You are here:


Three things happened to me on a Friday last May. I was listening to a local radio talk show as I cleaned my kitchen when my attention was caught by an interview with an antique car owner. It seems this man had recently sold a 1951 Studebaker to the Disney corporation for use in a live action re-make of the old Mr. Magoo cartoon. I groaned. I have disliked Mr. Magoo since I was a small child. Still, there is no accounting for taste. I reasoned that I didn't have to go to the movie. It wouldn't have to affect me at all.

That same afternoon I picked up the latest edition of the Braille Monitor. In it I read a moving article about a blind woman from Wisconsin.This person has been an acquaintance of mine for more than ten years. I have always known her to be tough minded, hard-working, and practical. No one could ever call her weak. But in this article she talks about her attempted suicide as a teenager. She was a young girl with none of the skills of blindness and no exposure to positive blind role models. She had tried to fake sight and get along with very limited vision. Naturally, this didn't work. Her hopelessness led her to believe she preferred death to a continued marginal existence. Fortunately, she survived. She did more than that. She went on to earn university degrees, marry, raise two children, and have a career. She credits her optimism to what she has learned in the National Federation of the Blind. She made a very telling comment: I used to feel like Mr. Magoo.

Then my eight-year-old daughter added her perspective. I hate Mr. Magoo. He is an ugly, mean old man and he makes fun of blind people.

The peace of my Friday had been shattered. Once again I was reminded that none of us lives in isolation. How many other young blind people are in the same situation as my Wisconsin acquaintance? How many children with blind parents feel their family is being undermined by the Magoo character? How do I help my own children prevail and overcome the stereotyped thinking emanating from the huge Disney marketing machine?

To be fair, Mr. Magoo has his defenders. I began asking sighted friends what they thought of him. Many were simply relieved that Magoo was non-violent. Compared to much of the other children's entertainment he seemed relatively safe. They simply hadn't thought about the implications of a man becoming totally unaware of his environment when he was without his glasses.

When the NFB:AE and the National Federation of the Blind in the United States passed resolutions condemning the production of a new Mr. Magoo movie, some people accused us of lacking a sense of humour. After all, the reasoning went, we all ought to be able to laugh at ourselves. Besides, Magoo ended the movie as a hero.

Our ideas about what is funny have changed over the years. When I was a child, moron jokes were very popular. I remember telling them without knowing what a moron was. When I learned that moron was simply an older name for a person who was mildly mentally retarded the humour didn't seem so funny any more. People who are mildly mentally retarded can't do very much about their intellectual deficit. A bright person making some of the same foolish errors would be funny because presumably that person could have done otherwise.

Ethnic jokes are another thorny issue. There are some derogatory jokes which have been repeated all across North America. In some places the butt of the humour is Polish, in other communities it is the Swede who is being vilified. We've all heard the same stories told as Newfie jokes. Generally, the fill in the nationality ethnic humour is in bad taste and not very funny. It usually demonstrates contempt for the ethnic group whose name is being inserted. Although there are some members of the group who show their sense of humour by repeating these jokes, most people are justifiably offended by them.

Other ethnic humour plays upon and exaggerates characteristics which are genuinely identified with a particular ethnic group. Jewish jokes about rabbis and Catholic humour about priests, could not easily be changed by inserting the names of other religious groups.

These jokes can be very funny. They can also be destructive and hurtful. If the result of the joke is that the hearer is expected to feel critical or contemptuous of the targeted ethnic group then it is in bad taste and not funny. If the hearer is left laughing with, and not at, the group in question then the humour is a blessing to everyone who hears it. Good humour exaggerates traits that exist and celebrates them. It does not demean or put down.

How well does Mr. Magoo pass this test? He certainly exaggerates the characteristics which are widely believed to be an inevitable part of not seeing well. He is so unaware of his surroundings that he is completely clueless. He pats the tops of fire hydrants believing that they are the heads of small children. He bumps into telephone poles and apologizes to them. If he can't see it clearly, he doesn't know what it is. No other senses give him any clues at all. He doesn't notice that the top of a fire hydrant does not feel the same as a child's head. Apologies to the telephone pole give new meaning to the notion of a person with a wooden expression. Obviously, Mr. Magoo fails the first test. He is not the exaggeration of a real characteristic. He is the caricature of a falsehood.

The second test of humour is whether or not it damages the group it targets. There have been enough blind people with low expectations and poor attitudes about themselves who have described themselves as "Magoo" to make me believe that the Magoo character does real harm. I have heard of at least two instances of blind people who have been taunted by children who called them old Mr. Magoo.

No one is arguing that the Disney Corporation deliberately set out to make fun of blind people. Nor were the many fans of Mr. Magoo intentionally being crass and insensitive. In some ways, the reality is much worse than that. The people who were doing great harm to the blind were totally unaware of the implications of their actions. They were as clueless as Magoo himself. The very fact that they were unaware that what they were doing is harmful illustrates the problem. The underlying premise is that, without sight there can be no knowledge, is accepted so completely that it's never even questioned.

Most of us who are blind have had occasion to laugh at things that happen to us because of our blindness. Sometimes we mistake what we saw for something else. More often than not humourous situations arise because people around us don't understand blindness and talk to us loudly or ask our sighted companions if we want cream in our coffee.

There is at least one blind man who makes his living as a comedian. Part of his routine comes from telling sighted audiences about the funny things that happen to him as a blind person. He is able to laugh at his circumstances and gently to teach others new ways of behaving by getting them to laugh at their own mistakes.

The blind community in general, and the Federation in particular, has a reputation for finding and celebrating the humor in our lives. We ask only that those who would make use of blindness humor do it respectfully and in good taste. In our opinion Mr. Magoo is disrespectful and in extremely poor taste.

Despite the fact that the blind community made it clear that it was damaging, a new Mr. Magoo movie was shown in the theatres during the Christmas holidays. The Federation negotiated with the Disney Corporation. Not surprisingly, they were unwilling to mothball a film which represented an investment of several million dollars. We were left wondering what we could do to turn this negative image of blindness into an opportunity for good public education.

One possible course of action was to use the press to make our point.Our objection to Mr. Magoo was the second most talked about story in the entertainment business during the first week of July. It also received prominent, though not always favorable, coverage on several popular U.S. television programs.

This coverage did not stop the release of the Magoo movie, but it got people thinking and talking about the implications of Magoo in ways which would never have happened without our protest. In a very real way, we helped change the underlying public consciousness about Magoo and blindness throughout North America. The movie was a box office failure and was universally given bad reviews by the critics.

Although it would have been better if no one ever saw Mr. Magoo again, we were able to do something much better than simply stopping the distribution of the Magoo movie. We have come a long way indeed because the Canadian public have become educated enough about blindness to watch Magoo and say that really isn't funny anymore .

The shows Amos and Andy was popular in the United States until the early sixties. Most Americans would be embarrassed by it now. Moron jokes are definitely out of favour. It is socially unacceptable to tell a Newfie joke. We were not able to battle the huge Disney machine to kill Mr. Magoo, we did something with more far-reaching implications. We helped him die of natural causes.