Sunday, September 25, 2011

Peter Dinklage, the Emmy, and dwarfism


On September 18, Peter Dinklage won an Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series for his role in the show "Game of Thrones." I was not watching the Emmy broadcast, but I learned of the award just minutes after Dinklage received the honor. First, a colleague of mine from Little People of America called, leaving a message that said something like, "Go Dwarfism Awareness Month." A few moments later, my father called, asking if I had heard.

After the second message, I searched the internet for news about Dinklage. On Facebook, scores of my Facebook friends who are part of the dwarfism community had already posted messages on their walls, congratulating Dinklage for the award and recognizing the award as an important moment for the dwarfism community. People were thrilled because Sunday marked the first time a little person was presented an Emmy, and because Dinklage earned the award because of his portrayal of a complex, multiple dimensioned character.

For decades, there has been tension within the dwarfism community because of the link, whether it exists or not, between roles that call for people of short stature simply because of their physical appearance, and traditional stigmas related to people of short stature. Some people within the dwarfism community point to roles in which people with dwarfism are used as comic relief, as a metaphor, or as a fantasy character, as a source behind some of the social barriers faced by people of short stature.

Whether or not entertainment fuels social discrimination against little people, many people also believe that the portrayal of people of short stature in entertainment has become more diverse. Now, in addition to antiquated roles of little people in positions of comic relief and other specific one dimensional roles, there are a fair number of dwarfs on television and in the movies with three dimensional parts that have a depth of character. As chances that a dwarf will be portrayed in popular culture in a more humanistic way have increased, awareness about the broader dwarfism community has also increased. There is now much more knowledge of language issues within the dwarfism community, as well as the general issues people with dwarfism encounter.

Well before "Game of Thrones," Peter Dinklage played a part in opening up awareness about the lives of dwarfs. His turn as Finbar McBride in The Station Agent contributed heavily to the new diversity of dwarf roles, and is often referred to as a groundbreaking role for people of short stature. It is almost as if The Station Agent, along with other elements in entertainment, helped open the door for dwarfism and social acceptance in the early 21st century. For the past seven or eight years, since the door has been opened, the dwarfism community has been streaming through the door, and trying to ground ourselves within the room of social acceptance. In a way, the Emmy award for Peter Dinklage symbolizes the idea that we've been granted legitimate residency within the room.

What is interesting about Peter Dinklage is that he has helped move the dwarfism community forward with very little contact with others in the dwarfism community. Of course, Little People of America is the not be all and end all in terms of dwarfism in the United States. But it is a very large national membership organization. Dinklage is not a part of it. In his acceptance speech, Dinklage made no reference to his dwarfism or to dwarfism in general. He accepted the award as if he were any other young white guy accepting an Emmy. But perhaps, that is part of the point. Dwarfism advocates argue that for the most part, people with dwarfism live their lives like everybody else. We do a few things differently, but nonetheless we deserve to be treated like everybody else. When Dinklage accepted his Emmy, the entire nation saw a dwarf treated like he was just another actor. Not only that, he was recognized for talents in no way connected to his dwarfism.


On an individual basis, life is not going to change for dwarfs as a result of Dinklage's Emmy. Each of us will still run into situations that, and people who, will figuratively kick us out the back door of social acceptance. But for the community as a whole, Dinklage has helped us earn a permanent spot inside the door of social acceptance. And no matter how many times I am kicked out, and I have to claw my way back through the door, a spot will always be waiting for me inside.

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