Of Mr. Magoo, Disney,
the National Federation of the Blind
by Marc Maurer
At the 1997 convention of the National Federation of the Blind, a resolution was adopted which demanded that The Walt Disney Company refrain from producing a live-action film featuring the character Mr. Magoo. Mr. Magoo is a bumbling, stumbling, idiotic character who makes supposedly humorous mistakes because of his inability to see. As soon as he dons his glasses, he is rational and capable. Much of the time he refuses to wear his spectacles, and his lack of vision causes him to make foolish mistakes which (according to the writers of the movie) are funny. The misunderstandings of blindness caused by the Magoo character have bedeviled the lives of thousands of blind people.
At the time of the convention I wrote to Michael Eisner, President of The Walt Disney Company, asking him to come to the convention to discuss the matter. Not long after the convention a senior vice president at Disney indicated that he wanted to talk with us about the Magoo film. In August this vice president, accompanied by one of his associates, came to the National Center for the Blind. Our initial conversation was tentative, but fairly quickly we moved to substance.
A second meeting occurred with The Walt Disney Company's representatives in late September, and this meeting was followed by many, many telephone conversations, which continued until Thanksgiving.
As our discussions with Disney were getting underway last August, a Washington-based lobbyist and representative of the film industry told one of our members that there would be no changes in the Magoo film, that there would be no discussion about the presentation of blindness with major movie-making companies, and that there would be no result for the National Federation of the Blind from our challenge to the Disney company except scorn and ridicule. This movie industry representative told us that The Walt Disney Company is one of the principal shapers of public opinion in America. The National Federation of the Blind hasn't got a chance. People will think what Walt Disney wants them to think. They won't pay any attention to the blind, he told us. He seemed to think that we should give up, that we should offer an apology, and that we should leave the realm of public opinion to the experts.
When the Disney officials came to the National Center for the Blind, we repeated the conversation and asked if they had any comment. They responded that they had no wish to antagonize. They had come in good faith, they said, and they intended to discuss the substance of the matters we had raised.
During the next few months we offered The Walt Disney Company many suggestions, and we urged the company to portray blind people more accurately in film. The officials of The Walt Disney Company that visited the National Center for the Blind have come to recognize that the National Federation of the Blind has a base of knowledge and understanding much broader than they had ever anticipated. They have also come to respect our capacity and our point of view. They decided to add a message to the end of the filma message which makes an effort to mitigate the damage caused by the negative portrayal of the blind that is an unstated but inherent part of the character Mr. Magoo. The statement says: "The preceding film is not intended as an accurate portrayal of blindness or poor eyesight. Blindness or poor eyesight does not imply an impairment of one's ability to be employed in a wide range of jobs, raise a family, perform important civic duties, or engage in a well-rounded life. All people with disabilities deserve a fair chance to live and work without being impeded by prejudice."
Between the time of the adoption of our resolution in July and the release of the Magoo film in December, much interest was generated by the activity of the Federation challenging Disney's production of the Magoo movie. Thousands of newspaper articles reported the Federation's protest. Hundreds of radio stations carried interviews, and television stations coast-to-coast reported stories of the Federation's opposition. For weeks one of the top stories in entertainment circles was the Federation's objection to Magoo. I participated in a number of interviews, including the nationally televised evening news programs, "20/20" and "Public Eye."
Some of the commentary about Magoo was favorable, and some of it was not. Sometimes we were understood, and sometimes we were not. There were even those who attempted to make of us the butt of their jokes. When Barbara Walters of the "20/20" program attempted to make fun of the Federation for protesting the misrepresentation of Magoo, Federationists in Indiana picketed the local ABC television station. However, whether the coverage was complimentary or critical, the story persistednot only for weeks, but for months. The blind wanted to be treated with respect, and The Walt Disney Company wanted to make blindness synonymous with inferiority and humor.
Some people said we didn't have the wisdom to laugh at ourselves. Others, such as Bryant Gumbel, host of CBS's nationally-televised "Public Eye," recognized that we were not complaining about humor but about misrepresentation dressed up to look like humor. Here are some excerpts from the interview broadcast on "Public Eye." Bryant Gumbel introduces the topic. The interviewer is Bernard Goldberg. Of the seven people interviewed, three are from the National Federation of the Blind; one, Hank Saperstein, is the Executive Producer of the Magoo film; one is an advocate for those with muscle disorders; one represents the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance; and one is an advocate for stutterers. Here are excerpts from the interview:
Bryant Gumbel: These days, no matter what the joke may be, it is harder and harder to make it to the punch line without offending someone. All of which has left us wondering about how thin-skinned the society would become. Our Bernard Goldberg went looking for some answers with an old character named Mr. Magoo.
Bernie Goldberg: He's been part of Americana for about fifty years. Nearsighted, stumbling, bumbling Mr. Magoo. And now, coming to theaters near you, the new Mr. Magoo, and this time it's no cartoon. That's Leslie Neilson playing Magoo. It's supposed to be a comedy, but not everybody's laughing.
Marc Maurer: We don't think blind is necessarily beautiful, but we don't think it's a good idea to make fun of people who are blind.
Goldberg: Marc Maurer is president of the National Federation of the Blind. He thinks Mr. Magoo is a menace to blind people. What would you say to the producers of Mr. Magoo?
Maurer: I think that they should consider the damage that they're causing. They should consider scrapping the film.
Goldberg: Never mind that Magoo isn't blind, that he's nearsighted. To Marc Maurer that's not the point.
Maurer: Magoo is not blind. We have heard that over and over. But when he's not able to see, he's an idiot. The message is sent. If you can see, you're all right. If you can't, you're not.
Joanne Wilson: My parents, they didn't know anything about blindness.
Goldberg: Joanne Wilson runs a center for the blind in Louisiana.
Wilson: All they knew is they saw me as a little child do some of the Magoo things. I mean, I tripped over my brother in the doorway; I ran my tricycle off a flight of stairs. You know, they saw me doing some of these things, and the only image they knew of blindness was the Mr. Magoo cartoon. And so it made me feel really embarrassed about being blind.
Barbara Pierce: Mr. Magoo goes around totally clueless about what's happening in his world.
Goldberg: Barbara Pierce is editor of the Braille Monitor magazine. She had some sight as a child and remembers watching Magoo on television.
Pierce: Mr. Magoo gives people the wrong idea of what it's like to be blind.
Goldberg: Yeah, but Magoo isn't a documentary; it's a comedy thing.
Pierce: It shapes ideas and understandings because that's what entertainment's all about.
Goldberg: (cutting her off) andand what? We watch Mr. Magoo, and we say blind people are a bunch of losers because they're always bumping into things? Is that what you're saying?
Pierce: We have...
Goldberg: (cutting her off again) Who says that?
Maurer: Mr. Magoo is a powerful image (Bernie Goldberg groans) and the image is one that says if you are blind you have no capacity.
Hank Saperstein: I think America better re-examine what's happened to our sense of humor.
Goldberg: Hank Saperstein is one of television's pioneers. He was part of the team that produced classics like "The Lone Ranger" and "Lassie." But he's best known as Mr. Magoo's dad. His company produced the first Magoo cartoons, and now he's executive producer of the movie.
Saperstein: I think that they're oversensitive. I think that they're making mountains out of molehills.
Goldberg: You see, that's what some blind people are upset about.
He's walking on a high wire, and he doesn't even know it.
Saperstein: But he doesn't fall off. He doesn't lose. The bad guy loses. The bad guy will fall off. And that's a lesson. Magoo's a winner, winner, winner, winner all the way. Two hundred films are there to prove it.
Goldberg: So what's your message to those people?
Saperstein: Lighten up. Get real. Sit back and laugh. It's a cartoon.
Goldberg: You have no sympathy with their argument.
Saperstein: I resent their argument.
Goldberg: And in these sensitive times Mr. Magoo isn't the only pop culture icon under attack. Remember the Nutty Professor? Guess which group doesn't like him.
Nancy Marciello: It made me angry, it made me upset...
Goldberg: She's Nancy Marciello, and she represents a group called the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance.
Marciello: There were a lot of very negative stereotypes about fat people, in particular the scene around the dinner table. That in particular perpetuates the idea that people are fat because they're gorging themselves all the time, which of course is ridiculous.
Goldberg: Your complaint is that fat is somehow funny in American popular culture?
Marciello: And it's beyond funny. It's okay in our culture to discriminate against fat people.
Goldberg: And the Nutty Professor contributed to that?
Marciello: Because people have the mindset that fat people are fat because they eat too much, and it's their own fault.
Goldberg: That's not true?
Marciello: That is not true. I...
Goldberg: Those people aren't fat because they eat too much. And that's not all folks.
Ira Zimmerman: Let's try and educate the public about being more tolerant.
Goldberg: Ira Zimmerman is an advocate for stutterers. Over the years he's taken Warner Brothers to task. Yes, over Porky Pig.
Zimmerman: Kids made fun of my stuttering, and a few of them called me Porky Pig.
Goldberg: Look, if you had a magic wand, what would you do with Porky Pig?
Zimmerman: Probably roast him.
Saperstein: When do we stop this nonsense? At what point do we not let self-appointed do-gooders become the censors of free expression and a free society?
Goldberg: Self-appointed do-gooders?
Saperstein: I don't want to risk any blind person, fat person, short person, tall person, lame person, autistic person, speech-impaired, height-impaired, or any other one telling a nation what it can make as movies, television shows, and plays.
Goldberg: That's very politically incorrect. Very politically incorrect.
Saperstein: Hey, you're talking about the people that threw the tea overboard in the Boston harbor. You want to talk about political correctness, that's this country. We're politically incorrect. That's how we got to be where we are.
Goldberg: Well, there are stutterers...
Saperstein: How 'bout Disney naming the movie Snow White and the Seven Height-Impaired Pals? I mean, how far do we carry this nonsense?
Goldberg: It's a thin line between being sensitive and being oversensitive, and how you see it depends on which side of that line you're standing. You don't think you're being too sensitive about this?
Pierce: No, we see the level of damage that happens because of this. We've been through it before; we're bracing to go through it again. We don't think we are being absurd about it.
Goldberg: I'm not gonna kick a blind person after watching Magoo.
Maurer: But if you're asked if you want to have a blind person serve as mechanic on your automobile....
Goldberg: Well, you know what, no offense, I don't. I don't. I don't even like the guys who can see working on my automobile. (Pierce groans.)
Maurer: Precisely what you mean is that, if you're blind, you're gonna be less capable than if you're sighted, and that's the presentation of Magoo.
Goldberg: And this war on Magoo is going international. The Federations for the Blind in Great Britain and Germany have also weighed in against Magoo, threatening to boycott the film.
Saperstein: This is kookomania here that's going on with deciding now what should be made, what the public can be exposed to. The public will decide, as usual. They will either buy the tickets or they won't.
Gumbel: Bernie, I can hear a lot of folks listen to Mr. Saperstein, and applauding his point of view. He calls it kookomania, he calls it nonsense, he tells these people to lighten up. Would he feel the same way if the jokes were about his ethnicity?
Goldberg: Well, you're onto something, and I think it's called human nature. If I slip on a banana peel, that's not funny. That's a tragedy. If you slip on a banana peel, it's a riot. I mean, we're all sensitive to one degree or another about ourselves. But what are we supposed to do about it? No nearsighted jokes, no fat jokes, can't have any bald jokes, no short people jokes, no women jokes, I mean, what happens next? Some guy comes down and says, "Why did the chicken cross the road?" and we have the chicken lobby filing a complaint?
Gumbel: But it also depends on whose ox is being gored here; look, I don't like jokes about black folks. I can assume you don't like jokes about Jewish people. Can you not appreciate that for people who are blind, or heavy, or short, or stutterers, or whatever, that for them that is the equivalent of our race, our religion, our ethnicity?
Goldberg: Yeah. I think that all the people who were in that story are not only nice people, but sincere people. But if we continue down this road, you could make the case that we're gonna have a very polite America. And I put the word polite in quotation marks, but we're also gonna have a very bland America. Maybe we just need to, as Saperstein says, just lighten up a little.
Interviews such as this were seen by hundreds of thousands of people all over the country. The work we are doing came to the attention of many people who would not otherwise have been aware of Federation activities. Perhaps the people who most frequently applauded our efforts to curb the impact of Mr. Magoo were the parents of blind children. One letter from a parent of a blind child says:
I am a father/daddy to my beautiful daughter that is twenty-one months old and blind.
Tonight I was watching the TV, and the CBS program "Public Eye" had a segment about some blind adults advocating against the cartoon strip "Mr. Magoo." To say the least, I felt very insulted by the man that writes the script for that cartoon for the insensitivity he has to people who are blind. I was very impressed and happy to hear the blind people on the program "Public Eye" speak against such an uneducated and insensitive man and the cartoon. The comments of the producer of the Magoo film were very appalling. I felt like calling the TV show and letting him know what I think!
My family has felt the effects of such insensitive humor about people who are blind. Society as a whole, from our experience, is very uneducated and sometimes very insensitive to what it is really like to be blind or, for that matter, to have any disability. We experience it daily, whether at the grocery store, department store, or strolling in the neighborhood. Believe me, it still does not stop us from going out with our precious daughter, but it is very challenging sometimes. We can't educate everyone, but we sometimes try to explain to people because it is in our heart to do so. Being blind is not what they see on TV.
I'm thankful to see you take a stand against this insensitive cartoon, and if there is any advocating you have that we can assist with, please feel free to let me know.
Our twenty-one-month old daughter is our miracle girl. She is a preemie; she started at one pound twelve ounces, but now weighs twenty-one pounds. She is blind due to retinopathy of prematurity. Thank you for your effort and understanding.
This letter from the father of a blind girl is one of many that have come to the National Federation of the Blind. If there had been nothing else positive about our effort to modify the Magoo movie, our introduction to hundreds of parents of blind children would have made it worthwhile. However, there are additional benefits. We have come to know some of the senior officials in The Walt Disney Company. They have indicated that they will be willing to work with us on the proper presentation of blind people in film in the future, and they have stated that they want to help us distribute information about blindness and the work we do.
The work of the Federation is serious business. We must do what we can to ensure that blindness is not misunderstood. This undertaking is not always simple or straightforward. Subtlety is sometimes required to achieve our goals. We must be willing to take advantage of relationships with those who began by being at odds with us. We must take every road and every path that give opportunity to the blind. With respect to Magoo, I believe we have achieved more progress than any of us would have anticipated; and I believe that we are only at the beginning.