Anyone who thought the new Ben Stiller comedy film "Tropic Thunder" would spark a backlash over Robert Downey Jr.'s role in blackface was half right. There is a backlash, but not about Mr. Downey's character. It's about the word "retard," which is so reviled in disabilities circles -- and beyond -- that many will refer to it only as "the 'R' word."
The label is used repeatedly in the film, prompting denunciation by 22 disabilities groups who say it ridicules people who are intellectually challenged and who have had to fight all their lives for dignity and respect.
Many have called for a national boycott of the film, which opens nationwide today. Protesters picketed its Los Angeles premiere yesterday, and Timothy P. Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics, is going so far as to seek congressional condemnation of what he calls "hate speech."
At the same time, some reviewers loved it. Bob Strauss of the Los Angeles Times wrote: "Complaints would be appropriate if this movie wasn't as side-splitting as it consistently is. Or if it didn't have the guts and discipline to take its premise to the wall and crash right through it."
The R-rated film, released by the DreamWorks division of Paramount Pictures, is intended as a spoof of the film industry. Mr. Stiller, who also co-wrote and directed, plays an actor who hopes to score an Oscar by playing a role on par with Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man" or Tom Hanks in "Forrest Gump." Mr. Downey's character darkens his skin for the role of a black soldier.
DreamWorks spokesman Chip Sullivan released a statement saying the movie was not meant to disparage people with disabilities but as a satire of Hollywood excesses that "makes its point by featuring inappropriate and over-the-top characters in ridiculous situations."
"It's sort of edgy territory," Mr. Stiller said in an interview with MTV News. "But 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 humor would come from. [The joke is on] actors reaching for roles in terms of hopefully winning awards."
The Arc of the United States, the National Down Syndrome Congress, the American Association of People With Disabilities and others beg to differ. Some members screened the film before it opened and were deeply offended. The Arc sent a statement to film critics nationwide titled "Hollywood Bigotry Against Mental Retardation Alive and Well."
Nancy Murray, president of the Arc of Greater Pittsburgh, first said she did not advocate picketing "Tropic Thunder" because it would draw more attention to the film. But after reading more about it, she changed her mind and expects to be protesting outside one of the theaters.
"In our culture, 'retard' and 'retarded' carry a lot of baggage from the days when people were institutionalized in large state facilities," Mrs. Murray said. "Today, children with all types of disabilities are included in all types of schools, people are employed in all types of jobs, they work, they vote, they pay taxes. They don't deserve to be treated in such a dehumanizing way."
Leaving aside the movie's offensiveness or lack thereof, the uproar also serves to highlight the evolving standards of acceptable terminology and how advocacy groups seek to influence the portrayal of their members.
The Arc, for example, was originally ARC, an acronym for Association for Retarded Citizens. Over time, the title was disassociated from the root words because, Mrs. Murray said, "Adults with retardation self-advocated. They clearly told us that the use of the word 'retarded' was very hurtful. Words like 'retard,' 'idiot' and 'moron' create negative stereotypes that lead to discrimination and often times abuse -- just as certain words do for African-Americans or people of the Jewish faith."
But it's not only the choice of words that matters today; it's also the order. "Disabled" is the only phrase advocates say is permissible, but even then, the phrase has to be "person with disability," not "disabled person" or "the disabled."
"We highlight the person first, not the disability," Mrs. Murray said. "And it's not a 'mental disability,' it's an 'intellectual disability,' because it involves abstract thinking and comprehension."
Celine-Marie Pascale, an American University sociologist who analyzes language and representation, said: "There's probably nothing more fundamental to civil rights than the ability to name oneself. You wouldn't call someone a 'Negro' today, and we use 'Asian' instead of 'Oriental.'
" 'Retard' is a slur that opens up wounds," she said. "Even if the movie is spectacular, it imbeds that speech in society. You can't legislate against it, but you can advocate about the damage that gets done."
Kelly McBride, senior ethics fellow at the Poynter Institute, a school and resource center for journalists, said the profession has to be wary of spin. But when it comes to the word in this film that has proved so incendiary, she said, "That's not even a question. It went by the wayside years ago because it's so offensive."
At the same time, she added, "that's entertainment. There's a lot that's offensive in the movies. You vote with your dollars. Plenty of people will see it because it's offensive. That's the world we live in."
Sally Kalson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1610.