Sam Bagenstos has written a thoughtful post on the use of the word “retard” in movies and our response as a community. He was responding to this post, which was reacting, in turn, to the use of the word “retard” in the Alexander Payne/George Clooney movie, The Descendents. I tend to agree — on general free expression and artistic license grounds — that we should not be in the business of telling writers what to write. But I’m hoping for the day when the casual use of the word “retard” carries the weight that the casual use “nigger” or “cunt” would. (For example, I’m predicting it was pretty jarring to read those words in my blog. Was it equally jarring to read the word “retard”?)
Given the intersection of language nerdery and disability rights, this is a subject that interests me and that I’ve written about a couple of times. Sam’s blog post makes excellent points, including that
People use the r-word in real life, just like they use slurs against other groups (and just like they do other harmful and wrongful things), and it would be wrong to say that movies and literature can’t depict that. (And I think it’s a cheat to say that the use of the word can be depicted but only if the character who uses it “learns the lesson” that it’s wrong or is otherwise shown to be a bad and unsympathetic character. That’s not any different than requiring purely idealized depictions of people.)
Very true. In fact, if the word were restricted to movies, books, or tv shows in which lessons were learned, we’d only hear it in after-school specials, where the bully turns out to have problems of his own, reforms, and everyone has a group hug in the end. No, rather than requiring lessons be learned or the word avoided, I’m hoping the movie-going public evolves to the point where the writer knows that putting that word in a character’s mouth will communicate something deeply negative about that character. Right now, the choice to have a white character use the word “nigger,” without the quotes, directed to or about an African-American, communicates something very specific and negative: the speaker is a racist asshole. Same with “cunt”: sexist bastard, or denizen of frontier Deadwood, South Dakota.
The truth is, I find it incredibly jarring and disappointing when a character in a movie with whom I sympathize (or perceive that I’m supposed to sympathize) uses the word “retard” as a casual epithet. It’s similar to the phenomenon that Ta-Nehisi Coates has called “the John Mayer Rule,” and which I called “drinking with white people”: that moment when someone you thought was cool says something bigoted . . . and the concomitant urge to avoid situations (in my case, drinking with acquaintances who don’t get disability rights) where this might happen. There are good reasons why George Clooney would not say a long list of offensive epithets in a movie of the type I understand The Descendants to be. I’m hoping for the day when writers and actors will think that way about the word “retard” and use it accordingly.
One final thought: a laser-focus on one word misses is the many ways movies and TV can be demeaning to people with disabilities while remaining pristine in language use. One of my favorite examples is Law & Order, which has presented a long string of pathetic and/or criminal people with disabilities, without once (that I can recall) showing, say, an attorney, detective, forensic professional, or random witness in a wheelchair. Two episodes stick in my mind. In one, a mother is accused of killing her son, a quadriplegic. The son is presented as unable to get out of bed and as a result we are asked to sympathize with the homicidal mother. Scenery-chewing DA Jack McCoy tells the jury — as a fact, I promise, not as a negative comment on the mother’s narrow world view — “she knew he’d never grow up to be a doctor or lawyer.” Seriously – how hard would it have been for the writers to figure out that there are all sorts of quad doctors and lawyers and other professionals? The other episode I recall was where the hunt for the killer led toward the brother who was paralyzed and as a result bitter and murderous. While I can’t recall others off the top of my head, I don’t recall any portrayals of people who use wheelchairs straying beyond vegetative and/or embittered. I’d take 100 George Clooney “retard” utterances over this. Although we keep watching the damn show,* we know to turn it off the instant there is mention of a character with a disability. We know, to a 100% certainty, that L&O will screw it up.
* L&O occupies the very small overlapping area of Tim and my taste in television: