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.

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