We're so over the word retarded

Sunday night, Jamie and I had a date night. Since we’ve become two of the most boring, staid old fogies in the world, we did what we usually do these days: go to a movie. Since Jamie picked last time (Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol), I got to choose. I decided on The Descendants, which critics had raved about and was up for a few Golden Globes. Midway through the movie, I realized I’d made a wrong choice. I found the plot contrived, and the dialogue melodramatic and poorly written. Jamie was obviously bored and restless; he’d somehow surreptitious managed to pull out the IPad so he could read the Wall Street Journal on line.

I shot him a dirty look and focused on the screen, where George Clooney was driving as he argued with his daughter’s boyfriend in the back seat, when all of a sudden Clooney spat out the words, “You are so retarded!”

I couldn’t help it. I visibly flinched, as if I’d been slapped. Jamie’s head shot up from the IPad and I could tell the same thought was going through both of our heads, “we paid a babysitter and $22 for movie tickets for this crap?”

Then I realized the whole audience was doing a sort of collective gasp, followed by dead silence in the theater as the boyfriend said, “my brother’s retarded, man. Don’t use it in a derogatory way.” He grinned. “I’m just kidding, man! I don’t have a retarded brother.” Then, conspiratorially, “Sometimes when old people and retarded people are slow I want to make them hurry up.”

No one laughed. The woman in front of me snorted in disgust. Behind me I heard hissing. It started off softly but after a few seconds it became this steady background noise that was impossible to ignore. I stole a look at the people in the row behind me. One man was shaking his head and the woman next to him was looking at the screen, her lips curled up in disgust.

Then the moment was over and the movie went on. I’d like to say it got better, but that scene had completely soured the film for me. The dialogue (and acting) seemed to get even more melodramatic and the plot even more ridiculous.

“That was like the most terrible, most boring movie ever,” Jamie said as we walked out. “You’re never allowed to pick the movie again.”

I was about to point out that a) it had gotten nominated for a bunch of Golden Globes and b) I had found Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol pretty lousy (but with a lot more action, so you could forget its own contrived plot and terrible, stilted dialogue) but then I remembered that moment when the audience had done a collective gasp.

“Did I imagine that all those people seemed to wince during the scene where the characters are throwing around the word retarded?” I asked Jamie.

“No,” he said. “You didn’t. I think the whole theater was pretty offended.”

This is the moment where I write something incredibly insightful and eloquent about the whole experience, but I got up at 5:20 am this morning so words escape me. But let me just say, I find it so amazing that out of the 30 or so individuals in the theater (it was pretty empty, as most people were at that moment sitting at home watching George Clooney accept a Golden Globe for Best Actor in the film) absolutely no one appeared to find the use of the word retarded as a way to get some cheap laughs acceptable in any way, shape or form.

Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go when it comes to society’s perceptions of people with disabilities. Last week, parents of special needs kids across the country were outraged when news leaked that children with disabilities in Middletown, Connecticut were being sent into closet-sized concrete “scream rooms” for punishment ( This past weekend, the blogosphere was in an outrage over the fact that a three year old girl from New Jersey was reportedly denied a kidney transplant at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia because she has cognitive impairments due to a rare genetic disorder known as Wolf-Hirschhorn Syndrome. (

But for one moment, in one suburban movie theater, a group of people—most of whom I’m guessing don’t have a close family member or friend with developmental delays—found the word retarded supremely offensive.

Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but it seems to me our country is starting to get tired of poking fun at the disabled.

And maybe it’s time for Hollywood to finally start listening.