Retarded in Hollywood



I don’t know why this word has became an acceptable punch line in pop culture, but it’s an affront to everything I do on a daily basis for my daughter.

Meredith has intellectual disabilities and if the state of Texas can make a law banning the use of “retard” in state documents, then why can’t a 14-year-old peer rethink her word choice?

The other evening I was helping my daughter change costumes between breaks at a middle school choir performance. Fortunately Meredith had just left the room when a girl held up her costume and said  “Do I look retarded? We all look like retards!”

As she got ready to leave, I yelled, “Hey, that is not okay with me!”

I added,  “You are making fun of Meredith and other students with disabilities when you use that word.”

“Why?” she said rhetorically as she pushed the door open and disappeared.

Why, indeed. But how would she know why the word is so painful to those touched by intellectual disabilities?

The word “retard” has  been used in the literal and ironic sense for decades, but there is a growing  trend in sitcoms, films and friendships that is giving  the word a renewed thumbs up. It’s one thing for a teenager to not fully understand the hurt it inflicts, but when a major motion picture for adults springs it on me, I have a hard time forgiving.

“The Descendants,” starring George Clooney, is a thoughtful film about love, love lost, a dead spouse and an angry daughter, but it inexplicably features an entire scene built around the words “retarded” and “retard.” It adds nothing to the story line or character development from my perspective. So, why?

I spoke to my friend Jeff Knight the other day about the movie. He also has a child with special needs and also thought it was a great film. He was not as troubled by the “retarded” scene initially, but after researching the author of the novel, he found something disturbing.

Jeff writes:

Here’s the scene: the character Sid, who stretches belief in his meanness and/or cluelessness (mocking someone with Alzheimer’s!), has goaded George Clooney’s character about a very sensitive subject. Clooney’s character refers to Sid as a “retard.” I winced, and was jarred out of the movie a moment. But I thought, well, this guy’s in extreme stress/crisis, and maybe the point here is about how we’re often at our worst when we’re the most stressed. That is, the movie doesn’t seem to endorse the language.

Then the movie takes a really interesting turn. Sid objects to the language—“retard” used in a derogatory fashion. He further says that his objection comes from his protective feelings for his brother, who has retardation. Clooney looks genuinely abashed, when Sid laughs and says it was just a joke.

So Clooney—stressed—has acted badly, and the kid who is bizarrely mean has been bizarrely mean. Am I offended? Yes, but.  The “yes” is obvious. The  “but” is that—in this fictional context—I think it’s believable for the characters to say it, and the film certainly doesn’t celebrate their saying it.

It’s problematic speech and it’s presented as problematic speech. On balance, it doesn’t turn me away. It’s a rough edge. It’s like Kevin Kline’s cheating on his wife in Grand Canyon. The movie’s not about that, and doesn’t dwell on it; it’s just one more complicated shading of how people have their good and bad qualities. I think too little attention is given to the gravity of the offense in an otherwise likable character, but oh, okay, there’s enough else to like I the movie that I didn’t get stuck on it.

I wondered if other people who care about this issue had weighed in on it, and sure enough, they had, and in a thread about it, someone pointed out that the language comes from the novel. I liked the movie enough that I’m interested in reading the novel. I felt it was likely that the author had been asked about the scene and wondered what she would have to say, so I googled title, author, and “retarded,” and WOW was I disappointed!

I got an entry in the author’s blog (which is obviously public, since I could read it). In the entry she says—in a list of favorite things—that she loves the kind of friends around whom she can “act retarded,” and then, wait for it, right there among her favorite things she lists “the word ‘retarded.’”

So now I hate her and wish her ill, because she uses the word in her own voice, celebrates it, AND uses a character to make light of those of us who find it offensive. Hate. Her. Was all kinds of ready to love her right up until that point, and was trying to give the benefit of the doubt. Now I see it as malicious. It comes across to me as, “Look how hip/contrarian I am; I’ll use the word even though and maybe even because people object/are hurt by it.”

I agree. Thanks, Jeff.








Sarah Barnes
[email protected]
  • Hannah Jacobs
    Posted at 20:14h, 29 March

    Hi. I have a 15 year old daughter with an Intellectual Disability. She’s a lot of fun and keeps me on my toes. There are a lot of us out there like you, working on educating people about how hurtful the R word is. We have a very active Facebook group called Special Needs Watch: Hall of Shame. I’ll post the link for you and hope that it’s okay for me to post your blog. I think our members would be shocked about what you learned about the author of the Descendants.

  • Sarah
    Posted at 21:28h, 29 March

    Hey Hannah,
    Yes, thank you! It’s always great to hear from those on a similar road. I appreciate the work you are doing and thanks for posting my link.