When “Humor” is Not A Laughing Matter

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.

Or, not.

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.

20 Comments

  1. qw88nb88 said,

    29 March 2009 at 23:11

    pansy,
    Do you understand the difference between laughing with someone and laughing at someone? The first is “to not be taken seriously and make people laugh”.

    Laughing at someone is ridiculing them. Protesting that “it’s just a joke” and that someone is “being too sensitive” is simply trying to make excuses for being rude and insensitive and denying personal responsibility.

    Making one’s self feel superior by ridiculing others for their disabilities demonstrates that a person’s sense of social responsibility and personal growth has been retarded (delayed).

    andrea

  2. pansy said,

    29 March 2009 at 3:56

    Do you understand what the definition of a joke is? To not be taken seriously and make people laugh. The movie was directed at young 18-30 guys. I doubt most of them will be giving a crap about PC language. I myself am 20 and most certainly don’t care. You really need to lighten up and stop being so sensitive. It’s really annoying and makes you look like a retard. Please, please, don’t go full retard with a response.

  3. Anonymous said,

    17 August 2008 at 23:04

    You all ought to try listening to the “Countdown to Midnight” CD by Elyse Bruce. She’s raising money for autism. “The Mad Hatter” song off the CD is actually about autism. It talks about the problems people encounter when trying to get services they need, whether they are for autistics or for themselves…especially in the schools. There are also songs about prejudice and ignorance, such as “Armistice Day.” If only the producers of Tropic Thunder had listened to it before they made the movie.

  4. CS said,

    15 August 2008 at 15:29

    Andrea,

    Thanks for the captioning feedback.

    Question for you. I’ve tried for 2 years to get the deaf youtubers, of which there many, to caption their ASL. The video titles look interesting, but because I can’t “hear” the ASL, I have no idea what they are saying. When I’ve sent email with captioning requests, I’m greeted with hostility. Many of these youtubers are activists but their commitment to accessibility seems to go in only one direction, namely theirs. Can you direct me to some ASL videos where they are captioned for people like me? I have had a frustrating time finding them.

  5. Justthisguy said,

    15 August 2008 at 3:25

    Oh, on the blonde jokes: most of them were originally Polish jokes, until people of Polish extraction started complaining heavily. Steve Wozniak, of Apple fame, used to love to tell Polish jokes, though pure Polish himself. The PCs (stands for Police C#*ts) got all over him about that.

    I think it’s kinda weird that the only ethnic group about which it is perfectly OK to make ethnic jokes, is the whitest of the white.

  6. Justthisguy said,

    15 August 2008 at 3:17

    Well, at least it’s still OK to make fun of blondes.

  7. Meg said,

    14 August 2008 at 16:57

    It is a good thing that whe are boycott this movie becaues of it’s degrading people with disablities. I wonder why the African-American community are not standing againest the stuff that the movies protrades us African-Americans by Robert Downey Jr playing a black character, the use of language and grammer by thinking that it is the way we talk,(which is not true), and the use of the “N” word? I found that very insulting and I found it sad that my people are degrading each other.

  8. qw88nb88 said,

    14 August 2008 at 2:33

    Andrea
    Point taken about the differences between captions and subtitles. You’re quite right. I have a habit of conflating the two words because most of the movies I see have subtitles, and often the subtitles include captioning (e.g. ‘doorbell chimes’).

    In this video, the subtitles are all there is to the dialog. The only audio element not being captioned is the tinkly piano music in the background. It’s a rather minimal video in some regards, possibly due to time constraints.

    Ettina,

    The point is not so much about whether someone calls you “cognitively disabled” or “retarded”, but rather that the term “retard” is being used as a blanket insult, much in the manner as other negative epithets. If a teacher and parent are discussing adaptations to curriculum to help a student, they could use either “cognitively disabled” or “mental retardation” to describe the student’s difficulties, but would not be using either term as an insult.

    The Huckleberry Finn book is an interesting case. Yes, it has the word “nigger” in it, which partly reflects the language used by people in a period of history. (I do NOT believe that warrants banning the book!) But Mark Twain also used the word to help illustrate the racism the he was railing against — the work is satirical in many respects, as are many of Twain’s writings.

    My understanding of the claim that “retard is insulting in any language” does not have to do with the six-letter English word, but rather the concept. Probably most languages have insults of similar meaning, and they are all hurtful.

    andrea

  9. Ettina said,

    13 August 2008 at 15:50

    I watched it with captions, too.
    The part I’m upset about is ‘retard is offensive in any language’ or whatever the specific words were.

  10. 12 August 2008 at 11:39

    By the way,

    Perhaps you knew this already, but blogger Dave Hingsburger has now made up cards that people can distribute explaining why “retard” is an offensive word. People can either print their own (you can download the front of the card and the back of the card in PDF files) or else order free prints from someone who is donating them to anyone willing to distribute them to others:

    http://activegreymatter.org/2008/08/11/thunderous-fail/

  11. 11 August 2008 at 19:12

    I’ve watched the film with the captions (i.e., the infant film you have here, not the trailers for Thunder), and I feel like I’m missing something. Bearing in mind that I can’t hear the sound track … what’s happening that the captions isn’t clarifying? I get the feeling from what some people are saying here that some of the spoken part might be in languages other than English (is it?) or that there might be some additional sounds that put the words into a different context than they would be in otherwise (are there?)

    Captioning for deaf/hard of hearing people needs to involve more than a straightforward transcript of the spoken content. The captions also need to include things like indicators (usually in brackets, like this) of background sounds, or indicators of what language(s) is being spoken, or important information about tone of voice (the line “I am completely fine, you can stop worrying about me” changes meaning completely based on whether the person says it in a cheery tone of voice versus whether they say it while crying broken heartedly). Without this important contextual information, a deaf person can be almost as lost with the captions as they are without them.

    Real life example: I once tried to watch an episode of Red Dwarf with Spanish subtitles (written for hearing people) instead of closed captions (written for deaf people). The opening scene involved a woman who was tossing and turning in bed, clearly trying to fall asleep and just as clearly failing miserably. The first time through this scene I thought, “Oh, she’s having insomnia then,” and I thought we were going to see an episode in which this woman would spend the next 22 minutes desperately trying out different solutions for falling asleep with various comic results for each one. And the scene went on and on until I started to get annoyed thinking, “Yes, we get the point, she has insomnia, she can’t fall asleep. Move along already!”

    And then the next scene comes and they’re talking about odd noises. Nothing to do with insomnia. This is when I realize I must have missed something, so I went back to watch the first scene again, this time with the closed captions that includes a description of all the sound effects. NOW I could see so very clearly that the reason why this woman can’t sleep is because there are all these weird noises in her cabin. Every toss and turn, and every facial grimace, was made in clear reaction to a specific sound.

    Both the Spanish subtitles (for hearing people) and the English captions (for deaf people) conveyed the same linguistic content (just in different translations). But the omission of the sound content in the Spanish subtitles completely changed the meaning of the entire scene, and my expectations for the entire episode.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m very glad that organizations like ASAN (and individuals like Amanda) are attentive to the need for captions. But, I thought it was worth pointing out that truly accessible videos has to involve a lot more than just the spoken linguistic content.

  12. Ettina said,

    11 August 2008 at 18:23

    I don’t see anything wrong with the film – I think it’s like Huckleberry Finn having the word ‘nigger’ used a lot. (Though Huckleberry Finn is much better written, of course. I’m only comparing their use of offensive words, nothing else.)
    The ASAN film is a different matter. I hate how they claim that just because English speakers have been using a certain word as an insult, it’s insulting in *any* language. It’s no more insulting to say ‘tu es en retard’ than ‘you’re late’. And if you said ‘retard’ to a monolingual Chinese person, it would just be nonsense. It’s really offensive to treat the English meaning of a word as *the definition* of the word – completely ignoring that words have different meanings in different languages.
    What word you use matters much less than the meaning of what you are saying. I’d be just as upset by some teenager saying derisively ‘you’re so cognitively disabled’ as saying ‘you’re so retarded’. Is the first statement OK because they’re using the ‘correct’ words for it?

  13. Gerry Sell said,

    11 August 2008 at 18:08

    Bullies always claim the problem is the “over-sensitivity” or “humorlessness” of their victim. There’s no perfect way to respond, but the best I’ve found so far is an incredulous look and an “I’m astonished that you would use that word. It’s very hurtful – didn’t you know that?” What I really want to do, of course, is . . . oh lots of dreadful things, depending on just how creative I’m feeling that day.

  14. 11 August 2008 at 15:56

    Yay for captions :)

    I used to get the “can’t you take a joke” thing all the time. It’s ridiculous. I think it hurt more when people laughed than when people were angry.

  15. A.B. said,

    11 August 2008 at 14:32

    I’ve been called the “R” word by people who don’t understand my learning disabilities and CAPD so much that for a long time I wondered if the problem was with me and not people’s perceptions of me. As someone who is gifted and learning disabled ( along with CAPD ) I discovered that many people who called me this were feeling inadequate themselves. Where I used to live a neighbor was calling me the “R” word because whenever she would say “Hi” to me while driving down the street I couldn’t hear her because of my CAPD. Then her mom asked rudely once when we discussed why I had been homeschooled as a teenager “Were you homeschooled because you were mentally retarded?” and I went back into my home and cried for an hour. Months later I could see why this lady and her mother called me such things as all they did was drink, do drugs, date multitudes of men, and the mother was only working part time as the both of them got government assistance due to the younger lady having two kids by two different dads. Here I was going to community college-despite having some challenges in learning math and my CAPD- and working at the same time so I guess the neighbors felt inferior so had to take it out on someone.

  16. A.B. said,

    11 August 2008 at 14:31

    I’ve been called the “R” word by people who don’t understand my learning disabilities and CAPD so much that for a long time I wondered if the problem was with me and not people’s perceptions of me. As someone who is gifted and learning disabled ( along with CAPD ) I discovered that many people who called me this were feeling inadequate themselves. Where I used to live a neighbor was calling me the “R” word because whenever she would say “Hi” to me while driving down the street I couldn’t hear her because of my CAPD. Then her mom asked rudely once when we discussed why I had been homeschooled as a teenager “Were you homeschooled because you were mentally retarded?” and I went back into my home and cried for an hour. Months later I could see why this lady and her mother called me such things as all they did was drink, do drugs, date multitudes of men, and the mother was only working part time as the both of them got government assistance due to the mother having two kids by two different dads. Here I was going to community college-despite having some challenges in learning math and my CAPD- and working at the same time so I guess the neighbors felt inferior so had to take it out on someone.

  17. codeman38 said,

    11 August 2008 at 12:34

    What bothers me most about this is that, as one commenter pointed out on Patricia Bauer’s blog, the movie’s writers were originally going to include a scene where Downey’s character used the N-word. But the filmmakers decided to scrap that scene based on comments from a black actor in the movie, who said it “feels wrong.”

    Sorry, Hollywood, but I refuse to believe the “it’s an equal opportunity offender” excuse when it’s been explicitly stated by the actors that the dialogue was changed to avoid offending someone.

  18. Beth Nixon said,

    11 August 2008 at 12:22

    powerful post.
    thanks for sharing your thoughts.
    your posts inspire and inform

  19. yanub said,

    11 August 2008 at 5:50

    Thanks for showing this, Andrea. I’m going to embed it on my blog, too. I think it needs to be seen everywhere.

  20. Maddy said,

    11 August 2008 at 5:46

    Back in the day, there were lots of word that kids trying to be ‘cool’ used, and I was a hanger on. The words associated with thalidomide were just an indication that you were trying to be ‘in’ with the ‘in’ crowd. They didn’t ‘mean’ anything, they were just words, cool words, to the gullible. Then you bump into someone, one of the numbered thalidomide, you get to know them, you begin to see the world through their eyes. You become silent.

    I suspect that young people today are not / will not be so gullible.

    Best wishes


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