There has been an interesting meme circulating from disability web site The Mighty this week. It compares Donald Trump’s now notorious mocking of a reporter with C.P with the Ben Stiller Hollywood spoof Tropic Thunder. If you haven’t seen the film I will do my best to explain it in a moment but my best advice before reading this blog is to shut down this window, go to Netflix or Amazon, rent or buy it, sit down with a bowl of popcorn and enjoy. It really is one of the most amusing films I’ve seen in the last couple of years. If you can’t be bothered to do that here’s a basic rundown of the plot and why it’s got certain people hot under the collar. It tells the tale of three Hollywood A listers attempting to make a ‘true’ Vietnam blockbuster. The stars of this ill-fated venture include Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr) an intense ‘method’ actor who has changed the colour of his skin to play an African American soldier and Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) a fading action star trying to move into serious acting. A running joke throughout the film is Speedman’s previous attempt at drama, an almighty flop called ‘Simple Jack’ in which he plays a mentally challenged man in the same vein of Forrest Gump.
Many American disabled rights campaigners ask how is the portrayal of people with learning difficulties in this film any different to Trump’s ill-taste joke at the expense of a person with a physical disability and claim there is a double standard. But what these people seem to fail to realise is that the difference between these two incidences are not that they target people with different disabilities but they actually are mocking two groups, one of whom is not disabled at all. Tropic Thunder is not attempting to look at people with learning difficulties in a sneering and amusing way but is satirising the way such people are often used as fodder by studios to tug at heartstrings and grab at awards. There isn’t a character with a learning disability in the film, just a portrayal of a very poorly acted character that is meant to have some kind of mental problem. It is showing how such characters are very often highly inaccurate and just constructed for the purpose of story. The cynicism is crystalized in this exchange between Lazarus and Speedman where the more savvy thespian explains why ‘Simple Jack’ failed to be the hit to launch Speedman as an legitimate star
Kirk Lazarus: Everybody knows you never go full retard.
Tugg Speedman: What do you mean?
Kirk Lazarus: Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, ‘Rain Man,’ look retarded, act retarded, not retarded. Counted toothpicks, cheated cards. Autistic, sho’. Not retarded. You know Tom Hanks, ‘Forrest Gump.’ Slow, yes. Retarded, maybe. Braces on his legs. But he charmed the pants off Nixon and won a ping-pong competition. That ain’t retarded. Peter Sellers, “Being There.” Infantile, yes. Retarded, no. You went full retard, man. Never go full retard. You don’t buy that? Ask Sean Penn, 2001, “I Am Sam.” Remember? Went full retard, went home empty handed…
This exchange demonstrates the way Hollywood looks at people with learning difficulties. Forrest Gump or Raymond Babbitt are no more real or heartfelt imaginings of people with mental problems than the character of Kirk Lazarus, a blonde haired, blue eyed Aussie actor is of the real black soldier he is meant to be playing. The fact that Stiller has the words coming out the mouth of a character who ends the film having a mental breakdown because he has gone so ‘deep’ into his role that he literally can’t remember who he is himself shows how shallow and unrealistic such films are.
Of course, one could argue that the very use of the word ‘retard’ is deeply insulting to those with learning or mental disabilities and indeed it is. But as I wrote in a previous blog, words do not exist out of context. It is the same reason that the 60s sitcom ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ cannot be considered racist. What Alf Garnet says about black people is appalling but we’re never left in any doubt that he is an ill-educated idiot. Likewise Stiller and Downey’s characters are the punchline of the movie, spoilt, self-obsessed stars so removed from the real world that they know nothing about those with learning difficulties, or indeed, reality in general. Some people claim that if Stiller had a child with mental problems he would never have made such a joke but if he did maybe the joke would have been even more fitting as it would prove that he knew that such roles are laughably unrealistic.
Which brings us back to Donald Trump. Trump’s actions in response to the disabled reporter’s questions had no such awareness to them. What he intended was to make the man with C.P look the fool but in doing so he simply displayed his own ignorance. The difference is that Trump is a real person, not a satiric character and a particularly bigoted one at that. And the real danger is that he is aiming for a position of power. Even after all I’ve said, you still disapprove of Tropic Thunder, at least you can just dismiss it as not very good entertainment which you cannot do with Trump.