Dear Imprudence: Dan Savage, Savage Love, and “That’s Retarded” (Hint, Dan, “Leotarded” Is Just As Unacceptable)

One of the things which inspired the “Dear Imprudence” column here at FWD was the Savage Love column from 30 April, 2009, in which a reader sent in a letter politely asking Dan to stop using “retarded” as an insult. abby jean kindly covered “retarded” for the Ableist Word Profile, explaining the origins of the word and why it’s not appropriate to use, in case you need a refresher. I know that this column is old, but I thought that I should profile it, since it’s pretty much a shining example of what we’re talking about when we talk about bad advice.

Here’s my thing with Dan Savage. He infuriates me. A lot. His persistent fat hatred is extremely upsetting. His assaults on so-called “PC culture” are irritating. But, every now and then, he actually gives good advice. Really good advice with which I agree, which is why I read Savage Love pretty regularly even though it makes me want to scream sometimes. In fact, I almost profiled him for a “Getting It Right” column recently, but couldn’t bring myself to do it, because of the “leotarded” column.

So, let’s review. In case you need to be reminded of why so many people strongly dislike Dan Savage…

A reader wrote:

Stop using the word “retarded” as an insult, Dan. I know it can be hard to break a verbal habit, but make an effort. Perhaps you should have a “retard jar” that you put a dollar in every time you use the word. When the jar is full, send the money to the Special Olympics.

Whatever you do, though, try to remember that you have lots of listeners and readers who have loved ones with mental disabilities, and we don’t want to hear you misuse the word “retarded.” Please don’t tell me to read or listen to other people if I don’t like what I hear. I want to read your column and listen to your podcast, but without the put-downs directed at people with mental disabilities.

The Real Other Sister

Dan responded:

I’m going to turn over a new leaf, TROS, and make a conscious, conscientious effort to break myself of the bad habit of using the word “retard.” But I don’t think the “retard jar” is for me. Instead, I’m going to use a substitution for the word. From now on, instead of saying “retard” or “that’s so retarded,” I’m going to say “leotard” and “that’s so leotarded.” I won’t be mocking the mentally challenged, just the physically gifted. I will pick on the strong—and the limber—and not the weak.

Oh, Dan, you are so funny! My sides are aching! Oh, wait, I think that’s just indigestion.

Advice columnists, as a general rule, tend to be pretty prickly when called out by readers. A notable recent example appeared in “Ask Amy,” when Amy shamed a rape victim, was called out on it, and basically said “I don’t see what the big deal is.” Honestly, sometimes I think that advice columnists print letters critical of their responses specifically so that they can be mean to the person who sent the letter.

In this case, Dan’s mocking response made it clear that he didn’t give two figs for the fact that he was hurting people with his language use, and that his “solution” to the problem was to create a portmanteau which “won’t be mocking the mentally challenged.” I’m sure Dan is well aware of the fact that “-tarded” words work as insults because they evoke social attitudes about people with disabilities, whether or not “re-” is prefixed. His answer was basically a big, fat, “fuck you” to the disability community (with a bonus “weak” for extra points).

What’s interesting is that Dan certainly does recognize how the use of words like “gay” and an assortment of racial epithets which I can’t bring myself to type is harmful. So it’s not that Dan does not understand the power that language has, and the impact which it has on social attitudes. He just isn’t interested in the power of ableist language, which is actually a pretty widespread problem in social justice circles in general. People who would never let a word like “fag” or “bitch” cross their lips will freely say that something made them “crazy” the other day or that they saw a “lame” movie last week.

Dan had a great opportunity here to do some thinking, talk about the power of language, explain why “retarded” is wrong, apologize, and say that he won’t be using it anymore. Instead, he decided that more benefit would be provided if he insulted the reader and came up with an oh-so-hilarious variation on “retarded” to start using.

That’s a terrific message to send to all your readers, Dan! Way to go!


  1. Oh, ICK. That makes me, well, waaaaaaay less than pleased. And also – well, not pleased, but I’m glad someone else has noticed. I’d noticed in my (infrequent) readings of Savage Love that he sometimes said things that bothered me, but it seemed like it was just me – nobody I showed it to was getting the same yuck I was.

    It’s really disheartening that someone who understands why words like “retarded” and stuff are upsetting/offensive, but can’t be bothered to make an effort to NOT use them, when they do make the effort for other varieties of offensive language.

    I have to say, though, I use “crazy” or “insanely” sometimes – but in a (I think?) positive fashion. “That was crazy fun!” or “I loved that book, it was insanely good.” Is using those words in that way also ableist? (My understanding is that words like that are ableist when being used negatively, but if this is just my privilege showing, someone please tell me; I’d really appreciate it.)

  2. I ran into a MD who blogs, who was calling incompetent doctors ‘doctards’. When I pointed out that he was using ableist language and insulting people with developmental disabilities, he actually replied, “By the way “doctards” has nothing to do with disabled people. Adding -tard to the end of a word to imply idiotic behavior in people who should know better has been around the blogsphere as long as I can remember. I don’t think anyone still uses the word “retard” for disabled people any more. If so I shouldn’t use the word idiotic either because it was once a medical term for disabled people. Words change meaning over time.”

    I was frankly shocked and appalled that of all people, a doctor – someone who probably has patients who have developmental disabilities – didn’t get that the -tard ending was a reference to ‘retard’ and thus problematic.

    I linked him to a handful of places explaining why the word retard is ableist, and he didn’t respond. I find myself wondering if he’s one of Those People who shrugs off things like this. I mean hey, I’m just a person with a disability, I wouldn’t possibly know what kind of language is offensive to people with disabilities *rolls her eyes*


  3. argh, the idea that you shouldn’t use “retarded” as an insult because intellectually disabled people are “weak.” like, it’s bad sportsmanship or something. like hitting a girl!

    instead of, like, you shouldn’t use it as an insult because intellectually disabled people are equal to other people? and you shouldn’t hit anyone? Pity has nothing to do with it.

  4. I . . . I just . . . oh, fuck it, and fuck him, too.

  5. …not to mention that anyone can wear a leotard, not just Olympic-caliber gymnasts? That just doesn’t hold water.

  6. I think the frustrating-est thing about Dan Savage is that he’s interesting or gives good advice just often enough to make it hard to write him off completely. While I sometimes enjoy reading Savage Love, I actually prefer Slog, where Dan isn’t the only writer and the topics range all over the place, though with an emphasis on Seattle, which is sadly not where I live. (Paul Constant on books is frequently good, for example). Dan is often very moving and persuasive when giving the white cis male perspective on LGBTQI issues. (heh)

    I do think your larger point about advice columnists in general (well, most columnists even) is important: that the reaction to criticism is usually a big “nuh-huh” and “no, it’s you, you fool” and I wonder how much of that stems from having to defend public positions all the time? Certainly the trolls et. al. indicate that a large portion of people aren’t willing to think through their beliefs or language and acknowledge their mistakes (because of course they never make any!)

    Sigh. It’s really frustrating — if only there were a way to enlighten humanity in one fell swoop!

  7. It bugs the crap out of me that Dan Savage is considered the pinnacle of cis gay white dude humorish-ness in some circles, particularly liberal ones. Once again, easy-target hipster “snark” gets confused with actual wit.

  8. Forgive my antipodean ignorance, but isn’t Dan Savage the dude who blamed the Evil Conservative People of Colour for the prop 8 debacle? If so, I’m not sure I was ever at risk of liking him.

  9. Yes! He is indeed. I don’t think he even blamed conservatives, be just blamed black folks in general. I can provide copious sourcing, in fact. What’s even better is that when called on it and confronted with statistics which denied his claim, he still insisted that he was right.

  10. @Li: Yeah. That would be Dan Savage. He’s also biphobic and transphobic.

  11. The thing with Dan Savage that frustrates me has to do with exactly what meloukhia said: sometimes he gives great advice. And sometimes that advice is pretty un-PC, which makes it honest and fresh and interesting.


    I think since he has garnered a reputation for being politically incorrect, he tries to maintain and cultivate it by being super defensive on issues like “retarded.”

    And THAT’S what bugs me. Because I honestly can’t imagine that he doesn’t understand how offensive those words are. And to mock those who find those words hurtful – well, it’s a vicious cycle and I think he just does it to be edgy. You don’t need to, Dan! You’re edgy enough without the prejudice!

  12. Dan’s an asshole. 🙁

    But is anyone else bothered by the “retard jar” and “donating to the Special Olympics” thing? no?

  13. @Caitlin

    Yes. It is ableist.

  14. Hmm, well in that case, instead of checking out his work so I have something constructive to say, I will just go and listen to Androgynoel again and save myself the heartache.

  15. Erin H, why does that bother you? Is it because it seems like it’s about “doing something nice for retarded people” instead of something vital? Do you think it should be donated to People First, or something?

    I hope I’m not being rude–now that you say it, I can sort of sense how it might be offensive, but I’m not clear on the specifics. I guess the whole letter doesn’t really treat the issue as political, it treats it as an issue of being mean to people who deserve pity/help instead of meanness, which is unfortunate.

  16. @Erin H: Yeah, that sort of rubbed me the wrong way as well, actually, in a “hey, let’s be offensive *and* hypocritical!” sort of way.

  17. @ JoSelle
    Thank you. I’ll find something else to say to add emphasis when I really enjoy something. 🙂

  18. I was bothered by “retard jar” and “donate to the Special Olympics” because they read, to me, as derision. It wasn’t about helping people who need help, it was about a smart-ass making a joke out of publicly punishing himself for sins he doesn’t think are actually sinful. (I know it was the letter-writer who used those terms, but it had that overtone to me, “If people are going to complain about this thing I only care about because people complain, then I’m going to solve it in a way that ultimately makes fun of them for complaining.”)

  19. @erin h yeah, but mostly because it felt like he was just saying it to be an asshole. Though apparently the Special Olympics are a non-profit organisation? I assumed they were part of the IOC 🙁

  20. *sorry, that should have said SEPARATE non-profit organisation. Also, I should learn to refresh before posting 🙁

  21. Yes, I was very bothered by the “retard jar” and Special Olympics suggestions, too. They were really patronizing and I would actually be bothered more by such a use of words if referring to an offensive term for my disabilities than by the offensive term itself (but then again the “politically correct” terms for my disabilities are really ridiculous [visually differently-valid is commonplace in Belgium, ugh!]).

  22. I don’t have any problem NOT listening to Dan Savage. A person doesn’t have to be all bad. Few of us are (or all good, for that matter).

    I do need to go look up the ableist words list, however. I’ve been wondering about “idiot” and “crazy.”