It appears that with Tropic Thunder just over a week away from its theatrical release, not everyone is laughing at its often ridiculous premise. In fact, it appears that some groups have now started to come forward to speak out against elements of the film they feel to be insensitive and inappropriate.
And no, we are not talking about the part where actor Robert Downey Jr. portrays an actor who has his skin dyed black in order to play the role intended for an African American. We are talking about Simple Jack, the parody movie within a movie in which Ben Stiller’s character Tugg Speedman is seen as the big action star taking his goal of winning an Oscar a little too far and ultimately failing miserably. In Simple Jack, Speedman plays quite possibly the most stereotypical mentally handicapped farm aid ever seen on screen, a mixture between Sean Penn in I Am Sam and Cuba Gooding Jr. in Radio, but overemphasized to the nth degree for parody effect.
It turns out that this relatively small plot-point has caught the attention of Patricia Bauer, a veteran journalist whose personal blog is dedicated to bringing awareness to news relating to disabilities. In an article posted on August 1, Bauer commented on Tropic Thunder’s sub-story:
It’s just good clean fun, the studio might say, pointing out that the movie also pokes fun at racial stereotypes. It’s a sendup of old Hollywood films that trotted out able-bodied actors in disability drag, like Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump,” Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man” and Sean Penn in “I am Sam.” Stiller isn’t laughing at people with intellectual disabilities, I can imagine his publicist saying. He’s laughing at the way Hollywood portrays them.
But for the estimated 14.3 million Americans with cognitive disabilities and their families, such arguments may be problematic.
Bauer went on to make an update to her blog on August 2, reporting that disabilities rights groups had begun organizing and contacting Paramount Pictures and Dreamworks Studios to arrange dialog around what they felt to be inappropriate content. As well, Bauer chimed in with more commentary on why exactly this sort of thing was most deplorable, even compared with some of the other potentially offensive devices used in the film:
There will doubtless be statements from studio executives who say the film is an equal opportunity offender. It pokes fun at racial stereotypes, with Robert Downey Jr. dressing in blackface and citing the theme song of “The Jeffersons.” Jack Black does fart jokes. Everybody’s offended, right?
Let’s answer that with some questions. People of different races surely were involved in the making of this film, and were able to express opinions about which references were humorous and which might have gone too far. So were people with different sexual orientations.
How many people with cognitive disabilities were involved in the making of this film? Were any people with cognitive disabilities involved in focus groups for this film? How many are employed by Dreamworks, or by parent company Paramount?
At this point, her argument, which by no means is completely unreasonable, has turned from “this is offensive on a moral level” to “the studio doesn’t employ people with mental disabilities, so it’s really not okay.” Yet because the studio employs a few African Americans, no one should be as offended by the part where Robert Downey Jr. sings the theme from “The Jeffersons.” I’m sorry, but that isn’t how this works — if you are going to be offended to the point of making a big stink about it on the internet and calling for the studio to hold special screenings so that you can approve of the film’s content, then you’d better be prepared to be offended for everyone involved. You don’t get to pick and choose like that. And rationalizing it in such a manner discredits your cause.
Let’s be reasonable for a moment. We can all agree that intentionally degrading someone who cannot defend themselves solely for the purpose of a laugh is wrong. You would never walk up to someone with a mental handicap and start saying inappropriate things, nor would you want to impress upon the youth of America that intolerance is acceptable on any level.
But in defense of Tropic Thunder, there are two things at work. One is that the studio talking points are right, this film is a parody, a send-up of the often absurd lengths to which actors will go in order to further their careers. That is the foundation upon which the comedic elements of the film are built. And having seen the film, I can say without a doubt that all of the inappropriate moments are merely devices used to drive the overall tone of the film — that actors are all assholes who would overstep the bounds of stereotypes to win an award and make an extra buck.
Secondly, and probably most importantly, the film has been given an R-rating by the MPAA. That means that anyone under the age of 17 who would like to see this film must be accompanied by a parental guardian. And I believe therein lies a much bigger issue.
As one commenter on Patricia Bauer’s blog states, “Hollywood has a huge role in setting culture because of their visibility and prevalence…” I would agree to an extent, but would wholeheartedly disagree should someone say that Hollywood has the only role in setting culture. They don’t. In a case like this one, it is up to parents to decide what is appropriate for their children. If those children are too young and impressionable to understand that the film is a parody about actors, then their parents should not allow them to see it. And anyone over the age of 17 is free to choose whether or not they find the film offensive or entertaining. That is the purpose of the R-rating. If Tropic Thunder were rated PG, then we would be looking at a real problem. But in this case we are seeing a film that clearly contains potentially offensive material, no arguments there, but is very clearly not intended for the most impressionable members of society.
The question I would ask to those who are “organizing against” Tropic Thunder is this: Is it right to restrict what some people might find entertaining because it is offensive to some members of society? No, it isn’t. That would be bordering on censorship. What is right is to limit the access to those who are not able to discern for themselves what is intended to be humorous and what might just be blatantly ignorant, offensive material. Personally, I think that the R-rating attached to this film does that. If you are offended by it, don’t go see it. And if you don’t want your kids to grow up being intolerant of the mentally handicapped, don’t let them see it either — or teach them what is right and what is wrong. It seems oddly simple to me.
Then again, I am just trying to process this situation logically. Personally, I’m not offended by the elements of Tropic Thunder that others may find offensive, primarily because I can see the context in which they were meant to be funny. And as Ben Stiller said at the recent press junket for the film, he did put a lot of thought into the idea of playing Simple Jack:
Yes, for sure. Again, it was the same focus through the lens of what would an actor do to try and win an award that would be wrong-headed and playing Simple Jack was an obvious attempt at legitimacy. Obviously, out of context that could seem wrong, but I felt like within the context of the movie, we’ve seen this happen in life and we all know that any time an actor goes out and does that, which is really putting yourself out there, it’s a very tough thing to pull off.
On top of all this, it appears that Paramount Studios and Dreamworks are doing a bit of damage control in the situation, having removed the promotional site SimpleJack.com and the Simple Jack movie poster (seen above right) from the Tugg Speedman viral website.
Ultimately, I believe that this is just another situation that will sadly get blown out of proportion. Instead of personally setting good examples for our kids, teach them right and wrong and having discussions about tolerance within our homes, Americans are always just looking for someone to blame. And Hollywood is an easy target. And by their logic, because Ben Stiller uses mental illness as a plot device in his R-rated comedy, he is the reason that kids pick on the Special Education kids in high school. I think not. I think that the parents of America should take a long look in the mirror and stop pointing at Hollywood to explain all the shortcomings of society.That said, it is my initial response to defend the entertainment value of things like this, not because I think making fun of mentally handicapped folks is funny, but because I have the ability to understand the context. And I would hope that anyone going to see Tropic Thunder next week would be able to do the same.
On the side, below you will find one of the clips in question, in which Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) and Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) discuss Tugg’s performance as Jack, and the fact that “nobody goes full retard.”