A history of stuttering in the movies, from Girl Shy to The King's Speech.

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Dec. 9 2010 11:41 AM

A History of Stuttering in the Movies

It hasn't been pretty.

Click here for a video slide show on the history of stuttering in the movies.

Stuttering is a condition that no one understands and no one has been able to cure, including God, who simply gave Moses a translator. It has long been the so-called "disorder of many theories," meaning that it has long been a disorder of no real theories at all. Those who stutter have for millenniums endured odd and sinister attempts at a cure. Our tongues have been burnt—first by Hippocrates' acid, to rid them of the "black bile" that rendered them heavy and clumsy, then with boiling wine to thaw a mysterious "refrigeration." When that didn't do the trick, they were cut out altogether, or snipped into irregular shapes. In the late 19th century, we laid down on velvety Freudian couches until psychoanalysis gave up and we got lobotomies. We prattled on in gloomy speech-therapy wards and "fluency intensives" in the 20th, and now, in the 21st, come to the telephone fully loaded with cutting-edge hearing aids, anti-anxiety prescriptions, and iPhone apps. In the last decade, science has proven that stuttering is a "disconnection syndrome" and that at its root is a knot of psychological and neurological issues too tight and variant one case to the next to be generally unwound. In February, researchers discovered a genetic basis, which might eventually lead to a better understanding of what, exactly, is going on. But for the time being, stutterers are greeted with a therapeutic shrug of the shoulders: Go forth, endure, seek fluency and happiness—take a pill, if you want. No promises.

As if this wasn't bad enough, filmmakers have advanced their own unhelpful theories of a stutter's cause and consequence since their earliest opportunity, amounting mostly to cartoon depictions of slapstick ineptitude and a jumble of mistaken assumptions about the disorder: That its sufferers are lily-livered, or "girl shy," or nervously traumatized. Watch as we torture the son of a bitch!

The King's Speech, a much-ballyhooed movie about King George VI's struggle to overcome his stammer in time to deliver, by radio, a speech preparing London for war, has arrived from England with a mandate to correct many of the standard depictions, while still falling back on psychological shorthand to explain the king's disability: His parents were overbearing, and he was forced as a child to write with his nondominant hand. (Both are schoolyard myths for how a stutter takes its initial hold.) The movie, as formulaic in its way as Rocky or Rudy, is buoyed by its good acting and by its entirely new portrayal of a grown man who stutters: Colin Firth's King George gulps and strangles himself trying to get the words out, yet retains his dignity and invites our empathy. For the 1 percent of the population that stutters, and has withstood the additional ignominy of watching stuttering characters in Hollywood films, the movie is a rare catharsis. A likable king struggling to speak is significantly more attractive than the violent criminals ( Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Primal Fear), or abused, suicidal inpatients ( One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) of yore.

It's no surprise, then, that The King's Speech has the various stuttering associations in a tizzy. (One of them, the National Stuttering Association, invited me to the New York premiere of the film.) That the movie's substantial merits in the fight against stuttering stereotypes are somehow being confused with its merits as a work of art—here, here and here, for starters—is a critical burden for someone else. I aim here only to point out its dubious company and the very low bar it has cleared.

Barry Harbaugh is an editor at Harper.