German author and Nobel laureate Günter Grass passed away this week. His most celebrated work, The Tin Drum, is the story of a German boy living before, during and after the Nazi era, who decides he does not want to join the preposterously nonsensical world of adults and therefore is determined to stop growing. He throws himself down the stairs and successfully stunts his growth. Later he meets a dwarf circus performer named Bebra and joins up with him, performing on the Western front for German officers and eventually having an affair with Bebra’s lover, who also has dwarfism. The book, which involves far more storylines than I have adumbrated here, has justly earned nearly universal praise, and the 1979 film adaptation won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and the grand prize at Cannes.
The Tin Drum is a story of magical realism that instrumentalizes dwarfism in a complex way. “Our kind must never sit in the audience,” says Bebra, “Our kind must perform and run the show or the others will run us. The others are coming. They will occupy the fairgrounds. They will stage torchlight parades, build rostrums, fill the rostrums, and from those rostrums preach our destruction.” These statements are loaded, ominously referencing dwarf entertainers like the Ovitz family who were being treated like lab rats by Dr. Mengele at Auschwitz. Günter Grass came to prominence as a leading voice in the Vergangenheitsbewältigung movement that broke the silence about his country’s crimes. Any failure to illustrate the reality of dwarfs during the Holocaust years echoes the many tales of Medieval and Early Modern courts that portray dwarf servants and jesters merely as part of the scenery while saying nothing about the fact that these people were, to put it bluntly, slaves traded among the aristocracy, sometimes in cages.
Edgar Allan Poe’s “Hopfrog,” written in 1849, is one of the few tales to allude to these human rights abuses. In 1992, the PBS American Playhouse program adapted the story as Fool’s Fire. (I was invited to audition for the part of the protagonist’s little sister. My acting career ended thereafter.) Director Julie Taymore made the decision to portray the average-sized characters in monster-like masks and the dwarf characters without.
This make-up treatment was the precise opposite of how the directors of the Harry Potter films would later chose to portray dwarf actor Warwick Davis’s goblin characters alongside the humans. In addition to miserly goblins and slave-like elves, the Harry Potter books include dwarf characters. They are mentioned in passing as “raucous dwarfs” in a pub in the third book and reinforce the servant trope when they are dressed up like Cupid and sent through the school delivering valentines in the second book. One must wonder why the author felt the need to include them at all. They represent, if anything, yet another point at which J.K. Rowling’s chef d’oeuvre fails to be nearly as progressive as she seems to think it is.
It’s never fun to get upset about all this. Size can be a genuinely magical idea worth playing with (as seen above). But genuine upset tends to grow the longer it goes unacknowledged. In college I took a writing workshop where we were encouraged to write about sensitive, taboo, and offensive words. The N-word and the C-word were brought up almost immediately, and I decided to demand a debate about the M-word for dwarfs. One of my classmates pointed out, “The problem with rude stuff said about dwarfs is that it doesn’t strike us as offensive or controversial. It strikes us as funny.”
Exactly. We’re too amusing to be seen as victims. Our human rights cannot be violated because we are not fully human.
The Tin Drum is all about humanity and employs absurdist characters and events for harrowing, not hilarious effects. It is a complex novel, as is Stones from the River, a German-American war story I am inclined to prefer because the protagonist is a non-magical dwarf. After being arrested for taking a crack at the swatstika, she is hauled before a judge who reminds her that she can’t afford to speak out against Nazism when people like her are prime targets for eugenics researchers.
While The Tin Drum did not invent the idea of comparing children and dwarfs, it would be nice were it the only example of it. This has hardly been the case. It’s a gag nearly every person with dwarfism has heard for the umpteenth time. The Simpsons have done it. The brilliant comedy team Mitchell and Webb have done it. After my third-grade class watched Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, my teacher pointed out—or perhaps conceded—that the Oompa-Loompas were portrayed by people who had dwarfism just like I did. One of my classmates said, “Oh no, they might have just have been children.” I looked at her cock-eyed, thinking, How can you not tell a dwarf from a child?
The fate of the main character in the crime-comedy In Bruges hinges on the villain mistaking a dwarf’s corpse for that of a child. The joke already appears earlier in the film, when the dwarf in question explains that he’s been hired to appear in a school boy’s uniform in a cinematic dream sequence and rolls his eyes at it. This sort of we-make-the-joke-but-also-make-fun-of-it-so-that-makes-okay schtick is reminiscent of Ricky Gervais’s Life’s Too Short, of which one critic at The Quietus aptly said:
Perhaps this is some triple-axle attempt at post-post-postmodern irony, an ultra-sophisticated comedic in-joke that has tied itself up in such obscure knots it only seems crass to the un-knowing, the obtuse. Well, that’d be me because from where I’m sitting it looks like we’re supposed to be laughing at a guy for being too short.
It’s unfortunate because I really love In Bruges. Just as I love Willy Wonka and That Mitchell and Webb Look. Call it cynical, call it ironic, call it hilarious, but in these cases and so many others, deleting the dwarf characters would have allowed me to enjoy myself completely.