The Braille Monitor _______ October 1997
PHOTO/CAPTION: Barbara Pierce
PHOTO/CAPTION: Quincy Magoo
Let the Old Creep Die
by Barbara Pierce
Across the summer an unlikely topic surfaced again and again on radio news, talk programs, and Internet listservs throughout the country. The subject was Mr. Magoo--the curmudgeonly cartoon character created shortly before World War II, transformed in the fifties into the self-satisfied prig seen in theater shorts, and modified again for television in the sixties into everybody's bumbling, incompetent, but kindly uncle. By the late seventies the near-sighted nitwit voiced by Jim Backus was a has-been, so why, in 1997, was he suddenly appearing on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, on the editorial pages of dozens of major newspapers, and on the ABC television program "Access Hollywood"?
The reason was simple: a couple of years ago The Walt Disney Company bought the rights to Mr. Magoo and decided to make a feature-length, live-action Magoo film, starring Leslie Nielsen, to be released at Christmastime this year. News of this project filtered out last spring, and as soon as they heard of the project, blind people began to worry--at least those who had weathered the effect of Mr. Magoo on blind children the first time around began to worry.
Society is constantly evolving, but whether the changes are on balance positive or negative is more than those who live through them can objectively assess. But the fact of change is pretty universally accepted. Take humor, for example. What people laugh at in polite company is, perhaps, the first thing to change from generation to generation. The moron jokes of my childhood are long gone, and ethnic and racial jokes soon followed them into well-deserved obscurity. Any significant cultural trend will impose a discrepancy for a while between jokes told in polite circles and the ones people laugh at in their own, homogeneous groups. As a brunette I find some of the blonde jokes amusing, but my blonde daughter distinctly does not, even though her intelligence, common sense, and practicality remove her as far from the objects of those jokes as it is well possible to be. So, out of respect to her, I no longer tell blonde jokes, but I still find them funny.
Over the centuries the evolution of humor becomes more pronounced. In the Middle Ages blind men were dressed up with donkeys' ears and set to fighting each other to amuse the crowds at country fairs. In the eighteenth century people toured insane asylums to enjoy the antics of the chained inmates. But anyone who found either of these spectacles amusing today would be unhesitatingly branded as perverted.
If you had asked me five years ago whether Mr. Magoo could make a revival in the United States in the 1990's, I would have said with conviction that as a culture we were past taking delight in the mistakes of a man who saw so little that he did not know where he was or what he was actually doing most of the time. I could not have been more wrong. People laugh at what frightens them; that is one way of coping with fear. But whatever the reason, Disney gambled on the proposition that Magoo would draw a nostalgic adult audience, along with children who would find Nielsen's brand of klutzy, disorganized silliness funny. To hear Disney officials talk about the decision in their public statements, you would conclude that the idea that Magoo might make life harder for a new generation of blind children, as it did for blind adults now in their thirties and older, never even entered their minds.
Mr. Magoo, they protested, wasn't really blind; he was just very nearsighted. They hadn't intended any harm, so none could be done by the film. And, besides, Magoo as they planned to portray him was an American hero because he managed to solve the problems and resolve the conflicts--only after he put his glasses back on, of course. They said Magoo was a Forrest Gump figure and that the film could appropriately be compared to Children of a Lesser God and My Left Foot. True, Disney has not offered to let officials of the National Federation of the Blind read the script of the film, but it stretches credulity to conceive of Leslie Nielsen's style of acting as bearing any similarity to the powerful portrayals of Marlee Matlin or Daniel Day-Lewis in the films just mentioned.
The absurdity of such arguments would be funny if the film's potential for harming blind people were not so great. What does it matter that Magoo's corrected vision places him above the legal definition of blindness when the joke is that he does not wear his glasses? He behaves bizarrely and wanders around unaware of his surroundings because his creators consider that such actions are both plausible behavior for the blind and funny to watch.
It may comfort the Disney folks to announce that they had no intention of causing problems for blind people, and it may well be so. But it was undoubtedly more a case of its never having occurred to anybody to take the warnings seriously. An op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times at the time Disney acquired the rights to Magoo warned that reviving "the old creep," as Jim Backus took to calling Magoo in later years, was a bad idea and would harm blind people.
In fact as early as the late fifties an incident occurred that demonstrated how painful the Magoo joke could be. The British author Aldous Huxley was hired to develop a Magoo script based on the Don Quixote story, according to Dun Roman, a former writer for United Pictures of America (UPA), the organization owning the rights to Mr. Magoo at the time. Huxley had poor vision, and it soon became apparent that he did not know that Magoo was all but blind. Rather than tell him about the blindness joke, UPA paid for his script, which it never used. So much for astonishment that the Magoo joke might be in poor taste.
The notion that Mr. Magoo in any transformation could be an American hero or that Leslie Nielsen's comic acting places his performance in the same class as two of the most moving and powerful portrayals of disability ever created is nothing more than optimistic public relations puffery. But one part of that argument must be deeply disturbing to anyone dedicated to the conviction that blind people are capable of living productive, well-adjusted lives. Disney officials point out with pride that Magoo puts everything to rights as soon as he puts on his glasses and can see what is happening. What message does that plot device give to blind children and to everyone who at some future time will deal with blindness?
At the opening general session of the 1997 convention of the National Federation of the Blind, delegates overwhelmingly passed Resolution 97-03, which called upon The Disney Company to stop production of the Magoo movie and urged the actors to have nothing more to do with the project. (See the August/September, 1997, issue for the complete text of the resolution.) The press swept down with open mikes and rolling cameras to demand explanations for our opposition to Mr. Magoo. Members stepped forward to talk about their own experiences as children and their fears for what today's blind youngsters may be in for as a result of Magoo's revival.
Following the convention, President Maurer asked me to gather several statements together for one journalist who requested personal stories of troubles brought on by Magoo. In addition to a number of comments from various listservs, we passed on the following statements:
by Sabrina Yamini
Four years ago my stepson Musa committed suicide at the age of fourteen. At the time we did not know that Musa was facing taunts, teasing, and beatings on a daily basis at school. He was, apparently, convinced that at fourteen he should be able to handle his own problems independently. For reasons beyond my understanding, the teachers and staff at the school didn't bother to tell us what was going on. The first we knew the full extent of Musa's agony was when we discovered his body.
I have a number of younger children and stepchildren, several of whom are blind or visually impaired to one degree or another. They too endure teasing and laughter at the hands of their classmates. Teachers present during these episodes do nothing to stop them; in fact, they often seem to encourage the activity. They have no grasp of what all this is doing to my children's spirits.
These children are very fragile. I have no words to convey my anxiety when I think about what will happen when the children in our area see the movie about Mr. Magoo next winter. Perhaps the name-calling and laughter and tricks will be only a little worse because of the movie, but how much worse do they have to be before one of our younger children decides to follow Musa's example?
by Mary Lou Grunwald
I've heard people say that there is no tie between Magoo and his adventures and the experiences of blind people. There are ties. I lived through them.
When I entered school for the first time, I had to wear very strong glasses. I was, and still am, legally blind. I attended classes where the books had very large print. I have very clear memories of hearing other kids make fun of me because I couldn't see very well. They called me Magoo. At least twice kids cornered me in the school yard, took my glasses away from me, and broke them. They said, "Now you're really Magoo, and you can't catch us." They laughed and taunted.
All of this happened many years ago, and I guess you could say that it was just a matter of children's cruelty and insensitivity. But I can only end up thinking that the Magoo cartoons taught them that it was okay to laugh and make fun of somebody with very poor or no sight. As I remember these painful experiences, I am disturbed by the idea that this kind of stuff would be considered okay today. I remember how frightened and angry I was as a third or fourth grader.
I hope we can convince The Disney Company to do something more positive and helpful with the money it would take to make a new Magoo movie.
by Bill Reif
Unlike George of the thankfully short-lived television program "Good and Evil," Mr. Magoo is supposed to be a somewhat likable guy and was designed to appeal to children. Still I couldn't agree more that Mr. Magoo belongs to another time, as do Dick Tracy and the Frito Bandito, and should not be inflicted on yet another generation.
Let me describe a couple of small incidents, far separated in time, which illustrate the place in the public mind Mr. Magoo occupies and will occupy if not challenged by the NFB and by people having the courage demonstrated by those who stand with us.
When I was in high school in 1972, I had a friend in phys ed who used to look up to me, ask for help in homework, etc. While definitely not known for his tact, he was generally a nice guy. While he normally referred to me by my name, he often, when offering help he was sure a blind person would need, (help such as learning what room I had just entered), would precede his unwanted offer by stating: "OK, Magoo, you're in the locker room now," or "I'll walk you out to the car, Magoo." Let me make it clear that this was not a kid who wanted to make fun of me by calling me "Magoo." He always used it in a context that implied that, because of my blindness and but for his help, I would be as oblivious of my surroundings as Mr. Magoo. Whenever I would decline his unwanted offer of help, he would point out that Magoo never thought he was lost or needed help either. I think this was a kid who didn't have the sense not to say what others were content merely to think.
The other incident happened just a year ago as I was walking past a church day-care center. One of the preschool-age children asked his mother what I was doing tapping that stick. Upon being told I was blind, he asked, in amazement, "Oh, like Mr. Magoo?" That cartoon is still shown regularly on Nickelodeon. To her credit, his mother replied, "No, not like Mr. Magoo; he uses a cane because he knows where he's going." As I continued past, I heard her explaining that blind people aren't like Mr. Magoo. I hope her assurances came early enough in his life to change his beliefs and keep them from becoming the emotional reaction to blindness some adults just can't get past. How much better it would be if parents didn't have to undo the damage done by the lies and stereotypes which frightened or ill-informed people find entertaining.
It's interesting that my son hates Mr. Magoo, finding it beyond belief that he could get through a whole cartoon without realizing he was on a ship, in a bullfight, or wherever the situation put him.
by Barbara Pierce
I was the only blind child in my elementary school in the 1950's. I had a little vision and wore thick glasses in an attempt to improve my sight. When I look back on those years, I realize that I spent much of the time worrying: If I was lucky enough to be chosen to take a message to the school office (an honor that every kid yearned for), I fretted that the secretary would not be typing to guide me to her door and on the way back that some teacher would open or close her room door, thereby throwing off my count of open doors to find my class again. At church I worried that I would not see the glint of the offering plate to reach for it at the right time. I agonized for fear that my walking-to-school friends would get tired of walking with me. When I walked to school alone, I could not count on finding the shortcut, so I was in danger of being tardy.
And so it went--day in and day out. These were not shattering concerns, but they occupied much of my waking time. The problem was that the magnitude of my vision loss was supposed to be a big secret. I got the message from teachers, classmates, and my family that I should try to act like everybody else. I was pretty good at recognizing people by their voices, but I learned early not to give away the fact when I did not know to whom I was speaking. Actually the fact of my blindness was no secret. I sometimes heard other students whispering the information; then the older boys started their very own playground chant:
Where am I at?
What'ya tryin' to do?
It would be twenty-five years before I learned that what I should have done once I had been outed was to admit the situation, get the Braille training I badly needed, and learn to use a white cane. But protective coloration was all I could think to use as a defense. If I never risked reaching out to do anything new or different, if I stayed back in the crowd until the comments of others told me what to expect, I was less likely to be humiliated by bumping into something or misidentifying someone. The price I paid was loss of experience. I didn't touch things; I didn't go places alone; I didn't risk doing things that would have taught me more about my world. For the sighted child with access to picture books, television, and films such deprivations are regrettable, but for a blind child they cause deficits that remain for life.
But despite my efforts I was not spared the jibes. Mr. Magoo haunted me. I knew his mistakes had nothing to do with blindness because I never confused dogs with children, bananas with telephone receivers, or dishes with records; but my classmates assumed that was the way I must perceive the world. They were forever handing me objects and swearing that they were something else. They were indignant when I was not confused and not prepared to laugh at any error I made.
Thank Heaven I was one of the brightest students in my class. I could often anticipate a Magoo set-up and figure out how to thwart it. I was blessed with a circle of friends, but all of them at one time or another tried sneaking away from me silently or standing perfectly still so I couldn't find them. They were indignant when these stratagems did not work and gleeful when they did. The theme in both cases was Mr. Magoo--I was either like him or not like him. When they fooled me, they squealed with laughter, and when I caught on to what was happening, they were angry because I wasn't playing by the rules.
There was no way to win. Did all this mar me for life? Not profoundly. I have not resorted to the therapist's office to work out my neuroses. But the only way to make a healthy adjustment to blindness is to admit what is happening and set about openly and intelligently to master the skills necessary to live effectively as a blind person. I took many years to recognize this truth and many more to learn to act on it. Mr. Magoo compounded my problems and confused the people who could have helped me evolve a natural and healthy approach to my situation.
I survived more or less intact, but I see no reason why another generation of blind children should be asked to bear the brunt of Mr. Magoo and his antics.
The themes raised in these statements have been discussed in Internet conversations and interviews around the country in the weeks since passage of the July 2 resolution. The responses to the Federation position seem to be of two sorts. The first has been on the whole from sighted people who found Magoo's antics funny and who now resent the implication that there might be any inappropriateness in their sense of humor. The comments from such people tend to come down to "Lighten up. It's just a cartoon. Political correctness has gone too far when poor old Mr. Magoo is blamed for causing serious problems and reinforcing misconceptions about blindness." Unfortunately there is ample evidence that Mr. Magoo has indeed caused children problems for generations, and even in such conversations one can see the impact of the Magoo world view on the very people protesting their freedom from the taint of prejudice.
Recently I found myself engaged in a debate on this very topic with two interviewers in Texas. I commented that blind people face an unemployment rate so high that it clearly reflects employers' presumption that we are more or less helpless. In a little diatribe they announced that blind people really are pretty helpless and that Mr. Magoo cartoons weren't actually so far off the mark. A blind person wouldn't be able to distinguish between plates and long-playing records without somebody there to identify the item to be washed. Another interviewer, this time in Los Angeles, expressed incredulity when I said that a blind person could distinguish between various pieces of clothing and therefore would know what he or she was wearing. He demanded to know what I was wearing and then insisted on speaking on the air with my secretary to confirm the accuracy of my words. When the two of us agreed about the outfit, he yielded, grudgingly, that I might be able to identify clothing, but I pointed out to him that his tone of voice told me he was still not convinced of the competence of blind people. My statement that Mr. Magoo had helped to confirm the public's assumption that blind people had little grasp of the world around them did not persuade him, but I remain convinced that such statements as these interviewers made reflexively to me illustrate precisely the damage done through the years by Magoo and the running gag about his mistakes in identification.
The other typical response arises from blind people who have chiseled out a precarious place for themselves in their social circle through demonstrating what good fellows they are by always being the first to laugh at their blindness. Rather than mastering the alternative skills they need to live efficiently and productively, they pretend that they can see as often as they can and then laugh heartily at their errors or injuries when the fakery falls apart. They, of course, don't want to be pitied, and laughter at their own expense is the only weapon they have found to defend themselves when they have no confidence in their actual abilities.
Perhaps the most startling aspect of the entire Magoo controversy has been dealing with the accusations that members of the NFB have no sense of humor and that we are engaged in political correctness run amuck. Until now one of the most common criticisms aimed at us has been that we seem to be absolutely insensible of the nuances of political correctness. This older, more familiar complaint happens to be, in fact, accurate. Political correctness has everything to do with language and labels for things and people. We have always been more concerned with substance than form, figuring that, in dealing with blindness at least, if we could straighten out the substance, the latter would come right or cease to be a problem at all. Since we perceive the issues raised by Mr. Magoo as going to the very heart of the problems of discrimination and alienation facing blind people, we believe that protesting what Disney is doing is genuinely important.
The reflexive opponents of political correctness who have decided that our objections to Mr. Magoo are nonsense make the error of labeling anything that has to do with a minority group and that such people find inconvenient or uncomfortable as "political correctness." They assume that, if they announce that a thing is superficial, it is. But laughing at people because they can't see, underscoring the public's conviction that things straighten themselves out only when you can see them, and encouraging people's misconceptions about what a person can accomplish without seeing are all serious matters. Whether one agrees with us about Magoo's involvement in such issues, it seems amazing that people would define such questions as superficial political correctness.
The accusation that we lack a sense of humor seems equally peculiar to anyone who has spent any time around members of the Federation. Few groups have more fun together or enjoy humor more completely. We do not make a point of laughing about blindness; our lives and interests are too wide-ranging to focus our humor on any one area of existence, but a sense of humor certainly helps one to deal healthily with the absurdities that occur because of blindness. Ridiculous situations, silly reactions, peculiar comments: all these are shared among Federation friends and passed along with zest. By and large, however, I cannot remember hearing Federationists laugh at cruelty or anecdotes that make fun of blind people just because they are blind. All of us have been the objects of such laughter too often to find such anecdotes or jokes funny.
Shortly after the Wall Street Journal published its front-page story on the history of Mr. Magoo, President Maurer received a letter from a man in New York. The intemperate tone and obvious anger of the letter demonstrate just how uncomfortable and even threatened some people have been made by the prospect of blind people standing up and saying clearly yet temperately that we are no longer willing to endure taunts and disparagement without registering our displeasure. President Maurer's response is a model of balance, rationality, and clarity. Here is the exchange of letters:
West Henrietta, New York
August 4, 1997
Dear Mr. Maurer:
I was outraged to read in Thursday's Wall Street Journal that your organization is disturbed by Mr. Magoo's resuscitation by the Disney Company. It is obvious that you people are ridiculously overly sensitive and apparently don't have enough to do for the blind, subsequently your complaining about a animated individual.
I've asked my people in New York to determine where your funding comes from. If any of it comes from public funds, perhaps such funding should be reviewed.
With best wishes, I am,
August 8, 1997
I have received your letter, and I appreciate the directness you employ in stating your opinion. Mine is different from yours, but I believe that it is based upon experience. Perhaps I read more into my experience than I should, but I don't think so. This is the experience to which I refer.
The Walt Disney Company has proposed to issue a live-action, full-length film reviving Mr. Magoo this upcoming Christmas. At its 1997 convention held in New Orleans, Louisiana, the National Federation of the Blind, the largest organization of blind people in the United States, protested this proposed action by The Walt Disney Company. In response to the protest, Disney said that we who are blind did not understand. Magoo is not blind, they said; he's just nearsighted. Besides, they said, he is a role model, a heroic figure.
From the perspective of the blind of this country, we believe it is Disney that does not understand. I, Marc Maurer, serve as President of the National Federation of the Blind. I am totally blind, forty-six years old, and the father of two children. My wife Patricia is also blind.
I am a lawyer and the administrator of the largest organization of the blind in this country, the National Federation of the Blind. We operate a number of training programs for the blind. We help people find jobs. We have created 700 chapters that bring blind people together in every state in our nation. We print and distribute millions of documents that bring hope to the blind every year.
My wife, who is blind, has a teaching certificate and has taught in several schools. She presently serves as a full-time volunteer in our headquarters office.
Our two children, David, thirteen, and Dianna, ten, are both sighted. They do what children usually do--go to school, play in the yard, ride their bicycles, and complain about doing the dishes. They cannot avoid the subject of blindness because we, their blind parents, live with it every day.
When David was beginning in school (he was in the second grade), he came home crying. The other kids had told him that his parents were incompetent and ineffective because of blindness (the children had said stupid and dumb). David knew better, and he told the kids that they were wrong. The argument became heated and developed into a fight. David knew what to do. He took the matter to the teacher, expecting vindication and support. But he didn't get it. The teacher sided with those who had belittled his parents. My son was isolated and alone. He didn't have the words to express it, but the feeling was there. He knows his parents have ability, but nobody would believe him. They called us by the name of Magoo.
The year started badly, and it got worse. David knows that I sometimes make television appearances on behalf of the blind of the nation. After one of these he told his friends that I had been on television. But they wouldn't believe him. The teacher didn't believe it either. When David insisted that his father had been on television, the teacher punished him for lying.
Later the same year I was invited to visit the First Lady, Mrs. Barbara Bush, in the White House. When David told this story, he was once again accused of lying. The students and the teachers just couldn't believe that a blind person would be doing such things. And it all started with Mr. Magoo.
Humor about blindness is not wrong unless it hurts. We in the National Federation of the Blind have as good a sense of humor as anybody. But we believe that there is a difference between a good joke and a put-down. For example, the story of the blind person who goes to the store with a guide dog comes to mind. After entering, the blind person picks up the dog by the tail and swings it in a circle. When the manager asks, "What are you doing?" and "May I help you?" the blind person responds, "No thanks, I'm just looking around." This is not offensive because it can't injure anybody. But Magoo is offensive because he represents a false image of blindness. When he can see, he gets things done. When he cannot see, he makes errors and is incompetent. Blind people are not like that. Of course all of us make funny mistakes sometimes, but blind people with proper training are not less competent than the sighted. And we object to the power of the film industry being used to say we are. We do not mistake a bear for a person dressed up in a fur coat, as Magoo does. We do not mistake a fire plug for a small child, as Magoo does. And we do not mistake long-play records for dinner plates, as Magoo does.
I have described one of my own Magoo experiences here, but it is not unique. Tens of thousands of blind people in America have been faced with the same taunts and stereotypes based on the Magoo theme. If it hadn't been painful for us, we wouldn't object. We ask Disney to leave Magoo in the past, which is where he belongs.
A number of my friends have found themselves bedeviled by the Magoo character. Maybe we should let people continue to do this, but I'd rather they wouldn't. If they do, it seems reasonable to me that we should have the opportunity to respond.
This may not answer the questions you have raised in your letter. If you want to ask others, I'll do my best to respond.
Marc Maurer, President
National Federation of the Blind
How is the controversy over Magoo likely to end? At this writing, early in September, it is too soon to tell. The Disney people came to meet with President Maurer in August and apparently have plans to return in a few weeks to discuss our differences more completely. To date no resolution has been hammered out. Surely all blind people would agree that a series of solid portrayals of blind people on television and in the movies would be a constructive step toward educating the public about the capacity of blind people. Until recently we have endured little but wild or absurd characterizations of blind people in entertainment: Audrey Hepburn fighting an intruder in Wait Until Dark or the crazy driving and olfactory prowess of the depressed veteran in Scent of a Woman. Magoo cartoons and the psychologist George in the ABC program "Good and Evil" fall into the same category.
Two recent exceptions to this pattern point the way toward the genuinely constructive portrayals of blind people that could undo the damage Disney is about to perpetrate. These are the blind woman on the CBS program, "Early Edition," and the blind scientist in the new Jody Foster film, Contact. Both these characters have roles in the unfolding plots, and they carry out their duties efficiently and appropriately. They use canes and dogs and get on with their lives. Occasionally the fact of blindness surfaces, but it is not dwelt upon. A sighted character could have been substituted for either but was not. The message is clear: blindness is a characteristic in each of these lives, but it does not define the person or control the life.
If Disney would commit to see that a series of ordinary, competent blind characters find their way into films and ABC television programs over the next several years and that the NFB will be consulted to make sure that the portrayals are neither condescending nor spectacular, the negative impact of Magoo this coming winter would be markedly reduced. Magoo's danger has always been that his antics fall into a vacuum of ignorance about the reality of blindness.
The National Federation of the Blind will continue to fight to educate the public about the abilities of blind people. Nothing Disney or uninformed sighted members of the general public or stunted blind members of that same public can do will discourage us from working to protect blind children from unnecessary attacks or resisting the effects of discrimination wherever they surface. Mr. Magoo is merely the latest battleground. It will not be the last.
Jim Backus was quoted as saying of Mr. Magoo that he wished that they would "Let the old creep die." Blind people can only echo that sentiment, but whatever Disney does, we have no intention of allowing Magoo to undo the good we have accomplished during the peaceful years in which he was absent from the scene. The cartoons used to end with Magoo chortling to himself: "By George, Magoo, you've done it again." Whatever it takes, the National Federation of the Blind is determined to see that his words will not stand as the final epitaph of Mr. Magoo.