Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Critic for a day

Referring to a character played by an actor of short stature in a brief review of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, a new film by Terry Gilliam, , the film critic Anthony Lane wrote "sadly compulsory in any work that flirts with the surreal." At first, I was pleased with the passage, agreeing that often times people of short stature appear in films to deliver a mood, symbolize a dream sequence, or deliver a sight gag. I also thought that perhaps such commentary from an established film critic would help curb stereotypical use of dwarf actors. Without seeing myself the new movie by Gilliam, I have no way of knowing the accuracy of Lane's comment. Perhaps the little person did serve no other role but to indicate the movie is very different from the life experience of the average audience member. But as I thought more about Lane's comment, I wish that he had gone deeper, if only slightly, explaining more about the character. I wanted to know for myself if the character just hung around the movie, with nothing to do but be 'a dwarf,' or if Lane was too quick to judge.

If Lane did judge too quickly, he is not alone. Many little people have made similar assumptions. Last summer, at the National LPA Conference in Brooklyn, I sat on a panel with four actors who are dwarfs. The panel was set up for the actors to speak about their experience navigating Hollywood, the film industry and the theater industry. During the discussion, a few of the actors made a comment about fantasy (aka surreal) roles. The comment opened a new perspective in terms of what I think about roles for little people.

Being that on television, in the movies, and on the internet, the dwarf community continues to be objectified by stereotypical roles that insert dwarf characters as 'punch lines' or as stereotypical representations, the panel was well aware that the acting decisions are sometimes controversial. Historically, a fair percentage of roles for little people have been fantasy type characters -- the elf, the leprechaun, etc.. Today, because of a history of super natural roles, it is easy to categorize the fantasy roles as dwarf stereotypes, because they perpetuate the idea that little people are different from everybody else. This is turn leads to different treatment.

The actors on the panel said they are often criticized for accepting fantasy roles because they reinforce stereotypes. The actors pointed out though that the fantasy characters are often much ambiguous, much more complex, and therefore much more human than the roles available in the so-called realm of realism. If viewed critically, these roles could actually help our efforts as a community to achieve social equality. Sometimes, it is our own stereotypes as viewers that cause us to make snap judgements about a particular role.

Be that as it may, as a community, we should still advocate for more diverse roles for dwarf actors, including roles outside of the traditional little people parts. But just as we, as little people trying to get along in the role, ask the world to judge us based upon our intent, actions and accomplishments, we should not be quick to judge the roles that actors take until we look a little deeper.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A for effort

"My bottle of fizz (soda) was upended and I was drinking as fast as I could. However, it was not fast enough. All but one of the other eight year-old girls standing in the row had emptied their bottle and patiently stood waiting for me to finish. Finally, I swallowed the last mouthful and finished just ahead of one other girl."
Dwarfs Don't Live in Doll Houses -- p. 44

I try to read as many books as I can about people with dwarfism, especially books authored by people with dwarfism. Angela Muir Van Etten's autobiography, Dwarfs Don't Live in Doll Houses is a book I should have read by age 21, but didn't pick up until a few days ago. If I had known the book included a passage about a soda drinking contest, I would have made the effort to read Van Etten's story long ago -- especially considering that each anecdote about which Van Etten writes includes a glimpse at how little people fit into the social fabric of society. Van Etten shares her experience as a young girl growing up in New Zealand in the 1960s but her insights will probably resonate with all people of short stature, no matter where and when they grew up.

About the soda event, Van Etten writes that 12 young girls competed in the competition. The judge awarded three prizes. One for first place, one for last place, and one to Van Etten, who finished second-to-last. Van Etten writes, "It was obvious he wanted me to have a prize, whether I earned it or not." Though, as an eight-year-old, Van Etten coveted the prize (a package of liver salts - something like Tums I guess), she later said, "I was too young to realize that such elevation meant I was not accepted as equal." My guess is that many other little people have had similar experiences.

Freshman year of high school, my baseball coach awarded me the "Most Dedicated Player" award at the end of the season. Though I might have earned the award --I showed up to all the practices and put all my energy into the game each time I played and each practice -- I think my coach gave it to me for the wrong reasons. I think he gave it to me for the same reasons the judge in New Zealand awarded Van Etten a prize. Late in the year, before he gave me the award, the coach sent me to the plate in the final inning of a game. I rarely played in the field. Most often, the coach let me take an at bat when the outcome of the game was already determined.

That day, my turn at the plate lasted about five minutes. I kept fouling off pitch after pitch. One particular pitch late in the at-bat I hit farther than any ball I had hit in my life. My heart raced as I watched it fly but the ball fell just to the left of the left field line, barely foul. A few pitches later, I struck out.

Later, after the team loaded up on the bus and just before we returned to our high school, the coach addressed the team. He stood in the aisle of the bus, looking at us. He was pretty happy. The team was good. We hadn't lost one game all year. The coach went through this litany of things about the game about which he was proud. The final item on the list had to do with me. "I am really happy to see Gary swinging the bat," he said.

I guess it was a nice thing for him to say. But thinking about it now, it seems like his comment fails to account for the fact that I had played organized baseball since I was seven years old. Each year I played baseball, I played on a team with at least eight other team mates. As a team, we wanted to have fun and to learn about what it means to work as a team, but our ultimate goal was to win. As a member of the team, my goal was to help my team win. Striking out didn't help my team win.

My freshman year high school baseball coach wanted to win also. I had no problem with sitting on the bench most games. As I grew older and as my school mates grew older, the gap between our talent levels grew. Each game, the coach fielded the players with the best chance of winning. He did the right thing. With that in mind, I was grateful for every opportunity to play in the field and to take a few swings at the plate. But I wish he had treated me the same as other players. Just like I did late in the year, many of my team mates struck out at the plate that season. But to not one of them did the coach say, "I am happy to see you swinging the bat." He expected them to hit the ball safely. I wish he had expected the same of me.