When we watch old movies or programs, read old books, listen to old audio recordings, it quickly become apparent that tastes in humor change, mostly due to evolving senses of what is appropriate for being laughed at. There are racist and sexist and disableist jokes that are only painful to hear, because it is embarrassing to realize that some people find/found their humor in the ridicule of demeaning others. When the “Jokes you cannot tell in mixed company” have turned into “Jokes you wouldn’t even want to tell in any kind of company”, you get some hope that maybe society is growing up … just a little bit.
An upcoming movie is such an example of humor that fails its efforts to parody. Much of comedy has to be “cutting edge” to have the surprise value. It pushes at the borders of acceptable behavior, and relies on our ability to laugh as a means of dealing with stress. Treading the edges of propriety can be rich source, but can also backfire if the comedian does not have a good sense of the audience and of the purpose of their material.
Satire is a particular type of humor; by definition it is designed to “make fun of something” — but to a purpose. It illuminates personal and social problems that we had not really thought about or could not easily discuss, and cleverly uses humor to deflect some of the tension that would have otherwise occurred. Its tools are heavy irony and sarcasm, puns and wordplay, and parodies and comparisons. Properly used satire is wit that seeks to improve society, rather than simply demeaning people. But satire can be misinterpreted. Sometimes the result is more serious than mock-serious, and the audience does not understand that the performer is not really advocating, or believing in what they are presenting.
Comedy can also be misused when poorly-done attempts at humor are sometimes passed off as “satire”. There is a big difference between laughing with someone, and laughing at someone. Attacking someone and then saying, “Oh, it’s just a joke; whatsamatter, can’t you take a joke?” is not true humor. This is “humor” derived from a feeling of superiority, using shame and derision. As I said, satire is wit that seeks to improve society, rather than simply demeaning people. Parody can be a part of satire, but just parody is not necessarily satire. Parody can easily slide into snide efforts that not only lack sacred cows, but also lack sensibility and purpose. Just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should.
And that’s where we seem to be with major parts of this Tropic Thunder movie, that seeks to make fun of many foibles of the movie industry and the whole genre of war movies. Granted, those are certainly rich sources for parody.
But the line gets crossed when people start throwing around the R-word, retard. (Transcript of the scene, and trailer.) No one gives a second thought to using the R-word, even would they would refrain from saying faggot, nigger, kike or any number of other categorically insulting terms. Most people don’t stop to think that it is inherently demeaning to call someone a “Re-tard”. Why? Because compared to other minorities, it’s still “open season” for insulting people with disabilities. It’s assumed to be socially acceptable just because disabled people are considered to be inherently unequal. Most people don’t even give it a second thought.
If this movie is released without edit, I am going to spend the next year hearing kids use the quote, “never go full retard” and cringing and having to bring them up short as to why that word usage is Not Appropriate. They will of course dismiss my concerns by saying that it’s “just a word” and “no one cares” and “everyone says it” and that it’s their “freedom of speech” and I’m “just being over-sensitive” and “don’t have a sense of humor”. It’s always an uphill battle for justice when you first have to point out the injustice, and then explain why the things people are doing are wrong, and then get them to believe you, before you can even insist that people change their habits, and then help change social values. Just read the comments on Patricia E Bauer’s blog post about the movie.
The verb “to retard” means to hinder or delay, and “mentally retarded” is still frequently used to refer to someone who has significant difficulties in learning speed and ability. But there is no nice usage for addressing someone as a Retard. It doesn’t even matter whether or not the person being described or addressed as Retard has such problems. As I have described before, Retard is simply an insulting word. Using the word er, retards efforts at eliminating disablism.
And yet an alarmingly large number of people can’t understand why it’s a problem or why the movie shouldn’t be edited. This is going to be a long, uphill effort.
Here is a video put together by ASAN about the word; it’s captioned subtitled.