Wednesday, July 1, 2009

More Little People Big World -- more little people

I am not an expert of the program, but I think “Little People Big World” has now completed four seasons. And I know that filming of another season is underway. Now that the show is well beyond its rookie and sophomore seasons, I often wonder if the show is thriving because the novelty of watching people of different stature on television doesn’t wear off or because the plot lines transcend difference, connecting with audiences on issues that impact all of us.

As “Little People Big World” moved into the third and fourth season, I started to believe the latter, that the Roloff family dynamics connected with viewers in a realistic, human way. Viewers tuned in not to stare at people who look different from the general population but to watch this one random family live day to day much the way millions of other families do. In my experience, through interaction with young students when making presentations on disability, kids refer to the Roloffs not as “those dwarfs on television,” but as the family on television. In other cases, peers of mine are drawn to the show because they love the interaction between Amy and Matt Roloff, believing this a great example, not of how two dwarfs interact, but how two married people interact. These reactions have reinforced my hope that the Roloffs and others are sending the critical message that, while we appear different at first glance, people of short stature are no different than anyone else.

Though the Roloffs have indeed sent that message, recently, I’ve had second thoughts about why people are tuning in. The second thoughts can be found in two news programs, both also a part of the TLC Network. The programs, “Little People Just Married” and “Little People Big Pregnancy” introduce the television world to two new dwarf couples. Obviously, one couple has just been married and the other has just had a child. The emergence of these new programs contradicts my belief that interest in the Roloffs has more to do with their dynamics than with their dwarfism. Clearly, TLC built on the momentum of Little People Big World, not with more programs that explore human dynamics, but with more programs about little people. Little people are the draw; not dynamics.

Despite my pessimism, even if people tune in to "Little People Big World" for the novelty of difference, the program has still covered enormous amounts of positive ground in terms of awareness. And though people may tune in for the chance to gawk, at least now they know to say “person of short stature” or “dwarf” rather than midget. And while the new programs offer more opportunity to look at people of short stature, the numbers of people who gawk will dwindle, and the amount of positive ground we cover as a community will continue to grow.

For much more on the Roloffs than I could ever offer, visit the blog, "Keeping up with the Roloffs."

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating, isn't it? I'd always been turned off by the show before the birth of my daughter because of its voyeuristic nature - it always seemed exploitive to me. My parents, however, were big fans of the show - something I didn't understand. After Caitlin was born, though, I finally gave it a chance. Honestly, I still didn't like it that much - but that was more my aversion to reality TV more than anything else. I enjoyed watching some episodes, trying to spot people I knew, and actually spotted myself in some shots of the Detroit conference.

    However, the exposure it has given dwarfism is invaluable! It was so simple to explain Caitlin's diagnosis to my parents. We could tell them that she had the same thing as Amy Roloff, and they immediately had an entire context, including a job, a husband, and multiple kids. They were still concerned about possible medical complications, but didn't have to worry about what kind of life she could have - they knew it would be whatever she chose to make of it.

    As far as the new spate of dwarfism related reality shows go - yes, TLC as a production company will always look for something different than the average population to hang a show on, but The Little Couple has one more thing in common with LP, BW, and that is an interesting personal story. There have been pilots for other shows featuring LPs that have not made it into series because they didn't grab the public the same way that these two have - and I'm glad that the new show has made it on the air. It's great to have examples of a young couple like Bill and Jen not just living life, but being very successful - I think they are great counter-examples to the ones featured recently on The Apprentice and in film.

    Thanks for a great post!