Tag Archives: Acting

The Problem of Dwarfs on Reality TV

30 Aug

voyeurism(Image by Natasha Mileshina used under CC license via)

 

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.

 

 

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“If He Was a Wee Bit Closer, I Could Lob a Caber at Him, Ye Ken”

3 Feb

 

 

Time for another break from the tough stuff.  I want to talk about Disney.  (In earnest, mind you.  As always.)  I just saw Pixar’s Brave and no, I’m not going to write about her feminism—or the ludicrous musings about her lesbianism—or the radical imperfectness of her eyebrows.  What pleased me most about this film was its break from the Broadway tradition that has been dominating—dare I say strangling—animated cinema for decades.  Throughout my childhood, Disney and their competitors would take you around the world with Alan Menken and his endless supply of wide-mouthed Middle American show tunes as your guide.  The main characters’ accents ranged from Beverly Hills to Burbank.    

Like The Princess and the Frog, Brave has the guts to feature songs, accents, and expressions native to the story’s setting.  And it’s about time.  The Broadway model has its merits, but it can start to feel like overkill when it forbids any trace of historical or foreign flavor.  When it comes to their family films, Hollywood has traditionally handled their American audiences like cultural infants.  There conventional wisdom asserts that any voice that doesn’t immediately evoke baseball and apple pie risks obliterating our ability to empathize.  Only “artsy” films for grown-ups like Brokeback Mountain or Capote dare to let the dialect match the backdrop.  Hence our heroes Aladdin and Belle and Ariel and Simba and Esmeralda, who all sound like they went to school with the cast of Saved by the Bell.  As The New York Times observed in 1997, the closest the actors in Anastasia ever came to St. Petersburg was Pasadena.  A character speaking the Queen’s English has been permitted with some regularity, but if they’re not Julie Andrews, they’re probably the villain or the butler.         

Paradoxically, these animated family films set in far off lands usually feature one odd character who does speak with a local accent.  So is this proof we can catch words pronounced differently, or does it not matter what Token Foreigner says because his character is inconsequential?  Beauty and the Beast lets one or two sidekicks babble, “Ooo la la!” and “Sacre bleu !” but pretty much leaves the plot exposition up to everyone else.  In Aladdin, the Arabic accent belongs only to the characters with the fewest lines, such as the merchant—who sings the racist song that was later edited—and Gazeem the thief, who dies before the end of Scene One.  And by the way, I haven’t been able to find anyone in The Little Mermaid who sounds Danish, under the sea or above.

Not only does Brave inject its lines with a kick-ass charisma brought on by Scottish brogue, but most of its voice actors—with the exception of Emma Thompson and Julie Walters—are actually, truly, veritably from Scotland.  Traditionally, the Token Foreigner in a children’s film has been provided by an American actor putting on a stereotypical accent.  (Kelsey Grammer as a Russian aristocrat, Jerry Orbach as a French candlestick… )  The ability to imitate an accent is a great skill for both an actor and an interpreter, but it can easily go horribly wrong without anyone in charge of the film noticing.  The fact that Dick van Dyke got away with his impression of Cockney in Mary Poppins suggests that U.S. film critics of the time had pretty low standards.  Meryl Streep has been famously lauded for her ability to sound authentically Italian, Polish, and British, but almost none of those singing her praises are Italian, Polish, or British.  Her portrayals may very well be accurate, but ever since Mary Poppins, Americans have a bit of a reputation for being too easily fooled.  My Nordic partner always rolls his eyes and shakes his head at the Seinfeld episode that tried to pass off this accent as Finnish:

 

 

This is not to say that Americans are the only ones who can’t tell Finnish from gibberish.  I’ve met plenty of French people who think Japanese sounds like that pathetically generic “Ching-chong-chang!”  And Brits who have claimed—a little arrogantly—that the U.S. does not have as many dialects or accents as the U.K.  Ethnologue cites 176 living languages in the U.S. compared to the U.K.’s 12.  Great Britain and Northern Ireland may contain more dialects—though I would bet their dialects are fewer in number while boasting more speakers per dialect—but this begs the philosophical question of what separates a dialect from a language.  The joke among linguists goes, “A language has an army and a navy.” 

Every culture tends toward simplistic views of other cultures.  When you begin to type “Brave Pixar” into Google, you get the apparently popular question, “Brave Pixar Irish or Scottish?”  Anyone outside of the Celtic-speaking regions could be asking this question.               

I’m sure Brave is still rife with Scottish stereotypes that are more craved by Hollywood than are authentic.  And the ancient clans of the Highlands most likely sounded nothing like Billy Connolly or Craig Ferguson.  But it is nice to see the filmmakers trust us enough to handle protagonists who do not speak exactly like the average American moviegoer.  After all, what is the point to hearing stories from far off lands if it’s not to hear things we may not have heard before?  And the more we are exposed to different authentic accents, the more likely we are to realize that every one of us has one.  And that somewhere, someone is smiling at the way we talk.

 

 

 

Playing Disabled

30 Sep

Miracle Worker

(Image by cchauvet used under CC license via)

 

Snow White and the Huntsman is out on DVD in Europe tomorrow. Unlike in most other Snow White films, the seven dwarfs are portrayed by average-sized actors, their bodies altered by digital manipulation. No one in the dwarf community is pleased about this.  Little People of America issued a statement criticizing the filmmakers’ failure to give priority to performers with dwarfism, while Warwick Davis argued, “It is not acceptable to ‘black up’ as a white actor, so why should it be acceptable to ‘shrink’ an actor to play a dwarf?” 

I don’t believe digitally generated dwarfism is on par with blackface and all that evokes, but it’s not too far off because there is a long tradition in cinema and theater of socially privileged actors portraying socially marginalized characters. And never the other way around. Blackface is a particularly hideous blemish on the history of entertainment because it was almost always used for mockery. Yellowface has a similarly horrid history: Until 1948, anti-miscegenation laws in the U.S. banned actors of different ethnicities from kissing onscreen, so whenever a white actor portrayed an Asian leading man, Anna May Wong knew the role of the heroine was off limits to her, despite her being the most successful Chinese-American actress of the era. Meanwhile, as noted before, the circus freak show tradition that caricatures people with disabilities is still going strong today. 

To be fair, Snow White and the Huntsman does not create the illusion of dwarfism in order to mock it. This is why, to me, the blackface comparison seems overblown.  (A more apt analogy to blackface would be an actor inhaling helium to play a dwarf, as David Hyde Pierce did for laughs on an episode of Frasier years ago.) When a character matter-of-factly has a disability and the performer simulates their body type with artifice, is this not comparable to any sort of makeup or costumes? Danny Woodburn (whom you might know from Seinfeld) discussed it in an excellent interview on The Patt Morrison Show in June:

Directors, producers have every right to cast who they want to cast.  I just think this is something that merits discussion when the disability community—not just the little people community but the disability community—is so underrepresented in the film and television industry…

Others without disability portraying people with disability.  When producers, directors don’t actively seek performers with disability—[and they’d have to] because a lot of those performers don’t have equal access to casting, don’t have equal access to representation—when they don’t actively seek out those performers, then there’s a real slight against our society, I believe…

This is about making a stand so that there’s at least some due diligence… When you have a community of disabled that is about twenty percent of the population and less than one percent of disabled actors appear on TV. And some of the disabled characters, many of them are not portrayed by disabled actors.

Woodburn and Little People of America raised this issue ten years ago when Peter Jackson announced that he would cast only average-sized actors in The Lord of the Rings. As noted before, part of me was glad to see those magical creatures distanced from real-life people with skeletal dysplasias, but if Jackson had chosen to use dwarf performers to portray the Hobbits or the Dwarves, might someone like Woodburn be as famous as Elijah Wood is today? It’s hard to say. Famous actors create box office draw. Almost no famous actors are disabled and almost no disabled actors are famous. And that’s the problem.

If digital manipulation and theater makeup are someday used to expand roles to minority performers, allowing actors of any body type or ability to play the Huntsman or Prince Charming, it will then lose its exclusionary feel. I adored Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs growing up and, even though I was the only kid with dwarfism, I always portrayed the princess in the living room productions put on for my parents and their friends. But cinema has almost never swung that way. There is no history of ethnic minorities portraying famous white characters or disabled performers portraying physiotypical heroes and heroines. Plenty of ambulatory men have sat in wheelchairs to portray FDR, but no disabled man has been cast as JFK. And that stings a bit.

And what stings even more is the way in which privileged actors so often earn automatic praise for portraying minority characters in epic films, as if all minorities are opaque, mystical people only geniuses could begin to understand. John Malkovich as a mentally disabled man in Of Men and Men, Colin Firth as stammering King George VI, and Patty Duke, Melissa Gilbert and more recently Abigail Breslin as Helen Keller have all been lauded for their performances. They are all fine actors who have proven a wide range of talent, and the stories they tell are truly moving. But the public’s nearly kneejerk assumption that a minority role is a feat of greatness for a privileged actor can feel very condescending. 

In the very bizarre, direct-to-DVD film Tiptoes, Gary Oldman was digitally manipulated to take the role of the leading man with dwarfism. Peter Dinklage, who played the comedic supporting role (and, in my opinion, the only good moments in the film), said: “There was some flak. ‘Why would you put Gary Oldman on his knees? That’s almost like blackface.’ And I have my own opinions about political correctness, but I was just like, ‘It’s Gary Oldman. He can do whatever he wants.’ ” 

Fair enough, but when he was sappily introduced in the trailer as playing “the role of a lifetime,” I almost lost my lunch.