‘Elf’ Makes Fun of Disabled Adults Through Buddy: Opinion

  • “Elf” is a classic Christmas game even though it makes fun of people with intellectual disabilities.
  • Buddy (Will Ferrell) disability is not explicitly stated, but it is largely implied.
  • To make a funny movie with disabled characters, just include disabled people in the joke.

“Elf” became a modern holiday classic almost immediately after it premiered in 2003. But nearly 20 years later, it still baffles me how offensive it is to cognitively impaired adults.

It stars Will Ferrell as Friends, a man raised as an arctic dwarf and ignorant of the human way of life. When he accidentally hears he’s a human, he goes to New York City in search of his born father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan), a Grinchie publisher who needs some lessons in love and kindness.

Buddy’s enthusiasm for Christmas is extreme, even when compared to his “peers,” so it’s understandable that the film’s festive spirit seeps from the screen into the hearts of moviegoers. In fact, the movie grossed over $223 million worldwide, per Box Office Mojo.

But I couldn’t sit in “Elf” for more than 10 minutes without feeling offended. After forcing myself to sit through the film, I became even more confident that “Elf” was making fun of cognitively impaired adults through Buddy, whether on purpose or not.

The movie ‘Elf’ tells the story of a man raised by elves who struggles to exist in a world he was not made for.

Will Ferrell V "dwarf" Premiere in New York City.

Will Ferrell at the “Elf” premiere in New York City.

Theo Wargo/WireImage


We’re told very early on in “Elf” that there’s something that sets Buddy apart from other elves other than the fact that he’s human.

Although Buddy’s body does not fit into the furniture of elves, his physical body is not the problem. There is clearly an epistemological difference between friends and other elves.

He was referred to several times as “special” while at the North Pole. His game-making skills are not up to par and he has to occupy a position reserved for “special” commissions.

The term “special” is often used to refer to people with physical and cognitive disabilities. It is often a symbol of “different and less than” everyone else.

It’s also the only “Elf” in the Arctic that doesn’t realize it’s human. So, the intelligence of friends is not the intelligence of a “normal” dwarf, otherwise he would not be stunned by the revelation.

It only gets worse from there.

When he arrives in Manhattan, Boddy’s father Walter never stops using derogatory terms against him. At the doctor’s office where Buddy was forced to take a paternity test, Walter told the doctor that Buddy was “certainly insane.” Talking to his wife later in the movie, Walter says his son is a “disordered dwarf”. Even at the end of the movie when Walter tells Buddy that he loves him, he mentions Buddy is “chemically unbalanced.”

“Elf” couldn’t be a heartwarming acceptance story if Buddy wasn’t truly embraced for who he is by one of the most important people in his life.

If Buddy had a disability, the movie wouldn’t say it outright – and he could have been stronger if he had

dwarf

“dwarf.”

New Line Cinema


I’m not trying to ruin a modern Christmas classic, but as a physically disabled woman who spent part of my childhood with cognitively impaired children and adults, “Elf” bothers me.

It was never explicitly stated that Buddy had a disability, only strongly implied. If “Elf” had mentioned an epistemic difference, she would have had to take responsibility for her offensive language. That would mean erasing so much verbal and physical comedy that we’re supposed to laugh — but none of it is funny to me.

My boyfriend eats cotton balls, runs toward moving taxis, and even exposes Santa’s store as fake doesn’t inspire me to laugh. Instead, these moments made me wish he had a real support system in his life.

Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to joke about disability. You just have to let disabled people know that they’re in on the joke, too. The easiest way to do this is to cast disabled actors into crippling roles.

Or at least the movie had a character confronting Walter about the harsh words he constantly throws at Buddy. But that moment never comes.

By the end of the movie, fortunately, Buddy is able to fend for himself. Had writer David Birnbaum been truly committed to Buddy’s empowerment, it would have been a rare and important gesture of support toward the disabled community. Instead, “Elf” retreats from tired metaphors for laughter.

Someone’s differences shouldn’t be the crux of the joke

elf on netflix with buddy starring will ferrell

Bob Newhart also starred in “Elf”.

Netflix


Like Buddy, some adults with cognitive disabilities believe in Santa and the magic of Christmas. Their joy brings joy to those they love. They will likely not be blatantly offended by people who understand the value they add to the world.

Buddy is the hero and devotee of Christmas in “Elf,” undeniable, but he could have also been his hero. Rather, his implied disability is an afterthought in the film, which is perhaps a sad metaphor for how people with disabilities are often treated as an afterthought by society.

In the future, filmmakers must think carefully about the way disabled characters are portrayed in film and television, even when making a movie that’s meant to be fun at Christmas.

They also need to remember that it is never funny to make someone’s disability the heart of the joke. The sooner we accept that as a society, the sooner someone will be able to make a modern Christmas classic that is actually worthy of the love that “Elf” receives.

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