Dwarfism Awareness Writing #10) The Media…. Uh oh.
This is a very complicated topic: one that I had planned and one that several have mentioned in their questions. Many LPs have mixed feelings about the media and how dwarfism has been treated as a topic, and the reason for this is that, historically, dwarfism has been treated as a public spectacle. From Medieval court jesters, to Renaissance paintings, to 19th century “freak shows,” to the Wizard of Oz, and on and on, dwarfism has been treated as something to watch with extreme curiosity. Our lives are lived under a constant microscope of the gaze of the Other, perhaps more so than what I call “normativized” disability (wheelchairs, crutches, etc.). But, that’s a topic for my own academic work, and probably not what you came here for, so I’ll talk about the biggies here: 1) The “little” reality shows; 2) Peter Dinklage; 3) The Wolf of Wall Street.
1) Reality TV: This is a question I get asked a lot, by everyone: strangers and friends. How do I feel about all these shows? To be honest, I feel that while some episodes can be educational, it is another curious invasion into what most of us hope are very un-extraordinary lives. You’ll find a plethora of opinions on these shows, but I happen to agree with journalist Dan Kennedy about this one: “Don’t you know that it’s rude to stare? The makers of TLC’s reality series Little People, Big World do, which is the key to its appeal. On one level, it offers an up-close, unsentimental look at a family headed by a dwarf couple, spreading the positive message that little people can argue over money, coach youth soccer, and shoot tin cans off rocks like anyone else. On another level, though, it wallows in what it purportedly deplores, allowing us to feel good about ourselves while we gawk at this unusual-looking family from the privacy of our living rooms.” (http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2006/03/little_people_big_world.html). If you want to know more about the history of dwarfism as a spectacle, there are a couple of good books out there, one by Dan Kennedy, whose daughter is an achondroplastic dwarf: 1) Little People: Learning to See the World through My Daughter’s Eyes, by Dan Kennedy (http://amzn.com/1579546684); 2) The Lives of Dwarfs: Their Journey from Public Curiosity toward Social Liberation, by Betty M. Adelson (http://amzn.com/0813535484).
2) Peter Dinklage. Do I know him? I wish! He’s very handsome. Do I like him? I very much like his work and the careful choices he’s put into choosing his roles. Most people, of course, know him from The Game of Thrones, but the first thing I ever saw him in is the excellent indie film, The Station Agent (www.imdb.com/title/tt0340377/). His character is obviously a dwarf and is who he is because of that lived experience, but it is not a self-effacing mockery. If you haven’t seen it, it’s wonderful. He’s also quite wonderful in Death at a Funeral (I prefer the British original to the American remake, but he plays the same role in both). Now, people have asked me about his very brief role in Elf, where he plays the writer who attacks Will Ferrell when he mistakenly takes him for an elf, then an “angry elf.” I thought this was hi-larious. I mean, if an elf came from the North Pole and saw a dwarf, he would think we were elves. Just sayin’. We do have a sense of humor. It’s not as though everything funny is offensive. The joke was really directed at Will Ferrell’s character. I make quite a bit of short jokes directed at myself, but they are never self-effacing or objectifying. I’m just a funny lady. Anyway, I do believe that Peter Dinklage puts a lot of thought into his roles, and I appreciate that. He does not knowingly accept roles that he feels will be problematic for the LP community. I was especially appreciative of this fact after hearing him on NPR, discussing his new role in Game of Thrones: http://www.npr.org/2012/05/21/153198363/peter-dinklage-on-thrones-and-on-his-own-terms. It must be said that the fantasy genre tends to be very controversial in terms of dwarf roles, but Peter Dinklage thought long and hard about this character and whether he was an archetype (think Tolkien) or a person. He’s a very smart dude. Take a listen.
3) Ugh. The Wolf of Wall Street. I have to preface this by saying that I have not seen it, and I probably won’t, precisely because there is a dwarf tossing scene. Yes, you read that: dwarf tossing. There were a lot of problems with this when I was younger, and eventually there was legislation against it (which is being challenged in some states). People argued that it was ok because the dwarfs who were being tossed were offering themselves up. However, people will do a lot of (dangerous) things when they need money. That doesn’t mean they aren’t being objectified. I’m sure many people of color didn’t appreciate being mocked in or performing in minstrel shows. People don’t accept that now; why should we accept dwarf tossing? Sadly, the film has facilitated a rash of “Wolf of Wall Street Velcro Wall Midget Throwing Contests.” It really makes me want to shout angry things and post flaming comments on Tweets about it. I would link to one of the Twitter feeds, but I’m not about to give them the coverage they want.
So, all of this measures up to one fact: I don’t think the media has taken responsibility for covering dwarfism in a respectful way. Little People of America has called upon the FCC to ban the word “midget” when used in a derogatory sense (i.e. any way that is not educational). It doesn’t feel good to watch someone like Jay Leno, David Letterman, or some other late night host say the word in their intro bit. One minute, you’ll be laughing, and then, not so much. It’s just not funny. No one would accept the N-word in the same way. So, what can you do about it? Call people out when they use it. If it’s a celebrity, Tweet them or write on their FB newsfeed. I guess my final message is this: just like people of color, LGBTQ, women, or other minorities, LPs need allies. There just aren’t enough of us to be heard loudly enough. When something is offensive, speak up.