Tag Archives: Dwarfs

Note to Artists Who Aren’t Günter Grass: Dwarfs Aren’t Children

19 Apr

La petite Géante(Image by Marc H used under CC license via)

 

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.

 

 

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Who Needs To Look At Dwarfs In A Theme Park?

5 May

Caged Beauty #1

(Image by Howard Ignatius used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Belgian photographer Sanne De Wilde’s journey into the Kingdom of the Little People in Kunming, China is featured this week at Slate’s photo blog. “For me, it’s about how this kind of place can exist,” she told Slate. “What does it tell you about a person who starts this and creates it? What are his intentions?”

She goes on to explain that one of the hardest things to capture on film was the overwhelming boredom among the performers. “A lot of time the people are just hanging around in their room or on their beds lying around,” she said. 

That circus freaks get bored should not be too surprising, but it is still often radical today to consider that people categorized as freaks can in fact be boring. (More on that next week.)

A theme park funneling in people who pay to look at dwarfs and the state of disability rights in China are worth a zillion words each. But for now, De Wilde’s photos alone have plenty to say on the matter. The feature is definitely worth your time, and to those who do check it out, I leave one question open to you:

Does Slate’s reporting on the exploitation of dwarfs in freak shows now make up for its past SNAFUs?

 

 

Sex with Circus Midgets or Uncomfortable Silence

7 Jul

(Via)

 

“Pregnant mothers should avoid thinking of ugly people, or those marked by any deformity or disease; avoid injury, fright and disease of any kind.”  So advised doctors in the 1920 parenting manual Searchlights on Health.  Eugenics was all the rage back then, but it had hardly come out of nowhere.  The ugly laws of the 19th and early 20th centuries prohibited, for example in Chicago, “Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, or an improper person to be allowed in or on the streets, highways, thoroughfares, or public places. 

Under these laws, poor and homeless people with disabilities suffered the most.  The class system gave those from affluent families, like Helen Keller, a better shot at being exempted.  But before the disability rights movements of the 1970s, countless disabled children were abandoned by their families in orphanages and asylums, and were thus condemned to grow up to either join the circus or become the vagrants these laws targeted.  Abandonment, rejection and the resulting invisibility in society is an ableist tradition of astounding resilience.  Because just how far have we come in the past hundred years since doctors and municipalities advised not talking about or looking at disabled people?

This week Slate magazine features two articles by Barry Friedman and Dahlia Lithwick, asking readers to consider “what is left for the progressive movement after the gay rights victory at the Supreme Court.”  Arguing that liberal activists have developed tunnel vision, focusing almost exclusively on gay marriage and nothing else, they trumpet issues that deserve attention along with marriage equality.  Their list spans two articles, covering all sorts of social causes, from ending the death penalty to protecting the environment to improving child-care funding and education to marijuana legalization.  Nowhere in either article do they mention disability rights.

This very same week Slate also kicked off a blog about Florida by Craig Pittman with an opening article called, “True Facts About the Weirdest, Wildest, Most Fascinating State.”  Among the facts that apparently render the Sunshine State weird are the python-fighting alligators and “a town founded by a troupe of Russian circus midgets whose bus broke down.”  On the day of its release, Slate ran the article as its headline and emblazoned “A Town Founded By Russian Circus Midgets” across its front page as a teaser.

Face-palm. 

Friedman and Lithwick have nothing in common with Pittman except that they also write for Slate, a news site written by and for young liberals.  And that their articles remind me of what I’ve come to know and call Young Liberal Ableism. 

 That is, there are two ableist mentalities not uncommon among young liberals:

 1)      Uncomfortable Silence: the tendency to skirt issues of disability, especially compared to other social issues, because disability threatens two things young liberals unabashedly embrace – being independent and attractive.  (“Independent” and “attractive” rigidly defined, of course.)

 2)      Sex with Circus Midgets: the sick fascination with physical oddities that objectifies and/or fetishizes people with atypical bodies or conditions.  (I’ve discussed this in detail here.)

Both mentalities see any disabled people they hurt as acceptable collateral damage

Here’s the thing about dealing with all this.  You get used to it, but not forever and always.  Sometimes it rolls off your back, sometimes it hits a nerve.  This time, seeing a magazine as progressive as Slate brandish RUSSIAN CIRCUS MIDGETS on its front page while leaving disability rights out of its social justice discussion brought me right back to college, where friends of friends called me “Dwarf Emily” behind my back and someone else defended them to my face.  Where classmates cackled about the film Even Dwarfs Started Off Small—“because it’s just so awesome to see the midgets going all ape-shit!”—but declined my offer to screen the documentary Dwarfs: Not A Fairy Tale.  Where a gay professor was utterly outraged that her students didn’t seem to care about immigration rights or trans rights, but she never once mentioned disability rights.  Where an acquaintance asked to borrow my copy of The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, but awkwardly turned down my offer to lend her Surgically Shaping Children.  Where roommates argued vociferously that they would rather be euthanized than lose the ability to walk.  Where jokes about dwarf-tossing were printed in the student paper. 

I won’t go into certain crude comments that involved me personally, but I will say that when a friend recently, carefully tried to tell me about how shocked he was to find a certain video of dwarfs in a grocery store, I cut him off and said, “Lemme guess, it was a dwarf woman porn video?  That’s one of the top search terms that bring people to my blog.”

For a little more than a decade, I’ve lived on one of America’s most liberal college campuses and then in one of the world’s most progressive cities.  I have never met so many liberal people at any other time in my life and I have never met so many ableist people at any other time in my life.   

This is not to ignore all those I’ve met who, despite their lack of experience with disability, ask carefully constructed questions and consistently make me feel not like a curious object but like a friend who is free to speak her mind about any part of her life experience.  And some young liberals are doing awesome work for disability rights and awareness.  But when a journalist and mother of a disabled twentysomething recently said, “No one wants to talk about disability rights – it’s not seen as sexy enough,” I knew exactly what she was talking about.

In 2009, when the pretty darn liberal Huffington Post reported on Little People of America’s call on the FCC to ban the word “midget,” the majority of commenters snidely remarked, “At least they can get married.”  There was truth to this, but I found it telling that not a single commenter on the left-wing blog considered that the word “midget” could be hurtful.  Everyone instead decided to play Oppression Olympics

Understand that I will never say that among liberals disabled people are worse off than other minorities or that ableism is the “last frontier” in human rights.  It’s not.  Even if I believed it to be true, it would be impossible to prove and fighting for the crown of Superlative Suffering doesn’t do anything but imply that there are those against whom you wish to compete.  I don’t want to compete with anyone. 

Nor do I assume that anyone who uses the word “midget” is bigoted.  Many who use antiquated terms are honestly unaware of their potential to hurt.  (It wasn’t until two years ago that I learned that referring to the Sami-speaking regions as “Lapland” can be very offensive to those who live there.)  And there is no minority on earth whose members agree unanimously on a name.  “Little people” makes me cringe almost as much as “midgets,” while my husband winces whenever I use the German word for “dwarf.”  Labels are only half as important as the intentions behind them.

But when young liberals insist that no one can be expected to know that “midget” is hurtful, there is something particularly perverse about hearing dehumanizing beliefs and ideas come from the mouths of those who pride themselves on their open-mindedness and diversity awareness.  Or whose own experience of marginalization would logically render them a better candidate for empathy.  In the words of Charles Negy, bigotry is an unwillingness to question our prejudices. 

Why do I call it Young Liberal Ableism and not just Young Ableism?  Because certain liberals could learn a thing or two from certain conservatives about facing disability and illness. Consider the stereotype of the small-town conservative who proselytizes about etiquette and tradition, and goes into a tizzy over the idea of two men kissing or a woman not taking her husband’s name or her neighbors speaking another language or a singer using swear words.  But for all the types of people she does not want to accept in her community, she is fiercely dedicated to her community.  She spends a good deal of her time going to church and checking in on her neighbors, and stays in contact with those who are physically dependent, sick or disabled.  As patronizing as charity can be, many young conservatives have been raised to send get-well cards, bake pies, and call on neighbors and relatives who are stuck at home or in the hospital.  They’ve been raised to believe that it’s the right thing to do. 

Many young liberals, meanwhile, have been raised to analyze their problems and personalities to the point of vanity, question moral traditions to the point of moral relativism, and feel free to do what they want to the point of only doing what they want.  They believe that anyone is welcome to live in their town, but they’ll only socialize with those they deem interesting.

I’m stereotyping of course.  But it’s a fact, not a stereotype, that in the U.S. liberals are less likely to donate to charity, less likely to do volunteer work, and less likely to donate blood than conservatives. 

Ultimately, it does not matter whether you call yourself “liberal” or “conservative,” left-wing or right-wing.  There are Ayn Rand conservatives who insist that compassion is “evil,” and there are liberals who work tirelessly in low-paying jobs at non-profits and social agencies that do as much good as any charity.  There are those of all political stripes who make large charitable donations but also want everyone to know about it, and there are those who don’t know the first thing about politics but know everything about empathy.  We are far more complex than our politics give us credit for.

The goal should be to never become too self-congratulatory about our politics or morals,  as Friedman and Lithwick warn.  But in response to their call for issues progressives specifically need to pay to attention to, I do have a wish list going:

How about young liberals fighting to make sure dwarf-tossing is banned around the world?

How about facts instead of factoids when it comes to communities founded by dwarf entertainers who have been socially isolated by ableism and fear life-long unemployment?

How about young liberals continuing to fight for the U.S. to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities?

How about young liberals debating the Supreme Court’s 9-0 ruling last year that religious organizations are exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act?

How about young liberals talking more about the astronomical rates of violence against intellectually disabled people, rather than just sneering at Sarah Palin’s complaints about the word “retard”?

How about young liberal bloggers trying to understand physical disability and illness as often as they try to understand depression and social anxiety?

How about our seeing a lot more women with dwarfism starring in romantic comedies than in porn movies? 

How about more young liberal discussions about real dwarfs than Tolkien Dwarves?

In issuing these demands, I’m of course terrified of appearing too self-interested.  Politics is all about trying to square the selfishness of What about ME?! with the fairness of Everybody matters.  Sometimes sticking up for your own rights is easier than sticking up for someone else’s.  Sometimes it’s the other way around.  All of us, liberals and conservatives, should value trying to do what is right rather than what is easy.

 

 

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.