Mar 27 2014

Where Do We Draw the Line on Mentally Disabled Characters?

Published by at 11:00 am under Editorials,Movies,Television

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So this is a thing that has been bothering me about childrens’ entertainment for quite a while: using characters that appear to be developmentally disabled for cheap laughs. To me, it comes across as crass, unfunny, and it unnecessarily lowers the quality of what are often already entertaining films and shows. With the current political climate becoming increasingly hyperdefensive of disabled individuals, how is it that this hasn’t become a widespread issue yet?

To be clear off the bat, I’m not offended by this entertainment trend in a politically correct sense. I personally find the current raging against a serviceable descriptive term like “retarded” due to the misuses of ignorant jackasses to be out of line and condescending towards people who are worthy of respect and don’t need our pity even if they do need our help at times. However, out of respect for those who find it offensive I’m going to avoid using the word myself, even if “mentally disabled” implies worse things than “retarded” does in an English language sense.

What does offend me is that you take a film like Frozen, which is full of gorgeous animation, charming characters, memorable songs, and a rare (for Disney) central metaphor that is socially relevant in a good way and then you shoehorn in a character for no other reason than to be laughed at for his sheer, complete, and utterly obnoxious stupidity.

November 1st, 2013 @ 20:49:50

Is it really that funny that Olaf’s dream is a warm climate that would melt him? Reaaaallllyyy? I mean, does it need to be a sideplot that pops up again and again and has its own musical number and flimsy resolution and everything? This little buck-toothed humanoid with a malshapen head and a voice that suggests some severe handicap is joyfully obsessing over something that will kill him while the other characters look at each other like “oh well, whatcha gonna do?” and how long exactly is this supposed to be funny for? Is this Oscar-caliber comedy?

I’m a bit appalled at the prospect of the upcoming sequel Finding Dory too. The character’s entire point in Finding Nemo was, again, to be as stupid as possible without adding anything significant to the plot. The whole thing about fish only having a few seconds worth of memory might make a decent one-off joke, but basing a primary character entirely on it? Who signed off on that?

Then let’s take a look at Nickelodeon for a second. I still have never quite put my finger on what exactly is funny about Spongebob Squarepants, but if being obnoxious is enough to carry a show for some, I’m still failing to see the point in his friend Patrick. Is having a voice that suggests Down syndrome funny in and of itself? I’m not quite sure how or why.

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If Star Wars using caricatures of foreign accents to voice aliens is racially insensitive, what does that say about cartoons whose stock and trade is characters who sound mentally disabled? I suppose the premise is that kids enjoy the sound of characters with doofy-sounding voices, but they seem to enjoy characters without them just as much so I’m not sure that it’s a trope worth holding on to the extent it’s being used.

The only time I recall people seeming to have gotten up in arms about this is My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, in which a recurring background character with crossed eyes was dubbed “Derpy” by fans, which was incorporated into canon. The character spoke in an episode and had a voice to match the name and the character ended up being altered in subsequent airings after a minor uproar, in spite of the fandom surrounding her. It’s odd that such a minuscule example of this was hammered so fast and so hard while so many bigger targets make it a staple of their comedy. Was it the eyes?

One could definitely argue about whether some of these kinds of characters are meant to be literally disabled or just unintelligent. It’s pretty much accepted fact that other people being stupid can be funny, but at what point do you cross that line? How do you differentiate a genuinely funny joke about ignorance from something that’s just moronic and offensive?

Does Homer Simpson count? He’s got a big, loud dumb voice and he does idiotic things for sure, but then again, he’s high-functioning and pretty much serves as a definitive symbol of the American public in The Simpsons’ brand of sharp satire so I’d say he’s more of a harsh everyman metaphor than a mentally disabled character. On the other hand, Family Guy once named an episode Petarded where Peter Griffin was declared legally retarded.  I’m not really sure what to make of that.  I guess you could just chalk it up to the show’s trademark random flailing at comedy.

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It’s interesting to me that live action entertainment has by and large gotten over its fascination with mentally handicapped characters. This may or may not be in response to the controversial satire of Tropic Thunder in which the Oscar baiting phenomenon was heavily skewered, coining the advice “never go full retard”. Seeing that that was more of a saying out loud what Hollywood was thinking situation, I find it amusing that people were more offended by a comedy poking fun at Hollywood’s exploitation of mental handicaps for profit than they are at its continued prevalence in childrens’ films and television shows.

Modern television has proved that it’s entirely possible to treat mental disabilities and characters who have them with respect. Jamie Brewer carved out featured roles in two of three seasons of American Horror Story as an actress with Down syndrome playing characters with Down syndrome who were integral to the plot and not played just for laughs or even sympathy. RJ Mitte has cerebral palsy, and so does his Breaking Bad character, Walt Jr. He’s not someone we pity or laugh at because he has a funny voice. He’s an indispensable cast member who is treated on the show as disabled people should be; just like anyone else.

If we as adults can appreciate that, why are we holding childrens’ entertainment to a lower standard? Are we training our kids to think that having speech problems is something to laugh at? At this point it’s obvious that kiddie flicks are being made for parents as much as their children so why put up with this? It’s clear enough that a lot of us find this sort of humor more annoying than amusing. We didn’t stand for Jar-Jar Binks, so why do Oscar winners and half of Nickelodeon’s programming get a free pass?

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Even divorcing the notion that it’s insensitive for cartoons to play mentally challenged individuals for cheap laughs, I don’t see the appeal. I watch a film like Epic and enjoy it quite a bit, but then they have to crap it up by cramming exceptionally low-brow humor and white ebonics approximations into the mix for no good reason. Whether the characters are meant to be literally mentally disabled or just dumb, at this point it’s become an almost unwatchable and cringeworthy cliché to me.

You don’t see Miyazaki stooping to this level. In fact, other countries seem almost completely immune to this. Do movies with serious stories featuring really, really stupid characters do that much better than ones that don’t in America?  This isn’t like using hot girls on magazine covers to sell more copies. I don’t think there is a direct correlation between unnecessarily obnoxious characters and a film’s appeal. It’s just bad writing.

So if you’re listening, Hollywood, I’d really appreciate it if you’d start hiring writers that get how comedy works and make funny things happen instead of just throwing deliberately doofy voices, ebonics, and general obnoxiousness into the mix. Sooner or later the PC crowd is going to come for your ass and shut it down anyways so no time like the present to start honing your actual joke-writing skills.  Thanks.





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11 responses so far

11 Responses to “Where Do We Draw the Line on Mentally Disabled Characters?”

  1. David Ron 27 Mar 2014 at 1:37 pm

    Yeah, sometimes a funny voice is actually funny. Everybody seems to have different ones they respond to, but it’s a real thing. Also, yes, the idea of a snowman who wants nothing more than to go to a beach is funny. My memory (occasionally unreliable) tells me that dude was oblivious, not retarded, and oblivious people can be hilarious — just look at Arrested Development.

    Dory, in all her loopy, unfocused glory, makes a perfect foil for the self-conscious, neurotic Marlin. He can’t let go of the past, she can’t hold onto it. Plus, she’s a fun character. Don’t see the problem with this one.

    Also, don’t fall into the trap of thinking everybody’s got stuff figured out except for Americans.

    All that said, I’d wager any writing problem you’re referring to, and most writing problems in Hollywood, comes down not to the writer him/herself but to the studio/exec making the picture. A lot of these all-ages things are made by going down a checklist, and “comedy relief” is on there right alongside useless requirements like “likeable characters” and “action scenes.” Bad jokes are usually a symptom of a broken process.

    The essay on why Jar-Jar is a brilliant character, and not really that racist, and certainly not only there for comic relief, can wait for another day.

  2. Godlingon 27 Mar 2014 at 2:45 pm

    Suggesting that Miyazaki doesn’t “stoop” to this level tells me subtlety
    is not your strong suite and that you are in fact biased for using such
    personally emotional and judgmental language. You could have used many other verbs… but chose “stoop”? You wear your prejudices on your sleeve.

    There are plenty of characters in Miyazaki’s films that are, to me, “obviously” challenged. I’d suggest that you seem to notice and be offended by the extreme stereo-types only. Where would you then draw the line? Who decides? Mr.Orwell?

    You also (as already pointed out by David) have confused “mentally challenged” with simple ignorance or obliviousness. Hopefully you’ll take this opportunity to realize the differences and to rethink your biased views. It will be interesting to see if you still believe these things via your future contributions.

  3. Chipmunk Wrathon 27 Mar 2014 at 3:35 pm

    To me Olaf wasn’t just stupid comic relief. He was important to both sisters and had nothing but love for them. He wanted to see summer cause all he knew was snow and don’t we all want to experience something new and unknown? Yea, he was goofy, but he was there to love and help. He helped them find Elsa, tired to fight the giant snow man, told Anna to run when he thought Kristoff was crazy (I suppose it was a laugh but it still showed he cared, even saying it was because he loved her), and willingly let himself melt while he tried to make Anna warmer. While I’m not going to say you are wrong or that you aren’t allowed to have your own opinion, I will say that just because those characters seem pointless doesn’t always mean they have no purpose.

  4. ferrymanon 28 Mar 2014 at 3:41 am

    Art… life…Joe Biden…’nuff said.

  5. Nick Verboonon 28 Mar 2014 at 1:58 pm

    I traffic in harsh criticism so no worries, man. Say what you’ve got to say. I’m primarily just trying to facilitate discussion so there’s no downside. I wasn’t trying to sound like other countries have everything figured out since they all have their own problems and tropes, but I very seldom see characters that are that kind of dumb shoehorned into foreign entertainment. I just found that interesting

  6. Nick Verboonon 28 Mar 2014 at 2:15 pm

    I think that particular brand of humor qualifies as lowbrow, so stoop is a particularly relevant verb in my opinion. What exactly is my prejudice? That I think Ghibli is better than Pixar and Disney? That’s not news, but that bias is based on having seen nearly 30 Ghibli films and around as many Disney/Pixar films for comparison over the years so I’d call it more of a preference. To be prejudice I’d have to be judging it before I knew enough to compare and I grew up on Disney so they had home court advantage.

    If my bias is against cartoons that work off of a checklist of cliches that include things like “deformed-looking short character with Down syndrome”, fair enough, but I fail to see the negative there. Ignorance and obliviousness don’t usually affect your voice that way.

    I’d say extreme stereotypes would be the one to notice first, wouldn’t you? And for the record, I’m not suggesting censorship. Never censorship. I’m just saying that it might be time to let go of certain cliches that don’t add much of value to the story and are pretty much just there out of some misguided notion that stupider is funnier. My future contributions probably aren’t going to come back around this way because I’ve pretty much said my piece, but thanks for the feedback.

  7. Nick Verboonon 28 Mar 2014 at 2:21 pm

    Yeah, I got that he had symbolic relevance to the sisters (“do you want to build a snowman?”) but on the other hand, if the character was never in the movie or was just less dopey, I don’t really see it hurting the story much either. It’s interesting that people really seem to be attached to this trope. I guess it’s just me that finds them annoying and unnecessary.

  8. Nick Verboonon 28 Mar 2014 at 2:21 pm

    Mwa-ha-ha!

  9. Godlingon 28 Mar 2014 at 10:17 pm

    I agree that it’s lowbrow for sure. I guess I have my own bias towards the word “stoop” is what it comes down to. I didn’t mean to only debate semantics (old habits die hard).

    I do actually agree with you in general, just not how you said it. :)

  10. ferrymanon 29 Mar 2014 at 6:39 am

    My personal favorite is the Crazy Cat Lady on the Simpsons. Of course, the majority of the characters on that show have issues.

  11. Akarion 31 Mar 2014 at 10:20 pm

    I agree with most of your examples, but Olaf, to me, was an extreme case of naivete that felt justified by the fact that he’d only been alive for a few hours… I found his lines, perspective, and portrayal touching and amusing at the same time.
    He is actually one of the only ‘dumb’ characters I can think of that I didn’t find to be an obnoxious distraction. Typically, I just don’t find that stuff amusing.
    Granted, his naivete was conveniently selective to whatever would make for the most ‘humor’, but I haven’t conversed with anything that’s only been alive for a span of hours before, so it’s hard to judge. :)

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