Three-time Olympic gold medalist Shaun White apologized Monday night to Special Olympians for posting a photo of himself dressed up for Halloween as a mentally challenged character from the 2008 movie “Tropic Thunder.”
In a sendup of down-on-their-luck actors who play mentally disabled characters in an attempt to win an Oscar, Ben Stiller’s character in the movie, Tugg Speedman, portrayed a character named “Simple Jack.” There was criticism from advocates for the disabled at the time of the movie’s release and it wasn’t clear why White chose the character for his costume, although both are freckled redheads. He quickly said he was “sorry for being insensitive” and deleted a photo of his costume from social media.
“I owe everyone in the Special Olympics community an apology for my poor choice of Halloween costume the other night,” White tweeted. “It was a last minute decision. It was the wrong one. The Special Olympics were right to call me out on it. They do great work supporting so many tremendous athletes and I am sorry for being insensitive. Lesson learned.”
There was intense social-media criticism of White’s outfit, and Soeren Palumbo of the Special Olympics said in a statement to the HuffPost that the costume “causes so much pain. Disability is not a joke nor should it be a punchline,” adding that “this just continues stigma, stereotypes and discrimination.”
Shaun White is catching the heat for his majorly insensitive Halloween costume. pic.twitter.com/ZXHkxCQGZT— TMZ (@TMZ) October 30, 2018
Special Olympics thanked White for his apology, replying to his tweet, “You always have an invitation to shred with our athletes at #XGames Aspen!”
Reaction was critical as well as supportive on social media. One user wondered, “Does Ben Stiller have to apologize now for playing Simple Jack?” Another replied to the Special Olympics' response: “This is ridiculous. I have a son that’s a Special Olympian and I don’t find this costume offensive at all. It’s a movie character for Halloween. Please stop speaking for us all.” Another wrote: “People are so sensitive LMAO it was just a costume, and it wasn’t even of a real person. I guess this means I can’t dress up as Freddy Krueger because that’s promoting murder, right? What else, can’t be an anime character because I’m American? Can’t be a Rugrat cause I’m 18?”
Patricia Bauer, a former Post reporter, wrote in 2008 of the effect the Simple Jack character had on her family and her daughter, Margaret, who was born with Down syndrome.
“ ‘Tropic Thunder’ provides another example of the unthinking acceptance of language that promotes oppression. Anticipating public scrutiny, the studio was careful to build nuance and subtlety into the film’s racial humor,” she wrote. “A white actor who uses blackface to portray a black character is countered at every turn by a black actor critiquing his actions. But there’s no on-screen presence countering the Simple Jack portrayal, nor did the filmmakers consult people with intellectual disabilities or their families about the script.
“It seems that the studio never considered that its portrayal of people with disabilities would touch a nerve farther below the skin than it would want to go. Again we hear: I didn’t mean it like that, and lighten up. It doesn’t mean anything.
“For millions of Americans like Margaret and me, it does.”