Autism Unexpected: Jennifer Aniston, the R-Word, and the Aftermath


It happens often and every time it makes me cringe. Celebrity X refers to some of her work as “retarded.” Politician Y refers to people on the other side of an issue as “retarded.” Movie Z gets in trouble for using the phrase “never go full retard.”

This time it’s Jennifer Aniston. She used the r-word on live TV, on Live with Regis and Kelly while discussing a photo shoot. “You’re playing dress up!” Regis told her. Her response? “Yes, I play dress up! I do it for a living, like a retard!”

Ouch. As an advocate for people with disabilities—and a parent of a child with autism—these outbursts are jarring and hurtful every time. Worse than the celebrities, however, are the regular people who cannot or do not want to grasp why this word is hurtful.

I think the most painful part about these incidents is not the original comment, but rather the backlash from commenters and pundits who think those of us who care about this word are being over-sensitive.

Blogs and articles about such incidents aimed at the special needs community tend to get positive, respectful comments. Blogs and articles aimed at the mainstream that discuss the issue have comments that degenerate into dissertations on why society is too “PC” these days.

They make claims that the speaker isn’t really talking about people with disabilities and how, no, it really is funny to say that word.

Again, ouch. These can sound like valid arguments though, so let’s look at a few. I took these comments (in bold) from the comments section of a pop culture blog, but they are virtually the same arguments you can read over and over in any online discussion of this issue.

“This PC nonsense is getting out of hand.”  It’s not about being politically correct. When you say this, what you are doing is hearing that a large group of people finds this term not just offensive, but actually hurtful, yet you dismiss those feelings as unimportant PC nonsense. That’s not being honest or straight up, that’s being cruel.

This argument brushes off the feelings of those hurt by the r-word, which goes to show just how little society cares about this group of people. As another commenter on that pop culture blog eloquently said, “It’s not a matter of political correctness, its a matter of respect.”

“I’ve worked with people with mental and physical disabilities for over ten years, and I use the word ‘retard’ almost daily. Never aimed at those I care for of course, usually it is aimed at myself.”  When you use the r-word, even if you don’t mean to, you are talking about people with disabilities. If you weren’t, the joke wouldn’t be “funny.”

You use the word to mean stupid, moronic, idiotic. You are taking a word that describes people with mental and developmental disabilities and generalizing it to mean dumb. This is one reason the medical term “mental retardation” has to be changed to “intellectual disability.”

It is because people have taken this term and made it a pejorative.

People make the same jokes about “the short bus.” When you make those jokes and claim you’re not really talking about the kids—the children—on those buses, you’re wrong. My sweet, affectionate, smart autistic son, Jack, rides a short bus to and from school.

The next time you want to say the r-word or make a short bus joke, picture his face. That is who you are mocking. Is it still funny?

“I think saying retard is funny.” It’s a cheap joke. It’s an easy joke. It hurts a vulnerable section of society. Why not work a little harder and say something that is actually funny?

“Anyone who hasn’t said anything stupid in public, please stand up and state your opinion on this matter.” Sure, we’ve all said stupid things and most of us have probably said hurtful things. I know that I, even with the level of disability awareness that I have, make jokes about so and so being crazy or will say, “that guy is a nutjob.” I’m sure phrases such as those are hurtful to those with mental illness. I will stand up, apologize, and make an effort in my future to not disparage an entire group of people with a joke. As people, we must speak, learn, and move on.

Furthermore, imagine the amount of media training celebrities such as Aniston must have been through, and if not actual training, then years upon years of experience. I doubt you will find her publicly uttering a racial epithet or a slur based on sexual orientation.

Not to mention, it’s not just Aniston. It’s the authors who sprinkle their books with these jarring words, it’s screenwriters who toss these words into movies. It’s contestants on reality shows and the editors who cut the tape and let jokes about the short bus onto air.

The pervasiveness and general acceptance of these particular kinds of comments clearly show that in most cases (although it is impossible to know with regard to Aniston), these comments are not accidental.

Freakin’ retards! I am tired of writing about this issue. I am tired of hearing this same discussion over and over. The whole thing hurts my heart. But I read a comment such as this and know that I have to keep trying to raise awareness. Amid a conversation about why some say the r-word is hurtful and why some say it is a valid term to use, both sides using examples and arguments, this commenter is so disrespectful as to just hurl insults masked as comedy. That is why I continue to write about this issue.

Maybe my words can help one person realize that this word has incredible power. Maybe that person will choose not to use that word and hurt someone else someday.

Should we disallow the use of the r-word? Absolutely not. Free speech rules apply. Should we bleep it on television, as they do with other similarly offensive words, including curse words? Possibly. Should we raise awareness that the r-word is not benign—that it really does hurt? Absolutely.

Originally published at Autism Unexpected on August 23, 2010.