The “retarded” renaissance

"Never go full retard" was the catchphrase of the summer. Activist groups aren't laughing. Should you be?

Topics: Language Police,

The "retarded" renaissance

When I was in fourth grade, someone you liked was a “good kid.” Someone you didn’t like was a “retard.” (Or, in the colorful patois of my native Boston, a “wicked retahd.” That, or this withering shorthand: “a wicked re.”) We did not use the term for the special-needs kids. They were “the special-needs kids.”

Basically, we used the word to describe any annoying person (or rule or homework assignment). There was also the timeless “loser,” of course, and the more ephemeral “dink” — “douche bag,” for its part, came later — but “retard,” and “retarded,” with all their variations, packed the most playground punch.

And today, pop culture and the Twitterati, tirelessly mining those formative years for irony pay dirt, have spurred — for descriptive better or for derogatory worse, depending on whom you ask — a “retard” renaissance.

You’ve probably read, heard or even said the word (and/or its “‘tard”-based spinoffs) if you watched this year’s MTV Video Music Awards; saw “Napoleon Dynamite,” “House Bunny” or the trailer for the new Michael Cera movie (“I love you so much it’s retarded”); listened to the Black Eyed Peas; heard Howard Stern on Gov. Sarah Palin and work-family balance (according to a listener, he said, “For the sake of that retarded baby, I’m not going to vote for her”); discussed John McCain’s plan for health insurance reform; or visited, like, any blog comments section ever.

Oh, or if you’ve read word one about the most recent Stiller-tacular, “Tropic Thunder,” whose vast coalition of detractors — including the Special Olympics, the National Down Syndrome Society and the American Association of People with Disabilities — are currently leading the “for worse” troops, protesting the use, and use and use of the word “retard” in the movie. The coalition has also objected to the portrayal of the “retard” in question, Simple Jack, played by Stiller’s Tugg Speedman in a film-within-a-film, which itself spawned the straight-to-novelty-tee catchphrase of the summer. “You went full retard, man,” Robert Downey Jr.’s character — in blackfaceadmonishes a deflated Speedman. “Never go full retard.”

The catchphrase factor is part of what has advocates up in arms. Yes, they say, wearily, we know the bit, in context, is satire. (And clearly it is: Not of Simple Jack, but of movies like “I Am Sam” — that is, of maudlin, “serious,” Oscar-bait film portrayals of the intellectually challenged.) But the thing about catchwords, coalition members note, is that they don’t stay in context.

“When kids see the movie and then use that word to tease someone — or call someone ‘Simple Jack’ — they’re not making fun of Hollywood,” says Alex Plank, founder of, a prominent online forum for people with autism and other neurological differences, and a member organization of the “Tropic Thunder” protest coalition. Or, in the words of one blogger whose son has Down syndrome, “When we award tacit acceptance to a term such as ‘retard’ or ‘retarded’ in casual conversation — or worse, when millions of people watch a movie that also awards that tacit acceptance — it most certainly will gain even more acceptance,” she wrote last month. “My son will be going back to school in a couple of weeks. And all around him — I guarantee it — kids will be telling other kids not to go ‘full retard.’ And everyone will think it’s OK to say ‘retard,’ or that this or that is ‘retarded.’ And my son will walk through the halls, and more people will think of Nick as a ‘retard’ than did a few months ago. Nick deserves better than that.”

But do we need to ban the word entirely? Not necessarily, says Gail Williamson, mother of a working actor with Down syndrome and executive director of the Down Sydrome Association of Los Angeles (which also successfully hounded Fox to pull “Napoleon Dynamite” pens that said, “You guys are retarded”). “But we do have moral and societal guidelines that limit the use of other derogatory words. We’re just saying this word needs to be added to that list. It is hate speech.”

So it’s because of “Tropic Thunder” that the current “hate speech” vs. “irony!” controversy has exploded. But in the broader view of this particular culture war, Stiller & Co. were hardly the first to have dropped the R-bomb. Todd Solondz trivia experts may note that the working title of his 1995 outcast-fest “Welcome to the Dollhouse” reportedly was “Faggots and Retards.” And back in 2000, Tina Fey said she had to haggle for permission to use the word on “SNL” — in a Sully-and-Denise-from-Boston sketch, natch. The final word from NBC’s standards and practices division: Yes in late night, no in earlier promos. “The network is very skittish about the word — and rightfully so,” Fey told the New York Observer.

So what’s behind the R-word’s most recent surge — in visibility and, depending on where you look, acceptability? And, really, should it go away for good?

As for pinpointing the term’s reemergence, there’s certain linguistic detective work that just cannot be done. No one can say for sure which cheeky blogger first thought, for instance, “Hmm. ‘Idiot’? No. ‘Loser’? No, too soft. ‘Tool’? Close. But I need something more pungent, more staccato, even more deliberately juvenile. Oh, look, someone from fourth grade just found me on Facebook. Man, I always thought that kid was such a … [light bulb] RETARD.”

But it’s not hard to hypothesize about the term’s recent proliferation, or its unique descriptive appeal. It is at least a safe bet that — as feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte suggested to me in a separate analysis of the term “douche bag” — the full-on deployment of “retard” and (perhaps even more so) “retarded” was at least accelerated in the online snarkosphere, where so many jillions of people complaining about so many jillions of things are, at the end of the day, just going to need some more words. (Cf. “asshat,” “douchetard.”)

So, then, why “retard”? For one thing, “retard” and “retarded” have that retro, old-skool styling that is not only in vogue but also handy when that puerile, playgroundy connotation is precisely what’s needed. Retarded, its fans insist, steps in where, say, “lame” (also an offensive term, if you think about it) leaves off. “I always thought ‘retard,’ which means slows and pretty in music, was actually a kind of nice way to express the condition. So I’m sorry it got a bad rap,” says my friend Dixie, whom I called to find out if the teen TV network where she works would allow the R-word on air. (Answer: No way.) “It got a bad rap precisely because people used the term to mean lame. So now that we don’t use it for the developmentally disabled, can we please use it to mean lame, stupid, way stupid? None of these have the punch that retard does. Some things are more than lame. They are retarded. The true essence of a poor, poor decision isn’t conveyed well enough with lame. Or with gay, for that matter.”

Ah, yes. About “gay.” It’s also made quite a comeback, from the fourth grade, as an insult — but not against actual homosexuals. Even if you find that objectionable, there’s still a difference. Gays — unlike “retards” (See? You just can’t say that!) — have been using that term to describe themselves for decades. So the word itself, however you use it, just doesn’t have the same thudding impact. And unless I missed them somehow, I haven’t heard many murmurs about a radical political strategy to reclaim, à la “queer,” the R-word.

In fact, perhaps not surprisingly, things seem to be going in the opposite direction. Just last year, the American Association for Mental Retardation changed its name to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, on the grounds that, while the term was still useful in certain legal and medical contexts, it had become dated at best, stigmatizing at worst. As one proponent of the name change argued, “It is in the process of dying its own death, of becoming an archaic term as others have before it.”

That observation, in a way, bolsters the boosters’ central defense: To the degree that “retard” is hate speech, well, we use it to speak of our hate for Paris Hilton. Or people who “go green” … by private jet. Or certain politicians. Or any display, really, of eye-rolling dumbassery. Not the special-needs kids.

In fact, at least one person very close to the issue says she has no trouble separating the epithet, in this way, from its original meaning. “My sister has Down syndrome and I am most definitely an advocate for her and any developmentally disabled people. That said, I am in no way offended when I hear the word ‘retarded,’” says Angelique Uhlmann, 40, a physician in Boston who was not offended by “Tropic Thunder.” “In my mind it’s just a word. I don’t recall people ever calling her that, even, but I do recall people staring at her, mouths agape. That I find much more offensive than a mere word. Looks can kill, as they say.”

Ari Ne’eman, an Asperger’s autistic who is founding president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, isn’t buying this argument. “That’s like saying, ‘I’m not really talking about the Jewish people when I say someone’s trying to Jew me out of my money,’” he says. “It’s very disingenuous to say this is not about the rights of people with disabilities, because in many ways reality and actions follow terminology. And if we can’t reach a point where people with disabilities have the same basic rights to respect in public discourse that any other minority community really demands and is generally afforded, then we’re never going to be able to address what is very real and tangible discrimination against people with disabilities.” (Discrimination, he says, and even violence, noting that Sen. Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s pick for V.P., in 2007 introduced legislation that would, among other things, expand the federal definition of a hate crime to include disability.)

Ne’eman and others maintain that disability is one of the last “acceptable” targets of bigotry. He decries this double standard: “There are people who would never practice bigotry against people of a different skin color or religion but are bigoted in their language or actions against people with disabilities all the time.” I’d argue that no one’s thrown around “cripple” much since Alexander Haig, but point taken. Plenty of racism has swirled around the Obama campaign, for example, but at least in “distinguished” circles, it has had to come at least a little encoded. We can argue all day about whether a particular, and subtle, turn of phrase, or sleight of Photoshop, or glance was anti-Semitic, or gay-bashing or whatever. But people — whatever you may make of this — are going around saying “retard,” “retard,” “retard,” with not a whole lot of frowning in their wake.

Here’s how it plays out in my world. The other day an electrician, not a tall guy, arrived at our fourth floor walkup complaining, jokingly, about all the stairs. “It’s not easy for me and my midget legs,” he said with a grin. Was he actually making fun of my sister-in-law, who is an achondroplastic dwarf? Of course not. Would he have said this to her face? No way. He probably didn’t even know that the word “midget” is considered deeply offensive by many people with dwarfism. And yet, I cringed.

Ultimately, anti-”retard” activists are trying to do what I didn’t do while that fellow fixed our ceiling fan: Say something. Or at least to get people, perhaps especially people like me — who found the Simple Jack business hilarious precisely because we’re so offended by “respectful” films like “Rain Man,” and who are deeply aware of the power of words both to pinpoint and to prick — to at least think twice about the insult’s real-life impact.

“People are comfortable using ‘retard’ as a dis because in the past no one has stood up and said anything in numbers worth counting. Most marginalized groups come from places of family pride and tradition. They are able to stand strong together out of their heritage and make a statement. But people with intellectual disabilities, scattered through different families, are not part of a celebrated culture,” says Williamson, who saw “Tropic Thunder” as equal parts outrage and opportunity. “I think today’s high-tech world has finally allowed us to take a stand. Perhaps the word has continued to grow in popularity, since there has been no public pressure against it,” she suggests. “Until now.”

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>