Leading up to the release of Tropic Thunder, organizations for the mentally disabled have caused a stir by organizing nation-wide protests and demanding that distributor Dreamworks pull the film. The groups object to the comedy’s portrayal of the mentally disabled and its use of the word "retard." After seeing the movie I found this reaction more reductive and wrong-headed than the movie itself.
The scene causing all the commotion is by far the funniest one in the movie (and the most true and cutting). It targets, however, not the mentally disabled, but the asinine portrayals of them in Hollywood—and, more damning, the audience’s taste for such fare. Robert Downey Jr. (Oscar-winning Kirk Lazarus) clues Ben Stiller (action-hero Tugg Speedman) into why Speedman’s film Simple Jack (think Radio) bombed: "You went full retard." He explains: Forrest Gump—mentally disabled, but impresses Nixon. Dustin Hoffman in Rainman—same, but can count cards like a god. Part-retard is Oscar gold—full-retard is a monumental mistake. Crude and shocking, yes, but isn't this also an apt attack on our utter disinterest in a real portrayal of mental disability? In attacking Tropic Thunder, disability activists tacitly give credence to the treacly-sweet, idiot-savant film narrative. I don’t recall an uproar over the Radio and I Am Sam, the sort of movies Thunder lampoons.
At work here is the powerlessness of the group under attack (and the keen sense of this on the part of its defenders). When mass culture appropriated "retard" as a derogatory term, the mentally disabled couldn't defiantly re-appropriate the word in the same way as the black and gay communities have done with other words (and the Tories and the Impressionists and others, for that matter...). The American Association on Mental Retardation, in 2006, changed its name to The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. This relabeling is not necessarily more accurate, but the term is just too unwieldy and politically correct for perversion.