thu 29/02/2024

Rosie Jones: Am I a R*tard? Channel 4 review - disappointing documentary | reviews, news & interviews

Rosie Jones: Am I a R*tard? Channel 4 review - disappointing documentary

Rosie Jones: Am I a R*tard? Channel 4 review - disappointing documentary

Shallow exposé of disability hate crimes fails to explore its causes

Rosie Jones, comedian and presenter, explores the abuse disabled people endure

Channel 4 has been getting a lot of flack on Twitter from people involved in disability for the title of this documentary.

Family members protested that "retard" was a word that could not be reclaimed, only to be told that as non-disabled people themselves, their voices had to take a back seat. An interview with its presenter Rosie Jones in The Guardian erupted into online arguments about who had the right to speak for intellectually disabled people.  

All this controversy won clicks online and ends up with potentially more viewers for this C4 show. It also meant that three contributors withdrew their consent to appear in the programme, unhappy with that title. Doubtless it felt pointless to change the title at the last minute when Rosie Jones had the phrase (without the feeble, coy asterisk) printed on a t-shirt that she wore in several sequences. Maybe the editing out of those three contributors accounts for why this programme felt so thin and repetitive. It focused on Jones’s hurt feelings and her quest to hold social media responsible for the insults she has received, rather than exploring the question – why are people vile to intellectually disabled people?

The comedian opened her programme with a heartfelt piece to camera: "I said to Channel 4, let’s use that word in the title and then hopefully by the end of the film, people will think twice before ever using that word again." But will they? There’s been a long history of changing the words used to describe intellectually disabled people in an effort to make them kinder. "Mentally retarded" was once a diagnostic term indicating a need for specific, tailored education for those children who couldn't learn in standard education; "moron" was used in the early 20th century to indicate someone with an IQ between 50 and 70 who could acquire skills; "cretin" is thought to come from a Swiss French term echoing the word Christian, which was used for people with hyperthyroidism and designed to remind people of our common humanity. All of these were terms designed to be descriptive and/or respectful, but became insults over time.

The unvarnished fact is that if people don’t like someone, they’ll morph any new name into an insult. The Spastics Society rebranded itself as Scope in 1994 but that hasn’t made people stop insulting Rosie Jones, who as a newborn was deprived of oxygen and left with cerebral palsy that affects the way she walks and talk. In my 1970s childhood, kids called my intellectually disabled autistic brother a "spazz"  when he attracted their attention with his unusual speech and behaviour. These days the insult I’ve heard in the playground is "spesh" (from special needs).  I’m waiting for ‘"neuro" or "div" to be hacked out of the currently fashionable "neurodivergent" and become the next insults to be bandied about.

And where does this leave C4’s clumsily-titled documentary? Floundering. Rather than interviewing anyone who was intellectually disabled and might be hurt by the word retarded, Rosie Jones met the agency she had contracted to sift through her mentions on social media and block the insults, and saw the screeds of abuse. She garnered sympathy from Nikki Fox, the BBC’s disability correspondent, who agreed that on screen, women with disabilities attract even more abuse than disabled men.

Jones tried to get Twitter to remove tweets using "retard" on the grounds that they constituted hate speech, and in a poorly executed stunt for the cameras, deposited a decorated cake with the phrase on it at Twitter HQ.  Twitter declined to contribute to the programme.  She interviewed the grieving parents of a baby girl born with a disfiguring genetic condition; they had suffered horrible abuse when they tried to raise money for her treatment. It was heartbreaking to see the mother still crying years after her daughter’s death, as she recalled the online accusation that the parents were attention-seeking and suggestions that the child should have been allowed to die. But it didn’t address why people felt that this was acceptable behaviour.

Jones also tried to do what presenter/historian Mary Beard did to the trolls who insulted her. She invited them to meet her in real life and discuss why they felt the need to insult her. But Jones's tormentors didn’t respond to her requests, so she ended up interviewing a masked man who had served time in prison for sending online death threats and sexual abuse. His voice distorted to protect his identity, he blamed his behaviour on being drunk, a pack mentality and poor mental health. It wasn’t clear if the person or people he had attacked online, to the extent that he ended up in jail, were disabled.

There was little attempt to understand why some members of society feel it's alright to abuse and insult disabled people other than a too brief interview with Prof Matthew Williams of Cardiff university’s Hate Lab. He noted that around the world, social intolerance rises in times of great inequality. But he wasn’t allowed to expand on that idea – it could have been linked to the Nazis’ eugenics propaganda or the Daily Telegraph’s recent report on the costly burden of disabled people today. 

Instead of exploring further the way society has always struggled to accept people who look different or don’t speak fluently or behave unusually, and confront that fear and loathing of "the other", the professor went off with Jones to indulge in a spot of recreational axe-throwing to relieve tension. Altogether, this was a wasted opportunity.  

The unvarnished fact is that if people don’t like someone, they’ll morph any new name into an insult

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