Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies

The Cloak of Incompetence

Representations of People with Intellectual Disability in Film

Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies (2019), 13, (2), 177–194.

Abstract

The article analyzes representations of people with intellectual disability in four films referenced in Ben Stiller’s 2008 spoof film-within-a-film Tropic Thunder: Forrest Gump (1994, directed by Robert Zemekis), Rain Man (1988, Barry Levinson), Being There (1979, Hal Ashby), and I Am Sam (2001, Jessie Nelson). The analysis shows how filmic narratives that use intellectual disability as a narrative device devoid of relevant sociocultural contexts are preferred over ones that are based on the lived experience of people with intellectual disability, such as the one in Nelson’s film. The former representations both rely on and extend misconceptions and prejudice about the incompetence of persons with intellectual disability. Worse still, they draw from and reinforce sociocultural factors that abet these persons’ dehumanization.

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Works Cited

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Azzopardi-Lane, Claire. “Intimate Relationships and Persons with Learning Disability.” Learning Disability Review 22.1 (2017): 24–27. Print. Google Scholar

Being There. Dir. Hal Ashby. Warner Brothers, 2004. DVD. Google Scholar

Bradley, Bill. “The Coen Brothers Reveal ‘Fargo’ is Based on a True Story After All: Here’s What Actually Happened.” Entertainment. 3 Aug. 2016. Web. 10 Sept. 2017. Google Scholar

Can We Talk, Ben Stiller? Jill Egle. YouTube, 2008. Online. Google Scholar

Dargis, Manohla. “War May Be Hell, but Hollywood Is Even Worse.” New York Times. 12 Aug. 2008. Web. 10 Sept. 2017. Google Scholar

Dybwad, Gunnar and Hank Bersani, eds. New Voices: Self-Advocacy by People with Disabilities. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books, 1996. Print. Google Scholar

Edgerton, Robert. “A Case of Delabeling: Some Practical and Theoretic Implications.” Culture and Retardation: Life Histories of Mildly Mentally Retarded Persons in American Society. Eds L. L. Langness and Harold G. Levine. Dordrecht: Reidel, 1986. 101–26. Print. Google Scholar

Edgerton, Robert. The Cloak of Competence: Stigma in the Lives of the Mentally Retarded. Berkeley: U of California P, 1967. Print. Google Scholar

Forrest Gump. Dir. Robert Zemeckis. Paramount Pictures, 2006. DVD. Google Scholar

Gliebermann, Owen. “I Am Sam.” Entertainment Weekly. 11 Jan. 2002. Web. 10 Sept. 2017. Google Scholar

Goode, David. “Mental Retardation is Dead: Long Live Mental Retardation!” Mental Retardation 40.1 (2002): 57–59. Print. Google Scholar

Goodley, Dan. “‘Learning Difficulties’: The Social Model of Disability and Impairment: Challenging Epistemologies.” Disability and Society 16.2 (2001): 207–31. Print. Google Scholar

Hall, Alice. Literature and Disability. London: Routledge, 2016. Print. Google Scholar

I Am Sam. Dir. Jessie Nelson. New Line Cinema, 2001. DVD. Google Scholar

Keyes, Daniel. Flowers for Algernon. 1959. New York: Mariner Books, 2014. Print. Google Scholar

Kittay, Eva Feder and Carlson, Licia, eds. Cognitive Disability and Its Challenge to Moral Personhood. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print. Google Scholar

MacLeod, Andrea, Ann Lewis, and Christopher Roberston. “‘Why Should I Be Like Bloody Rain Man?!’ Navigating the Autistic Identity.” British Journal of Special Education 40.1 (2013): 41–49. Print. Google Scholar

Mansell, Jim and Kent Ericsson. Deinstitutionalisation and Community Living Intellectual Disability Services in Scandinavia, Britain and the USA. London: Chapman and Hall, 1995. Print. Google Scholar

Michalko, Rod. The Difference that Disability Makes. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2002. Print. Google Scholar

Moyer, Justin Wm. “Welcome, Eddie Redmayne: Since ‘Rain Man,’ Majority of Best Actor Oscar Winners Played Sick or Disabled.” The Washington Post. 23 Feb. 2015. Web. 10 Sept. 2017. Google Scholar

Murdoch, Stephen. IQ: the Brilliant Idea That Failed. London: Duckworth, 2007. Print. Google Scholar

Parchomiuk, Monika. “Model of Intellectual Disability and the Relationship of Attitudes Towards the Sexuality of Persons with Intellectual Disability.” Sexuality and Disability 31.2 (2013): 125–39. Web. 10 Sept. 2017. Google Scholar

Rain Man. Dir. Barry Levinson. Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, 2009. DVD. Google Scholar

Rapley, Mark. The Social Construction of Intellectual Disability. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. Print. Google Scholar

Rogers, Chrissie. Intellectual Disability and Being Human: A Care Ethics Model. London: Routledge, 2016. Print. Google Scholar

Rotten Tomatoes. I Am Sam. 2018. Web. 10 Jun. 2018. Google Scholar

Ryan, Sara. Justice for Laughing Boy: Connor Sparrowhawk: A Death by Indifference. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2017. Print. Google Scholar

Schalk, Sami. “Reevaluating the Supercrip.” Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 10.1 (2016): 71–86. Print. Google Scholar

Scott, A. O. “Film Review: A Retarded Man Tries to Keep His Child.” New York Times. 28 Dec. 2001. Web. 10 Sept. 2017. Google Scholar

Shapiro, Joseph. No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1994. Print. Google Scholar

Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2008. Print. Google Scholar

Theodore, Kate, Daniel Foulds, Paul Wilshaw, Alison Colborne, Joyce Nga Yu Lee, Lisa Mallaghan, Mary Cooper, and Julia Skelton. “‘We Want to Be Parents Like Everybody Else’: Stories of Parents with Learning Disabilities.” International Journal of Developmental Disabilities 64.3 (2018): 184–94. Print. Google Scholar

Treffert, Darold A. “The Autistic Savant.” Wisconsin Medical Society. n.d. Web. 10 Sept. 2017. Google Scholar

Tropic Thunder. Dir. Ben Stiller. Dreamworks, 2009. DVD. Google Scholar

Williams, John. My Son is Not Rainman: One Man, One Autistic Boy, a Million Adventures. London: Michael O’Mara Books, 2016. Print. Google Scholar

A World Without Down’s Syndrome. Dir. Sally Phillips. BBC, 2016. Online. Google Scholar

Azzopardi-Lane, Claire. “Intimate Relationships and Persons with Learning Disability.” Learning Disability Review 22.1 (2017): 24–27. Print. Google Scholar

Being There. Dir. Hal Ashby. Warner Brothers, 2004. DVD. Google Scholar

Bradley, Bill. “The Coen Brothers Reveal ‘Fargo’ is Based on a True Story After All: Here’s What Actually Happened.” Entertainment. 3 Aug. 2016. Web. 10 Sept. 2017. Google Scholar

Can We Talk, Ben Stiller? Jill Egle. YouTube, 2008. Online. Google Scholar

Dargis, Manohla. “War May Be Hell, but Hollywood Is Even Worse.” New York Times. 12 Aug. 2008. Web. 10 Sept. 2017. Google Scholar

Dybwad, Gunnar and Hank Bersani, eds. New Voices: Self-Advocacy by People with Disabilities. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books, 1996. Print. Google Scholar

Edgerton, Robert. “A Case of Delabeling: Some Practical and Theoretic Implications.” Culture and Retardation: Life Histories of Mildly Mentally Retarded Persons in American Society. Eds L. L. Langness and Harold G. Levine. Dordrecht: Reidel, 1986. 101–26. Print. Google Scholar

Edgerton, Robert. The Cloak of Competence: Stigma in the Lives of the Mentally Retarded. Berkeley: U of California P, 1967. Print. Google Scholar

Forrest Gump. Dir. Robert Zemeckis. Paramount Pictures, 2006. DVD. Google Scholar

Gliebermann, Owen. “I Am Sam.” Entertainment Weekly. 11 Jan. 2002. Web. 10 Sept. 2017. Google Scholar

Goode, David. “Mental Retardation is Dead: Long Live Mental Retardation!” Mental Retardation 40.1 (2002): 57–59. Print. Google Scholar

Goodley, Dan. “‘Learning Difficulties’: The Social Model of Disability and Impairment: Challenging Epistemologies.” Disability and Society 16.2 (2001): 207–31. Print. Google Scholar

Hall, Alice. Literature and Disability. London: Routledge, 2016. Print. Google Scholar

I Am Sam. Dir. Jessie Nelson. New Line Cinema, 2001. DVD. Google Scholar

Keyes, Daniel. Flowers for Algernon. 1959. New York: Mariner Books, 2014. Print. Google Scholar

Kittay, Eva Feder and Carlson, Licia, eds. Cognitive Disability and Its Challenge to Moral Personhood. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print. Google Scholar

MacLeod, Andrea, Ann Lewis, and Christopher Roberston. “‘Why Should I Be Like Bloody Rain Man?!’ Navigating the Autistic Identity.” British Journal of Special Education 40.1 (2013): 41–49. Print. Google Scholar

Mansell, Jim and Kent Ericsson. Deinstitutionalisation and Community Living Intellectual Disability Services in Scandinavia, Britain and the USA. London: Chapman and Hall, 1995. Print. Google Scholar

Michalko, Rod. The Difference that Disability Makes. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2002. Print. Google Scholar

Moyer, Justin Wm. “Welcome, Eddie Redmayne: Since ‘Rain Man,’ Majority of Best Actor Oscar Winners Played Sick or Disabled.” The Washington Post. 23 Feb. 2015. Web. 10 Sept. 2017. Google Scholar

Murdoch, Stephen. IQ: the Brilliant Idea That Failed. London: Duckworth, 2007. Print. Google Scholar

Parchomiuk, Monika. “Model of Intellectual Disability and the Relationship of Attitudes Towards the Sexuality of Persons with Intellectual Disability.” Sexuality and Disability 31.2 (2013): 125–39. Web. 10 Sept. 2017. Google Scholar

Rain Man. Dir. Barry Levinson. Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, 2009. DVD. Google Scholar

Rapley, Mark. The Social Construction of Intellectual Disability. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. Print. Google Scholar

Rogers, Chrissie. Intellectual Disability and Being Human: A Care Ethics Model. London: Routledge, 2016. Print. Google Scholar

Rotten Tomatoes. I Am Sam. 2018. Web. 10 Jun. 2018. Google Scholar

Ryan, Sara. Justice for Laughing Boy: Connor Sparrowhawk: A Death by Indifference. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2017. Print. Google Scholar

Schalk, Sami. “Reevaluating the Supercrip.” Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 10.1 (2016): 71–86. Print. Google Scholar

Scott, A. O. “Film Review: A Retarded Man Tries to Keep His Child.” New York Times. 28 Dec. 2001. Web. 10 Sept. 2017. Google Scholar

Shapiro, Joseph. No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1994. Print. Google Scholar

Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2008. Print. Google Scholar

Theodore, Kate, Daniel Foulds, Paul Wilshaw, Alison Colborne, Joyce Nga Yu Lee, Lisa Mallaghan, Mary Cooper, and Julia Skelton. “‘We Want to Be Parents Like Everybody Else’: Stories of Parents with Learning Disabilities.” International Journal of Developmental Disabilities 64.3 (2018): 184–94. Print. Google Scholar

Treffert, Darold A. “The Autistic Savant.” Wisconsin Medical Society. n.d. Web. 10 Sept. 2017. Google Scholar

Tropic Thunder. Dir. Ben Stiller. Dreamworks, 2009. DVD. Google Scholar

Williams, John. My Son is Not Rainman: One Man, One Autistic Boy, a Million Adventures. London: Michael O’Mara Books, 2016. Print. Google Scholar

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Author details

Callus, Anne-Marie