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Where Do We Draw the Line on Mentally Disabled Characters?

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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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About Nick Verboon

I am a guy on the internet who writes stuff sometimes. Try and keep up. I used to write reviews Amazon and other sites under the moniker trashcanman before semi-retiring from my unpaid career for a while. But now I'm back in action writing columns for Unreality and Gamemoir. Enjoy. I

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