Friday, August 15, 2008

Why I went to see Tropic Thunder - Part III

First, a word about the Perry brothers. Their in-your-face style of humor isn't for everyone. I like much of it, but they can definitely be offensive, sometimes downright jerks (if you keep reading, you'll see why I think it is justifiable for me to call them "jerks"). Which brings me to my final point: "Is it OK to laugh?"

Andrew Terjesen, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Rhodes College, tackles the subject of offensive humor by asking, "Why is it not OK to laugh at mean-spirited humor (like racist jokes), but it is OK to laugh at parodies of it?" He says that it's because "parodies of mean-spirited humor are at the expense of mean-spirited people."

So is it OK to make fun of mean-spirited people? I think so. If it's for their own good and the good of those around them. Making fun of people is only acceptable if the people at the butt of joke have the potential to change. That's why it isn't ethical to make fun of people with intellectual disabilities or because of the color of a person's skin. They have no way of changing who they are. But a person who makes fun of a disabled person can change, and humor is a powerful tool in helping bring about that change.

Terjesen also says, "Since parodies of mean-spirited humor target mean-spirited people we ought to laugh at the parodies. By laughing at them we are reinforcing the idea that no one should be like them."

Ben Stiller has repeated over and over that Tropic Thunder is not mean-spirited. How can we differentiate between parodies of mean-spirited behavior and those that pretend to be? To do this, we have to look at Stiller's intent as well as his past treatment of humor.

Stiller says that the Hollywood system and narcissistic actors are the butt of the joke. And if we accept that it is OK to make fun of those who can change their behaviors, and we also agree that it is good for them to change their behavior, then we should be able to agree that Stiller is justified in making prima donna actors the butt of the joke. For their own good, and the good of society.

What about Simple Jack? Is Stiller making fun of people with intellectual disabilities, or is he making fun of actors who go too far in their portrayal of those with disabilities? If he is indeed making fun of the disabled, then he is wrong. I assert that he is doing what he says he is doing and to back this up, we have to look at his past.

Stiller has been making parodies since the 1980's when he did The Ben Stiller Show. His parody of 90210 is a classic and rightly mocks those who are self-absorbed. There's Something about Mary, Meet the Parents, Reality Bites, The Heartbreak Kid, Zoolander, Night at the Museum. While much of the humor in his films is crass, I think you would be hard pressed to make the argument that they are mean-spirited. So after nearly 20 years of parody, is it fair to make the claim that Stiller has crossed the line? I think we should give him the benefit of the doubt.

I've read many posts that say, "So what if it's a parody? Lots of people won't get it and will think it's OK to make fun of people with Down syndrome or intellectual disabilities." But Terjesen asks, "Does it mean that because some people will laugh at something for the wrong reasons that you shouldn't do it?" In other words, if something could possibly be misunderstood, does that mean it shouldn't be done? There is always going to be potential for abuse. There are going to be a lot of people reading this post who will misunderstand me. Does that mean I shouldn't write it? Of course not.

A last thought from Terjesen, "Without parody, we lose an effective way of not only making fun of the mean-spirited (and therefore of publicly disapproving of them) but also of getting them to realize their own folly (as they begin to realize what they are really laughing at)."

What about the word "retard?"

Now that we understand (if you agree with what I've said thus far) the world that Stiller has created on the screen, we have the proper context with which to correctly interpret how the word "retard" is used. "Never go full retard" is uttered by a delusional actor (Downey's character) who is referencing other "serious" actors (like Tom Hanks and Sean Penn). Who is the butt of the joke? The "retarded?" Or the actors (Hanks and Penn)? I assert that it is the latter, thus the term, in this context, is justified.

That said, I do take the film to task for one damning scene that is mean-spirited and crosses the line (based on the butt of the joke being someone who cannot change who they are.) The scene(s) both involve Matthew McConaughey. I'm sure you've read about them. McConaughey, who plays Stiller's agent, shows disappointment with having a child with apparent Down syndrome. I especially take Stiller to task for the final scene in the film, which received a huge laugh by the audience when I saw it. McConaughey is sitting on his private jet and gives an obvious look of disappointment in the direction of his son, who is sitting looking out the window quietly.

Why is this mean-spirited? Who's the butt of the joke? True, McConaughey is portrayed as a shallow, money hungry, insecure agent so the argument could be made that we are laughing at his lack of character. But it doesn't play that way and needs to be challenged.

Why have I devoted so much time and thought to this movie? I felt I had to since I am in the minority. I understand the motivations behind the boycott; please believe me that I do. How many times have I seen that frozen smile creep onto a stranger's face when they suddenly sense something is "different" about Ian. I want the world to see what a neat little guy he is, want them to know how he's changed my life for the better. I don't want him to be called "retard," but I also don't want him to be called "jerk" or any other disparaging word (unless he's being a jerk). And I can't help but feel that this boycott will alienate Ian even more. Now people may fidget even more around him or avoid him altogether for fear of offending him. People on the other side of the protests may avoid me even more because they aren't sure how not to offend me.

We need laughter. We need satire. And we need Ben Stiller.


jeleasure said...

Hey Tom,
I have a friend in Minnesota who lives real close to you. She has a lot in common with you in the way of being interested in psycology. In fact, she works for the county in the crisis center, or something like that.
Just thought I would say hello. Maybe you know this person.

Elbog said...

You are intellectually correct.
I'm old enough to remember comedians - like Ben's parents, Red Skelton, Sid Cesar. Skilled writers who could point out the foibles of mankind without denigrating them in the process. Was it just due to the times they lived in? I don't know.
I still say that this sort of parody can be done with more skill.
I've been thinking for days about "Dr. Strangelove, or how I learned to love The Bomb."
Satire. Parody. Scary topic. No one comes out alive. Keenan Wynn, pointing a gun at Peter Sellers, informing him that he's going to have to answer to the Coca-Cola company for shooting their vending machine. The layers of ridiculousness in seemingly innocuous scenes. Funnier every time I see it.
I love parody. We do need it. I think the parody needs to be smarter than the subject matter.
I don't mean to be argumentative, I want to raise the bar of what's not only acceptable, but probably funnier in the long run. That's all I'm saying. You're not settling for the majority reaction. Good! Now, don't settle for less.
Thanks for the posts, and for the spur. Keep talking.

Tom said...

Jeleasure: Thanks for popping in... I'll do the same.

elbog: "You are intellectually correct." Dude, way to totally pop my bubble... no, seriously. In a good way.

I'm bummed...

Anonymous said...

OMG i just wrote out the longest and most thorough thing on this whole fiasco, finally getting it all done...
and the blogger ate it.
and i am trying now to find the energy to type it all out again.


Anonymous said...

I understand where you are coming from.

And trust me, I need to think all of this through more.

I definitely "jumped" on the band wagon ASAP.

My post about TT is still getting over 200 hits a day. And I know most people are looking for the t-shirt.

I am not ready to remove my post but I am thinking which is always beneficial.

And I am going to go hug all three of my children who are without a doubt God's way of blessing me.

Anonymous said...

Well that explains everything,

Red Skelton and Sid Cesar are Ben Stiller's parents

Anonymous said...

Oh and Tom,

I'm Gillian:)

Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful post(s) Tom. I wish you well in this conversation.

Kim Ayres said...

Thanks for writing about this, Tom. I've not joined the call for boycotting as it makes me feel intensely uncomfortable. I know I never thought those who said to boycott "Life of Brian", or "The Last Temptation of Christ", for example, case out looking good.

Personally, I would never have gone to see the movie because I've never found Ben Stiller funny. I accet that many people do, buthe's never done it for me. I never understood people who raved about Charlie Chaplin either, for that matter.

However, I know that also comes across as a cheap get-out attempt at joining the debate.

But I know I've felt uncomfortable about the whole call for boycotting.

However, you have managed to wonderfully express the ideas and feelings I'd only half formed, and make them much clearer. And I appreciate it :)

Leah said...

I just can't say it's ok. I can't tell Angela, who knows what the word means that there is nothing wrong with it. The movie? Satire, yes. But the kids who are going to come to school in a couple weeks repeating the phrases their parents or teen siblings brought home with them aren't really going to care that who the intended target was. (Hollywood) What will I tell my kid who comes home crying because kids are saying it at school? "It's ok was just satire, and those kids don't know what they're talking about." Somehow, I don't think Angela will care what everyone's excuses for them are after she's been the victim. I think it's interesting that most of the people in the disability community that are saying they don't have a problem with the movie, don't have kids who are old enough to be emotionally affected by the word.

rickismom said...

I was in nursing school when the word "mongoloid" was still used freely for Down's syndrome, and it was used as a slur as well. Eventually they used other phrases. But ANY word which is used for the mentally disabled, whether it is "Mongoloid","Moron", "imbecile",or "retard", or (now) "full retard" WILL eventually be used to hurt and slander people. Because people feel that the intellectually challenged are worth less. They cost money.The intellectually disabled community is discriminated against to the point that most fetuses with Down syndrome are aborted.
Boycotting "Tropic Thunder" will not change that. As long as people hate, there will be improper use of language, taunts, and slurs.
Telling people to not see the movie will not help. Those who are insensitive would not listen anyway. I think that a NEGATIVE approach will not get us very far.
I think that our main thrust has to be at PROMOTING rights and respect for the disabled. We have to support the closure of large institutions where the "clients" are treated as numbers, not people. We have to encourage and support places that hire the intellectually disabled. We have to protest when someone calls a teen with Down syndrome a nick-name fit for a three year old.
However, I do feel the Ben Stiller owes a debt to the disabled community for three things:
1. marketting specially the sub movie "simple Jack"
2& 3. The two disturbing scenes that you mentioned at the end of your post, involving Mcconaughey.

For these three things, I personally would tell Mr. Stiller, that the only way he can hope to make recomcence would be by paying for public service announcements favoring those with intellectual disabilities.

I would like to see (much more than protests) many more videos like the one I put on my blog on Wednesday.
And, in the meantime, we must train our children to have self respect, and to know how to react as safely as possible in the face of discrimination and abuse.

waldenhouse said...



Jeanette said...

I can see your point, however I must say that I am extrememely dissapointed with Stiller. I have been a fan of his and that is why it bugs me so much. If you take just the r-word issue to task, I could possibly give him the benefit of the doubt that he didn't "GET" how offensive the word retarded is to the mentally disabled community. My real issue with the whole thing is the reaction that Stiller and his co-horts had.... basically "it's my right to free speech". Yeah, but is it the right thing to do?!? In my opinion not at all. It was cruel to go for a tagline like "Never go full retard". Or the fake movie tagline "once upon a time there was a retard". That is just flat out mean. I was NOT aware of the McConahay (sp) scenes. That just breaks my heart that someone really "went there" and not in good taste.

I am not sure if you have seen the Ringer or not, but that was done with consultation from the DS community and employed DS actors and was done in good taste. My husband had to convince me to see it, and it was good. So, in essense it can be done.

Frankly, this whole thing just saddens me.

Tamara said...

The bottom-line is that this movie created a catch phrase that is very disrespectful to people with cognitive disabilities – a catch phrase that is already appearing on tee shirts. And the tee shirts aren’t R rated – anyone can find them on the internet and buy them.

You ask "Does it mean that because some people will laugh at something for the wrong reasons that you shouldn't do it?"

And I think "yes". I think someone with both talent and a conscience could have gotten the same point across without creating a new catch phrase that totally ridicules people who have IQs under 70. Isn’t Stiller making fun of people who will do anything for a dollar – and isn’t that exactly who he is?

I will never believe Stiller is being honest about his motivations. If that were indeed the entire truth, we would not have seen the Simple Jack website. I think he has shown that he has no respect for anyone with a cognitive disability.

Finally, there are those who are at risk for abuse because of this movie. My son walks through the doors of middle school for the first time in a few weeks – just a few weeks after Ben Stiller has provide a new phrase for the bullies – handed it to them on a silver platter – and says it’s okay because that wasn’t his intent and it made people laugh.

Like Leah, I’m not sure how I’m going to handle it when my son comes home and tells me he’s been bullied – if he does tell me or anyone else. Seriously, what do you suggest I tell him? What are you going to tell your son? It’s okay – Ben Stiller didn’t mean for kids to use that phrase to make fun of you?

Anonymous said...

This whole thing shows me Americans have WAY TOO MUCH TIME ON THEIR HANDS and are expending that time in the wrong areas! Not to mention there are very powerful special interest groups in America running most of the show. Do you really believe the National Down Syndrome Congress and the Special Olympics were behind the original push for boycott? No. It was probably some SIG that took this as yet another opportunity to rid the world of "hate" speech for personal and SIG gain.

Which begs the question, Shouldn't Americans spend more of their time protesting in the public arena rather than the private? Aren't there 100 or so other things to be protesting right now at the government level rather than the private?

(1) How about the overall economy for starters?

(2) We could protest the burgeoning income gap between middle and upper classes, right?

(3) Then, there are, you know, the wars.

(4) Oh yeah, how about citizens' rights and the Patriot Act?

(5) Then there's health care.

(6) Taxes are another issue.

(7) Then there's the the whole abusive prime time programming issue (do we really need another reality tv show?).

Put on a shirt and take your pick (and picket sign to Washington).

Americans need to spend more time picking the right causes to protest at the government level rather than the private level. These types of protests are more of a distraction from the real battles of our time rather than instrument for real social change and policy. I can hear our government officials, "Ah. Good. They're occupied with that "R-Word" thing (or "N-Word" thing or "F[ag]-Word" thing or "professional football players and dog-fighting" thing or "senator playing footsie in a public bathroom stall" thing or "free Tibet" thing or "diversity" thing or "gay marriage" thing or "global warming Armageddon" thing, and on and on). Go ahead and sign that $6 billion bill, Bob. They won't even notice."

The point: The fact that Thunder opened the weekend with a thunderous success shows these types of protests do nothing except distract and divide Americans on the wrong issues. Sad.

Lily said...

Thanks for visiting Lily's blog. I appreciate your words and views. What really irks me I think is what happens now...the shirts, the posters, randomly hearing the "catch phrase" out in public now.
I was sitting in a restaurant this morning, and the men in back of me were talking about every political issue in the book, plus commenting on their waitress, who happened to be Hispanic. I wanted to scream that they were complete idiots!
No one is safe from anyone if someone has an opinion about you. I just wish my child, any of my children, would never have to know how hurtful the words of someone else can be. Unless of course it's me yelling at them to clean up their mess!

Lily said...

Oh and by the way those are some of Lily's favorite songs. If I could find more old musical songs, they would on there!!

thesap said...

So why are the perryboys jerks?

signed... one of the perryboys

apensity said...

In your blog, your state "Who is the butt of the joke? The "retarded?" Or the actors (Hanks and Penn)? I assert that it is the latter, thus the term, in this context, is justified..."
That is exactly what we are talking about. The actual USE of the word "retard" is used as a derogatory word. They are putting each other down by USING the word "retard". So by calling themselves retarded, it is putting themselves down. It doesn't get much clearer than that. So I don't understand why all of these blogs, write-ups, and rebuttals that are FOR Tropic Thunder all say it isn't being used in a derogatory way, it is used, plain and simple as a "put-down" description of someone.
Also, the son's charactor, is dreadful as being used in that was in the movie. How is that funny? There are people with really twisted senses of humor, and I guess it would reach those people, but I am not OK with that and will fight for those people who are unable to fight for themselves.

Tammy and Parker said...

Tom, while we may not always see eye to eye on issues, I have to tell you that there aren't many other bloggers out there that I respect as much as I do you.

And you know, when you write for 5MFSN, you don't have to agree with me. Really. Your viewpoint is valid even if I don't necessarily agree with it. :D

I know there are others who feel differently about TT than I do. They need to be represented and their ideas respected too.

I'm serious here young man.

I can say that cause I'm older than dirt.

I would like to base one of my reasons for being on the bandwagon, in part, on one of the mindsets found in your comment section:

(5) Then there's health care.

The point: The fact that Thunder opened the weekend with a thunderous success shows these types of protests do nothing except distract and divide Americans on the wrong issues. Sad.

Wrong issue? I must disagree.

How about touching base with the many parents of children with Ds who had insurance companies deny life saving surgeries and medications because of their child's diagnosis and the belief that due to their child being retarded they wouldn't have enough to offer society to compensate for the cost of said surgery and medication.

Aren't the insurance premiums paid for by these parents worth just as much as the insurance premiums paid by parents of typical children?

I live this everyday. We had a FELLOW in the PICU of my local children's hospital ask me (with great disdain) why I didn't exercise my right to an abortion when I first learned that Parker would be a mental retard.

This Fellow had no idea that kids with Ds could ever learn to be potty trained or read..or go to school.

And yet aren't Fellows supposed to have a clue?

I believe the picture painted in Tropic Thunder by Simple Jack and the self absorbed father can only facilitate these kind of ideas, whether Stiller intended for them to or not.

And I don't think people are purchasing t-shirts that read "Never Go Full Retard" to show their appreciation of supposedly well tooled satire.

Not for one second.

It is this group of people that I worry about Parker running into one day.

My son deserves respect. He fights for his life each and every day. He should not have to fight for his place in society as well.

Tom P. said...

In other words, if something could possibly be misunderstood, does that mean it shouldn't be done?

"Possibly" or "likely"? If Stiller really wanted everyone to understand how "mean-spirited" his actors were, why did he remove most references to the "n-word" leaving only one? Using the n-word would be much more likely to make the audience dislike his characters. But Stiller spoke in interviews that he removed the n-word after consultation with black actors because it was too offensive. But using the r-word wasn't too offensive. People would laugh at the r-word while they would be offended by the n-word.

As to Stiller's earlier movies, "There's Something about Mary" also was offensive to the disabled. Complaints about certain lines in the film were ignored by Stiller and inflated in his new film. Stiller knew that he was likely to offend people with mental disabilities but he didn't care.

Anonymous said...