The King’s Speech: Stammering is No Joke

Intro by Brandon

Think of a movie character with a stutter. Got it? OK. What’s this character like? Are they a hero? What role do they play in the story? Hold onto that for a minute.

Today, we’re taking a look at the 2010 Best Picture winner The King’s Speech. It’s a slow-moving British drama about King George VI, who must lead the nation in the midst of royal turnover and a world war breaking out. There’s one problem. King George speaks with a stammer, and with the advent of radio, this becomes a real problem for him.

Stuttering is an often overlooked and underestimated problem in film. It’s usually not taken very seriously in film, and most of the portrayals out there are not exactly sympathetic. Think of your movie character from earlier. They’re likely either a sideline character or a villain—in film, people who stutter rarely get to be heroes. There really is a stigma attached to this condition, and portrayals in film aren’t helping.

Thankfully, The King’s Speech is a positive and very sympathetic portrayal of the very real problems associated with stuttering. Like I said, this isn’t exactly a gripping thriller, but it takes great care to really show us a hard look at this condition and its treatment, and that’s a rarity in the film world.

In this episode, Maria and I talk about where stuttering comes from, how it’s treated, and one famous person’s struggle to overcome his stutter and become a leader. We also talk about the shame of showing weakness among leaders and how something like a stutter can affect perceptions of that person. And if you’re wondering about other portrayals of stuttering in film, we play a game that goes over some of the more prominent examples and examines whether these are positive or negative portrayals.

So, no jokes at the end of the intro here, but we hope you enjoy this episode of Peculiar Picture Show, the podcast that talks about movies, maladies, and mental health.

Resources

Game: How Is Stuttering Portrayed in Film?

Brandon gives Maria eight films and asks: Is the portrayal of stuttering in this film negative or positive?

  1. Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone (2001) – Negative – Professor Quirrel faked a stutter to convince people that he was benign and incompetent.
  2. A Fish Called Wanda (1988) – Positive – Michael Palin’s father had a bad stutter, and Michael himself sponsors the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children in London.
  3. Lady in the Water (2006) – Positive – The main character speaks with a relatively severe stutter, and the film portrays this in a very sympathetic light.
  4. Primal Fear (1996) – Negative – A young character speaks with a stutter and is made fun of. The portrayal is not sympathetic and doesn’t add to the character in any meaningful way.
  5. Pearl Harbor (2001) – Positive – The character who speaks with a stutter is generally a good and brave person who just happens to have a stutter.
  6. Do the Right Thing (1989) – Negative – A minor character gives a negative portrayal of someone who stutters
  7. Sixth Sense (1999) – Positive – Shows a character who overcame a stutter earlier in life starts struggling with it again when anxiety increases. Mostly sympathetic.
  8. Space Jam (1996) – Negative – Porky Pig is not a good representation of stuttering.

Maria got 6 out of 8 correct: 75% or C

Show Summary

General: Award-winning film in a year with some fierce competition

B: Won tons of Oscars; second time seeing this; wasn’t impressed as much the first time because it was kind of boring  

M: Competition for Oscars was amazing—seen many of them; second time seeing this

Like: A thoughtful portrayal of stammering with some great performances

B: Learned things from watching this movie; Details were well thought of and right; Screenwriter David Seidler stammered as a child; some scenes contained the actual conversations that happened, as seen through letters found from Lionel’s grandson.

M: Performances (by everyone); they didn’t try to make Bertie too sympathetic—still royalty; surprisingly entertaining

Dislike: A bit boring

B: Moves slowly; subject matter is boring; not fascinated by royal families; maybe a little too dry

M: Subject matter is boring; not fascinated by royal families; don’t understand titles like Duke of York so I spent much of the movie trying to figure out; idolization of Shakespear; Capital A “Actor’s” film

Mental Health: Stuttering facts and the pressure for leaders to hide their weaknesses

B: Stuttering is not a psychological problem; affects more men than women and about 3 million Americans (including children who grow out of it); 25%  will suffer their entire lives; many myths surround stuttering, like people stutter because they are nervous, shy, or self conscious; stuttering can cause anxiety (not other way around) and it’s not something the sufferer can just “turn off,” and we see this in the film; President Joe Biden has struggled with a stutter, has overcome it, and looks at it as a point of strength, crediting his stutter with the empathy he developed.

M: Amanda Gorman read her poem at Biden’s inauguration, and she suffers from a speech impediment, and like Biden, she has turned that into something that gives her strength; mental illness/health issues/maladies often hidden from view for people who suffer from them (examples: FDR, this film); hiding maladies like this just further reinforces the stigma against people who suffer from them

Both agree: This film is an accurate portrayal of someone who suffers from a speech impediment and also accurate portrayal of how people view illness, particularly those in power.

What is your earliest memory?

B: When they brought my younger sister home from the baby hospital place (about two and a half years old)

M: My dad gutting a fish and showing me; trying to swim and drowning in a lake (about three years old)

Quotes

B: Stuttering is so severely underestimated on what impact this can have not only on a person’s career path but also their self esteem, and so I think stuttering can cause some mental health issues.

B: Hearing somebody as accomplished as Joe Biden talking about how he is still  humiliated by his stutter gives some insight into how serious this condition can be; at the same time, he overcame this and is now the president of the United States.

M: It’s a common thing for people in power, like we see in this movie and throughout history, that if you are “weak” and suffer from any illness, you don’t really show that weakness. This notion of weakness and illness being shameful really permeates everywhere and becomes toxic, and that’s how we get the stigma.

Next Movie

Serial Mom (1994)

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