A Masquerade of Mental Illness
In the following essay, I use the term "retarded"
to refer to a medically-defined disability. I am aware that
new research on environmental factors contributing to mental
retardation has created some overlap in the definition of
mental retardation as a "disability" or a "disorder,"
but either way, the term "retarded" is not intended
disrespectfully here. I do not claim to be an expert on the
subject, but I do have some experience in this area which
has prompted me to reject so-called "politically correct"
terms like "mentally-challenged," "differently-abled,"
et cetera. Euphemizing the disability does not change the
disability, and though others my use the term derogatorily,
that does not make it a derogatory term. It's my belief that
excessive euphemism is more condescending and irresponsible
than the responsible use of a word in its proper context.
Also, Hollywood often confuses "mental retardation"
with Down's Syndrome and other afflictions, often resulting
in a not-so-hilarious hodgepodge of diseases and disorders
(think the chorus of supporters in I Am Sam), so I
will use the term "mentally ill"to refer to the
this ill-informed character construct to prevent me from having
to qualify the statement in every instance. If
you're interested in learning more about mental retardation,
Down's Syndrome, etc., click here for the Center for Disease
Control and National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental
Disabilities' Mental Retardation information page.
The movies would have you believe that getting a bunch of
retarded kids together is always a hoot, especially since
all they do is frolic in the park, chase balloons, finger
paint, and watch "Wheel of Fortune." Certainly there
is great joy in working with mentally retarded children and
adults, but often it's both physically and emotionally demandingwhich
is different than saying "unrewarding." It's draining
because of the high level of awareness that has to be maintained
at all times. One aspect of mental retardation is that the
"rules" by which "normal" people conduct
themselves are so abstract that they sometimes don't register
without immediate stimulus-response reinforcement, if at all.
Sometimes they have to be reminded to keep the ball on their
own lane, not to lick the paint of their fingers, or that
punching other people may not hurt them, but it does hurt
The reward in working with the mentally retarded (other than
the intrinsic satisfaction of helping others, of course) is
partaking in their joy for the little pleasures in life (the
ball making it all the way down the lane, a balloon floating
through the air, the joyful sense of accomplishment in small
tasks). This is what moviemakers attach to when they portray
the retarded and/or mentally ill. But what makes working with
the mentally retarded difficult is that the high joy accompanying
accomplishment can become anger and, sometimes, violence in
misunderstanding. Human beingsfrom Kasparov's frustration
at Deep Blue's confounding chess moves to Rainman's scheduling
conflict with Wapnerrespond hurtfully and sometimes
violently to things that we don't understand. At all IQs,
fear is bred from an inability to comprehend; when you have
a sub-80 IQ, frustration and violence can come suddenly and
Most often Hollywood uses mental retardation as a vehicle
through which uptight white people Learn Important Life Lessons.
The Uptight White People are so joylessly immersed in the
hustle-and-bustle of modern life (think Tom Cruise in Rainman
or Michelle Pheiffer in I Am Sam) that they're counterbalanced
by the blissful "ignorance" of the mentally ill.
This simplistic narrative construct ignores that it's often
damn hard to be mentally ill, and it's often damn hard to
be around. Movies rarely engage in the meticulous work of
showing how the reasoning capabilities of the mentally ill
affect decision-making, resulting in exhausting polarities
of joy and anger. Movies portray unrealistic angels, mostlybenign
spirits who swoop into the lives of the materialistic and
show them true meanings. Hollywood must think they're doing
a service by glorifying the mentally ill, but liberal guilt
disguises the condescension underneath: If the mentally ill
aren't portrayed with full-bodied development of character
(which means not blaming all their problems on the misunderstandings
of bureaucrats and the cold-hearted), then they still aren't
being treated as fully human.
Radio suffers the same fate as most Hollywood portraits
of the mentally ill. Ed Harris plays Coach Jones, a small
town football coach who is such an institution that he goes
to the barbershop after games for a cup of coffee (where,
apparently, locals go for a late Friday night haircut) to
take praise and criticism from the Greek chorus of boosters.
Everyday during practice, a young retarded man pushes his
shopping cart around the chain-link fence surrounding the
field. Coach sees the man and tries to invite him in; the
image resembles a man trying to woo a dog from a kennel, with
a football substituting for a milkbone. One day the big mean
players (who, in the end of course, will come to love Radio)
lock him in the equipment shed and throw stuff at him. Coach
finds the man, who runs away, again, like a dog whose been
poked with a stick. Coach finds and invites the man into the
coaches' office, and they all take great amusement in his
enjoyment of the radio. Coach likes country, but the kindly
black man, of course, loves soul. And so, the nickname Radio.
Well, it's pretty apparent that Uptight Coach lacks soul
in his life, and that's what Radio is going to bring him.
Coach has neglected his wife (who sits around the house reading
The Feminine Mystique) and his daughter, whom he's
sealed out of his life like Radio out of the football field.
Coach takes such an interest in the retarded man that it comes
off a bit queasythere's being nice and trying to help,
but then there's taking him out everyday for pie and
hanging out at his house. The reason for this, I guess, is
that Coach is a bit of a Hank Hill figure: He pours the love
a tough guy withholds from his family into Radio, like Hank
pours his love into his truck, dog, and lawn. In fact, we
know so little about the family (presumably because the character
development would cut into the cutesy antics of Radio) that
the average episode of "King of the Hill" has more
Coach gives Radio some jobs around the lockeroom, washing
towels and the like. This is fine, but for some inexplicable
reason Coach decides that Radio needs to be in his classroom
too. Something remarkable is going on here: The modern audience,
who is used to seeing "those kids" down in their
own separate part of the hallway, are now faced with the incongruence
of Coach sticking a non-student outsider like Radio (who is
not a student) in his classroomjust to have him around.
This, my friends, is an aggressive form of mainstreaming that
even the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
doesn't accommodate. I admire Coach's determination to get
the kids to accept Radio, but he's not a student, and there's
tremendous liability herenot to the students, but to
the school and to Radio himself. Cynically, the episode is
played out by making the Heartless Administrators seem like
they're being bullies by asking Radio to leave, but in reality,
there just doing they're jobespecially since Coach offers
no real reason to keep Radio around except "to help him
out." Yet, director Mike Tollin manipulates the audience
by having the Heartless Administrators justify their heartlessness
by branding Radio as some kind of animal that "could
hurt the students." None of this answers why Coach insists
on having Radio around nearly every waking hour. It's just
weird; this relationship is a like a little boy who loves
his doggie a whole whole lot, except we're dealing with a
retarded man and a tough guy football coach. Finally, the
principal says exactly what the audience should be thinking,
"I'm not sure we're trying to help someone here, or whether
you're using him as a glorified mascot."
That's a good damn question that could be asked of the whole
damn movie. If fact, Tollin's direction is so blissfully unaware
that the line is almost comical. Sure enough, Radio whoops
and hollars up-and-down the sideline, drawing a personal foul
from the referee after mimicking Coach's lewd behavior. In
fact, after a hard-fought game, Coach gives Radio the gameball
rather than one of his players. Why? The gesture comes off
as awkward, misplaced, and not just a little weird. Even when
Radio costs the team a few games with his sideline enthusiasm,
we're supposed to boo the people who wonder why Coach has
Radio on the sidelines. (Apparently, Small Town Bankers hate
retarded kids). Conversely, we're supposed to cheer every
move Coach makes on Radio's behalf, but how can we if the
relationship doesn't make any senseeven Coach's wife
asks, "Why are you doing this?" Another good question.
Perhaps Tollin is trying to offset the "jolly slave"
image of the retarded black man happily doing rich white kids'
Mike Tollin's approach can be summed up in a single scene.
Tragedy strikes Radio, so Coach goes to his house. Coach sees
destruction: overturned tables, broken windows, ripped pillows,
smashed plates, everything. Then he finds Radio sobbing in
his room like a frightened puppy. Coach soothes Radio, of
courseand then movie just accelerates toward the happy
ending. Here is an opportunity for Tollin to create a fuller
portrait of the inner life of Radio, but he is unwilling to
compromise the angelic vision of the Retarded Black Man Who
Brings Truth to White People. Every bad thing that happens
to Radio is the result of him being taken advantage of, not
because it's difficult for him to get on in the worldexcept
for this scene. Here, we get a glimpse of Radio's inner turmoil,
and Tollin politely backs away. This is condescending to the
audience because Tollin assumes that we can't handle a less
than angelic portrait of the character, and it's condescending
to Radio because it dehumanizes him to the audiencethat
we, like the evil banker, can't accept Radio on his real terms.
Had Tollin's producing partner and filmsnobs hero Brian
Robbins (Hardball) directed this movie, then he
would have blown all this up into something operatic like
Varsity Blues (as when the team tears down a statue
of the evil coach likes he's Hitler or Hussein), but the less
ambitious Tollin settles for creating a mascot. Listen to