the outside looking in:
Dreamworks’ Tropic Thunder is one big inside joke. An inside joke that Ben Stiller is letting all the rest of us in on. At least that’s what he’d like to think.
The truth of the matter is that the joke runs deeper than even Ben realizes, so deep that the line between “inside” and “outside” isn’t as clear as at first it seems.
Tropic Thunder follows the misadventures of a motley crew of actors, shooting on location a movie based on the fraudulent story of a false Vietnam War hero. Before the movie is halfway through, it’s made clear that no one in Ben’s Hollywood understands the meaning of truth, or cares to. Along the way he attempts to point out and tear down a stereotypical Hollywood’s stereotypical stereotypes.
In his attempt, there is one group in particular where he simply fails to achieve this goal and instead only reveals his own prejudices; sadly, those are prejudices shared by many of his viewers and though they may not realize it, prejudices that Stiller’s film serves to substantiate and solidify.
The beauty of “satire,” as is often the name given to comedy that pushes past mere humor into offensiveness, is that the victim in the joke can be an active participant. He or she can choose to counter the truth of the portrayal or laugh along at themselves.
But for this one group, while some are capable of making that choice there are also many who are not. For the intellectually disabled, they are not given an active role in the joke; because of that, it loses its funny.
“Retard” is not just a word. It is part of an official diagnosis found in the medical files of hundreds of thousands of Americans that has been transformed by society into a negative slur. Although Stiller did use the word in an effort to illustrate a different point, which in the end illustrated something else entirely, it’s important to point out that no other medical diagnosis is seen as acceptable material for a comedic tagline. If Stiller’s inspiration had been drawn from Tom Hanks’ performance in Philadelphia instead of that in Forrest Gump, would he have dared to release the catchphrase, “Never go full AIDS”? One finds it hard to imagine. There is something unique about the diagnosis of “mental retardation,” something that encourages a suspension of decency.
It’s interesting to see how careful Stiller is in his illustration of Hollywood’s treatment of African-Americans. He does push the envelope with Robert Downey Jr.’s “blackface” character – a white man taking on the role of a black man – but he holds back just enough to prevent the satire from transforming into a more viscous lampoon. By including a true African-American character in the cast, he is effectively taking someone from the outside and placing them on the inside, where they can serve as our conscience – a challenge to his offense. And Brandon T. Jackson does just that when he calls out Downey Jr. on his stereotypical characterization. This removes the slight discomfort that the audience feels – or at least thinks it should feel – in laughing at such an edgy portrayal. By having a true African-American there to openly remind us of the offensiveness of Downey Jr.’s character, Stiller gave himself an out with that group.
So, considering that the play on the intellectual disability stereotype is given a much more integral role in the plot, the “r” word is used over a dozen times (so much in one scene I lost count) while the “n” word is only used once, where is our conscience for this group? Where is our character with true intellectual disabilities to challenge the offensive stereotypical portrayal? (And no, it’s not Jack Black.)
The fact is that there is no one to challenge Stiller’s stereotype, no one to speak for the intellectually disabled.
What does this say about Stiller’s underlying feelings toward people with
intellectual disabilities? Either he feels that intellectual disability is fairer game than race, that the “r” word isn’t as offensive as the “n” word, or perhaps he really just doesn’t “get it.” Maybe he really thinks that “full retard” means “true retard” and because he thinks he is not portraying a stereotype, but a truth exploited by Hollywood, he sees no need to allow an outsider in to keep the satire in check. Which of these motivations is worse? To echo Stiller’s advice – you decide.
The truth of this supposed satire is more importantly revealed not in the rampant use of a word that for decades has been employed to marginalize and hold down a group of people but rather in Matthew McConaughey’s conflicted talent agent character.
There were two parts in the film that I found most offensive, most disturbing and most saddening. The first had McConaughey commenting on Stiller’s apparent adoption plans. McConaughey says, “At least you get to choose” while the camera pans to a photograph of him with his son who obviously has intellectual disabilities. At the end of the film, this sad revelation is revisited with McConaughey on a plane leaving the filming location and his son beside him, plastic bib around his neck, slack-jawed, vacant expression directed out the small window.
The most disheartening part of this tale…during the latter scene as soon as the boy entered the frame the audience around me burst into laughter. It was not the loudest laughter heard during the film, but it ranked highly. I allowed myself a moment, just a moment, to look at the faces around me. This is what prejudice looks like. This is what hatred looks like. Perhaps this is what you look like.
This scenario is interesting since McConaughey’s character is probably the most hopeful. Despite the fact that he takes a bribe in exchange for silence, in the end he remains true to Stiller’s character. Perhaps Stiller wrote in McConaughey’s disabled son for the purpose of showing his character development. In the first scene, disdain from afar; in the second scene, he has his son with him, maybe an indication of a new appreciation. But even if this was truly his intention, the fact is that Stiller could have accomplished this possible message without turning the boy into a drooling caricature. Like most of the movie, the audience laughs not at a possible deeper interpretation but at the surface humor. McConaughey’s son is seen as no more than a gag, an easy laugh.
Maybe this reality is something that can only be changed through experience. Perhaps you need to hold a child with intellectual disabilities in your arms, a child like my son, to feel him soft, warm, heart beating with the persistence of life. To befriend, to love a person with intellectual disabilities brings out the best in you because it forces you to first confront the worst. It is a gift that few of us possess and one that should be treasured, not disrespected with subtlety and context.
I do not believe that Ben Stiller intended to disparage any certain group in the making of this film, other than perhaps his fellow thespians, a subject of contention in its own right and one beyond the context of this piece.
But I do believe that Stiller’s creation, much like his response to the cry that has gone up from the disability community, reveals a great deal of apathy, ignorance and prejudice.
He set out attempting to briefly pull back the curtains on what he believes is his Hollywood, to let us stand on tiptoe and see the ridiculousness of cruelty, vanity and greed. But what Stiller achieved instead was to allow us the rare opportunity to see those things in a different house, to be on the outside looking in – at ourselves.
Tropic Thunder is a $100 million wake-up call. And for that realization and the change it has the power to bring, it was worth my seven bucks. I hope it was worth yours.
Posted by Christina at 9:38 AM