September 4, 2008 in Opinion

Pity is more offensive

Hollywood needs work in acknowledging dignity, not disabilities
Josie Byzek
 

I refused to join the boycott of “Tropic Thunder.” When I saw the e-mails from fellow disability rights activists to denounce the movie because of the repeated use of the R-word – “retard” – I groaned. Don’t they know what the word “satire” means?

“Tropic Thunder” is a satire about how Hollywood doles out rewards. The movie is meant to be offensive, from having Robert Downey Jr.’s character play a black man to having Ben Stiller’s character muse on how retarded he must act to win an award. The R-word, according to some accounts, was used a total of 17 times, and this offended the good people of the Arc, the American Association of People with Disabilities and others so much that they took to the streets.

Any person with a disability who has been the target of the R-word knows it is painful. But for decades, many of us have tried to get the media, especially Hollywood, to realize it’s even more hurtful to exploit disability-themed inspiration and pity in order to get a prize of some sort.

It seems if an actor wants to get an Oscar nomination then all he has to do is play a guy with severe cerebral palsy, like Daniel Day Lewis did in “My Left Foot.” Or play a depressed blind guy, like Al Pacino did in “Scent of a Woman,” who can be saved only through the ministrations of a young, idealistic nondisabled person.

Or play a guy who is so simple he runs across the country on a whim and finds himself central to tremendous historical events that he has no understanding of, like Tom Hanks in the insipid “Forrest Gump.”

These films laced with stereotypes encourage viewers to have the following thoughts: “Those people are so heroic. I could never live like that. … Oh, how wonderful that handicapped boy could overcome adversity. … Oh, how tragic that poor young crippled boxer in ‘Million Dollar Baby’ must live such an awful life through no fault of her own. No wonder she wanted her coach to kill her.” And on and on.

Movies like these depend on nondisabled audiences dehumanizing or infantilizing us.

We don’t want your pity. We want dignity.

What we don’t see coming out of Hollywood are people with disabilities as three-dimensional characters who love their lives. Nor do we see disabled actors playing roles that have nothing to do with disability. Now that would be progress.

As misguided as the calls for a “Tropic Thunder” boycott are, I have to acknowledge that they’ve been successful in one important way. Many news and morning shows have finally reported on the real pain that slurs cause people with disabilities.

Perhaps some of the folks who saw these reports will be able to take this one step further and ask themselves why these slurs are so hurtful, and what it would take for a disability to be considered just another personal characteristic, maybe akin to wearing glasses or being tall.

I’d like to see a movie about that.

Josie Byzek, managing editor of New Mobility, a lifestyle magazine for wheelchair users, wrote this column for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with the Progressive magazine.

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