Cowards: “The Change-Up” and Disability Slurs

August 10, 2011 · 44 comments

in Things People Say

I was appalled by the revelation earlier this week that the Universal Pictures film “The Change-Up,” starring one of my favorite actors, Jason Bateman, took pot shots at the intellectually disabled in general and Down syndrome specifically, both within the first fifteen minutes. Although I have not seen the movie, one viewer described the scene this way:

Ryan Reynolds who plays a bachelor who has never settled down, visits his long-time friend Jason Bateman; he sees his twins in their high chairs and says, “Why aren’t they talking – what are they, retarded?” I thought that was offensive enough but then he says, “And this one, he looks Downsy.”

I’m not a confrontational person, and I want this blog be a positive community, not a place where I constantly rant about injustice. I tweeted a few comments about it, joined the newly-formed Stop Disability Slurs group on Facebook, posted a few links about the controversy to this blog’s Facebook page and my personal page, and decided I’d let it go at that. But when I woke up this morning, my feelings had changed. It dawned on me why Hollywood (and GQ, for that matter) would feel comfortable slamming people with intellectual disabilities without fear of retribution.

It’s because they are cowards.

Do you think there’s any chance that Universal Studios would have let the single male character say “Are you sure they aren’t gay?” and “This one looks kinda faggoty”? The backlash would be so far-reaching that they’d never consider going there. Director/producer David Dobkin even admitted in an interview that he was concerned about the “Downsy” comment, but left it in because the test audience didn’t complain. Instead of doing the right thing, he chose the gutter – for a laugh.

Coward.

What was the thought process for including that dialogue in the movie? I imagine that the writers/producers thought it was edgy humor that pushed the offensive envelope. It isn’t edgy, daring, or creative to use “retarded” or “Downsy” as a punchline. It’s unoriginal, cheap, and cowardly.

It’s picking on a group that’s unlikely to fight back – the dialogue equivalent of the bully in grade school.

Social media has faciliated a huge backlash, with advocates tweeting Universal Pictures, Jason Bateman, and Ryan Reynolds, posting on Universal’s Facebook page, and emailing individuals involved in the movie. Universal has had nothing to say. Facebook threads were deleted and posting was disabled, tweets were ignored, and emails are now bouncing, possibly because they’ve also been disabled. Those of us who feel strongly that the language used in “The Change-Up” is unacceptable have stood up and said something. Will Universal Studios and the cast and crew of “The Change-Up” have the guts to stand up and defend their actions?

So far they’re hiding. Because they’re cowards.

Want to join the fight to stop slurs against individuals with disabilities? Join us.

r-word.org

**Disclosure: I have not seen the movie, and acknowledge that the quotes may not be exact. However, many other viewers have reported nearly identical descriptions.

If you enjoyed this post, download my FREE eBook, There's Sunshine Behind the Cloudsa resource for special needs parents. There’s Sunshine Behind the Clouds: Surviving the Early Years as a Special Needs Mom is for every mother of a child with special needs who is at the beginning of the journey, struggling to gain her footing on ever-shifting sands. It focuses on how to not only survive the emotional roller coaster of special needs parenting, but enjoy the ride.
k August 10, 2011 at 10:03 am

Sigh. I can’t believe this. And you know what’s worse, an actor who is complicit in this by not saying, “No. I won’t say that.”

I feel like I need to apologize for everyone who doesn’t have a child with special needs, for the collective acceptance of this behavior. You know me enough to know I don’t accept it, but it’s like when straight people feel the need to apologize for the treatment of gay people, or something along those lines. I feel like these people who are ok with this somehow represent me, and I’m NOT ok with that.

Mom to mom. I’m sorry. Activist to activist, I stand with you.

<3

James MacDonald April 27, 2012 at 7:10 am

I am 60+ and have cerebral palsy. So I have a wortking lifetime of disability discrimination. Bad as slurs are, they may be no worse than the slurs people utter through their dismissive behaviour. I am on the point of believing that only through segregated living can disabled people achieve any lasting amount of self-worth.

As a teenager, I attended a school for the disabled. It was notable for its kindness among the pupils–they knew how to be nice to one another because they had already received harshness of a kind able-bodied people cannot know.

Jessica @FoundtheMarbles August 10, 2011 at 11:30 am

Well, now zi certainly won’t be seeing this movie. In today’s world where bullying is more profound than ever, how can they think for even one minute that this is acceptable? Cowards.

Amy Mize August 10, 2011 at 12:04 pm

You go mama! My five year old son was born with Down syndrome and he is one of the most amazing, driven people I have ever had the pleasure to know. The word coward has never fit any of the amazing people with Down synrome I know, only those who continue to make horrible jokes at their expense. I love your blog. Keep on writing!

Andi August 11, 2011 at 8:12 am

Great point, Amy! The people I’ve known with Down syndrome are also very sensitive to the feelings of others – bitterly ironic when so many in society don’t share that sensitivity, and callously target them.

Lisa Weir August 10, 2011 at 12:18 pm

I definitely will not be seeing this movie…how unacceptable, unnecessary and disgusting…

Fiona August 10, 2011 at 12:21 pm

I don’t see why people in any walk of life have to use these words – we are sooo politically correct about everything else, why not about the use of the R-word and others like it? Are we so limited in our vocabulary that we are compeled to use these words? I think the motto going forward should be: THINK BEFORE WE SPEAK…

My nephew was a Downs Syndrome child – the most perfect human being I have ever known. He was a happy boy and loved us all unconditionally; the best hugger in the whole wide world. He passed away 4 months ago on April 8th 2011 because of a botched surgical procedure. I miss my precious godson and nephew so… When he was with us, I hated it when people made a reference of any kind to the fact that he was different!! And I hate it now…

Thank you for your very thoughtful, caring and insightful post.

Andi August 11, 2011 at 8:16 am

I am so sorry for your loss, Fiona. I think that the “hugging gene” must be contained in the 21st chromosome, as the best huggers I’ve known were young people with Down syndrome. :) We should all have the capacity to love that these precious people have.

Sarabell August 10, 2011 at 12:41 pm

I don’t leave this comment to offend anyone, simply to shed light on the issue. I find that a lot of people who don’t feel personally attached to something (like Down Syndrome, for example) can’t identify or even sympathize with it. For example, I bet if I said “Ryan Reynolds is so gay,” half the people who make “retard” comments would be offended simply because they know a gay friend or family member. I find it incredibly insulting that this country came so far with race issues and is now working on its gay marriage rights but still can’t find a way to get past finding humor in those with cognitive impairment issues. Racial slurs are out of the question now, gay jokes are fewer and fewer every day, but the ol’ “retard” joke is still just as funny as ever?

Andi August 11, 2011 at 8:27 am

I agree that, for many people, “if it isn’t personal it isn’t important.” But you can always find people who don’t have that experience who are also respectful. I remember many years ago when my sister was in middle school, she made gesture/sound (similar to the r-word today) that was mocking of people with disabilities – cerebral palsy specifically, though I’m sure she didn’t know that at the time. My mother chewed her up one side and down the other, and she never did it again. I am so thankful that I had parents who instilled respect for everyone in me.

Sarabell August 11, 2011 at 6:16 pm

My mom always worked with special needs children so my brother and I were immersed in it pretty much from birth and to me the concept of teasing someone for this like that is shocking. It’s odd to see my cousins or other family members have a perspective of humor on the subject. I remember hearing those sounds or seeing people fling their wrist against their chest instead of saying “duh,” and I remember getting picked on for telling them to stop. I now have a sister-in-law with DS and work with children with all disabilities, but before that I only had my perspectives based on my mother who also only knew special needs children from work… so that being said, I know there is hope and my comment leaned a bit too far to the negative side. Sorry about that! I don’t mean to be discouraging, it just drives me crazy that some people raise their children to feel negative feelings towards different people.

kathleenriley6@aol.com August 10, 2011 at 12:43 pm

I was able to comment on Universal’s Facebook page. Look on the left under discussions for the one titled “Downsy”. Lets crash it!

kathleenriley6@aol.com August 10, 2011 at 12:48 pm

https://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=215204471085&topic=17803

The backdoor link to leave a comment! Crash it everyone!

Gretchen August 10, 2011 at 12:59 pm

HI Andi! Great great post. Our group keeps growing and growing! Keep spreading the word and taking about this…even after this issue passes, we still have a fight ongoing that will take many years and effort to equate Disabilty Slurs with Racial Slurs, Religious Slurs, Slurs about Sexual Orientation. Also would you mind correcting the first portion of the description? I Didn’t see the movie. Stop Disability Slur’s co-founder kathy horigan dye saw it. she is the one who described the movie for me…..ONward! Stand up!

Kim August 10, 2011 at 1:02 pm

Love your post! I posted something similar on my blog yesterday (you can link to it below my comment). I was outraged to hear of this comment in a film. I can’t believe that it’s still so acceptable to call special needs people retarded and make fun of them. It’s not acceptable to make fun of gay people or people of other races, so why is it ok to make derogatory comments about disabled people? One person who commented on my post made a good point about not knowing what the actors were thinking – did they honestly read the script, see that line, and not think there was something wrong with that? It just goes to show how our society is so warped – we have become so progressive about some things, and have stayed back in the dark ages about others. Completely ridiculous. Thank you for your words!

Andi August 11, 2011 at 8:46 am

I have no idea if you’ve ever seen the show “Arrested Development,” but Jason Bateman starred in it, and there wars a storyline in season 3 with a woman who has an intellectual disability. In an episode shortly after that character’s departure from the show, Jason Bateman’s character says “That’s so retar…misguided.” It’s clear that his character had a change of heart about using the r-word after having known this woman. Although JB’s character in “The Change-Up” is not the one that spoke the offensive lines, it disappointed me that he was in the scene and didn’t insist that the scene be changed.

Belinda Betteridge August 10, 2011 at 1:06 pm

I wanted to see this movie; but I have changed my mind. I will NOT contribute to the millions they will make off this movie at the Expense of our Persons with disabilities (Slurs)

Belinda August 10, 2011 at 1:12 pm

DISCUSTED!!!!

Dawn August 10, 2011 at 1:25 pm

Don’t these writers realize the movies would be just as funny without this language? All this derogatory language does is hurt people, it doesn’t make the entire movie any more or less funny.

Corby August 10, 2011 at 1:54 pm

I think it is a true shame that the director(s), producer(s), actor(s), studio executive(s) in charge of the project didn’t have the basic level of human compassion to object to that line. However, what is more disheartening to me is that no one in the testing audiences had a problem with that line. I think that speaks volumes to the overall culture of insensitivity to a section of our community that are more than likely to be compassionate to all people without regard to their (physical/mental/financial/social)status.

Andi August 11, 2011 at 8:54 am

I had the exact same thought, Corby. It’s easy to find fault with those who produced the film, but it’s disheartening that the test audiences didn’t speak up, either. Another issue in that interview with the director/producer that bothered me was at the very end of the answer to the Down syndrome question where he referred to Ryan Reynolds’ character as a dumb-dumb and a “mouth-breather.” I haven’t noticed anyone mentioning that comment elsewhere, but I was bothered by that, as well. Many people with Down syndrome have lower muscle tone which often is most visible in a slack jaw. He was defending his decision to leave the comment in by describing Reynolds’ character negatively, but then chose to use an indirect reference to people with Down syndrome to do so. Pitiful.

The Bridges Foundation August 10, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Thank you for your post and passion Andi. People’s unawareness and lack of compassion feed these types of atrocities. We work to raise people’s consciousness, so they know their behavior can have devastating effects on others. Unfortunately, we currently live in a world where people tend to assume their actions (especially speech) should not be taken “personally”. Until we all know that what we say and do effects everyone around us and we take responsibility for our for our actions – not much will change.

kathleenriley6@aol.com August 10, 2011 at 2:01 pm

http://www.universalstudios.com/contact_form.php

Another place to leave comments

Del Coro August 10, 2011 at 3:00 pm

“I have not seen the movie”

This invalidates everything you say.

Judith August 10, 2011 at 3:31 pm

I chastised my grandson the other day for calling his younger brother a retard. Those of us who don’t have personal contact with spacial needs children need to be ever alert for such slurs and to address them.

k August 10, 2011 at 5:18 pm

No Del Coro. It doesn’t invalidate anything. Unless you believe that EVERYONE who has seen it has reported this scene incorrectly the exact same way, unless you don’t believe that you can find full movie scripts online to confirm these stories, and unless you’ve never ever retold something you’ve heard from someone else without experiencing it first hand, then I might cut you some slack. But Andi is one of the most astute and intelligent writers around, and on this subject I’d go to her every time. And despite her not seeing the movie (something I see no issue with) I fully believe in her being completely informed about what she chooses to write about. I don’t have to see something offensive to take offense at it’s existence.

Andi August 11, 2011 at 8:59 am

Wow, k. I am speechless. Thank you so much for your support of this cause, this blog, and me personally. I am forever indebted to you and though we have never met, I am proud to have you fighting alongside me.

Debbie Orifice August 10, 2011 at 5:40 pm

I’ve noticed that almost every so-called comedy that’s been out recently has some use of a “retarded” slur reference. It’s real cheap and it reflects the ignorance of movie makers. But more importantly, it reflects how desperate and pitiful the comedies are that are out today. Poor taste and poor comedy.

Andi August 11, 2011 at 9:04 am

Thank you, everyone (except Del Coro :) ) for your heartfelt comments and for sharing your stories with me. If you are new here, welcome! I had no idea when I hit “Publish” yesterday that my post would attract so much attention, and I am so encouraged by your support. I truly believe that we can change people’s thinking if we continue to educate others.

Jo August 11, 2011 at 11:48 am

Thank you for writing this! Well put and amazing writing. I hope you don’t mind if I post your blog on my fb. I think people need to see that this truly is disturbing.

Adrienne K August 11, 2011 at 8:10 pm

I saw the movie on Saturday night. I went to it knowing very little about the movie in advance. There was a lot of the movie that I wasn’t wild about, and I will admit – there were parts of the movie that I liked.

I can verify that this scene happened as described. I have hesitated to comment because I’m afraid that what I would say would sound like I’m defending the choice of language, which I am not. I really do wish that someone from the organization would say SOMETHING about this issue. In the scene in question, Ryan Reynolds character is a loser who is grossly inappropriate in his language, not just with this one line. He is a very unsympathetic character. Again, that doesn’t make it ok that the left the line in the movie. A lot of the scenes, especially in the beginning of the movie, were designed to convey a person with a very unpleasant and inappropriate (putting it mildly) lifestyle.

If I had known about this issue before seeing the movie, I would have seen a different movie. I do wish that someone would speak out from Universal or the cast of the movie.

Andi August 12, 2011 at 9:28 am

Adrienne – Thank you so much for your honest and frank assessment of the film. I was initially resistant to getting too involved with this cause for the exact reason you cited – because I wasn’t sure of the full context of the character in the film. Before drafting my post, I read what the director/producer had to say in his interview, and he described him in a way that is similar to how you perceived him. What really bothered me, however, was the language he used to describe his vision and understanding of the character – a “mouth breather.” As I mentioned in my reply to Corby above, those words bothered me as much as the dialogue in the movie did, because they reinforced the negative stereotypes of individuals in this community. It wasn’t intentionally harmful, I’m sure, but the fact remains that it was.

Context is key – I wholeheartedly agree with you! We still have a long way to go, however, to break our society from its addiction to negative stereotyping of people with Down syndrome.

Adrienne K August 12, 2011 at 12:41 pm

Absolutely, Andi.

Recently I was in a lengthy disagreement. Someone said something not realizing the impact/consequence of what she said. Her response was just to say “but I didn’t MEAN for that to happen.” Ok, well I appreciate that she didn’t MEAN for it to happen – but that IS what happened so now, please take responsibility for that fact.

Richard August 12, 2011 at 11:54 pm

Actors ACT. Movies are FICTIONAL portrayals. The people who write the scripts for movies aim for authenticity in representing the way people talk. Language like this DOES get used by a lot of people. Is it right in real life? No… of course not. But it happens and because it happens there is NOTHING wrong with an actor, screen writer, director, etc using the language to tell their story. If Hollywood avoided using any all offensive language, MOST movies rated PG and above would not exist.

Let me ask you, with yours sensitivity, do you think that Huck Finn should be banned for using racial slurs? Was Mark Twain a racist or an artist using words… even ugly ones, to tell an important story?

Okay… yes I realize that comedy is considered lower on the artistic spectrum, but do you get what I’m saying. Everyone can be offended by SOMETHING, but to blur the lines between real life and fiction is a little… well… unfair maybe… overly sensitive?

Not trying to pick a fight. Just offering what I feel is a fair counterpoint.

Andi August 13, 2011 at 2:13 am

Thank you for your feedback, Richard, but your questions presume “facts not in evidence.”

First: No, I don’t believe that Huck Finn should be banned. Nor do I believe that The Change-Up should be banned. People have the right to say what they want in the way that they want to say it. I don’t advocate censorship, because I prefer to encourage people – especially those in the media with wide reach and influence – to consider the impact of their actions and make better choices. Just because language is authentic doesn’t mean that it’s beneficial, and just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should.

Second: You also assume that the issue is about sensitivity. If you had spent much time on this blog, you would have learned that it has little to do with sensitivity, and much more to do with undoing the damage that is continually being inflicted upon an entire segment of our society. It has nothing to do with hurt feelings – the problem with this kind of language lies in the fact that its use reinforces the belief that individuals with Down syndrome are worth less than their “typical” peers.

One thing I will give you credit for, however…you were at least willing to present a counterargument. The folks at Universal Pictures couldn’t even bring themselves to do that.

Theresa Fears August 21, 2011 at 3:48 pm

Richard,
I suspect the reason you perceive this as “sensitivity” is that you do not have a child with a developmental disability and therefore do not care about how people with disabilities are portrayed. It takes a stand-up person to be concerned about fairness and equality without any personal investment.

Theresa Fears August 21, 2011 at 3:39 pm

I am extremely disappointed in Batemen who, before this, had come across in interviews as a thoughtful, intelligent person. You are right – this is school yard bullying on a societal level and just plain mean spirited.

Andi August 23, 2011 at 10:12 am

Jason Bateman has always been one of my favorite actors – ever since the “Silver Spoon” days when I had a gigantic crush on him (yes, I’m dating myself!) His show “Arrested Development” had an intellectually disabled character in season 3, and while I have mixed feelings about the storyline, his character was respectful (even stopping himself from using the r-word in one scene, replacing it with something more appropriate). It is disappointing.

Shannon A August 24, 2011 at 8:15 am

The problem I have is that teenagers and adults will see this movie and quote it and think it’s ok because it’s funny. I had a facebook friend saying something about “going full r-tard” on fb. I had no idea where he got the saying from but let him know it was not acceptable. He immediately pulled it and apologized saying, I was just quoting a line from Tropic Thunder. I told him that was exactly why I didn’t see that movie.

Tracy December 3, 2011 at 12:04 pm

I have a 4 year old with Down Syndrome and I watched the movie last night. I thought the movie was funny but yes, that remark left a bad taste in my mouth. Not sure why they thought that would be funny to add to the script. Obviously it was not funny. It just showed the charachter is a jack a**. I guess that was the point of the comment.

JaneDoe June 6, 2013 at 12:28 am

I am curious as to how so many perfect people found their way to this blog! Looking at the comments, it would appear as if every person here has lived a perfect life and never intentionally or unintentionally offended anyone. How wonderful!!! How amazing!!! To have gone through your entire lives never saying “that’s crazy/insane” or “hey fatass” or “dumb/stupid/moron” or any of a hundred slurs regarding disabilities I could list.

I am sooooo happy that there are perfect people like you guys to lead by shining example!

Andi June 6, 2013 at 7:24 am

Not perfect, JaneDoe, but doing our best to be kind.

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