Though it often can be the best way to get a message across, art complicates politics because it mixes matters of taste with matters of justice. One lends itself to reason, the other doesn’t. Too often sentimental feelings about a film or song with offensive elements will result in fans denying the offense altogether. “Little House on the Prairie isn’t racist! I grew up on it and I turned out fine!” Maybe you did thanks to your innate curiosity about the experiences of others or inspiring teachers in your life, but you didn’t learn anything valuable about civil rights from that book. I grew up on Dumbo and I think it is an artistically brilliant film with many good messages, one of which is the problem of lookism. However, getting a white actor to put on his best black voice to play a character named “Jim Crow” in the heyday of the minstrel shows was a supremely stupid idea. We shouldn’t deny ourselves our personal tastes, but that shouldn’t preclude calling out the artists’ mistakes.
Likewise, we shouldn’t cry wolf over artwork that simply doesn’t match our tastes. I’m one of the few people on earth who doesn’t enjoy The Lord of the Rings—I saw it for the first time in my twenties and fell asleep—but that’s primarily because I get bored by fantasy epics that are predominantly serious. (I’m not wild about The Chronicles of Narnia either. If there’s going to be magic, I prefer the tongue-in-cheek tone maintained in the worlds of Roald Dahl, L. Frank Baum or the Pirates of the Caribbean.) It is sometimes difficult to divorce my dislike of the style from my annoyance that the Lord of the Rings definition of a dwarf receives more attention in almost every corner of our culture than the one based on reality. Google “dwarf” right now in the image search and see how long you have to wait until a real human being is featured. But neither Peter Jackson nor J. R. R. Tolkien is solely responsible for this; the latter of course drew this definition from the fantasy tradition. And the use of dwarfs in fantasy is not always problematic.
Peter Dinklage has demonstrated that dwarfism is no more important than skin color or foot size in Game of Thrones. And while I couldn’t sit through Lord of the Rings as an adult, I have a special place in my heart for the 1988 film Willow, which was panned by almost every critic I respect. Perhaps my nostalgia and childhood crush on Warwick Davis blinds me to the film’s artistic faults, but my enjoyment of it was rooted in politics before I even knew the word “politics.” Because for once a dwarf was the main character. And he looked like a real dwarf; he wasn’t wearing any pointed ears or goblin nose or orange face-paint. And I wanted to be Sorsha, the bad-ass warrior princess. Yes, she’s a damsel in distress during the final battle, but it’s 3′ 6″ Warwick Davis who wins that battle for her, not buff Val Kilmer.
While I’m uncomfortable with fantasy’s tradition of insisting that dwarfs are a separate race and thus, in many cases, non-human, I loved Willow for giving both the dwarf-sized people and the average-sized people names free of connotation (“nelwyns” and “dakinis”). They are neutral words that demonstrate one of the advantages of neologisms. (Though I’ll admit the film’s line “Stupid dakini!” has echoed in my head at various points in my life.) The film also uses the fictional word “peck” as the thinly veiled equivalent to “midget,” an insult the eponymous character must endure from dakinis throughout the film, adding more gravitas to his saving the day and personal appeal to dwarf viewers like myself. Too often in fantasy, physical characteristics are indicative of personality traits. This is an occasionally racist, always lookist device that disenfranchises hideous hags, macho musclemen, dark demons, pretty princesses, and innocent invalids. Willow offers a welcome respite. As sappy and as simple as the message is—anyone can be a hero—it bears repeating.
Speaking of lookist, I also adored Snow White and the Seven Dwarves as a kid. I always played Snow White, of course—what child doesn’t imagine themselves as the attention-getting protagonist?—but I was also secretly proud that the first feature-length animated film, one of the most famous of the Grimms’ fairy tales, included dwarfs who weren’t ludicrously unrealistic. They were kind, they had no mysticism and, as much as I loved her and her poufy dress, they had far more personality than Snow White herself. For these reasons, I didn’t mind using them as an example when children asked me about my size. My mother once said, “We’ll write to Disney and tell them most dwarfs aren’t bashful or dopey at all!” I recall at the time wishing she wouldn’t put a damper on a film I loved so much, but now I am grateful to her for fostering such moral vigilance in me.
Because once I hit puberty, I instantly saw the problems. Like Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and scores of other films, Snow White asserts that male characters who are disabled or deformed can never hope to get the girl. Considered innocent, asexual people, they are doomed to the Friend Zone. And women with disabilities? There aren’t many fairy tales about them. The story emphasizes even in Snow White’s name that looks are everything.
My childhood in combination with my experience with dwarfism endowed me with a nostalgia for stories I nevertheless was forced to analyze critically as I grew up, so I cannot deny either. Everyone should keep a healthy distance between one’s understanding of the world and fairy tales. My partner and I used the above image of Snow White on our wedding invitations, although we changed the slogan to “Everyone Is Beautiful”—a lesson I did not learn from Snow White herself, but from learning how my dwarfism conflicted with her.