Friday, April 24, 2009

Who says April is the cruelest month?

First of all, I really appreciate the people who read this blog. From what I know, there are not many of you, but you are loyal. The way I see it, this is kind like a new start up company that hasn't gone public yet. When we go public, the loyalists will be rewarded with the big dividends. Don't expect cash though.

I mention this because my goal is to make at least three entries a month. At that pace, I'll hit the 100th entry in a year or so. That's when we'll really take off! (If this were a text or an email, I would write something like laughing out loud here). The problem is, I write about pretty much the same thing over and over again. And that's language. Language as it relates to disability and dwarfism is one of the focuses of this blog, but nevertheless I wonder if the people who read this would like something new. With this in mind, in May, I will try to expand the subject area a little bit within the context of disability.

But, it's not yet May. I want to end April with another positive entry about language. Last, week, just after I had learned that the New York Times planned to run a column announcing that the word dwarf would replace the m-word in their style guide (thanks NY Times), I got an email from a researcher at ESPN magazine. He was digging up information about Eddie Gaedel, the little person who Bill Veeck, the owner of the St. Louis Browns Baseball Team, inserted into a game as a pinch hitter in 1951. The move was a gimmick to increase attendance for the St. Louis club, which had been doing pretty poorly in the standings and in attendance. Any paper that covered the event in 1951, or basically any story written about the incident since 1951, referred to Gaedel as a midget. This usage doesn't fall into the same category as "Celebrity Apprentice," especially since in the 1950's, from what I understand, the word was acceptable. But the story is often retold these days, and even though there is no harmful intent when a story about Gaedel uses the m-word, it gets a little tiring. In his email, the researcher wanted my opinion about acceptable terminology within the community of people of short stature. I replied to the email, giving the researcher a little bit of the history of language within the dwarfism community and answering his question.

I didn't think much about the email correspondance until tonight. I went onto the ESPN Magazine website and searched under the word midget. There were 101 entries in the past year. That was disconcerting. To be fair though, many of them appeared to be in reference to car racing, and I couldn't find any recent references connected to Gaedel. Then I searched under Gaedel, which I should have done in the first place. The latest an entry was April 22 in a column called "Life of Reilly." Sure enough, there was mention of Eddie Gaedel in the column. The m-word was nowhere to be found. Instead, Reily used the word dwarf to describe him. Maybe some day people of short stature won't need any labels, but until that time, kudos to the researcher at ESPN for using an appropriate label. And, as April draws to a close, good work to The Simpsons, the New York Times and ESPN Magazine, who have helped make a month that started with snow not so bad after all.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

And the winner is .....

Coincidentally, on April 5, the same night NBC ran an episode of the "Celebrity Apprentice" humiliating people of short stature, "The Simpsons" episode also included a person of short stature. While "The Simpsons" episode didn't earn nearly the same attention as "The Celebrity Apprentice," it should have, but for opposite reasons. Comparing reality television with scripted television may not be fair, or possible, but for everything "Celebrity Apprentice" did wrong, "The Simpsons" did correct.

As a person of short stature, there is plenty of material on television, the radio and the internet about which to be offended. Sometimes, if a complaint is expressed, we are criticized as too sensitive. People within and without the community say, "just like any other minority, you have to learn to take a joke." But that critique is wrong. Comedy that works in relation to a minority group doesn't poke fun directly at the members of the group because of who and what they are. Comedy that works pokes fun at the stereotypes about the minority group developed by the at-large community, at the way people outside of the group react to the stereotypes, and at the way members of the minority respond to the stereotypes.

The "Simpsons" storyline on April 5 followed Moe, the bartender of Moe's Tavern. He had recently met a woman through an internet dating service. The woman turned out to be a person of short stature. Moe didn't know about her stature until they met in person for the first time. They had planned to meet at Moe's Tavern. The initial meeting opened a huge door for comedic laughs. Knowing Moe's character and his tendencies to make off color comments, I expected the comedy to come at the expense of Maya, the short statured woman over the internet. But instead, the comedy revolved around the fear of offending minorities. When Moe opened the door to find a woman half the size of what he expected, he said, "oh, you are a little person," then cringed worrying he had offended her. Bluntly, he apologized, saying, "I am sorry, I didn't mean that; what's the correct term?" To which Maya answered, "Little person." Then Moe hurries back inside, keeping Maya at the door, to "tidy up." Inside, Moe tears down a banner advertising dwarf tossing and throws in the trash Little Women.

Later in the episode, when Moe and Maya meet Homer and Marge for a double date, Homer, looking very confused and tentative says, "I have a mechanical question." Terrified the question is about the logistics of a sexual relationship between two people much different in size, Moe cringes horribly. Of course, why wouldn't Homer ask such an inappropriate question. But the question turns out to be about nuclear reactions.

The episode is full of comedy like this. Maya's height is at the center of it. But the comedy doesn't make fun of her. It makes fun of the way we react to difference, in process pointing out how silly it is to make a big deal of the physical differences between people. So if I were handing out awards for best television on Sunday, April 5, 2009, "The Simpson's" would win in a landslide.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Celebrity Apprentice

On Sunday, April 5, a friend sent me a text, telling me about an episode of “Celebrity Apprentice” that included several people with dwarfism. From “Little People, Big World,” to “Boston Legal” to one of The Learning Channel’s more recent reality shows about a newly married couple, little people have been relatively common on television lately. In many cases, the more frequent appearance of little people has made a positive impact, raising awareness about physical difference and projecting the message that little people are not much different from others. The text I received suggested “Celebrity Apprentice” would not follow the latest positive trend. I never watch “Celebrity Apprentice” and I knew the show would make me mad. But I turned from Rocky III on WGN to NBC.

The “Celebrity Apprentice” competition was to create an online video to promote a new concentrated laundry detergent. The detergent, made by All, came in a small bottle. Soon enough, the contests on “Celebrity Apprentice,” divided into two teams, hired four people with dwarfism to promote the product. One team cast three little people as small bottles of detergent. For the video, the little people put on shiny blue unitards and yellow construction helmets then pretended to clean a dirty contestant. Any actor, even someone with a good sense of humor, would have been embarrassed to dress up in bright blue unitard then crawl into a dryer to deliver the final line of the video, as one person with dwarfism was directed to do. Anyone in such an outfit would have looked silly.

Despite the long history of dwarfs used in entertainment as visual gags, it’s hard to argue that dressing up as a bottle of detergent is more offensive for a little person than for someone else. With this in mind, Little People of America, the national group that supports people with dwarfism, often stays neutral on roles in entertainment for little people, even if many individual people with dwarfism find the roles offensive. However, LPA does not stay neutral around issues of language.

For decades, the community of people with dwarfism has advocated against the word midget, a word once commonly used to describe people with proportional dwarfism. Because of the word’s association with the objectification of people with dwarfism, midget has inherited deeply negative, offensive connotations. Today, most people with dwarfism identify the word to be just as harmful as the most pejorative slang associated with other social and ethnic minorities. Ten years ago, most people not directly familiar with the dwarfism community would not have known about the m-word. But today, many more people are aware how hurtful the word can be. In fact, while brainstorming video ides, contestants on the “Celebrity Apprentice” acknowledged how people with dwarfism would react to the m-word. At one point, Donald Trump, Jr., when briefed about Team Athena’s video, (the video that included the little people in unitards), communicated how offended the dwarfism community would be with the m-word.

In my opinion, after Donald Trump, Jr. visited Team Athena, the episode of “Celebrity Apprentice” went from bad to worse. Despite the progress made in the portrayal of people with dwarfism on television, many little people are still cast in embarrassing roles. The three actors dressed as bottles of detergent was just another embarrassing role. Despite the education and awareness around the m-word, derogatory language is still used to describe people of short stature. But in most cases, the language is an oversight and the perpetrators are open to learning new language. Or, it’s used by bloggers and web designers in domains that are intended to be offensive. In most cases, main stream television tries to get it right. For a moment on “Celebrity Apprentice,” it was almost as if viewers were witnessing language education first-hand. A few of the contestants used offensive language, but others called them on it. But rather then use what they learned, or use what they knew about the community of people of short stature, Team Athena continued to use the m-word, even in the title of their final video. It was if the contestants said, “we don’t care.”

In the week since “Celebrity Apprentice” ran on NBC, hundreds of people of short stature have rallied around the episode, demanding the Trump, Burnett Productions and NBC account for the actions of the contestants, whether by issuing an apology, posting positive information about Little People of America, or running a public service message about language. At this point, though some members have made contact with staff at NBC who seem “sympathetic,” the “Celebrity Apprentice” website still runs the video with the m-word title.

Advocates will continue to address the issue. Though, as I said earlier, people of short stature have made positive progress recently, there is nothing to guarantee that Trump, NBC or anyone will listen to our calls and our statements this week, next week, or this summer with LPA gathers in New York. For people of short stature, like all social minorities, change will take time. Perhaps for us, since we are so few, change will take more time. My hope is that someday, Trump, when thinking back about the “Celebrity Apprentice” April 5 episode, he will be just as embarrassed as I was when I watched it.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

At least it's not a petting zoo

A few weeks ago, not more than two blocks from work, a young woman walked up to me, looked me directly in the eye, and said something to the affect of "you are so cute. I've never seen a midget in person before." This doesn't happen often. But when it does, I refer to it as the 'zoo affect.'

I probably didn't learn as much as I should have in college, but I have retained a few useful bits of knowledge in my experience. More specifically, I've acquired a few useful tools that I use to gauge how I interact with the world around me and how that world affects me. One tool I learned from my friend Rohit as we drove north up Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, talking and having a good time. Rohit was behind the wheel. Another car cut him off. I swore under my breath. He kept driving and smiling. "Doesn't that piss you off?" I asked. He considered my question a moment, then answered. "Maybe," he said. "But I'm going to forget about it in ten minutes anyway."

I remember Rohit's words, and try to apply them as a litmus test, measuring the importance of situations that really annoy me, from cars that block the bike lane, to bicyclists that blow stoplights to ignorant use of derogatory language. His insightful words have many times helped me avoid dwelling uselessly on benign hassles. But when looking into the eyes of the woman who spoke to me, or at me, as if some animal at the zoo I knew I'd be lucky to forget what she said in ten years, much less ten minutes.

While searching for a witty or devastatingly sarcastic comeback, I came up empty, and settled for honesty, telling her I felt like a chimpanzee at the zoo. I guess she'd never heard a monkey talk. She broke out laughing and strode away, staggering under the weight of her laugh.

I guess sometimes, just like with bad traffic, there is nothing you can do. Next time the woman sees a person of short stature, I hope some of the novelty has worn off. If not, I hope she remembers to wear her seatbelt.