Saturday, April 3, 2010

Words or Intent?

A year ago, in the wake of "The Celebrity Apprentice" episode that angered so many little people, a member of Little People of America told me she was asked, "would the episode still have been offensive if they used the word little person instead of midget?" The member said she answered "yes, it wasn't just the language, it was also the treatment of little people on the episode." I agree. Language notwithstanding, it was hard not to boil while watching the celebrities talk about little people as if they were pieces of clothing to be washed and hung out to dry. It was hard not to boil over when the celebrities acknowledged the concerns of little people then collectively decided to ignore those concerns.

Over the past year, Little People of America and the short statured community have put a lot of effort into raising awareness around language. But content from the infamous "Celebrity Apprentice" episode last year makes it obvious that, if we are advocating for equal treatment and fair portrayal, we also have to pay attention to portrayal of people of short stature in popular culture and media.

The growing discontent around the disproportionate number of reality programs that feature little people underscores this point. Last week, a producer in search of little people for a new reality program posted on the dwarfism listserve. Around three of four people responded negatively to the post. The replies to the list implied that they are tired of reality shows. Even though most of these reality programs use acceptable language when referring to people of short stature (in fact, some of even go out of the way to point out the word midget is negative), with each new reality program, a wave of backlash within the dwarfism community is growing. People feel the demand for the programs is all about putting more dwarfs on television in order to satisfy the public's curiousity for physical difference. As more and more reality programs leak from the woodwork, more and more people begin to wonder about the line separating reality programs from a carnival side show where customers pay to gawk at physical difference. Now though, people can gawk from the safety of a living room.

I understand the growing wave of discontent. But at this point, I don't agree with it. Yes, perhaps fascination over physical differences does exist. And perhaps putting dwarfs on television satisfies that fascination. But so long as dwarfs on reality programs are acting like everyday people no different from average size people except for stature, I think it's okay. And so long as most of the reality programs are educating viewers about language, I think it's a good thing.

But I have to admit, I may play favorites with language. Perhaps because I studied English in school. Last week, I was on my bike pedaling east toward the path that runs the length of Chicago along Lake Michigan. In Hyde Park, about a mile yet from the path, a group of three or four teenage boys on foot approached from the opposite direction. They were on the sidewalk. I was in the street. They saw me but none of them said any thing until I passed. When I was about 10 yards beyond the group of boys, one of them yelled out, "I hate little people!" It was not said with sarcasm, in the voice of the boy from The Sixth Sense. There was no hint of humor. Instead, the statement had a nasty tone. The voice was infused with anger.

I don't know much about hate speech, but perhaps the boy's outburst qualifies. Hate speech or not, I couldn't help but smile a little bit inside. I know what he said is wrong and I know the fact he said it indicates how much of a struggle little people still need to endure. But he said little people. And for me, that made all the difference.

No comments:

Post a Comment