The 3 Rs: Romantic comedy, retarded and rape

I saw Friends With Benefits the other night. I didn’t have high hopes – I tend not to have very high hopes for any romantic comedy these days – but I actually really loved it. The two leads were charming and funny with great chemistry, New York looked gorgeous, they dissed Katherine Heigl, John Mayer and Nicholas Sparks (and also George Clooney, but in a good way), and there was a flashmob. You know I love a flashmob.


There were two moments that pulled me out of the story, made me go “WTF?!” and that I’m still fuming about a couple of days later. The first is this (Jamie is played by Mila Kunis, Dylan by Timberlake):

Jamie: Okay. So, what is your type anyway?
Dylan: [sarcastically] Oh, no. I don’t have a type. It’s more about what’s inside.
Jamie: Oh, please! Okay. What about her?
[points to a woman standing on some steps reading]
Dylan: Yeah! I could get to know her inside. And she’s reading a book.
Jamie: It’s probably Nicholas Sparks.
Dylan: I’m gonna go talk to her.
Jamie: What?
Dylan: What do you mean ‘what’? You said we need to learn to date again. I’m gonna go talk to her.
Jamie: Now? Here? In front of all these people?
Dylan: I didn’t say I was gonna rape her. I’m just gonna talk to her.

Gosh, that’s funny, isn’t it? The way he just dropped ‘rape’ into the conversation. Because he’s not going to rape her, obviously, he’s just going to talk to her. That’s why it’s funny!

Wait. I don’t get it.

The thing that shocks me about this is not that it’s a rubbish line that made me instantly dislike Dylan, it’s not that Jamie – who is generally a pretty no bullshit character – giggled rather than saying, “Wow. What an asshole” (and in fact later in the movie starts to repeat the line, but doesn’t make it to the end), it’s that no one at any point in the making of this movie thought, “Do you know what? If someone’s watching this and they’ve actually been raped, that line’s not going to come off as charming as we think it is.”

And then there was this:

Jamie: I’ll go next. See if I still have game.
Dylan: Okay.
[as he spots a guy]
Dylan: Ooh! Okay.
Jamie: Yes.
Dylan: Right here. Eleven o’clock. Iced coffee.
[referring to man standing ahead of them drinking iced coffee]
Jamie: Handsome, but doesn’t know it. Staring at a tree, which means he’s actually in the park for nature and not to watch women sun bathe.
Dylan: Or he’s retarded.
Jamie: Don’t care. I’m goin’ in.

Ah “retarded”. Always a comedy staple. A really lazy comedy staple (see Caitlin Moran’s otherwise wonderful book How to be A Woman.) Gemma Varnom wrote an excellent blog post about the word “retard” in relation to Moran’s book and she explains just why it’s offensive much better than I ever could: Weapon-words, Caitlin Moran and the Responsibilities of the Writer.

The thing I find really shocking about Friends With Benefits is that in all other respects it seems to be going out of its way to be as current as possible. You can have all the mocking of rom-com cliches, flashmobs and iPads you like, but there’s just no place for jokes like this in 2011. Seriously.


29 thoughts on “The 3 Rs: Romantic comedy, retarded and rape

  1. Hear, hear. I don’t subscribe to the theory that there are no taboos in comedy – there are, not because I’m strait-laced or uptight but because some things just aren’t funny. Ask Frankie Boyle how his career is going if you don’t believe me.

    There’s a whole litany of examples I could quote where writers have gone too far in their search for a cheap laugh – that Pepsi Max advert in the bar where the guy persuades a woman the world is ending so that he can have a quick tussle on the floor with her and celebrate how stupid she was with his mates a few minutes later is a prime example. Didn’t anyone stop to think about how that would come across?

    I’d already decided that Friends With Benefits wasn’t a movie I’d see at the cinema. Looks like I was right.

  2. Keris, I am so shocked by this. I’m very dubious about the whole concept of censorship, but there are some subjects which are less to do with freedom of speech and more to do with being a decent human being. What an incredibly sad world we live in, when something like this is considered by some to be humorous.

    1. Thanks, Joanna. I’m glad it’s not just me. I actually gasped at the ‘rape’ line. I thought I must’ve heard it wrong, but no.

  3. I’ve recently (i.e. last night) got to the end of a rewrite of a horror script I co-wrote with a friend in Seattle. There are several places in it where we could legitimately have used the word “retarded” but she wouldn’t, even though it would never have made the screen (it wasn’t in dialogue), citing movie-makers, and the US zeitgeist in general, as being totally against the word. So I’m especially and freshly astounded, not only that someone would write it into the script in the first place, but that it survived all the preproduction, script notes, rewriting, shooting and editing, and made it into the final cut.

    Just one more example of work that “doesn’t follow the rules” being passed, while some of us sweat over every line to make sure they’re as good as they can be.

    1. John, someone directed me to this site after the Caitlin Moran book – tide is hopefully turning in the US.

      But, yes, I was amazed that no one had suggested it might not be appropriate, but the bit in the Caitlin Moran book when she uses it (and I actually think her usage is worse than that in the film, if that can be quantified…) was excerpted in The Times. No one at The Times questioned it?!

      Also, congratulations on the script!

  4. I’ve seen the trailer and still want to see the film as it looks fun and I think the leads have a lot of chemistry. Obvs I’ll be bothered by these bits, though!

    What bothers me especially about the rape line is the implication that it would be OK to rape her if it wasn’t in broad daylight in front of other people! That rape should be done somewhere more private. Of course that’s when men *do* rape women so, not so funny. An online friend of mine who volunteered for a rape crisis centre once said that when she told people what she did, a huge number of women, women she had no idea had been raped, would tell her their stories. It’s so much more common than people who joke about it realise. (And if he’d said “I’m not going to have sex with her” that would still have been kinda amusing, without the horrific undertone…)

    I’ve written elsewhere about “retarded”, so I won’t go into all that again except to say that when the group at which it is directed has expressed their hatred of the word, it’s discriminatory and insensitive to use it. I take John’s point about scripts, but I do wonder if things are changed “on the fly” to be funnier, maybe without the writer’s knowledge. I’m pretty sure on set, the director is all-powerful.

    1. Oh good, glad you still want to see it – I was almost sure you’d say ‘Won’t be watching that then!’ because I do think it’s worth seeing. It made me laugh a lot – more than any romcom for ages – and I really liked both of the leads. Plus it’s got Jenna Elfman and Patricia Clarkson, who I also love.

      And you’re right about the ‘rape’ line. After I heard it, I sat for a bit thinking if I was just being over-sensitive, but I honestly can’t see where the ‘funny’ is supposed to be.

      1. Nah, I’ll put up with quite a lot if a romantic comedy is otherwise decent, or even slightly rubbish — I do still enjoy the genre and if I expected everything I watched to be deeply feminist, I’d be staring at a blank screen a lot 😉 I do object to this kind of dialogue, though, and I’m glad you’ve called them out on it.

        Where I’ve been reluctant to see films altogether, it’s either ‘cos they’ve been lauded as a great feminist hope and I’m doubtful (Bridesmaids, although I will watch it “on video” eventually) or they seem wilfully misogynist (almost any “blokey” comedy of the last 20 years).

  5. I think that it’s one thing if you’re trying to make the character be a misogynist, arrogant knob-head, but if you that those lines are going to make people laugh, then you, and those that agree with you, and those that laugh are, in fact, IMHO misogynist arrogant knob-heads.

    But that rape line in particular shocked me – as if it’s only not socially acceptable to rape someone in public… :-O

    And they would never get away with saying:

    Jamie: Hey, what about her?
    Dylan: No way! She’s a nigger!

    Would they?!!?! So how come it’s OK to make jokes about rape and people who have a disability of some description, either learning or physical?


    1. Clare, I completely agree. If it had been a jackass character we were meant to hate, I would still have shuddered, but it would at least have made sense. But this is the romantic hero! (And heroine.)

      And, yes, re “retard” – Gemma Varnom says the same in her blog post: “Why, when terms such as ‘nigger’ or ‘faggot’ are quite rightly classed as hate-speech is ‘retard’ considered perfectly acceptable for inclusion in a national publication?” Indeed.

  6. But that’s the whole thing that’s wrong, Diane. It’s not ‘deeply feminist’ to not think jokes about rape are funny – it’s simply how things should be.

    I would feel as disappointed about race jokes, but racism is no longer acceptable in our culture, unlike sexism.

    Read this post: for why it’s important that things that trivialise violence against women should be challenged and not dismissed as being ‘too feminist’.

    1. I read that link a couple of months ago and it blew me away. Everyone should read it. Although when I tweeted it this morning, someone replied saying the writer needs to take “happy pills”. I despair.

  7. I can name at least two MALE comedians who are hilarious and who say outright that they’re feminists…I wonder how that’s possible!

    (David Mitchell and Bill Bailey) You should write a list of funny feminists for your blog, just to prove you can be a fem and have a sense of humour!

  8. He’s written some cracking articles. Wrote a fab one about those football commentators last year. Not sure if he’s ever actually said he’s a feminist…will research now!

    Read an interesting blog post by a mum all about feminism but she said ‘I’m not a feminist, or anything…’ in the middle of it!

    1. Oh yes, I read that. I assumed he was, was just wondering if he’d actually said so. Joan Collins apparently said “Of course I believe women should be equal, but I’m not a feminist” on TV last week. Drives me mad.

    1. I’ve read that pole dancing one before, but it made me sigh with happiness all over again. At him, not at the stupid pole dancing, obv.

      Thank you for the link to Penny Red – am loving this post (I’ve been trying to do the default gender “she” thing for a while and have been surprised at how hard it is to remember. I’m generally stuck on “he… or she” but I’ll keep trying.

  9. Oh, I know that Clare, and I’m familiar with that blog post and the idea of rape culture in general. I addressed my feelings about the rape joke above (in my first comment) but to reiterate: there’s no excuse for it.

    In my second reply. I was just trying to communicate to Keris, who knows I’m a rampant feminist, that not everything I choose to watch is deeply feminist (I watched a sitcom this week that had me rolling my eyes at its gender stereotyping, but had some sweet, funny moments too, for e.g.) or there’d be very, very little to watch. Unfortunately.

      1. Exactly! I used it once when I couldn’t remember the word rabid, and decided I liked it a lot better 🙂 (Did you see the Ms. blog had an interview unveiling Twitter’s feminist hulk, btw?)

        Oh, and it was Mike & Molly! I meant to tell you I’d seen some of it. (Have now seen all of S1.) I like the characters (or maybe just the actors) a lot, but there were a few stereotype-y times, including one exchange about Molly’s “girly” music and how Mike would have a period soon. FFS.

  10. It’s just words…

    Does any of you ever use the words: moron, moronic, idiot, imbecile, cretin?

    They are technical terms, but used as light insults and as jokes…

    Oh would you look at that idiot…type of thing

    1. It’s not “just words” when you’re part of a group that’s marginalised and has historically been discriminated against. People with developmental disabilities have protested against the use of “retarded” for some time now. Both they and their families find it hurtful. That being the case, someone who chooses to use that word does so in the knowledge that they are being hurtful and discriminatory, which I find disgraceful.

      Yes, words like moron and idiot also used to be medical terms, but I doubt anyone could legitimately call them that now. “Retarded” has that meaning in recent memory, so its use as an insult takes its power from the fact that people with learning disabilities are seen as lesser than, as figures of fun.

      It is problematic that so many of our insults stem from words which were once terms used for disabled people, and reflects society’s tendency to prejuice people with disabilities, but let’s not pretend “idiot” carries the same emotional wallop as “retard”. It doesn’t. Plus, it is only ever used to mean someone is stupid. In the context of the film, “retarded” isn’t being used metaphorically. It’s being used to mean “developmentally disabled… and therefore stupid”, which is lazy and very prejudiced.

    2. No, I don’t use those terms, Tris, because they’re offensive and I’m not really that keen on trying to offend people.

      As I’ve already said, do you call black people niggers? I am going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume not, so why not? Why is nigger offensive, and cretin not?

      Or, here’s a novel concept, how about just not trying to lightly insult people in the first place, whatever word you choose…?

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