The new television schedule has kicked off both in the U.S. and the U.K. with the usual plethora of reality TV shows and the usual high number of shows zeroing in on people living with dwarfism: The Little Couple; Seven Little Johnstons; Our Little Family; Little Women of L.A.; and the grandfather of them all, Little People, Big World. Besides the patronizing titles and taglines, the shows feature factoids about dwarfing conditions and lots of melodrama thrown in with some social critique lite.
Having handed my life story over to a journalist for the umpteenth time this past spring, my husband and I recently discussed how important it is to be able to trust that your storyteller will not exploit you for entertainment value. It takes a perceptive mind and an agile hand to elucidate dwarf-related topics like bio-ethics, self-image, political correctness, beauty standards, harassment, adoption, job discrimination, pain management, and reproductive freedom—all of which could and have filled scholarly journals and books—via mere sound bites. At one point in the conversation my husband paused and said, “Just to make sure we’re on the same page, honey – we’re never appearing on reality TV. Right?”
I laughed and nodded reassuringly.
He was not unwise to worry.
Reality TV offers their subjects fame at the expense of their dignity. Documentaries and news features also carry a risk for this, but one element that distinguishes reality TV from journalism is the rock-solid guarantee of fights, tears, and bad-mouthing. For some participants there may be gratification in the knowledge that millions of viewers are interested in you enough to want to watch how you live every waking minute of your life, but it comes with the unspoken fact that they’re also waiting for you to slip up so that they have a good story to hash out among their friends and in gossip columns.
We are all vulnerable to voyeuristic temptation and the media knows this. It’s why it offers us up-close shots of survivors’ tears as soon as possible, and it’s why we click on them, despite recent and compelling arguments that this is socially irresponsible. The message of reality TV seems to be that no one really ever moves beyond middle school jealousy and superficiality, so we might as well let it all hang out. The better angels of our nature be damned.
Years ago, Cathy Alter mused via a glib article in The Atlantic about her rather bizarre obsession with dwarf reality shows. The greatest revelation came from her therapist, who explained, “I think regular size people feel more secure as people when they can observe midgets… I think that contrast is validating because we tell ourselves that at least there are people who have it worse, because they are small… We need the midgets to feel normal.”
This confirms what I have always suspected and, admittedly, feared. That millions of people are watching under the guise of wanting to understand difference while ultimately enjoying getting to look at lots of juicy pictures of freaks. This is why these sensationalist shows do so well, while earnest, in-depth documentaries like Little People: The Movie remain out of print. Before the birth of reality TV in the late 90s, dwarfs were most often featured on daytime talkshows, alongside episodes featuring people caught in affairs and people who believed they were the reincarnation of Elvis.
As often the only dwarf in a given person’s circle of acquaintances, I have been told by many how touching they find these shows. How wonderful it is to see that “dwarfs are just like everyone else!” I can accept that there will probably always be a market for shallow entertainment that twists tragedy into soap opera and reduces the complexities of life into easy-to-swallow sentimentality, no matter how far society progresses. Tabloids will continue to exist because millions of people—including kind, intelligent people I know—will continue to buy them. In this regard, the individual shows are not so much problematic as is the fact that they are where TV viewers are most likely to see people with dwarfism.
Actress Hollis Jane, who called out Miley Cyrus last year for exploiting performers with dwarfism as sideshow acts, explained this summer why she turned down a contract to appear on Little Women of L.A.:
Other than Peter Dinklage, Tony Cox (Bad Santa) and Danny Woodburn (who played Mickey Abbott on Seinfeld), it’s nearly impossible to name successful actors and actresses who also happen to be little people. People get upset about the Kardashians representing women in America but for every Kardashian there is a Meryl Streep, a Natalie Portman, or a Zoe Saldana. Little people don’t have that. I have wanted to be an actress since I was in first grade and I played the angel, Gabriel, in a nativity play. I held firm to this dream until sixth grade when a parasitic thought crawled into my head and told me that I would never be an actress because I was a little person. I realized that since there was no one on television who looked like me, it meant that there would never be… When Game of Thrones premiered, my world was rocked. Peter Dinklage was doing the impossible. He was being taken seriously as an actor without exploiting his height for shock value or a joke. The night he won his Emmy, I cried for an hour.
She adds, “I have nothing against the women on these reality shows. There is a part of me that thinks it’s great we have little people on TV in any capacity…but I also think we deserve more than that.”
If the general public truly believed this, if reality TV viewers truly saw their dwarf subjects as their equals rather than curiosities, then we would see a lot more dwarfs as newsreaders and game show hosts, on sitcoms and dramas, in romcoms and thrillers, playing the leads and the heartthrobs and the bella donnas. Perhaps that day will come, but for now few people can name a single dwarf actress and many dwarfs get told that they look like “that guy on the show about the little people.” That’s our reality.