« California creamin' | Ragged Edge Home | Edge-centric Home | More on "The Ringer" »

December 09, 2005 | Read comments | Post a comment

Can movies dispel stereotypes?

I saw "Murderball" -- several times. I haven't seen either "The Ringer" or "39 Pounds of Love," though. Both of those films have just opened in time for the holidays.

If you don't know what the films are about, or what kind of reviews they're getting, go to google news and type in the name of the movie.

"Murderball," loved by the critics, did abysmally at the box office (although producers have hopes it will do better in its DVD version, which was released Nov. 29).

"The Ringer" will definitely do better, but not, I think, for disability reasons. Made by the Farrelly Brothers of non-p.c. "There's Something About Mary" fame, it stars "Jackass" star Johnny Knoxville, which alone will endear it to a certain large moviegoing public.
Producers of disability flicks seem to find themselves on the horns of a dilemma: talk a new game ("Murderball") and achieve little box-office success, or play directly to stereotypes in the hopes of garnering a large audience. That's the route the Special Olympics took when it signed on to be part of "The Ringer."

Back last summer I learned of the Special Olympics' organization's involvement with the film. But I put off writing about it, waiting for the uproar from disability groups. None came that I could hear. Or if it did, it was a very muted roar.

An Associated Press story published yesterday gives the details for all to read:

"The Ringer" sounds like a politically incorrect disaster - but the Special Olympics couldn't be happier....

"Come on, a normal guy against a bunch of feebs? You'll look like Carl freakin' Lewis out there," says the uncle...
[T]he Special Olympics decided "The Ringer" could humanize their athletes and add a new cachet of cool to their organization.

"The risk was that it would further the stereotypes of people with intellectual disabilities as the brunt of jokes rather than the teller of jokes," said Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver. "But the payoff was even more valuable."

Oookaayy... the "payoff." And what is that payoff?

The Special Olympics website says that "The Ringer"

tells the Special Olympics story in a new way, challenging destructive stereotypes and negative thinking – especially prevalent among young people – about people with intellectual disabilities. Says Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver: "Beyond improving the lives of our athletes on the playing field, a key goal of Special Olympics is to change attitudes of nondisabled young people about people with intellectual disabilities, dispelling negative stereotypes. Humor can be a very effective way to reach young people and the Farrellys are masters of both."

The payoff, then, is that people will go to the movie -- because, after all, the Farrellys are big hits -- and voila! once there, the "stereotypes" will be "dispelled."

The Special O folks are no greats rights activists in my book. To me they've always looked a lot more like smarmy do-gooders than anything else. After all, their bedrock is segregatio.. oops! "special," I mean. They don't rock the boat. So you can see how the Farrellys' pitch might appeal. But if Shriver really thinks that bringing people into a better understanding of "special" people can be achieved through a movie that starts out poking fun at them -- even if the "special" folks in the movie end up having the last laugh -- he's truly naive. Or gullible.

Maybe the group was just suckered into it. (Maybe they're making the big bucks from the movie.)

It's not surprising that Special O execs would be swayed by the Farrellys' promise of 15 minutes of fame -- or maybe even an hour of fame -- and were able to be convinced that the movie would "dispel stereotypes," to use the popular catchphrase. What Shriver & Company see as goals for their clients is not in any sense rights- or equality-oriented. It's more like a kind of warm fuzzy caring feeling, I think. Or, as I say, maybe they're just naive.

What I suspect will happen, though, is that folks who like Farrelly movies will also like this one, but they'll walk away with their stereotypes and un-pc slurs very intact. Oh, it might occur to them if they actually see a "feeb" bagging groceries at their local Kroger that maybe there IS something going on upstairs. But they'll still use "retard" as a slur and think nothing of it.

The kind of change that's needed won't be brought about by a Farrelly Bros. movie, I'm pretty sure.

Some people believe in "public education" or "awareness" as the way to a nondiscriminatory society. They are horrified by lawsuits or protest of any but the meekest, mildest sort. These folks are in ascendency in disability circles nowadays. I think probably Special O's getting in bed with the Farrellys is just a manifestation of that. But it doesn't mean I have to think it's a good idea.

Since last summer when I first heard of the movie "39 Pounds of Love" -- and went to look at its website -- I pigeonholed it in my mind with this issue about "The Ringer" and the Shriver folks. For a long time it wasn't clear to me why I kept doing this. I intended to write about them together all along, and now I'm doing that.

Both, I've beem told, will likley be up for Oscars -- although I'm not sure what that says.

Last summer, I came away from the "39 Pounds" website feeling that although its intentions were probably the best, it came across as a little sappy. Make that a lot sappy.

I know I have trouble today with a lot of the kind of positive-thinking inspirational schlock that seems to pass for mass-market entertainment in all areas, not just disability. So I can put off at least some of the sappiness to the general tenor of the times.

But I think now that it's this quality -- the opposite of what might be termed "tough-minded" -- that has kept the two movies linked in my mind. It seems to me that both the producer/director of "39 Pounds" and the Special O folks are trying very hard to get large numbers of people to become "aware" -- and using the only means they think will work.

But I'm not convinced that the approach will succeed. Even if these movies "succeed" in the "disability awareness" realm, I think the success will not be one that will translate into less discrimination and more access and equality. It might create a warm feeling for awhile, or a "gee-whiz!" jolt of inspiration as the moviegoer realizes that "wow! They are real people!"

But will it do anything to change the fact that parents continue to be hauled before courts and then given reduced sentences for murdering their disabled child? Will it make people want to accommodate a jobseeker whose body may remind them of "39 Pounds" star Ami Ankilewitz or whose actions may remind them of the Special Olympics stars in "The Ringer?" Will it make folks more willing to make their businesses accessible?

I know: that's asking an awful lot of the movies. But I think the issue ought at least to be raised.

Posted by mjohnson on December 9, 2005 11:04 AM


I share your skepticism. The New York Times Arts & Leisure section had an article about The Ringer, which - given the level of journalism we generally see, as reflected in your previous post - I have to call "not bad," though this really just shows how moderate our expectations are.

Here's the url for the article: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/11/movies/11bauer.html

Still, I was very struck by the involvement of the Special Olympics, especially the non-disabled representatives of the SO. For example, the article states, "During production, a Special Olympics representative stayed on the set to make sure nothing untoward slipped in." What are the chances the representative was an SO athlete with a disability? Another person with a disability? Or simply a nondisabled SO employee who "knows what's best" for pwds?

- Amy Robertson

Posted by: Amy Robertson on December 12, 2005 07:04 AM

Will "The Ringer" make a difference? Nah. But neither will "Murderball." That's just not what movies do. In the whole century-plus history of film, there are maybe a handful of pictures that can be called "influential" in the sense that they directly changed a law, inspired a social movement, etc. That doesn't mean all the rest are bad movies. They're just movies.

If "The Ringer" entertains teenagers by a film showing a jerk to be ill-informed and cruel, well, that's better than teens being entertained by a film about glorification of jerks, I guess.

Posted by: Penny on December 12, 2005 01:45 PM

Can movies dispel stereotypes? Yes.

Can these movies do this? No.

This is just the same old inspirational schlock that is getting worse rather than better. At this point, I would rather see a pessimistic movie which would show people everyday realities rather than one that would "warm their hearts."

Posted by: Lou on December 12, 2005 02:04 PM

I think the fact that "The Ringer" include about 150 disabled athletes and actors is excellent, however the message of the movie (even with the Special Olympics seal of approval) is yet to be seen.
Miss Mumpy remains hopeful.

Posted by: Gimpy Mumpy on December 12, 2005 06:11 PM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)