Is pretending to be stupid in film, etc kinda like Blackface?

Okay, one thing I hate is film, tv etc, where someone pretends to be stupid. Dumb and Dumber (which did have a few funny moments, due to the stars, but the sequel was pure cringe, and of course, Philomena Cunk.

We condemn blackface, and that is certainly the right thing to do. Often is is does for mocking black people.

But mentally challenged people are often born that way. Not just ill-informed, that is a choice, but people born with a lower IQ due to issues.

Americans used to laugh at Blackface, and we laughed at Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But now, in these more modern, enlightened times, we know that was wrong.

Is then- pretending to be brain damaged a form of blackface?

My first reaction is that “born with a lower IQ,” “brain-damaged,” and the kind of stupid that’s played for comedic effect in movies, TV, etc., are significantly different things.

And when you talk about “pretending to be stupid,” you are conflating two separate things: a character who pretends to be stupid, vs. an actor who plays a character who is genuinely stupid. I think you’re talking about the latter, but you may be poisoning the well a bit by using the word “pretending” since that’s what all acting is.

Yeah I think it is going to be a lot more nuanced than blackface.

For one thing, the stupid person “look” is not as obvious, so it’s not even clear when this trope is being employed. e.g. does zoolander count?

And secondly, there’s a wide spectrum on this – a character who is a little bit slow, or takes things too literally, is often key to a lot of comedy and is not meant in a spiteful way. Like the aforementioned zoolander. Indeed, the protagonist may often need simple things explained to them just because it’s helpful for the audience.

But yes, there are certainly mean-spirited portrayals of people with learning difficulties, and certain aspects of how that’s visualized – bowl haircut, crooked teeth – indeed can be offensive and should probably be avoided.

Finally, as an aside, if anyone is wondering why blackface is just blanket wrong, and not nuanced, it’s because of the history. In the abstract, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong to just trying to look like another group of people but it is very much toxic now by association. IMO.

An entertainment can certainly be written that portrays folks with mental handicaps as laughing stocks or objects of derision or contempt. That would be evil.

An entertainment can be written that portrays them as people getting along, partly overcoming the daily trials of their life just as we all struggle with our own trials be they great or small. Done sensitively that can be just fine.

We’ve had threads and threads about the rightness / wrongness of the withering scorn sometimes aimed at “rednecks” and “ignorant hillbillies” on this board.

Anything aspect of human nature can be played for cheap yucks. The poindexter, the goth kid, the pimply high school kid, the ditzy blond, or the clueless dad. It’s not the facts of the characters’ identifying traits that makes it good or bad. It’s the cheapness of the yucks that makes it bad.

Separately to all the above we do have the issue of needing to use actors to portray characters.

Compare and contrast John Wayne pretending to be a cowboy, Tom Cruise pretending to be a spy or fighter pilot, Sylvester Stallone pretending to be an ill-educated boxer, or Tom Hanks pretending to be someone of low IQ. What about those sitcoms set in high schools where the freshman are played by 20yos and the seniors by 25yos? What about Jim Parsons pretending to be a sorta-autistic scientist on Big Bang Theory?

Which are offensive to who and why or why not?

Isn’t Tropic Thunder the definitive scholarly work on this subject?

I never laughed at Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Maybe because I had Asian classmates, but it made me cringe even way back then.

Most “stupid” people portrayed in film and TV (like Cunk) are just ignorant, not mentally challenged. If it’s just a character trait, it’s fair game.

I don’t know if it’s a kind of blackface, but recently I listened to some old time radio episodes (Duffy’s Tavern) and the way one character is portrayed made me cringe a bit - it’s not that he says stupid things (though he does); he seems to be deliberately playing a mentally-handicapped character (Clifton Finnegan) for laughs, like a middle-school student might have done to mock other students when I was a kid. Distasteful.

I posted about this a little while back in fact

I completely agree.

Yes. Mind you, I am not saying all such portrayals are bad, but some are certainly offensive.

That’s why I said “KINDA like blackface” as of course we agree that generally not near as bad.

As are those who exhibit stubborn ignorance in the face of repeated attempts at education, but who lack organic mental handicaps, .

No. Blackface is its own thing, it is unique. Blackface is the act of a white actor putting on makeup to somewhat resemble a black person and act in ways that reinforce stereotypes about black people. Blackface was a quick way of telling an audience, watch out this guy is a goofy idiot. If the development of a character involves them being a goofy idiot, that is a different thing. Blackface was meant to convey certain things immediately to the audience. I do think there is a trend towards characters like Harry and Lloyd from Dumb and Dumber being phased out. I mean, in real life guys like that would need serious assistance. On the other hand, its a comedy? I don’t know.

There are still lots of dumbasses used for comic effect. Harry and Lloyd don’t have an identifiable disability, though; they are not meant to literally be “retarded.” Harry and Lloyd (Lloyd much more so; Harry, at least, can read) are just dumb.

Similarly, we just had a new Beavis and Butt-Head movie. They’re also dumb as hell, but again, they’re not identifiably afflicted with a learning disability. They’re in a regular class, after all. They’re just dumbasses.

What you’ll never, ever see anytime again soon is a person with an intellectual disability played for yuks.

In Dumb and Dumber they weren’t low IQ, they were just off the planet. Hey you wanna hear the most annoying sound? Here it is. And they weren’t wrong.

And then he trolled his friend by pretending to be institutionalized for ten years. Genius, but the worst kind of genius.

Didn’t the prequel to Dumb and Dumber feature a short bus?

100% this. Context matters.

Well, yeah; but there’s a “but”. “I think I’ve finally figured out a way to bilk this school out of enough money to get us that condo in Waikiki,” we’re told: “What we need is to set up a fake special needs class.” And, for that, they need “kids we can pass off as special”.

So the idea is, they aren’t really that type of student, as it isn’t really that sort of class. (“Welcome to special needs orientation. I’m Ms. Heller, the Iunchlady, and it — damn. I mean, your new teacher.”)

Different strokes for different folks. Just because something is wrong doesn’t necessarily make it unfunny for me, especially if the “wrong” is fictitious. Slapstick comes to mind. I didn’t see Breakfast at Tiffany’s until this decade and I found the over-the-top landlord guy to be pretty funny. I also laugh at Patrick Star, at least in seasons 1 and 2. And that one time Spongebob pretended to be a caricature of dumb for Patrick’s parents - to make Patrick look smart by comparison - was hilarious.


Cunk is making fun of incompetent documentary presenters. Not mentally challenged people.

A good example of this is “Something about Mary” There are a number of very stupid people in the movie and one person who is mentally handicapped. If they had started poking fun at Warren, that would have been a deal breaker.

I think I probably found it funny when I first watched it, but now I doubt I could get past the racism. I just end up feeling slightly ill. Sort of like a fine chocolate cake with a small rabbit turd inside. The latter ruins the former for me.