This month actor Verne Troyer (above) is featured in a National Geographic documentary series, Incredibly Small World, about the experience of living with dwarfism. (Incredibly creative title, by the way.) Examining everything from the average-sized family of Amish origin he grew up in to his burgeoning career, Troyer hopes to spread awareness about dwarfs. “Don’t look at us like we’re circus people!” he recently told The Daily Mail. Right on.
But wait. If you don’t want the world to see you as a circus freak, what was going on with Mini-Me?
While one of his most recent stints was in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Troyer is by far known best as Mini-Me in the Austin Powers films. According to his profile in The Lives of Dwarfs, he had been in the acting business for years and was grateful to finally land a role in which he portrayed an adult human. All of his previous work had mirrored Kenny Baker—the actor inside R2D2— moving about in robot, baby, alien, and animal costumes. But to call Mini-Me “human” is debatable.
While the Austin Powers plotline claims he is a clone (one-eighth the size) of Dr. Evil and therefore in training to step in for the villain at any time, Mini-Me has little to no agency. He doesn’t even speak. Other characters refer to him as “like a dog” or “that Chihuahua thing.” Slapstick has its rightful place in film, and all the characters in Austin Powers are blunt stereotypes meant to parody the James Bond genre, but it’s hard to watch Mini-Me portrayed pretty much the way dwarfs were handled by the aristocracy in Early Modern Europe – like a pet. (And when fully-grown adults are handled as nothing but pets, it’s called slavery.)
Austin Powers could have used Mini-Me to skewer the James Bond character Nick-Nack, but instead it merely perpetuated the gag. Most minorities can name a famous character/caricature that makes their skin crawl—Tonto, Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Danvers—and Mini-Me is certainly up there for the dwarf community.
It makes me uncomfortable, but not enough to keep me from watching the films. A lot of the scenes are as dull as the back-pages of an eighth grader’s notebook, but the jokes satirizing the Bond films are lovely:
And Mini-Me is a funny name. Just not the third time, or the fourth time, or the fortieth time that any given person with dwarfism hears it hollered at them on the street.
Today Troyer remains friends with Austin Powers creator Mike Meyers. Cynics might say that networking is networking, and what dwarf actor wouldn’t remain loyal to someone who’d lifted him into the spotlight, no matter how dehumanizing the role? Beggars can’t be choosers or bite the hand that feeds them. The tradition of the groveling dwarf actor grateful for anything he can get is so pervasive that Peter Dinklage has spoken out about the importance of dwarf actors turning down such roles for the sake of self-respect. But when I see photos of Troyer schmoozing with Meyers, it reminds me of something other than begging or groveling.
Back when I was in elementary school, one of my classmates liked to lay his elbow on my head because I “made a great armrest.” He would also regularly ask me, “How’s the weather down there, shorty?” to which my response was always, “Clouds of your bad breath.” Not exactly Abbott and Costello caliber, but then again, we were eight. I didn’t mind being the target of his jokes. I almost liked it. He wasn’t a close friend who’d helped me through any of my medical ordeals, but we knew each other, he talked to me and not only to laugh at my expense. For this reason, I took his teasing as openness.
That year was not an easy one in the schoolyard. To be ostracized there means that those who don’t know you at all will hurl insults at your minority status from a safe distance, while those who do know you will stay eerily silent on the subject. This is why when someone talks both to you and about your difference, they seem to be demonstrating a delightful lack of fear.
The millions of people who have giggled at Mini-Me, whether they are his viewers or his creators, aren’t necessarily harboring nasty views of dwarfs. The difference comes down to who can not only laugh at him but talk to him, and who’s afraid to.