Has a crackdown on jokes targeting race, religion and sexuality left learning disability as the last acceptable punchline? And why has new film Tropic Thunder caused such a storm?
Christina Martin is angry. As a female stand-up comedian in a predominantly male industry, she isn’t easily offended. But in recent years she has noticed an alarming trend among her fellow performers – increasingly vicious ‘jokes’ targeting people with a learning disability. As the sister of a man with a learning disability, she refuses to laugh along.
“I encounter learning disability jokes all the time – it’s happening more and more. People say that they are breaking down barriers, but my brother can’t understand what they’re saying. All he understands is that people are pointing and laughing.”
Martin has no problem with South Park’s Timmy, who has a learning disability. “He has storylines and delivers the jokes. But in stand-up, comedians know people with a learning disability are not in their audience. It's not, ‘Let’s all laugh at each other’s foibles...’ People with a learning disability are not included – they’re either not there, or if they are, they’re not in on the joke.”
Controversy in Hollywood
A charge of laughing at, rather than with, has been levelled at the new Ben Stiller blockbuster Tropic Thunder. In the film, Stiller’s actor character attempts to win awards by starring in Simple Jack, a movie featuring a man with a learning disability with the tagline ‘Once upon a time... there was a retard’.
Tropic Thunder’s liberal and seemingly mindless use of the word ‘retard’ led to a storm of protest in the USA, as did Stiller’s one-dimensional portrayal of Simple Jack. Disability groups, led by Special Olympics chair Tim Shriver, picketed the premiere and called for a boycott of the film over its ‘unchecked assault on the humanity of people with intellectual disabilities’.
The makers of Tropic Thunder seemed to have paid little heed to how the learning disability community may react.
In defence of the film, Stiller and others have emphasised that the film industry itself was the intended target: “We felt that as long as the focus was on the actors who were trying to do something to be taken seriously that's going too far or wrong, that was where the humour would come from.”
The wrong message
However, the fact remains that for many, ‘retard’ is entirely unacceptable language. Ciara Evans, who has a learning disability and has seen Tropic Thunder, worries that it gives out the wrong message. “The more the word is used, the more people will think it's OK to speak about people with a learning disability in this way.” Mencap's response echoed this: “While we welcome the debate about attitudes to people with a learning disability, it is very unfortunate that the film uses offensive language in a way that reinforces discrimination against people with a learning disability.”
In the USA the word ‘retard’ is considered by many to be a form of hate speech, and this reflects concern that, in some cases, relatively lightweight mocking can lead to more extreme victimisation. In the UK too, says Christina Martin, hate crime means the jokes just aren’t funny. “People go from joking to not caring. If nice, normal people accept these jokes as funny, where does that leave the scumbags?”
She also rejects the freedom of speech argument. “People say: ‘I’m campaigning against political correctness’ like they are being a hero. I'm tired of the ‘right to free speech’ argument, because with rights come responsibilities, and with being human comes being compassionate.” Perhaps free speech is only free if it’s free for everyone. “Of course disabled people can laugh at themselves,” says Martin. “But people who are not in on the joke, or can’t defend themselves, are not laughing at themselves.”
The outcry surrounding Tropic Thunder has clearly paved the way for important debate. No longer silent victims, learning disability groups are finding a platform from which to make their voices heard. They hope that more people with a learning disability will be represented positively in mainstream comedy and at stand-up gigs. Until then, the freedom of speech argument may not ring true – simply because not everyone is free to speak.
This article appeared in the September/October 2008 edition of Viewpoint