National Council on Disability Document Archive

"OP-ED: Memories of Mr. Magoo"

Posted by: Jamal Mazrui
Date Mailed: Thursday, July 24th 1997 02:12 PM

07/23/97 -- Copyright (C) 1997 The Washington Post [Article 289463, 70 lines]

                         OP-ED:  Memories of Mr. Magoo
                                By Kathi Wolfe
     When I learned recently that Disney is releasing a new live-action Mr.
Magoo movie this Christmas, unpleasant childhood memories came vividly to mind.
     (In the 1950s and '60s, Magoo cartoons aired on NBC and CBS. In 1995,
Disney bought the rights to the character, who was retired in 1965.)
     Like many kids, I spent Saturday mornings glued to the TV. Though legally
blind, I'd sit very close to the set, using my small amount of vision to watch
     One of the most popular cartoon characters then was the myopic, bumbling
Mr. Magoo. I laughed at the character's hapless adventures. But when I'd go
out to play, the laughs were on me. The other kids, having seen Mr. Magoo,
would point at my Coke-bottle glasses and shout, "Magoo" Sometimes they'd push
me, yelling, "Stupid Magoo"
     The news that Disney is resurrecting Mr. Magoo hit me like a ton of
bricks. To me and many other blind people, dusting off Magoo is as demeaning
as bringing back Amos 'n' Andy would be for many African Americans.
       If my story were unique, I wouldn't care about the return of Magoo. But
many blind and visually impaired people were harassed as children by kids
imitating the stumbling, nearsighted Mr. Magoo. Marie Cobb, a blind woman from
Baltimore, spoke for many of us when she told the Associated Press, "Mr. Magoo
did a great deal of damage to my image of myself as a human being."
       Disney says Mr. Magoo is "a kindly gentleman who is nearsighted, not
blind" and that he  "does not in any way make fun of or demean blind people."
     Here's an eye-opener: Most of the more than 1.5 million legally blind and
12 million visually impaired people in the United States have some vision.
Many of us can see (at least a little) if we get very close to things. You
might say we're extremely nearsighted.
     Mr. Magoo may not be blind, but kids pick up myths about blindness from
the character. They learn that if you're visually impaired you're without
grace or competence -- that it's fun to laugh at blind people.
     I enjoy a joke as much as anyone, and I don't want to be too PC about
this. (A button on my refrigerator says: "Being politically correct means
always having to say you're sorry.") I'd love to see a comedy about blind
people -- if we were well-rounded characters, not caricatures.
     But that's the problem. If Mr. Magoo were the only character insulting to
people like me, I wouldn't be bothered by the upcoming Disney movie. But this
film will be the latest in a long line of Hollywood pictures that stereotype
the disabled.
    "The movie industry has perpetuated . . . stereotypes . . . so durable and
pervasive that they have become mainstream's society's perception of disabled
people," writes Martin E. Norden, author of "The Cinema of Isolation: A
History of Physical Disability in the Movies" (Rutgers University Press).
     Stereotypical images of disabled people have paraded across the silver
screen, from saintly Tiny Tim in "A Christmas Carol" to the grotesque
"Hunchback of Notre Dame" to the wise fool "Forrest Gump."
     If you believed the movies, you'd think blind people do nothing but drive
a car like the embittered blind vet in "Scent of a Woman" or fight intruders
like Audrey Hepburn in "Wait Until Dark." You'd never guess that we're
everything from parents to teachers to Capitol Hill aides -- ordinary people
like you.
       I don't want Hollywood to produce "eat your spinach" documentaries,
featuring saintly disabled people. (In the fourth grade, I had to endure an
hour-long documentary that exhorted me to think of vegetables as my 
"friends." I've hated anything that's "good for me" ever since.)
     But I do want to see more realistic images of people like me in movies.
     This already is happening on TV and in commercials. In a recent
"Seinfeld" episode (which many visually impaired viewers enjoyed) George tried
to fake being blind so he could use books recorded for the blind. Why wade
through print, he thought, when listening to tapes takes much less time? A
blind actor does commercials for Air Touch cellular phones and an actor in a
wheelchair pitches jeans in Levi ads.
       Even if I wanted to, I couldn't stop Disney from releasing its Mr.
Magoo movie. But I do hope that one day Hollywood will make films that don't
demean people like me. Then we wouldn't feel left out of the picture at the
Kathi Wolfe is a writer living in Falls Church.

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