Sunday, September 15, 2013

Not so entertaining -- two high profile attacks on people with dwarfism in the past two years

Peter Dinklage at the 2012 Golden Globes
In early 2012, Martin Henderson became a familiar name within the dwarfism community.  Henderson is a dwarf who lives in England.  In October 2011, while smoking a cigarette outside of a pub, Henderson was picked up and thrown.  The incident injured Henderson, perhaps permanently.  The perpetrators in the incident were members of the English National Rugby Team, one of whom, Mike Tindall, had recently married into the English Royal Family.  Several weeks before the attack on Henderson, the English Team had been in New Zealand to play in the Rugby World Cup.  While there, members of the team were seen at a bar called Altitude in Queenstown, New Zealand, which at the time was hosting a "Mad Midget Weekend."  According to the media, team members were also seen at a dwarf tossing event during the Rugby World Cup.  Peter Dinklage, the "Game of Thrones" star who has shown the world that people of short stature are dwarfs but are not defined by their dwarfism, brought international attention to the attack when he mentioned Henderson's name during Dinklage's Golden Globe acceptance speech.  Toward the end of his talk, without going in details of the dwarf tossing attack, Dinklage said the name Henderson, then suggested to the audience, "Google him."  Evidently, millions did.  Martin Henderson was soon trending on Twitter.  More importantly, millions were able to make the connection between entertainment that uses dwarfs as props because of their physical difference and threats to the broader dwarfism community.  The injuries Henderson suffered are evidence that impact of events such as dwarf tossing are not isolated to the people who choose to participate in them.  Unfortunately, when dwarfs are used as objects of entertainment, an indirect message is sent to the broader community that it is acceptable to treat all dwarfs all objects of entertainment.  Of course, the vast majority of people understand that it is unacceptable to treat a person with dwarfism differently because of his or her stature.  But strong evidence points to the fact that Henderson was assaulted because of a dwarf tossing event that happened half way around the world. 

Andrew Demetriou of the AFL
Recently, reports of a similar incident appeared in the media.  This time, dwarf tossing was not involved, and a random dwarf was not picked up and thrown.  In this case, a dwarf was lit on fire, and the victim had been hired as "dwarf entertainment."  But just like the Henderson case, the victim did not consent to the violence perpetrated against him, the victim was a dwarf, and a strong case can be made that the perpetrator targeted the victim because he was a dwarf.  In the more recent incident, the Australian Football League Team St. Kilda's were celebrating what is called "Mad Monday."  As part of the celebration, the team hired a dwarf entertainer who went by the name "Mr Big."  At some point during the party, a St. Kilda's player took a lighter a set Mr. Big on fire, against his will. The attack hasn't generated the same attention as the attack against Martin Henderson, but the assault has earned some media coverage.  The coverage reveals that the leader of the football league that St. Kilda's is a part of didn't take the attack seriously.  Evidently, when he first learned about what happened, the head of the Australian Football League, Andrew Demetriou, laughed out loud.

On the plus side, some of the media coverage of the more recent event has been positive.  In a column for a media outlet called The Telegraph, out of Sydney, Australia, a reporter named Claire Harvey wrote,

"The media - and I'm not excluding publications in our own stable - made it worse by repeatedly referring to Jones' victim as ''a dwarf' in copy and broadcasts. Headlines made 'Seven Dwarves' allusions . . . Actually, Gareth Johnston is a man. The fact he has dwarfism is irrelevant.
He is the victim of an appalling crime perpetrated because of his physical appearance."

I don't know anything about Claire Harvey, but I am glad the reporter made the claim that Mr. Big (Gareth Johnston) was singled out because of his physical appearance.  Harvey's claim about physical appearance gives validation to what most people of short stature know. Nearly all people with dwarfism can attest that we sometimes treated differently because of our physical stature.  What happened to Henderson and what happened to Johnston point out that we may also be vulnerable to physical harm simply because of our dwarfism. 

The question is, what can be done?  Unfortunately, there will always be people who view dwarfs as nothing more than entertainment, and some of them are willing to shell out money to pay for dwarf entertainment.  And, there will always be people of short stature who will play the part of dwarf entertainment.

Michelle Minnikin and her family
Though there will always be people willing to pay, and there will always be people ready to be paid, there may come a point when dwarf entertainment is no longer socially acceptable.  In my opinion, that's not the case in 2013.  Dwarf entertainment is still socially acceptable.  That's why the head of the Australian Football League was amused instead of outraged, and that's why "Midget Wrestling" still earns many dwarfs a paycheck, and that's why Paramount Pictures prominently features a dwarf tossing scene in the trailer of The Wolf of Wall Street, a Martin Scorsese Film due out in November.  If the day does come when public pressure overwhelms the life of dwarf entertainment, it will take more speeches like that of Dinklage, more media statements like that of Harvey's, and more public exposure to people with dwarfism who live standard, boring, run of the mill lives just like everyone else. Finally, it will take more people like Michelle Minnikin, the mother of three children, one of whom is a boy with dwarfism.  Her son will start school for the first time in January.  Minnikin took to the media after Demitriou's embarrassing response to the attack on Johnston.  In her column in the Herald Sun, Minnikin paints a picture of her son with dwarfism as a boy no different from other four year old boys.  He just happens to be different.  Because of the failure to others to deal with difference, he son will face obstacles in the future.  But with more efforts like that of Michelle Minnikin, those obstacles will be fewer in the future.  Kudos to her, and her family. 

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