UPDATE: Dave Hingsburger discusses the “disabled people are defenseless” stereotype in his post DPN
When I was writing movie reviews for Monsters At Play, a (very) independent, DVD-only horror movie called The Special dEaD was released. It sounded like the kind of film that could go either really well or really badly, so I asked our editor to think of me if a copy ever landed in our inventory. He said he’d send it my way if we got it. We never did.
While following the criticisms of the upcoming Frat Pack movie Tropic Thunder, I’m thinking again of this movie I’ve never seen. Why? Because The Special dEaD is about a camp for people with developmental disabilities that gets attacked by zombies. And:
Led by the indifferent, nunchuck-weilding head counsellor…and his wheelchair-bound sister…the unlikely heroes fight their way off the mountain as, one by one, they’re picked off and join the ranks of the walking dead…..some ‘very special’ people show that they can kick some serious undead ass
One of the film’s taglines is: “Sometimes heroes ride the short bus.”
The Special dEaD seems to ask, “Why can’t people with disabilities save the world from zombies?” I have no idea what the movie’s answer is, but I love the question. Unfortunately, some of the people criticizing Tropic Thunder can’t even conceive of a question like this. And I’m very disturbed by the direction their criticism has taken:
Whether or not my being offended by the use of the word retard matters to the users of this hurtful term, I must speak up on behalf of those who can’t defend themselves.”–Nancy
Laugh about what? About someone not being able to defend themselves, looking different, speaking different? having a child’s mental capabilites when they are adults? That’s supposed to be funny?–Ms. M
People with disabilities often do not have a voice that is loud enough to defend themselves, so it is the job of us as their parents, friends, and loved ones to fight for their respect and dignity. And that is a fight that I am willing to fight forever. —Jaimie Miller
Lets [sic] be frank about it, the R word is just as offensive as any other racial, ethnic or religious slur, except the word is used to target a group of people that cannot defend themselves the way others can. —Krystina Jiron
I will pray for you [Ben Stiller] and others like you who continue to make money from making fun of others who cannot often defend themselves. — Lisa Bliss
It is up to us to defend our friends and neighbors that this film ‘makes fun’ of. Who will help them if not us? —Jody
But never, ever — if you claim to have even a minimum of guts or decency — mess with people who cannot speak back.”
–Steve Gorelick, “Bravo, DreamWorks! What Courage it Must Have Taken to Make Fun of ‘Retards'”
Reading comments like these–about how disabled people can’t defend ourselves, how our voices aren’t loud enough–I think of all the voices I’ve heard. Bloodied battle-voices.
Voices like Astra Millberg’s. In a letter to a baby thrown off a bridge, she said:
The fact is, as soon as people knew you had Down Syndrome, that changed the story. Now there was a reason for you to be thrown away: you are a baby who doesn’t really matter.
There are two things you need to learn. First, you come from a group of people who have a history of being thrown away. We have been thrown out of families into institutions. We have been thrown out of schools into special classes. We have been thrown out of lives of employment into lives of poverty. And people like you and me, doctors don’t really want us to be here in the first place. But we, people with disabilities, are glad you are here and welcome you to the fight.
And I, a woman with Down Syndrome, want to be the first to give you the second bit of news. Yes, you come from people who have a history of being thrown away, but you also come from a group of people who have learned how to survive.
I am a self advocate, that means that I have learned to speak up for myself and speak out against injustice. I take this seriously.
I hear Anya Sousa tell doctors at a conference about genetic screening for Down Syndrome: “I can’t get rid of my Down’s Syndrome, but you can’t get rid of my happiness…I have fought for my rights. ….. I have the right to a job, to services when necessary, to a decent standard of living, to know about my medical problems, to speak my mind, to make choices about my friends, whether to have sex, and so on.”
I hear the voice of Tarenne, who says that “Down Syndrome rocks, baby!” and doesn’t put up with other people’s “baby talk”:
Sometimes people treat me like I’m not big and it gets on my nerves. I especially hate baby talk! I tell people that all of the time. One time Mom got upset with me because I told a girl that I hated her baby talk, but Mom said she was just talking in her normal voice. How was I supposed to know? Every since I was little people have tried to act like I’m littler than they are. Even in Kindergarten when I wasn’t much shorter, they would bend down and put their hands on their knees and talk to me like I was a baby. They looked so stupid and I would just roll my eyes at them. I am the same age as the kids in my class and it drives me crazy that they want to baby me. So I say to them, ‘I hate that baby talk!’
Ironically, Ben Stiller once starred in a film that upheld the myth that people with developmental disabilities need non-disabled knights in shining armor to defend them. In There’s Something About Mary, Stiller’s character is trying to get in touch with a nice girl he knew in high school that he’s still in love with (Cameron Diaz). So he hires this sleazy private detective who falls in love with her, too. Mary’s brother Warren has an intellectual disability; the detective, who is totally villainous and unlikeable, tells Mary, “Yeah, I really love those retards!” in order to get into her good graces. (Yes, really). Mary is shocked, and the detective loses major brownie points with the girl he’s obsessed with.
I’m pretty sure the writers intend this scene’s humor to come from watching the private detective be such a jackass and get called on it. But he’s not called on it by a member of the group he’s just insulted (such as Mary’s brother). He’s called on it by a non-disabled person. Which may make dramatic sense (that particular non-disabled person is someone whose approval he really wants), but sets up this weird thing where he becomes responsible to a non-disabled person for his ableism.
One commenter at Patricia E. Bauer’s blog explained the harm and falsity of the “developmentally disabled people can’t defend themselves” myth better than I could. Amanda says:
[I am somewhat surprised at t]he idea that people with developmental disabilities ‘can’t defend ourselves.’
The idea that they’ll be hearing from our families, our friends, the professionals that make a living off us, but not us of course. Again, we apparently ‘can’t defend ourselves.’
The idea that it would be ‘tragic and exploitative’ to use an actor with a developmental disability in a role like this. Because of course, no actor with a developmental disability would even find it possible to understand how offensive it is to be called a retard (never mind that we’ve heard it since childhood for the most part).
While I certainly have some problems with Tropic Thunder–I agree with Ettina’s analysis, but wish the film’s satire weren’t so lazy and centered around the people in power–I am much more disturbed by some advocates’ assertion that disabled people, particularly those with developmental disabilities, can’t fight their own battles.