Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Responsibility of Storytellers and the R-Word

Quick thing before you dive in here: if you run out of time reading this article, just watch this video from Jane Lynch and Lauren Potter, share it, and have a lovely day.

When Brett Ratner, producer of The Revenant, Horrible Bosses (1 & 2), and the would-be producer of the 2012 Oscars said, when asked how rehearsals for Tower Heist were going, that “rehearsal is for fags.” The outcry was swift and his stepping down from producing the Oscars that year [1], though an obvious step, was equally immediate. He apologized saying,

“I apologize for any offense my remarks caused. It was a dumb and outdated way of expressing myself. Everyone who knows me knows that I don’t have a prejudice bone in my body. But as a storyteller I should have been much more thoughtful about the power of language and my choice of words.” [2]

How much truer a statement could there be about the responsibility we, as storytellers, have? It is not only our obligation to tell every story with sincerity, earnestness, and full commitment, but also with respect for the power that words have to entertain, bore, heal, and harm.

Words are like sharks and power tools in that way. If you’re a person who works with them, the second you don’t respect them, people get hurt.

So to loop back to my last post, I find it unnerving that one of America’s golden boys, Robert Downey Jr., a man plagued by addiction, ravaged by the choices he’s made, and constantly under the magnifying lens of scrutiny would so callously state that “it’s any artists right to say and do whatever they wanna do.” [3]

I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but to me, that doesn’t sound like art.

That sounds like an excuse for anarchy and opportunism, which, given some of his nocturnal activities over the last decades, may be exactly where his focus and care lie, rather than in his art and his responsibility to those who hear the stories he tells.

Fun fact: the FCC standard for qualifying something as a “Profane Broadcast” is as follows:
Any broadcast “including language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance.*” [4]

[*Nuisance: 1. Harm, injury, 2. One that is annoying, unpleasant, or obnoxious: pest. Merriam-Webster 2016.]

Furthermore, the FCC states that “Profane Broadcasts” are prohibited on network broadcast stations (radio and television) between the hours of 6am and 10pm specifically in order to insulate children from exposure to unwanted profanity while in their formative years. (This, of course, does not apply to cable, satellite, or film, as those are subscription or for-purchase services, but merely to radio and network broadcast television.)

So with all of this in mind – our obligation as storytellers, as Mr. Ratner put it, to be “thoughtful about the power of language and [our] choice of words,” our understanding as a nation that it is our duty to insulate those most impressionable in our communities from profanities until they are mature, educated, and developed enough to form their own opinions about the weight their words carry, and the very base understanding that words can hurt, damage, and poison our very ability to communicate with each other – with all of this in mind why – WHY – have we not collectively recognized, as (as the FCC calls us) “members of the public” (which, last I checked, we all are) that the pejorative use of the word “retard” and all of its derivatives and synonyms is offensive, toxic, ignorant, and, as Mr. Ratner puts it when referring to another now-recognizably inappropriate pejorative slur, “outdated?”

With that said! I present to you…


THE TOP 5 LIST OF THE R-WORD USED MOST USELESSLY AND OFFENSIVELY IN A SCRIPTED TEXT (not including Tropic Thunder because that’s cheating)!



(Because it’s only fair to look at this from all possible sides. So let’s do just that. Here we go!)

THE TOP 5 LIST OF THE R-WORD USED MOST USELESSLY AND OFFENSIVELY IN A SCRIPTED TEXT (not including Tropic Thunder because that’s cheating)!

5. Liar Liar starring Jim Carey
In one of the funniest scenes of one of the funniest films I have every seen, Jim Carey, incapable of telling a lie, is commanded to, essentially, roast all of the partners of his law firm. When he gets to one particularly ancient partner, he says that he’s only still working because “he can’t go home ‘cuz he hates his wife.” He further explains that everyone knows who she is from the Christmas parties: “she’s the one who gets plastered and called him a retard.”
Even as a kid I was completely taken out of the fun of the moment and wildly disappointed at the flagrant and completely unnecessary use of the R-word. It advanced the plot 0% and it was jarringly out of place as it pertains to the rest of the language used in the film (which, while hilarious inappropriate, contains no other derogatory slurs that I can recall).

4. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog
Joss. Dear, dear Joss. For the love of Jayne Cobb why in the gorram hell did you have to have Nathan Fillion, as Captain Hammer, in the song “Everyone’s a Hero,” use the lyric:
“Everyone’s a hero in their own way. Everyone can blaze a hero’s trail. Don’t worry if it’s hard; if you’re not a friggin tard you will prevail.”
So… (Do I really even have to type this?) So, the implication is that everyone – as long as you are not intellectually disabled – everyone else can be a hero? But if you’re intellectually disabled, you’re, what, useless? Not hero material? Like Tropic Thunder said – you can’t “be a war hero?” Thanks, Joss. Way to really fight for the rights of the writers who are out there on the front lines speaking some truths and need to be defended against the evil studios who are keeping their paychecks too low (yeah – Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog was released on the web during the 2007/2008 writer’s strike as a protest against all the fighting. Way to fight for the little guy. Like TV studio writers.) [5]

3. Anchorman
You can barely make it five minutes into one of the most iconic comedies of my generation before you’re hit in the face with Steve Carell, as Brick Tamlin, stating that, years from that day, a doctor would inform him that he has “an IQ of 48 and [is] what some people call… mentally retarded.”
This one’s a tough one. The clinical term is used accurately here, which makes me want to be okay with it. But on the flip side, it in ZERO ways advances the plot, it unnecessarily labels Brick’s actions as those of a person with an intellectual disability (which means that any time we, the audience laugh at him, guess what?!...), and, much like Liar, Liar, as far as I can recall there are no other slurs used in the course of the film in this way.
The other thing that puts this right up there with the Tropic Thunder-style use (huh. Another Ben Stiller movie with unnecessary, offensive, and callous derision of the intellectually disabled? Gee. I’m shocked.) is that any other offensive jibes used in the film are apologized for in the moral of the story.
It’s not okay to be sexist because opportunity should be merit-based, not gender based.
That’s the moral right? Wait – so the moral isn’t “the intellectually disabled have the same rights as everyone else and, therefore, shouldn’t be made fun of to the delight of the movie-going public who hasn’t been taught any better yet, while the writers are being paid buckets of money and instead of using that power to educate those seeing the film or come up with inventive ways of telling jokes, they’ve chosen to take a cheap shot at a group of people who have the hardest time fighting back?” Huh.

2. I-Spy starring Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson
Man… I’m just gonna put the transcript of the scene here:
(If you haven’t seen this film, the setup here is that Owen Wilson is a spy who is going to use Eddie Murphy – a celebrity boxer – as a civilian cover for a covert operation overseas, but to keep it on the DL from his entourage, Eddie Murphy’s character has created a story as to why this bumbling sap is flying with them on the private jet.)

“I said I had to take care of the President’s retarded nephew.”
“Yeah, they think you’re a retard. All you do is get some drool, a helmet, and zip your jacket up real tight. You get that mentally challenged look. Hold on just a second, that’s good!”
SERIOUSLY? There is literally no reason for this scene other than to give the crowd a laugh at the expense of Owen Wilson’s lawful-good yet charmingly bumbling character and the intellectually disabled. It was fully unnecessary and, in fact, detrimental to the film (sure made it a lot harder for me to care about Eddie Murphy’s character or sympathize with him, even by the end).

1. “Let’s Get It Started / Retarded” by The Black-Eyed Peas
I’m going to do this one fast…
I mean, come on, Fergie. It’s a sick beat. I love the “started” version. Why on EARTH was there a need for the other version at all?

[As a personal side note on this one: the alternate version that was FCC approved was so pervasive that I did not even know that there was the “Let’s Get Retarded” version until someone was singing it in a class of mine in high school and I was like, “don’t fuck with the lyrics like that just to use that word –that’s not cool.” And he was like, “Dude, that’s the song.” And I was like, “No, it’s not.” And he was like, “look,” and pulled out his iPod-1 (that’s right; we had iPod-1’s. #hipsterstatus) and made me listen to it. Afterwards I was like, “that’s still super offensive, but I now see that the song, is, in fact, what you sang. But still, that word’s not cool.” And he was like, “I feel you. I won’t use it.” And I was like, “cool. I appreciate that.”]

And now…


5. Blazing Saddles
Man, oh, man. This is one I’ve struggled with for years, but here’s how I’ve come to feel about it:
“Candy gram for Mongo!”
Let’s clarify something first…
Mongo > “Mongoloid” > Mongolian (you following my etymological chart so far?).
Now, the way that “Mongoloid” has been used colloquially is as either a derogatory term for an Asian (referencing that they look like stereotypical renditions of Mongolians and implying that they are, therefore, inferior), or for someone with Downs Syndrome (the larger forehead looks like a Mongolian and, again, implies that they are, therefore, inferior [so many layers of offense!]).
So the character Mongo in the film, who is obviously supposed to be slow of thought but swift of fist (and, in the end, large of heart), is blatantly jabbing at people with intellectual disabilities.
Here’s why I don’t find this one all that offensive.
A) This film came out in a time when there really hadn’t been a push to reclaim and reorient our attitudes regarding the R-word and it’s synonyms and derivatives. So there is some historical forgiveness that goes into this.
B) In the end, Mongo turns out to be part of the solution and an integral part of the hero’s victory over evil. So, while named offensively, the role of the character in the storyline of the film was heroic, brave, and necessary for the triumph of good over evil.
C) Blazing Saddles, more than probably any other Mel Brooks film, takes the audience to task on their prejudices. Richard Pryor’s contributions and Cleavon Little’s performance pushed the language of that film in a way that not many mainstream writers and performers were brave enough (or given the opportunity) to at that time. They managed to entertain and tickle the audience while simultaneously showing the viewer that, “hey. Guess what? It’s not okay to treat black people like they’re inferior. And, hey. Guess what? It’s also not okay to dismiss the intellectually disabled, because they are just as capable of heroism as anyone else (Joss, I’m looking at you).”

4. Mean Girls
Regina George (Rachel McAdams) states, early on, “I know what home school is, I’m not retarded.”
While jarring and ill-received the first time I saw this film, upon a rewatch (or 30) I’ve actually come to not only not-mind the use of the R-word here, but I actually think it’s great story telling.
Regina George is supposed to be awful. She’s supposed to remind us of all of those haughty hotties from high school who tormented us with mockery, violence, and slander (or libel, depending on their methodology). She’s supposed to put us on the side of Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) and her team of lovable outcasts on their vendetta mission against “The Plastics.”

(Also, real quick, if you’re too young to have seen this movie yet, I hereby encourage you to go defy your parents and just watch it. It’s some of the smartest comedy writing you will ever see and a testament to Tina Fey and everyone involved.)

So for the R-word to be included in the constant barrage of insults from Regina and her cronies – a barrage which later reaches a breaking point when “The Burn Book” becomes publically available in the halls of the school and Tina Fey has to step in to be like (slightly paraphrasing for effect here) “you’ve got to stop using these words toward each other. It just makes it okay for anyone to use these words to hurt each other,” I felt like the R-word was still there, in the back of our minds.
Like, “You know, anything Regina said was probably kind of awful and hurtful. Maybe I shouldn’t say shit that she said. Like ‘retard.’ Yeah…”

3. Anchorman 2
Okay, I’m slightly cheating here, but I think it’s important to have this one on the list.
On March 29, 2012, Anchorman 2 (and 1) director Adam McKay pledged via Twitter that he would not use the R-word anywhere in Anchorman 2, and he didn’t. Boom.

Now, the character of Brick Tamlin as a whole aside (yes, Mr. McKay, it is still offensive to spent two movies making fun of people with intellectual disabilities by having one character state that he is “mentally retarded” and then do a ton of ridiculous and outlandish things to amuse the audience at his expense, targeting the lowest common denominators of comedy), all of that aside, Adam McKay stuck to that pledge and did not use the R-word in the script.
Progress is progress, yo. One step at a time.

2. The North Plan by Jason Wells
(This one’s cheating again, sorry not sorry.)
So, check this out:
I was in a production of the play “The North Plan” by Jason Wells a number of years ago and, early in the play, the hero character says something (I can’t recall the exact line and don’t have access to the script at this time), but something to the effect of,
“Oh my god. You are actually retarded,” referring to the comically inept Ozarks-dwelling woman in the jail cell next to him [he had been arrested at a checkpoint while trying to smuggle a US Government-created list of names of people considered to be possible threats to national security on the advent of the Government preemptively “eliminating” those threats (if you aren’t up on Oliver North, take a once-over on him and some of the BS he pulled. Scary and real [6]). She had been arrested when she turned herself in for drunk driving the night before and not getting caught – hoping that she would be let off for her honesty.]
So, you’ve got this line that feels way out-of-place and unnecessary and actually makes the hero way less likeable. Now check this out:
Like, a week into rehearsal (I’d been trying to navigate how exactly I was going to approach the director about changing the word – especially since I wasn’t the one in the role saying it), anyway, like a week into rehearsal we get an email from Jason Wells, the playwright, and he says, basically Hey guys! So stoked you’re doing my play! Hey – sorry to bug you, but one change: when the guys says “you’re actually retarded,” please change that to “you are actually an imbecile.” The language wasn’t working there and it was making him unlikeable. Thanks, k byeeeeee!
Booyah, baby! Right?!
(Yes, like I said, this one’s cheating, too, but dang that story is worth telling here.)

1. Glee
Just across the board any time that show has dealt with a word, a topic, or a prejudice, they have done so with grace, humanity, wisdom, care, and precision. I have mad respect for EVERYONE on that team.
Also, while we’re talking about Glee, just take a minute to watch this PSA that Lauren Potter and Jane Lynch put out a few years back. It says it better than anything I write can.

Alright. If you’ve made it this far in this post, you deserve a cookie. Or a protein shake. Whatever you like.

Spread the word to end the word. [7]

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