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Stuttering in movies: reactions to the stuttering

After the introduction of the project, the article about the movie list and the article about how PWS and stuttering are portrayed, we will now focus on the reactions we have seen in the movies. The reactions are actually the prime reason for conducting our research.

General attitude of the movie towards the stuttering

Total: 135 answers Mainly respectful: 93 Mainly not respectful: 19 Mixed: 23

For instance, a film like ‘Golmaal 3’ is not respectful in its general attitude. Stuttering is only used as a gimmick and the PWS is made fun of. To make it worse, this is a movie with many sequels. The same character (Laxman) appears in all the movies, but he only stutters in this one. In another film they gave him a lisp. So the filmmakers just used stuttering to get a good laugh which is not respectful towards PWS and stuttering.

On the other hand: however hard films as ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ may be to watch (in both movies the PWS dies, in Pan’s Labyrinth even because he can’t count to three without stuttering) – their attitude is respectful. The PWS are presented as people who happen to stutter, and the stuttering has a dramatic use.

Adam Sandler deserves a special mention here. He is involved in no less than 3 movies with stuttering and every time stuttering is portrayed in a negative way. In ‘The Waterboy’ the PWS is portrayed as being mentally challenged (played by Sandler himself), in ‘Billy Madison’ there is a stuttering boy in the classroom and Sandler’s character makes fun of him. In ‘Big Daddy’ there is no stuttering character, but there is a reference to stuttering and again it is negative. In all 3 films Sandler was co-writer of the script.

The good news however: we found 68,9% of the movies to be respectful towards stuttering. In ‘The King’s Speech’ stuttering is taken very seriously. It’s the core of the film. The same goes for ‘Su Su Sudhi Vathmeekam’ and ‘Rocket Science’.

In other films stuttering is not the main subject but the general attitude is respectful: ‘Mask’, ‘Billy Bud’, ‘A Family Thing’, ‘Clérambard’, ‘The Mirror’ (Zerkalo) among others.

In 23 movies the attitude is mixed (somewhere between respectful and not respectful).

The reaction of the other characters towards the stuttering

(1 = total acceptance: neutral, no visible reaction; 10 = rejection, bullying, social exclusion etc…)

In the general attitude we measure the attitude of the filmmakers. Another aspect is how the other movie characters react to the stuttering. We measured this on a scale from 1 (total acceptance) to 10 (non-acceptance).

In almost 50% of the movies the characters accept the stuttering totally. If you consider answers 1 to 5 as positive, then the number is even 84,5%.

In only 2 cases the attitude of the other characters is considered as very negative.

Attitude and reactions in detail

A very important section.

In this question we measure the total number of reactions to the stuttering. Any reaction we see, is noted. ‘Nothing’ is also seen as a reaction.

In total we noted 39 different types of reactions. 11 of them occurred only once (0,75% each).

Bullying occurs in 22 out of 134 movies. Imitating or repeating the stuttering behaviour by bystanders (a very annoying reaction for most PWS) happens in 25 movies. Do you know ‘the face’? This happens in 10 movies; a great example is the jury member in ‘My Cousin Vinny’.

In our opinion, the best reaction is just nothing. A person happens to stutter, what’s the problem? Et alors? Nobody looks up, nobody laughs, nobody makes a remark. It’s very encouraging to see this happen in 60 films (44,78%).

Sometimes the PWS had only a flash appearance (newspaper seller in ‘Shaft’), so there almost isn’t time to make a remark. But in other cases the PWS and his/her stuttering is very present and nobody makes a big deal out of it – like ‘A Family Thing’, ‘Smilla’s Sense of Snow’, ‘Regeneration’, ‘Do the right thing’ and many many more.

Finishing sentences/guessing words is observed in 26 out of 134 movies (19,40%).

Interrupting the PWS happens in 26 movies (19,40%).

If we look at the observed reactions, we have the impression movies reflect life. This is a great variety of reactions but many of us will recognize them and have already experienced them.

In the excellent movie ‘Mask’ (1985, Peter Bogdanovich) the reaction to the stuttering was observed as ‘acceptance and love’. That is a great one.

In ‘Monster’ (2003, Patty Jenkins) the reviewer notes as reaction “saving his life (though he never knows it)”. Charlize Theron plays a serial killer in an Oscar-winning performance. She works as prostitute, drives off with men to remote places and kills them. In one case, her client stutters. She feels sorry for him and decides to let him live.

Next article: bullying. We will go deeper into the bullying & the reaction not only to the PWS but also to the bully: is he/she punished, encouraged, ignored?

To be continued…

Want to join the project or get more information? Contact us on:

Erik Lamens, project leader & the international review team

Picture of ‘The face’ (My Cousin Vinny, clip at 00:52)

Lots of reactions in ‘My Cousin Vinny’.

A great example of ‘The face’ happens at 00:52.

‘The Cowboys’: great example of accusing. John Wayne blames the boy for “not wanting to speak”. He says: “You could have spoken but you didn’t want to bad enough.”

He also threatens him: “You’re gonna stop that stutter or get the hell out of here.”

As a bonus, the boy is ‘cured’ by this rude shock therapy. Needless to say, this is a completely wrong and outdated view on how stuttering should be treated. Probably back in 1972 the makers of this movie (the screenwriter especially) thought this was the right thing to do.

Quod non.

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