Thursday, October 31, 2013

Dwarfism Awareness Month V

Back in 2009, Little People of America launched Dwarfism Awareness Month to raise awareness about people of short stature and to confront stereotypes and stigma regarding dwarfism.  In the first few years, LPA as an organization and individuals within the community focused on legislative efforts, lobbying state politicians to issue proclamations in recognition of Dwarfism Awareness Month.

In 2012, LPA invested in a 15-second Public Service Announcement that ran in Times Square throughout the month of September.  Late in September of 2012, with a spotlight on the Public Service Announcement, LPA hosted a Dwarfism Awareness Month launch event in Times Squares.  Dozens of people attended a news conference and reception, and several different dwarfism organizations co-sponsored the event.

Over the past few years, Dwarfism Awareness Month has taken on a life of its own.  Media stories in Australia and England about people of short stature identify October as Dwarfism Awareness Month. This year, Mexico launched a campaign to celebrate October 25, the birthday of LPA Founder Billy Barty, as International Dwarfism Awareness Day.  Groups around the world, including Iran, joined the effort.  This year LPA didn't host a signature event or focus on a particular advocacy effort.  Dwarfism awareness means different things for different people.  With that in mind, the organization
encouraged and supported the efforts of individual members. I tried to do my part by running in the Madison Mud Run, a 5K race in a small town just south of Madison.  My wife ran with me.  She has always wanted to compete in a mud run. The course went over a variety of obstacles, including two streams, a big wooden wall, a water slide, and a wide mud pit filled with icy water.  Using the 5K as a vehicle, I raised more than $500 for Little People of America and also helped raise some awareness about the dwarfism community. 
Crossing a stream at the Madison Mud Run

Though the Mud Run was the focus of my Dwarfism Awareness Month efforts, one other moment in the past week stood out in my mind as signature dwarfism awareness moment.  For a person of short stature, everyday is full of moments that reflect dwarfism awareness.  Sometimes we use the moments constructively. Sometimes we let them go.  Sometimes our efforts to construct backfire in our faces.

 The moment happened Friday, October 25.  I stopped by a rental agency in my neighborhood to pick up a car for the weekend.  My wife and I were going to drive up to Madison for the District Six Regional of Little People of America.  I always stress out just before I pick up a rental car.  I love to drive, but I don't own a car so every time Katie and I leave town I need to rent a vehicle.  The problem is that my pedal extenders don't fit all cars.  The newer, more modern cars have gas pedals with a convex rear surface.  My extenders slip right off of the pedal.  I used to go out of my way, taking a train 20 minutes north of where I live, to a rental agency that would reserve a certain car for me, a car that I knew worked.  But my contact at that agency moved on so I started renting from the local neighborhood agency.  I've probably rented there 10 times over the past three years.  Though sometimes I've had to try more than one car, and once it took me more than an hour to install the extenders, each time I've been able to drive away with a car. Nevertheless, each time I stress out. 

Last Friday, I arrived at the Budget Rent a Car around 3:30 p.m. The office was empty.  No one else was waiting in line to pick up or return a car.  The man behind the desk had seen me before.  I had rented from him at least two other times.  When he saw me enter the office, he didn't ask me to check in.  "Follow me," he said, and he led me back to the garage.  In the garage, he indicated a row a cars and told me to find one that works.  Each car was unlocked.  While the rental agent went back to the office I examined three different cars, checking the gas pedal for one that would work with my extenders.

For me, that's what dwarfism awareness is all about.  People of short stature are really not much different from anyone else.  We want what other people want.  Sometimes though, in order to access what we want, we need supports of one kind or another.  For me, when I enter a rental agency just like everyone else, I want to leave with a car.  But in order for that to work, I need accommodations.  I need extenders and I need a car that works with the extenders.  The Budget Rent a Car in the South Loop of Chicago understood that.  And on October 25, as I drove away with a Toyota Corolla, that made me happy. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Individual or Group Identity

A week ago Wednesday, I was on my way home from work, walking from my train stop to my apartment.  About a block from where I live, I was ran into a man who sells weekly newspapers.  I often buy papers from him.  As I bought the paper on October 16, he told me he had seen my twin on the Ellen Degeneres Show.  I don't have a twin but I knew immediately what the newspaper vendor meant.  Within a week's time, Miley Cyrus performed "We Can't Stop" on both Saturday Night Live and on the Ellen Show

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In both cases she performed an acoustic version, accompanied by three guitar players.  One of the guitar players was Frankie Gieb, a person of short stature.  Though I told the newspaper vendor I don't have a twin and that Frankie and I, though we are both short statured, look nothing alike, I should have been honored.  The appearance of Frankie on Saturday Night Live and the Ellen Show was the type of representation in popular culture that so many people with dwarfism hope for.  He was integrated with two other average stature musicians and he was on stage to play music, nothing else.  Nothing gave the appearance that Frankie was recruited because of his dwarfism.  He just happened to have dwarfism.  The only part of the performance on Saturday Night Live that singled out Frankie more than the other two guitar players was when Cyrus gave him a high five after the song.  It was an exciting moment in terms of popular culture representation for the dwarfism community. 

Though it's impossible to find anything wrong with the Saturday Night Live Performance and the Ellen Performance, the difficult reality is that Gieb accompanying Cyrus on stage comes in the immediate wake of several little people appearing on stage with Cyrus as dancing bears at the Video Music Awards. Many people criticized the little people who played the bears, especially when that performance was juxtaposed against the performance of Gieb.  One person posted this on Facebook:

To my Dwarf Acting friends: I hope seeing Frankie on SNL this weekend can be a reminder that being a dwarf alone should not be justification for a career in entertainment. He has a skill that he artfully shared with his audience. It is not worth being a prop in someone else's low brow gag. Yeah the money is nice, but our dignity as a group isn't worth a couple hundred bucks.

Though the post doesn't specifically identify the people who played the baby bears or the band from the German Television Program (at least some of the same people were in each performance), a long dialogue followed in the comment section.  In the midst of that dialogue, a few of the dancers spoke out, defending their decision to take the role.

After the Gieb performance on Saturday Night Live and Ellen, and after the conflict ensued on Facebook, Little People of America reversed course.  Before, it had decided not to comment.  But with such a strong dialogue happening, the organization decided, even though it knew nothing good would come of it, to release a statement. Inspired by a statement made by Gloria Steinen about the Cyrus situation, and by some comments by members of Little People of America, the statement tried to make the point that all people of short stature, not just entertainers, have to be aware that our actions will be judged not just as reflections of who we are as individuals but as a reflection of the dwarfism community; the statement also said that rather than changing who we are as individuals, the goal is to change the culture that stigmatizes people with dwarfism.

Here is the statement:

Since day one, when well-known actor Billy Barty founded the organization, the portrayal of people of short stature in entertainment and popular culture has been an issue for Little People of America as an organization, and individual members of the dwarfism community.  Embedded within this issue is the concern that people with dwarfism have historically been dehumanized and objectified based upon their physical stature.  Though there are many examples of people with dwarfism in roles which put their talents, and not their physical stature, on display, in many cases people of short stature are still recruited as entertainment based upon stature.  Because of this, individuals with dwarfism who follow their passion into a career in acting and entertainment may be forced to make difficult decisions about what roles to accept.  Those decisions will impact not just themselves but the entire community of people with dwarfism. 

Most people who are average stature will never meet a person with dwarfism.  Because of this, all people with dwarfism, not just actors, have difficult decisions to make.  No matter if we are teachers, lawyers, waiters, or social workers, the people we meet for the first time and strangers who observe us may believe that what we do is reflective of an entire community or reflective of the stereotypes projected by popular culture.  Though we all face difficult decisions in our careers and throughout our lives, the primary role of Little People of America is not to judge the decisions people make but rather to raise awareness about dwarfism and to support the development of new opportunities so that in the future people with dwarfism will judged and recruited based upon their talents, not their physical stature.  

The statement was picked up by one media outlet, Refinery 29.  The story focused on this part of the statement:  

Because of this, individuals with dwarfism who follow their passion into a career in acting and entertainment may be forced to make difficult decisions about what roles to accept.  Those decisions will impact not just themselves but the entire community of people with dwarfism. 

Focusing on the two sentences above, the story made it appear as if LPA was critical of the people who played the dancing bears.  Criticism of the actors was not the intent of LPA, but until this point at least, it doesn't seem like anyone has picked up on the story and the discussion around Cyrus the performers with dwarfism has died down to some extent.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Culture of silence?

Soon after her well publicized, analyzed, and criticized performance on the Video Music Awards, Miley Cyrus was broadcast on German Television, performing "We Can't Stop."  Cyrus appeared on stage with a back up band, all of whom were people of short stature.   Within a few days of the German Television Broadcast, a media outlet contacted Little People of America.  


The outlet asked if it was exploitative of Cyrus to perform with a group of dwarfs.  For a number of reasons, LPA chose not to comment.  For one thing, heavy criticism had already been leveled on Cyrus.  Much of the backlash criticized "the unconventional way in which she expressed her sexuality."  Some suggested the performance was,  and Cyrus is racist, "Miley Cyrus Brings Her Race Problem To The VMAs."   Others defended Cyrus' expression of sexuality, pointing out there is a double standard at play when Cyrus is a lightning rod of criticism while her partner on stage, Robin Thick, avoided the media and popular backlash.  In some ways, a case could be made that Cyrus exploited little people.  In the article, Miley Cyrus, Feminism and The Struggle for Black Recognition, Jacqui Germain, speaking of Cyrus, wrote, "When you feel the need to express your sexuality by turning my body into an accessory, the black feminist in me—two identities which I refuse to separate—can’t have your back anymore."  Many people in the dwarfism community believe that the dancing bears, little people in costume on stage with Cyrus at the Video Music Awards, were used as an accessory.  The media outlet that asked LPA for comment thought that LPA might believe the back up band for the German Television performance was used as an accessory.  The difference though between the dancing bears on the Video Music Awards, the black female dancers on the Awards Show, and the back up band is that the back up band showed their faces.  The appearance of the faces, and the appearance of the playing instruments, humanized the performance.  Of course, even with the supposed humanization, the intent of Cyrus still might have been that of a gimmick.  Based upon the embedded stigma in popular culture around the objectification of dwarfism, it is easy to believe that the intent was that of a gimmick.  But an assumption would need to be made.  Considering the circus around surrounding Cyrus at the time, making an assumption would not have been productive and probably would not have led to anything production for LPA or the dwarfism community.  

In addition, even if it was clear that Cyrus used little people as a gimmick, criticism leveled at Cyrus would have been shared with the dwarf performers.  Traditionally, LPA doesn't criticize the professional decisions of members of the dwarfism community.  This stance frustrates many members who believe that individuals who perpetuate stigma should be held accountable.  Nevertheless, criticism is often very subjective.  As soon as one portrayal in popular culture is criticized, it would be difficult to maintain a clear line between what is positive and what perpetuates the stigma.  Similarly, all members of the community, not just performers, have the potential to perpetuate stigma.  If LPA were not (note made on October 27-- the "not" should be deleted. It's a mistake to include here) to police, or comment upon, performers, it would be compelled to do the same for professionals outside of the performance industry.  

While LPA was hesitant to respond to the request for comment, the media outlet soon found a person who would comment.  She was quick to be critical of the dwarf performers, and also was critical of LPA for not commenting, asserting that the organization contributed to a "culture of silence."