most are making seems solid. The question of whether the scenes and dialog in Tropic Thunder are offensive is up for debate. The fact that they have offended people, is not. Unfortunately, despite the differences, those people have been lumped into the same groups that always protest, no matter the cause. The main difference is that these groups – groups like The Arc and The Special Olympics – are raising their voice for a group of people that often cannot speak for itself. And while I think I could summarize the main concerns, it would be much easier to hear it directly.

“I am hearing the word ‘retard’ used more and more – on TV, in movies and by kids and young adults,” says Executive Director of The Arc of the Capital Area Susan Eason. “Certain words have a lot of power. . . I believe that, as a society, we have become much more sensitive about how other groups of people are portrayed, but people with disabilities seem to be fair game.”

Pretty simple. The root of the argument is that “retard” is an offensive slur which most who have cognitive disabilities and those with family members who do deem utterly unacceptable. Eason reiterated this point by saying that she’d “never spoken to anyone who works in the field or has a family member with a disability, who thinks calling someone a ‘retard’ is ever ok.”

I’ve said it before elsewhere, but the offended group gets to define what offends them, not the majority. When a black person tells me she’s offended by the word “ni—-,” I accept it. When someone with a cognitive disability tells me he’s offended by the word “retard,” I accept it. No questions asked. What’s even more disappointing is that the same people who were shocked that I just used the word “ni—-” (instead of the incredibly infantile “N-word”) probably didn’t bat an eye the five times I used the word “retard” previously in the article.

I’ll agree that some groups, including as reported by Patricia Bauer (who launched a lot of this discussion), are demanding too much of the film and too much of Paramount. That the company is in talks at all with these groups should be a breath of fresh air, but it’s a bit presumptuous to ask for all the scenes involved to be cut from the final print. It illustrates a misunderstanding of how the system works, but the reactions to Bauer’s response have been almost as absurd.

For the most part, the main argument including some from our very own Neil Miller and rage-a-holic Robert Fure has been that people just need to lighten up, man. The basis, if I can characterize their arguments as well as they’ve characterized their opposition, is that it’s just not cool, you know, for people to complain about anything. However, there have been a few decent arguments amongst the pile of of bad, reactionary ones.

The strongest argument seems to be that Stiller and company are making fun of actors, not the mentally disabled. Taken in context, the joke only uses the word “retard” as a vehicle for making a larger point about the lengths that actors will go to in order to tempt the Academy. The joke is on actors. Not on the mentally handicapped.

My Downey-esque response to that: can’t it be both? The two options are not mutually exclusive, and humor, when not focused well can hit multiple targets. I think while Stiller is obviously lampooning actors, anyone would be hard-pressed to claim that his cartoonish depiction of the mentally handicapped in Simple Jack doesn’t also land squarely on the butt of the joke. It seems reasonable to assume that many in the audience won’t be chortling and remarking in low tones about how charming the high-minded satire of the situation is – they’ll be laughing at how silly Stiller is being. More so, whenever a human being is reduced down to a flat image or single concept for the purpose of humor, it’s a safe bet that they are the punchline.

But the people in the audience will all be of age since the film is rated R. It’s not even an issue of the film influencing a younger crowd negatively, as some have pointed out.

Leaving aside the obvious point that younger people will sneak into the theater and have perfectly easy, context-free access to the clip where Stiller and Downey, Jr have their infamous dialog about “going full retard,” it seems as though the college crowd is certainly still susceptible to a certain type of influence. It’s inevitable that “You never go full retard” will enter into the culture as a meme, making its way to the front of t-shirts and in frat house conversations alike. It’s that inevitability that has cognitive disability advocates worried – the proliferation of a slur being hoisted so highly in the public mind while being made cool to say by two highly revered actors. Is this going to lead to World War III? No. But for a certain section of the population, it’s a disheartening reality to see a word they cringe at being thrown around without much consideration.

Branding the groups that are bringing this boycott to fruition as “whiny” profoundly misunderstands the issue. In fact, The Special Olympics is not without a sense of humor, giving its blessing to the film The Ringer during its production and after its release. It’s also not a case of freedom of speech – everyone’s speech is protected. Tropic Thunder is free to use the dialog. People are free not to see it. People are also free not to commercially support products made by Paramount in response. Until the Federal Government threatens to arrest people for making Tropic Thunder or for decrying is as offensive, freedom of speech doesn’t factor in. At all. Ever.

It’s also not a situation where claiming those that are offended can solve their own issue by simply not seeing the film. If it were personally offensive, that would be enough, but the complaint is such that the film’s content is offensive on a cultural level – that it helps in perpetuating and most likely increasing the use of a broad-based slur against a group of people.

So what happens now? What do people want to happen now? For Susan Eason, it’s straightforward.

“The civil rights movements in the sixties and seventies were, among other things, about awareness. It would be awesome if Paramount, and others in the business of making movies, would use this as a wake-up call.”

No death threats to studio executives. No outlandish demands to have most of the movie on the cutting room floor.

As long as there are slurs, there is going to be a question of how to use them in art. It’s not always going to be a comfortable conversation, but the conversation will evolve. If there is a silver lining to this situation, it’s that a discussion is taking place out in the open. Whether audiences agree or not, Paramount is learning a powerful lesson. They capitulated almost immediately on taking down the Simple Jack advertisements for the film, and are going to see the effect of this boycott. It might be strong. It might not. But it will be present.

The R-rated Comedy is still young in its revival, but it’s clearly entering it’s rebellious years. A while back, it was content to make low-brow sex and defecation jokes to get the soccer moms riled up. It was happy to point out the hypocrisies and absurdities of some religious doctrines. Now, it’s pushing its boundaries, and at least a certain part of the population is pushing back. This time, with good cause. If it doesn’t seem like a good cause or it seems unruly that they are taking offense to a piece of art – my suggestion is to either think more critically about the situation or lighten up.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.