Friday, December 02, 2011

In Which I Anger My Friends

I applaud the intellectual disability community for their remarkably successful (but still sadly incomplete) efforts to raise consciousness that the word "retarded" and its derivatives carry, in our culture and society, a legacy of dehumanization and exclusion.  I, for one, am now much more attuned to the way people use the slur in their day-to-day speech and how harmful that is.  I know this is true of lots of people outside the disability community as well, and I think we need to continue to work so that the word is understood to be the kind of group-based slur, like the n-word and similar expressions, that is by consensus understood as inappropriate in everyday speech.  We, alas, still have too long a way to go.

But every so often, I worry that people who are engaged in these incredibly important efforts at consciousness raising want to prevent all use of the r-word even in artistic expression.  This post, objecting to the use of the word by two characters in a brief scene in the new George Clooney movie The Descendants, comes uncomfortably close to the line for me.  Although it's the point of some movies and literature to present us an idealized version of ourselves, perhaps as a way of calling us to act up to those ideals, movies and literature would be incredibly impoverished -- if not stultifying and oppressive -- if that was the point of all of them.  People use the r-word in real life, just like they use slurs against other groups (and just like they do other harmful and wrongful things), and it would be wrong to say that movies and literature can't depict that.  (And I think it's a cheat to say that the use of the word can be depicted but only if the character who uses it "learns the lesson" that it's wrong or is otherwise shown to be a bad and unsympathetic character.  That's not any different than requiring purely idealized depictions of people.)

Now, one can argue about whether the use of the word in the movie or book at issue works as literature, and, particularly if it doesn't, whether the use of the word bespeaks a more general prejudice of the author or the story.  The reference in the blog post I linked above to the "gratuitous" use of the word hints at those questions.  I haven't seen The Descendants or read the book on which it's based, so I am not equipped to have an opinion on that issue here.  I also think that it's great to use an occasion like this -- the use of the r-word in a major motion picture vehicle involving one of our biggest movie stars -- as a teaching and organizing moment.  I think it's totally in bounds to criticize a movie or book, or its creators, for demonstrating or feeding bias (though I think those criticisms raise complex issues about how to read literature and what it's for).  I thought that at least one of the writers of Tropic Thunder could be criticized on that ground, based on the way he defended the treatment of people with intellectual disabilities in that movie, though criticism is different than a boycott.   To the extent that the blog post I linked simply seeks to provoke a teaching and organizing moment, I'm all for it.

But I worry that some of the language in the blog post I link to above -- e.g., wondering just how George Clooney and Alexander Payne, who seem to be such good people, could use such a hurtful word in a movie; applauding Fox Searchlight for overdubbing and removing the word from the DVD release of Miss March (another movie I haven't seen); and suggesting that Clooney, Payne, and Fox Searchlight "should . . . be held accountable" here -- suggests that the r-word should never be used in a film, at least without trying to extract a moral from it.  That just seems wrong to me.  (I think it's different when a person like LeBron James, speaking in his own voice and not as an author or actor, uses the word as an actual slur.)  The intellectual disability community has demonstrated beyond doubt that the r-word is, in this society at this time, as harmful and hurtful a word as the n-word or the small handful of other slurs like it are.  But I wouldn't say that movies that use any of those words should be boycott.



Blogger Sam said...

I've often sort of wondered about this, particularly considering that the Special Olympics actively endorsed The Ringer, which includes this scene.

Clearly, the issue is not as simple as whether or not someone says the "r" word during the course of a movie. Considering that there are some great movies in which people use this and other slurs, it's not even plausible to argue that the "r" word automatically makes a movie not worth seeing. Context, including the way that the audience is meant to react to a character's use of the slur, is going to matter a lot.

The Ringer, for example, includes scenes like the one linked above, but follows those scenes with positive portrayals of intellectual and developmental disabilities, complete with actors who themselves have disabilities. The overall message is that the initial attitudes of Steve (the main character) and his Uncle Gary were dead wrong. Without those early scenes showing Steve's and Gary's initial prejudice, the rest of the movie would have had less of an impact.

6:00 PM  
Blogger Amy Robertson said...

Excellent, thought-provoking post. Responsive-blog-post-provoking, too.

- Amy

9:06 AM  

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